Thursday, December 29, 2016

Victoria and Albert Museum, London


Strolling around the V&A just before Christmas, I came across Cornelia Parker's Breathless, which was made in 2001 and has been in the museum's collection since, I think, 2005.* It's made of 54 brass instruments that have been flattened, silver-plated, and suspended on thin steel wires. They float, these trombones and trumpets and tubas, between two levels of the museum, occupying a hole that was opened up where a ceiling and floor used to be.

I've been in the V&A quite a few times over the last ten years, but I'd not seen this piece before. I was immediately engaged by it and found myself wondering just how those instruments had been flattened (a friend tells me he thinks the deed was done with a steamroller§) and how it hard it must have been to get them all sitting in the same plane. Questions were also forming in my mind about the destructive side of the creative process that had taken place – I mean, shouldn't these instruments be used for playing music? I see that the V&A's documentation insists that they were 'defunct brass instruments', though. (Even so, an impish fantasy began to form in my head. Ms Parker had been made to play in the back of the string section in an orchestra and had had her ears blasted once too often by the trombones at her back. Now, with a steamroller at her disposal, she has her revenge....It's pure fiction of course.)

After thinking these subversive thoughts, I settled down to realising how full of meaning Breathless is. Brass instruments are enduring symbols of power – trumpets voice calls to arms and warn of the last judgement; trombones likewise accompany last things (they resound awesomely in the requiems of Mozart and Berlioz); tubas are usually quieter beasts, but when Wagner wants music to denote a dragon. it's the tuba he turns to. Squashing such powerful symbols can create a powerful symbol in itself.¶

Above all, perhaps, Breathless is a meditation in glinting silver on music and silence.† Squashed, the instruments have had their wind, and their speaking power, squeezed out of them. Their mouthpieces will no longer be met by an embouchure, their valves are jammed, their water keys are useless, their bells need no longer be fitted with a mute, for they are mute indeed. Yet for all this, their outline is still unmistakable – they could be nothing but brass instruments – and they shimmer in their silence with a ghostly new life.

- - -

* More on Breathless can be found on the museum's website, here.

§ Thank you to a reader for enlightening me further about this. It turns out that the hydraulic mechanism that raises Tower Bridge was used to squash the instruments. Apparently there is a label somewhere in the museum that explains this, but I missed it; my mind must have been full of the Gothic Revival furniture that I'd just been looking at, and the wonderful Christmas carols that were being performed live somewhere in the museum, their sounds floating up through the squashed brass ensemble to the spaces above. The aisle was full of noises.

¶ If you hear the clash of symbols in this sentence, remember that it's not only the high seriousness of the most highly serious classical music that's at stake here. Think of what Louis Armstrong could make a trumpet do, or Jack Teagarden a trombone. Such musicians can be poignant and jocular by turns. Silencing them is pretty awesome too.

† Where there is music, there must also be silence. Silent and listen are anagrams, as Alfred Brendel, for one, has noticed.

Saturday, December 24, 2016

National Gallery, London

Architectural delicacy

One of my most popular posts of 2016 has been the one I did back in August on the floor mosaics by Boris Anrep at the National Gallery in London. These lovely floors in the old gallery foyer, hardly noticed by many gallery-goers who are, not unnaturally, keen to look at what's on the walls, are a project of the 1920s by an artist (a Russian who had settled in England) making his name in the medium of mosaic. My earlier post concentrated on their wealth of contemporary portraits – Anrep's friends and acquaintances pose as personifications of virtues or pleasures, or as the nine Muses, and they're mostly a cross-section of cultural London, from Bertrand Russell to Margot Fonteyn. They contain more than a hint of the exotic, but many of their subjects are quintessentially English, as if Anrep is paying homage to the qualities of his adopted country. The pleasures of life include universals such as Dance (this being the 1920s, it's the Charleston) or Speed (an invigorating ride on a motorcycle), but also very traditional British activities such as hunting, football, and cricket. One of the most British of all is the seasonal delicacy shown above.

