Monday, September 28, 2015

Vincent Square, London

When brick works

I’m not usually a fan of yellow brick, but this building makes it sing. It’s part of the Westminster Kingsway College building on the corner of Rochester Row and Vincent Square in an area of London I suppose you’d call Victoria. When I saw it my jaw  dropped and, frankly, I just stood there and stared in silence while people walked past, eyeing me suspiciously as if they were wondering what on earth I could be looking at. I didn’t know what it was, but it was obviously a modern building – 1950s – and was unashamedly decorative without trying too hard to make a point. The result, with its crosses and diagonals of brickwork, its pierced parapet, and its tower (stairs, presumably) with those slanting glazing bars) is enjoyably and inherently brickish, as if the building has learned what the Victorians could do with its material, shaken this up in some sort of imaginative kaleidoscope, and come up with something modern.

The architect, I learned when I got home and loped the building up, was Harry Goodhart-Rendell, designer of St Olaf House in Tooley Street, a wonderful church in St Leonard’s, Sussex (a favourite of mine), and other churches, and a great defender of Victorian architecture back at the time when defending such a thing was neither profitable nor popular. His building in Vincent Square has a steel frame, and indeed mostly very utilitarian metal-framed windows, but wraps these in this attractive, and no doubt efficient, brick covering, which looks as comfortable as the textile that it reminded me of. People say that this building is as good to use as it is to look at. Why didn’t we learn?

Friday, September 25, 2015

Gloucester Cathedral

Tallis Fantasia

On A September evening in 1910 a few hundred people gathered at Gloucester Cathedral for a concert that formed part of the Three Choirs Festival, the longest-standing music festival in the world, which rotates between the three cathedrals of Worcester, Hereford, and Gloucester. The main work on the programme was Elgar’s oratorio The Dream of Gerontius, long enough to fill a programme in itself. But on this occasion it was accompanied by a new work, Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis, by Ralph Vaughan Williams. The composer was in his late-thirties but was not yet well known. The Tallis Fantasia must have come as a wake-up call for the audience that night: a major work by an English composer and a piece with a sound-world of its own, and very different from what most of its audience would have been used to. Two younger composers, locals Herbert Howells and Ivor Gurney, spent a long time after the concert wandering around the dark streets of Gloucester in a daze, mulling over what they’d heard.

Vaughan Williams wrote the Tallis Fantasia with the acoustic of the cathedral specifically in mind. It’s based on a tune by the English Tudor composer Thomas Tallis that was originally composed as a setting for a psalm and was recycled as a hymn tune by Vaughan Williams when he edited The English Hymnal. The composer clearly saw then that there was much more he could do with this theme.

The composer created the piece’s distinctive and striking sound by writing for strings alone (no woodwind, no brass, no percussion) and by using harmonies more often associated with folk or Renaissance music than with orchestral scores of his own time. Above all, he got the effect he wanted by dividing up his orchestra into groups and arranging them spatially in a particular way.

Vaughan Williams arranged his strings in three groups: orchestra 1 (a full band of first violins, second violins, cellos, and double basses); orchestra 2 (one desk from each group of strings, making up a group of nine players); and a string quartet (two violins, viola, and cello) whose members also play solos. Vaughan Williams specified that if possible orchestra 1 and orchestra 2 should sit apart from one another, their spatial separation emphasizing the dialogue between the two groups, with its developments of the Tallis theme, and its echoes, responses, and layers of sound. 

Space being at a premium in concert venues, conductors often have room for only a slight separation between  the groups of strings. Andrew Davies, in his 2010 centenary recording, had the luxury of an empty cathedral. This is not quite how Vaughan William could have imagined the first performance of course, with its large audience, but it does give a wonderful impression of the way the two groups work together, just as the video gives a visual impression of the cathedral’s architecture. Moving past the dizzyingly intricate lierne vault of the choir, with its network of stone ribs, past the choir screen and organ, to the empty nave, its rows of massive round Norman piers, the video reveals not only something of the diversity of Gloucester’s architecture, but also of the cavernous quality of the space. As the groups of strings converse across the Romanesque spaces and their sounds reverberate against the Gothic masonry, one can appreciate how well Vaughan Williams’s masterpiece fits the building for which it was written.

Monday, September 21, 2015


As your lordship pleases

Eyes that look along High Pavement in the middle of Nottingham are naturally drawn to this imposing classical frontage, with pediment, pilasters, short Doric columns on the ground floor and some of the tallest sash windows you could wish for. It’s strong Greek Revival stuff. Redolent of the way in which architects of the early-19th century could use the plainest of classical details to make a facade that stands out, it has imposing proportions  – and it is far from bland or boring.

