Sunday, May 31, 2015

Louth, Lincolnshire

Rs at the back

When revisiting the backstreets of Louth in search of the enormous window in my previous post I also found the back of the town’s department store, Eve & Ranshaw, which has been proudly trading since set up by the wonderfully named Adam Eve in the 1780s. It was a Sunday morning, so the shop was closed, but it was the assortment of exterior signs that attracted my attention: here’s my favourite. The letters gain quite a bit of their impact from the fact that they are relatively wide, making a virtue out of the narrow strip the signwriter was given to work with.

This sign has the kind of letters often called clarendons (more about them here), and distinguished by their curved or bracketed serifs and by the distinction between the broad strokes and narrow strokes. I think these are pretty good. There’s quite a lot of difference between the strokes – the broad strokes are wide enough to give plenty of impact and exploit the shiny surface of the sign; the thinner strokes provide contrast.

The curved letters like the S and R are particularly challenging for letterers and signwriters. Both work well here. The leg of the R has a nice lively upward curve to it. The S copes well with the horizontal emphasis of the sign. There’s not enough vertical space for it to curve openly, with plenty of ‘air’ between the strokes, but the letter still snakes its way around stylishly and displays plenty of gold to catch the eye, which is what the sign is for, after all. Hats off to whichever generation of store owners lavished such care on the sign that graces their premises’ important, but rear, facade.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Louth, Lincolnshire

Round the back

As a small boy I remember being taken into this building by my maternal grandfather, who lived in a village a few miles from Louth. He went into the market hall to buy ginger biscuits for himself and sweets (in generous quantities that I never saw at home) for me. Needless to say, this place holds fond memories. There being serious sweet-buying work to do, I don’t remember thinking much about the architecture. I remembered the tower, though when I saw the building again the other day, that tower’s slender proportions and the cut brickwork around the windows were a surprise, one pulled off, I now read in Pevsner, as the result of an 1866–7 design by Rogers and Marsden, local architects who are not, as far as I know, well known outside Lincolnshire.

From the front, it’s an odd design, but with a reason, I think. The entrance is very deeply and narrowly recessed, the narrowness of the opening mirroring the slender proportions of the tower above. Making this entrance-way rather tightly proportioned gave the architects more floor and facade space for the short row of shops, fronting the market place, on either side. Rogers and Marsden gave the town added value, in the form of these shops, but at the expense of pushing the market hall back behind them. But as well as all this, the hall has a surprise to pull.

Go round the back, and the rear facade is completely different. Like the train shed of a Victorian railway station, it wears its arched structure on its sleeve, and provides, into the bargain, the most enormous semicircular window, through which one can make out the great metal arches inside, which support the roof. The plain pattern of the glazing bars is remarkably modern, but the doors at the bottom, which are topped with semicircular arches let into the great window, and iron hinges that have ornate spiral agendas of their own, provide some contrast. The effect is one of drama, brio, and rightness. And although I wouldn’t have thought about it in those terms, I do remember thinking, as a small boy carrying several paper bags full of pear drops and allsorts and sweet seafood, that this was simply the biggest window I’d ever seen.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Rochester, Kent, etc

The going down of the sun: Illustrations of the month

I have to say I was only vaguely aware of the illustrator John Mansbridge before I found a secondhand copy of one of the children’s books he illustrated for the publisher Batsford. It was Castles, part of Batsford’s Junior Heritage series, with illustrations by Mansbridge and text by R. Allen Brown. The volume was one of a short series and I’ve since acquired others on Abbeys and Churches. The pictures are lively and colourful, and mix imaginative reconstruction with more academic elements such as floor plans and cross-sections in a way I still find engaging. It struck me, as a looked through them, that if I’d been given such books as a child I’d have latched on to the joys of architecture even sooner than I did.

John Mansbridge (1901–81) was born in London. His parents were Albert Mansbridge and his wife Frances (née Pringle), founders of the Workers’ Educational Association, the starting funds of which were famously 2s 6d from Frances’s housekeeping money. He was educated at Manchester Grammar School and the Slade, established himself as a portrait painter (he painted the first Labour cabinet of 1924), produced posters for London Transport, and became a member of staff at Goldsmith’s College of Art in 1929. During World War II he was an official war artist, working on camouflage as well as producing portraits of those serving in the RAF. After the war he continued to paint and work at Goldsmith’s, where he became head of Fine Art, as well as producing many book illustrations. He had more than a passing interest in architecture, teaching the subject for the WEA and, after some ten years of research, producing a successful Graphic History of Architecture.