Christmas pudding, for my non-British readers, is a very rich concoction containing a lot of dried fruit, sweet spices, and alcohol. It is traditionally decorated with a sprig of holly and when served it is doused in spirits which are set alight, hence the flames in the mosaic. I am one of those who think Christmas is pudding is very much one of the pleasures of life, and I'm rather touched that the Russian Anrep thought fit to include this British dish in one of his mosaics. I offer it with all my best wishes to my readers everywhere. Thank you for reading the blog this year, and may you have an enjoyable festive season, wherever you are.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Shipston-on-Stour, Warwickshire

Off my piste

Catching the eye with white-painted walls and ogee hood moulds picked out in black, this building in Shipston-on-Stour stands out from its mainly red-brick neighbours. Although I’ve been to Shipston dozens of times I’d not been down this side street, so had no idea the building was there – not until I started using the recent revised edition of Warwickshire in the Pevsner Buildings of England series.*

The revised and extended editions of the Pevsner guides certainly do their job of picking out exceptional buildings in obscure places. My example is the very last thing in the entry on Shipston: “with ogee windows and hood moulds; originally a police station and lock-up, built c. 1840,” says the guide, which was enough to send me off to find Old Road, where the building stands. Those curving window tops are very typical of the early Gothic Revival and they’re certainly the first thing to notice. But I’d also point out the shape of the building – the broad curve with which it turns the corner. The metal glazing bars delineating tiny panes of glass and small three-pane opening panels are also delightful, especially their Gothic pointed upper panes.

Backstreet England. As Pevsner shows, it’s so often worth your while to stray from the main drag, to go those extra few yards from your usual route, to poke around in corners. You never know what you might find.

- - - - -

*The Buildings of England: Warwickshire, Chris Pickford and Nikolaus Pevsner (Yale University Press, 2016). My review is here.

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Ross-on-Wye, Herefordshire

Sun, steam, and seeds

A search for a garden centre in Ross-on-Wye took the Resident Wise Woman and me to the the edge of the town, following green signs through an industrial estate. Having passed the modern sheds of the industrial estate, we arrived to find the garden centre partly housed in another kind of shed, a 19th-century engine shed built for the Great Western Railway. It’s in the very robust-looking mode that the GWR often used – chunky local stone, big segmental relieving arches, and a generous arch at the end (barely visible through the branches), that has been narrowed (when the railway switched from Brunel’s favoured broad gauge to standard gauge) and then filled in. Inside is a roof with a raised centre, held up with some very substantial timbers. The building seems to work well in its new use.

The engine shed looks isolated from its historical roots now, but this part of Ross was once dominated by the railway. The nearby station served both the Hereford, Ross and Gloucester Railway and, from 1873, the Ross and Monmouth Railway. The station, goods yard, and coal yards have all gone (closed between 1959 and 1964), leaving this train shed, a nearby goods shed, and some bridge piers. An idea of the station can be had from Kidderminster station on the Severn Valley Railway, the design of which was based on the one at Ross. Strange to think, when standing among the shrubs and Christmas decorations in the garden centre (or when passing the premises of the likes of Messrs Screwfix up the road) that from near here you could catch a train to Gloucester, Hereford, or the Homerically named station of Monmouth Troy.*

- - - - -

*Monmouth Troy station was named after Troy House, near Monmouth. After it closed it was eventually dismantled and moved stone by stone to Winchcombe, Gloucestershire, where it forms part of the Gloucestershire Warwickshire Railway.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016


Julian Flannery, Fifty English Steeples
Published by Thames & Hudson

This book arrived in my mailbag too late to be included in the handful of pre-Christmas reviews I posted last month. Once I opened it, though, and saw that its author’s favourite steeple was also my own, I couldn’t resist reading it – and then returning to its rich collection of photographs and drawings. So here’s a review, post-haste…