So whatever is it? Some sort of Assembly Room? A gentleman’s club? No. It’s a house, which has a history going back to the late Middle Ages but was remodelled in 1833, specifically as judges’ lodgings (there are law courts in the Shire Hall, on the opposite side of the street). The unusual proportions are at least in part due to the fact that this front was attached to an older building. The big room behind the enormous sash windows is the judges’ dining room, where they could eat in grandeur. The architect was Henry Moses Wood, a prominent Nottingham figure, active as a banker as well as the designer of numerous buildings in Derbyshire and Notts. I find it difficult to dissociate this severely grand frontage from the image, summoned up by the writer John Mortimer, who put it into the mouth of his immortal character Horace Rumpole, of members of the judiciary passing death sentences and then retiring to their lodgings to enjoy muffins. Traditional and severe as it is, though, this facade makes use of what in 1833 was modern technology. Those columns on the ground floor are made of cast iron, like some similar ones in London I wrote about long ago in a post called Kicked a Building Lately?
Walk a couple of yards along the street, immediately to the left of my first photograph, and you find the rest of the frontage, done in another kind of Regency architecture. It’s still classical and most of the front is very plain, with rows of sash windows and a deep cornice, but the centrepiece is very different from the formality of the front of the dining room. This is a more delicate style, with a curving balcony and a door with a rather feminine fanlight like something Robert Adam might have designed. The balcony is held up on brackets with stylised leaf decoration, the balcony has elegant ironwork that might be at home in Brighton. And the iron overthrow with its fitting for a lamp is another impressive bit of the blacksmith’s art, all scrolls and flowers and buds. This facade too is part of the judges’ lodgings and its combination with the dining-room part makes for a rather split architectural personality. But the fact that both are classical helps them live together peacefully, revealing the versatility of the classical style.

- - -

Note The right-hand part with the big windows dates to Wood’s remodelling of 1833. Authorities are rather imprecise about the left-hand part. It looks Regency too, and feels like a different phase, but also looks too late to be from an earlier remodelling of the building in 1742.

Friday, September 18, 2015

Brent Knoll, Somerset


The church at Brent Knoll has a terrific collection of bench ends dating from the 14th and 15th centuries. Vigorously carved, they feature a number of different devotional and moral subjects and I’m sharing one of the devotional ones today.

I particularly like the chevron-carved wool of this lamb, and the way its head is turned towards the cross and flag. In some respects this is a familiar image from Christian iconography, a symbol of Jesus and the way he is sacrificed to redeem the sins of humankind that’s found in a variety of locations from van Eyck’s large Ghent Altarpiece to humble pub signs. ‘Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world,’ says John the Baptist in John’s Gospel. But there is no ‘standard’ version of the image – sometimes the lamb bleeds, to represent sacrifice, sometimes he is shown with a book, often, as here, he stands holding the flag. The lamb usually has a halo, but here he has not. Another issue for carvers of the lamb and flag was portraying how the creature holds the flagpole. Some versions of the image have the lamb’s leg crooked around the pole, which rests on the his shoulder; in others the pole stands on the ground while the lamb holds it against his body. Here it seems to balance on the lamb’s foot, a lovely touch.

Buildings, and the objects inside them, are also interesting for the personal memories they conjure up, and I cannot resist sharing one such memory. This image, then, reminds me of the Lamb and Flag pub in Covent Garden. This pub was an Ian Nairn special, and I was pleased to discover that it was an office local when I worked in the area, a watering hole we favoured especially in the summer. ‘It’s one o’clock. Anyone want to go and stand outside the Lamb and Flag?’ J, a cherished colleague, gone now, would call out. An hour of vertical drinking – sometimes I have to say rather more than an hour* – would ensue.

* Most of us reformed, in the end: autre temps, autre moeurs…

Monday, September 14, 2015

Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk

Bells and railway whistles

Before we leave the world of Victorian brickwork, which has been occupying me for the last few posts, may I offer for your delectation the railway station at Bury St Edmunds.

I was in Bury a couple of months ago and though I didn’t get there by train I’m certainly an admirer of the railway station. It was designed by Sancton Wood, an architect with a large and diverse practice who is especially known for his railway work in eastern England. Wood had an unpromising start. He was educated at a progressive school in Birmingham, where children were encouraged to work as much or as little as they liked. Sancton Wood admitted that he worked very little, and what to do when he left was a puzzle. But the boy had shown an aptitude for drawing, and his mother was related to the architect Sir Robert Smirke, so the young Wood was sent off to Smirke’s office as an apprentice and studied drawing at the Royal Academy too. Luckily, he found that architecture was his métier.