Many of the illustrations in the Castles volume combine several elements including realistic drawings of castles, floor plans, architectural details, additional contextual motifs such as pieces of heraldry, and textual material, often integrated into the architecture. So in this example of a group of great towers, the labels wind their way around interlaced arches, and the larger coloured lettering at the bottom is superimposed on the square and compasses, the symbolic tools of the mason. The castles are not shown in great detail, but Mansbridge’s combination of grey shading and pale coloured wash gives a sense of their mass and overall form – which in turn shows the variety of ways in which castle-builders designed keeps. He manages to cram a lot of information into a single, coherent page. The strong directional lighting, throwing into relief Gothic arches and ruined walls, gives an added sense of drama.
But it can all get much more exciting than this, as in my second example, a double-page spread depiction of siege warfare in full swing. Men at arms, their shields on their backs so that they look like beetles, swarm up a siege tower, catapults and similar engines are at work, and the air is thick with crossbow bolts. Fire has already taken hold in the background. And the more you look, the more seems to be going on – missiles flying through the air, defending swordsmen being felled, attackers getting pushed off their scaling ladders as they attempt to take the gatehouse, other attackers straining to operate the machinery of the catapult. The sun is going down on the horizon, but they’re not going to stop now.

This action-packed illustration is achieved using black and just one other colour – an economy imposed, no doubt, by the publisher's budget, but a challenge to which Mansbridge responded with apparent enthusiasm. He manages to tell us quite a bit about siege warfare, but does not flinch from the horror and sheer frantic confusion of battle either. Another and more profound lesson, perhaps, for the book’s original young readers.

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Please click on the illustrations to enlarge them

More of the illustrations from Castles are online here.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Othery, Somerset

The full set

Apart from the fact that is has one of my favourite English place names, I remember Othery* in Somerset for this fine preserved Hovis sign. I’ve pointed out Hovis signs before, including the typical protruding one I photographed in Brackley, but it’s a long time since I’ve seen this fuller version, in which the words ‘Golden brown’ are added to the brand name. Hovis† flour was a creation of the 1890s, but the company expanded rapidly after 1928, and by the 1930s these signs were in place on the premises of many bakers who used the flour to make the popular golden brown bread. Hovis supplied tins, with the brand name on them, in which to bake loaves. They dished out these signs. And they even produced maps and guidebooks, aimed at cyclists and marking tea rooms where one could enjoy a slice or three of Hovis bread.

Hovis still exists: I had some of their bread only the other day. The brand is as famous now for its effective advertising§ and promotion as it is for its products. The promotion ranges from the famous 1970s commercials, featuring a boy pushing a delivery bicycle up the achingly picturesque Gold Hill in Shaftesbury to the accompaniment of a brass band playing the slow movement of Dvořák’s New World Symphony,¶ to these golden signs, advertising bread still sold today with graphics dating from an earlier era.

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* The Oxford Dictionary of British Place Names says it’s derived from Old English words for ‘other’ and ‘island’, the other or second island. This figures, because Othery is on a kind of extension to a larger island in the wetlands that make up the Somerset Levels.

† Since I seem to have taken an etymological turn, the name is a contraction of the Latin ‘hominis vis’, the strength of man.

§ There’s more about the company and its advertising on the website of the Historic Advertising Trust.

¶ They play this slow movement very quickly, by the way, but it’s still what it is. By linking it to Hovis bread and picturesque English townscape, the commercial has succeeded in linking a piece of music originally associated with Bohemia (aka the Czech Republic, home of the composer) and the USA (where he wrote the symphony), with England. An interesting cultural consequence.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Pimlico, London


I always look out for examples of model dwellings (see an earlier post here) built in the Victorian period by enlightened landlords who want to provide decent accommodation for the working classes. In London, many of these were built by the Peabody Trust, which did a huge amount of work to provide improved housing after its foundation in the 1860s. Peabody flats are often built in pale brick and sometimes with access balconies like these, the Coleshill Flats in London SW1, dating from 1871. On the ground floor are shops, and between the pairs of shops are entrances that lead to stairs to the balconies above. Pale brick with a bit of restrained polychromy in the form of narrow red brick bands, plus sash windows, completes the picture as far as the street facade is concerned.

Except, not quite. Looking up, one sees that the building has very decorative French-style pavilion roofs, each topped with ornate iron creating. It’s a surprising touch on what otherwise looks like a rather basic building, a roofing style that’s more at home on grand hotels or big office blocks. And the accommodation up there must, I’d have thought, be quite small (indeed the one Peabody flat I’ve been in had very small rooms, but was no less convenient and admirable for that). How interesting that the builders of these flats gave them this touch of grandeur, as if signalling that these dwellings were better – lighter, more hygienic, more spacious – than the accommodation its tenants were probably used to. As if, also, anticipating the upward mobility of the area a century later.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

St Endellion, Cornwall


There is much to like* about the church of St Endelienta, at St Endellion, Cornwall, and the interest begins before you get inside the door. Many parish churches have sundials near the entrance – churchgoers need to know whether it’s time for mass, or communion, or whatever term they use, and anyway church doors often face south. This one was put up by (or in memory of) churchwardens Jonathan George and Digory Gray in 1826.