Fifty English Steeples presents author Julian Flannery’s selection of the finest medieval parish church towers and spires in England, from Saxon Earl’s Barton, Northamptonshire, to Louth, Lincolnshire (1515). They’re a varied lot: high and low, plain and ornate, square, rectangular, round, or topped with octagonal lanterns or spires. Their diversity comes shining out of the book’s many photographs and drawings – Flannery has surveyed all these towers himself, recording in painstaking and beautiful measured drawings their details of construction and design, and producing (for the first time) an authoritative list of their respective heights. The book would be worth having for these meticulous drawings alone.

However, it’s much more than that. Flannery traces a steady design development, taking in various broad types of tower and spire – the round towers of Norfolk, the ornate towers of Somerset, the plainer but still magnificent towers of East Anglia, broach spires, recessed spires, spires with or without crockets, spires with flying buttresses, and so on and on. Along the way, he pays attention to the design of windows, buttresses, parapets, pinnacles, vaults – to make a compendium of steeple architecture of the kind that has never been gathered in one place before.

The examples are all worth visiting and looking at. The book includes coverage of such triumphs of medieval architecture as the towers of St Cuthbert’s Wells, Leigh-on-Mendip, and Kingston St Mary (all in Somerset), Oxfordshire landmarks such as St Mary’s Oxford and Adderbury, great lantern towers like Lowick, Fotheringhay, and Boston, East Anglian monsters like Lavenham, and finally the great Lincolnshire spires, Louth above all. Louth is my personal favourite, a spire of unique gracefulness, and Flannery’s contender for the ultimate late-flowering of the medieval English steeple. There it is on the book’s cover above, 287 feet of glorious early-16th century architectural flair.

Emerging from all this detail and all these examples is a broad pattern of development that has little to do with the conventional classification of medieval architecture (which works, up to a point, for window tracery and vaulting, but is less useful for steeples). Another theme is how so many of the best parish church steeples are either on or within striking distance of the limestone belt – not an invariable rule but a reminder that these structures are often showcases of the masons’ sense of being at home with their materials. A further theme is the effect of elements such as buttresses and string courses on the appearance of towers. Yet another is the varied ways in which masons made the transition from square tower to usually octagonal spire.

The real triumph of this book is how it manages to look at an architectural phenomenon that we take for granted and subject it to new and revealing scrutiny. Its value is built on various foundations: thousands of hours at the theodolite and drawing board; an awareness of both exterior and interior impact; a balancing act between empirical analysis and an architect's aesthetic judgement. Above all it's the author’s good eye that is alert to qualities such as the strangeness of Patrington; the influential nature of St Cuthbert, Wells; the power of Boston's great relieving arches; the grace and sweep of Louth's tall openings and ogees; both the structural and visual impact of a buttress or a vault. Most of us appreciate the beauty and importance of England's towers and spires; thanks to this book we will see them more clearly and in more detail than they’ve been seen since they were built.

Saturday, December 10, 2016

Uppingham, Rutland

Not so rare…

My previous post about the Elephant pub in Bristol reminded me that there is one three-dimensional inn sign that I’ve been meaning to share with you for several years. This is the sign of the Unicorn in the High Street at Uppingham. This is no longer a pub but the sign remains to draw our attention to a building of various dates (17th to 19th centuries), with a rendered, pale-painted front. He’s rather heraldic, this unicorn, in his conventionally seated pose, and retains some nice details that generations of paint have not obliterated.

The beautifully spiralling horn, the curly-ended leonine tail, and the collar and chain that look as if they ought to be gilded – all these details point to this being a heraldic unicorn, the seated posture and raised paws making it, in heraldic language, a unicorn sejant erect, I suppose. I do not know whether the beast belongs to a specific coat of arms, though.