By the time Wood went into practice in his own right, the railway system was expanding and offered opportunities for a young architect. He was soon preparing designs for buildings on the Eastern Counties Railway, and a few years later was also at work in Ireland, doing stations between Dublin and Cork amongst others. More stations (on the Midland and North Western Railway) followed, as did houses, schools, churches, and warehouses.

Stations such as Stamford (in stone for that stone town) and Ipswich show his talent for designing stations in a variety of suitable and engaging ways. Bury is particularly striking – brick with stone dressings, eye-catching gables, a strong-looking triple-arched entrance, and, on either side of this, attractive brick side bays with oeils de boeuf and stone pediments that break into a curve at the top, taking on a life of their own. There are lots of attractive details. The end wing in the foreground for example reveals neat brick detailing around the doorway and arch, some rather assertive mouldings, and a characterful corner treatment in stone, as well as the pediment and oeils de boeuf already mentioned. Another stand-out feature is the slender cupola-topped tower (there’s actually another matching one, on the other side of the tracks, but not visible in the photograph). All this makes not only a very satisfying and enduring building, but one on which the eye can linger, picking out details and admiring the inventive way in which they have been used and combined. It’s a station of which the railway company – and now, one hopes, the town – could take some pride.

Friday, September 11, 2015

Whittington, Gloucestershire

Roses for Lady de Croupes

The church of St Bartholomew Whittington is a small medieval building set very close to 16th-century Whittington Court – so close that the two almost touch. The church contains several monuments from a time before the big house was built. Here’s my favourite, a wimpled woman from the early-14th century. She is probably a member of the de Crupes or de Croupes family, who were lords of the manor and patrons of the living in the Middle Ages. I like the worn quality of the woman’s face (which contrasts by the way with the sharper, probably recut, features of a pair of male effigies nearby.

I like also the way that this monument is clearly regarded by someone here with respect, or reverence, or affection. The candle may have burned down, the effigy may be worn smooth, but the roses are a fresh and lovely touch.

Monday, September 7, 2015

Page Street, London

Revisiting: The Regency Cafe

In London SW1 the other day I passed a building I posted nearly seven years ago. I was never very happy with the photograph I took then, on a dull day, with my mobile phone. So here’s a better one, showing some of those simple cut-out letters more closely. Back then, I wrote that the café, established in 1946, was very much evocative of the 1940s ‘back-end of Art Deco’ style, while also looking forward to the clean modernism of the 1950s, a style that café designers of that period liked. I’d not want to change much of that, except to say that the number of such cafés surviving in any number is still on the decline. So it’s pleasing that this one is still there.

It’s not only still there, but apparently still thriving. As I looked through the window the place was packed. So I didn’t go in for a coffee. So another thing I said in my earlier post must stand: I hope when next I’m passing I’ll have time to go in and try it.

Friday, September 4, 2015

Upton on Severn, Worcestershire

Revisiting: Illuminating globe

There are people (you know who you are) who have been reading this blog since before April 2008, when I posted the first of several pieces about the Worcestershire town of Upton on Severn and focused on its two memorable garages, one an art deco surprise, the other in a converted chapel. Those with sharp eyes would have noticed that in my original picture of Shipp’s, the second garage, there was a rather old petrol pump, topped with one of those distinctive globes that petrol companies once used to advertise their wares. I think it was a Cleveland Discoll pump globe but for some reason I didn’t photograph it in close-up. I’m sorry I didn’t, because it has gone now. The garage is happily still there, though, and they’ve replaced the old globe with a shiny white and red Shell one. When I passed it the other day I didn’t make the same mistake and got the camera out right away.

The Shell oil company adopted their scallop shell symbol back in 1904, having tried a mussel previously. The earliest of the company’s pump-top globes were literally and simply globe-shaped – they introduced shell-shaped globes in 1929. They made various designs, with changes to the exact shape of the scallop and legends advertising ‘Shell Derv’, ’Super Shell’, and ‘Shell Diesoline’, as well as the plain and simple ‘Shell’ type. This example in Upton looks to be one of the kind introduced in the early 1950s. There’s more information about Shell globes, together with much more fascinating material about old garages, on the excellent Vintage Garage site, here. You can be sure of that.