The sundial is a lovely mishmash of motifs, from Ionic columns to the sun itself. At first glance, you could dismiss those columns as rustic Ionic – a simple version of the real thing. But actually, they’re not bad. The columns are fluted, the spiral volutes on the capitals are carefully cut and there is a hint of egg and dart decoration between the spirals. The carver has even included the abacus – the bit just above the capital. When you look closely the sundial has all kinds of other winning details: the row of stylized acanthus leaves marking the top of the square ‘frame’; the tiny interlaced semicircles just below them (just about visible if you click on the detail image above); the designs that fill the quadrants at bottom left and bottom right and look as if they’ve been taken from patterns for part of a plaster ceiling by Robert Adam. The Sun, complete with face, keeps watch above all, and he is set in a panel that’s not arched, not triangular to fit the line of the roof above, but scalloped, another Regency touch. Best of all, the numerals are confidently cut with lots of contrast between the thick and thin strokes – a feature that was highlighted for me as the sun appeared from behind white clouds, transforming a chilly morning and bringing out the best in the carving. Good timing.

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*As is my wont, I’ve concentrated on a single detail. This church also boats beautiful roofs, carved angels and bench ends, and more. Plus a notable music festival, associated particularly with the conductor Richard Hickox and continuing after his death.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Snowshill, Gloucestershire

Coloured counties (2)

In view of the colourful cheer my picture of Hailes brought to a number of my readers, I thought I'd do something I do only rarely: reprise a picture from an earlier post. I first posted this picture, which was taken by the Resident Wise Woman, back in 2009 and, looking at it again, it seems to exemplify the happy combination of colour and building that I was celebrating in my post of Hailes. Even more so than that picture, the scene here comes about purely as a result of a working landscape. The barn – stone walled by roofed in corrugated iron – is a basic working building if ever there was one. A knockabout building. And a knocked-about building. But with my admiration for corrugated iron, even with a coat of rust, I like it nonetheless. As for the flowers, they're lavender, a crop grown commercially in these parts that lights up summer hillsides with blue, and sends visitors out with their cameras.

What works, then, can be beautiful or admirable. You know that, probably, if you're a regular reader of my posts. But whether or not you share my liking for the rusty old iron, you can enjoy the drifts of blue that have grown up around it.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Hailes, Gloucestershire

Coloured counties

Travelling across Northamptonshire and Oxfordshire today, fields of yellow-flowered rape stood out in bands between green grass and trees, blue and deep grey skies. There wasn’t time, today, to stop and photograph such views, taken in beyond fences and dashing objects on the road. So here’s a picture from a couple of years ago, of a similar field in Gloucetsershire with the tiny 13th-century church of Hailes, probably originally the cappella ad portas of the once-great Hailes Abbey, a major medieval pilgrimage centre.

This image symbolises my belief, exemplified I hope by many of the posts on this blog, that a major part of the impact of a building has little to do with the architecture itself. Here at Hailes, the architecture is modest, although it has a simple Early English gothic perfection of its own. But it’s the setting that counts. Up a winding lane off the main road. Orchards beyond. Ruined Cistercian arches not far away. And in front a yellow field that would make the pulse of a Van Gogh race.

Monday, May 4, 2015

Ipswich, Suffolk

King of the beasts

The white hart in my previous post is a prelude to this animal sign, from the Golden Lion Hotel in Ipswich, another picture sent to me by my reader Bob Kindred, and received with many thanks. The lion occupies an appropriate place for the king of the beasts, as high as is feasible on a little stone plinth above cornice level. Mr Kindred reports that years ago the lion was golden in fact as well as name, but in a regilding exercise about 20 years ago some kind of gold paint was used, which has now worn away, leaving the lion looking the worse for wear. And yet, if properly regilded, he could look magnificent again, and would make a striking and eye-catching sign for the hotel whose building he surmounts.

He looks a characterful beast, and a fitting emblem for the 18th and 19th-century structure of the hotel, which also has tiny lion heads on the guttering. But I don’t know whether he’s a one-off or a mass produced lion, perhaps made in Coade Stone, the artificial stone produced in Lambeth, London, and widely used in the Georgian and Regency periods. There are many lions on buildings around the country, but I don’t recall seeing one exactly like him. I wonder if any of my other readers have seen a lion cast from the same mould?