The Unicorn is not the most common pub name, although I’ve posted another one in the past in Oxfordshire. Uppingham’s must have stood out among the many inns in the High Street. Falcon, Bell, Crown, George and Dragon, Unicorn – this small town, like so many small towns, had numerous inns, and they were essential sources of hospitality and hubs of communication. They were one way in which country towns, which can seem just pleasant, quiet places to visitors today, once punched above their weight. And with a range of facilities from inns to ironmongers, butchers to bookshops, ones like Uppingham still do.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016


To th’Elephant

I was so pleased to find this sign, because, like so many three-dimensional inn signs, it enhances a city street while paying tribute to a business that goes back centuries. Bristol’s Elephant Inn in St Nicholas Street was originally built in the 17th century, but was demolished in 1863 when the street was widened. It was rebuilt, to a design by Henry Masters, in 1867, which is presumably the date of the carved elephant sign. Set among scrolls, acanthus leaves, and classical window surrounds, the sign stands out, and helps the facade stand out.

It must have seen a lot over the nearly 150 years it has been here and it’s an unusual and memorable addition to my collection of three-dimensional inn signs, themselves a scarce but I hope not endangered species – a bear here, a swan there, a unicorn rare, white harts almost everywhere. Why do I like these signs so much? Well, it’s obvious on one level isn’t it? I like most things that enliven the streetscape with a bit of art or craft and most things that are distinctive – that show someone trying to be a bit different form the usual hanging pub sign, excellent as many of these are. But it’s more than this. Old pub signs seem to embody memories. They make me think of the decades of enjoyment that people have had here, of the bottles of wines and spirits, the succession of pints and pink gins that must have been consumed here. Places of hospitality. We need them more than ever in these tough times. ‘To th’Elephant,’ as Antonio says to Sebastian in Twelfth Night.* Cheers! Or what you will.

- - - - -

* Twelfth Night, Act 3 scene 3

Saturday, December 3, 2016


A Georgian favourite

St Swithun’s, Worcester, is one of my favourite Georgian churches. A typical town church, it’s hemmed in on all sides by streets and buildings – and by its 15th-century west tower, which is the only surviving part of the earlier church that stood on the site. The present St Swithun’s was built in 1734–6 to designs by Thomas and Edward Woodward of Chipping Campden, who also refaced the tower and gave it a round-arched doorway.

In this as in many 18th-century churches, it’s the interior that I particularly like, a welcoming space filled with natural light. The virtually untouched collection of box pews fit the nave beautifully, some facing towards the altar, some at the back facing inwards towards the aisle; there’s also a west gallery,* an impressive three-decker pulpit, and some terrific ironwork.† As you take all this in, your eye moves upwards towards the curving plaster ceiling. This is a beguiling confection, its ribs and corbels evoking Gothic architecture, while its roundels and garlands have a classical feel. Its pale white plasterwork reflects the natural light from the big windows down on to the pews, increasing the splendour of the interior.

My admiration for this church meant I was sad to read on social media the other day that rain has penetrated the roof of St Swithun’s, damaging the lovely plaster ceiling. This ceiling is more vulnerable because, apparently, there are no nibs or keys§ attaching the plasterwork firmly to the wooden laths that should be supporting it. The Churches Conservation Trust, who look after this church, are of course aware of the problem and are on the case. There is a fund-raising scheme in progress at the moment to obtain funds not only for retiling the roof and other repairs, but also to create craft skills apprenticeships, and to make the building available for artistic exhibitions and performances. As usual, the Trust deserve out support.

The partly-gilded ironwork supporting structure of the altar, St Swithun’s, Worcester

- - - - -

*This gallery is built up against the west wall, which is also the outer wall of the tower, the diagonal buttresses of which are still visible in the interior.
†The ironwork includes not only the altar that I illustrate but also an ornate sword-rest rising from the mayor’s chair – a subject for a future post, perhaps.
§Keys or nibs are the bits of base-coat plaster that the plasterer pushes between the laths to ‘key’ the plaster to the woodwork.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Idmiston, Wiltshire

A good hat

When I give talks about building materials or vernacular architecture, this picture sometimes elicits a gasp of amazement. A field wall, made of cob (here a mix mainly of mud and chalk I think) and roofed with thatch. Such a thing seems eccentric these days. People think cob must be an ephemeral material – but it can last a lifetime with the proper protection, given, in the old phrase, ‘a good hat and a good pair of shoes’. The hat is provided by tiles or thatch. But thatching is a skilled trade and roofing a wall like this takes a lot of effort and expertise: it must be a costly process. In past centuries, though, the cost of materials and transport could be a larger proportion of the total bill of a typical building project, and both time and labour could be cheaper than they are now. In the Middle Ages, if stone was not plentiful, mud and thatch could at least reduce the cost of the materials.

And yet, clearly, people who could afford to buy stone and bring it to the site also just liked the idea or the look of an earth wall. In c. 1320 at Lambeth Palace, London home of the Archbishop of Canterbury (who could have had stone for the asking), six perches† of garden wall were repaired and rethatched with reeds. Mud or cob walls for fields and gardens are not so common now, but you still find them in some places. I’ve come across them in Northamptonshire, for example. Chalk areas (parts of Wiltshire and Buckinghamshire, for example) also have chalk walls, similarly thatched. I hope people still like them enough to make the effort to maintain them.

- - - - -

*Cob: a building material made from mixing earth and straw. Lime may be added and in some areas the cob can contain a large proportion of chalk. In Buckinghamshire, especially in the Haddenham area,  chalk cob is known as wychert; in Cornwall cob is also referred to as clob. 

† A rod, pole, or perch: an old measurement equivalent to 161/2 feet – just over 5 metres; so six perches would be a good 30 metres: quite a bit of wall.

Saturday, November 26, 2016

London Wall, London

The red and the black

A lot of people like a fox. Attractively red-haired, bushy-tailed, and proverbially cunning, foxes capture our imagination somehow. They’re dog-like, but a bit wild. At least since the ancient Greeks* they’ve been admired for their resourcefulness. So if you’re actually called Fox, and you’re a shopkeeper, you must feel almost obliged to use the animal’s image in your publicity and on your shopfront. Like the wonderful Fox umbrella shop in London Wall. This is a delightful frontage that reflects the high fashion in retail architecture in the late-1930s. On one level, it’s very simple: just a plain rectangular window to set off the goods on display, a big name sign, the latest in black cladding – and the foxes, of course, on either side of the name.

But on another level this is a very elaborate and expensive confection. The metal window frames are stainless steel. The black cladding is Vitrolite, a coloured glass sheet material that was very popular in the 1920s and 1930s because it looked good, shed the dirt, and was available in the fashionable hues of the time – pink, eau de nil, black.† The windows had curved non-reflective glass. And that simple three-letter name plate is not so simple either. The steel letters light up at night thanks to neon tubes, also highly fashionable.
However, creating a good shopfront isn’t solely a matter of using the best, most fashionable materials. It’s also about arranging them artfully. The long rectangular window, for example, is a not quite as tall as many shop windows: this gives an almost cinematic feel, as well as allowing plenty of height for signage and the fascia, so that the short shop name can make its fully impact with large letters. Another artful touch is the way the steel letters of ‘FOX’ are edged in red, giving just a bit of colour during the day (there’s more at night, of course, with the neon lighting). Mr Fox’s shopfront is the bee’s knees.

The style of the shopfront reflected the quality of the products sold within. Apparently Winston Churchill used Fox umbrellas, and that personification of 1960s television style, the character John Steed in The Avengers, played by Patrick MacNee, carried an umbrella by Fox. The company still exists, though they no longer trade at London Wall.§ The premises are now given over to fine wines and dining, but the only concession to this is one line of signage below the shop name. The rest is still intact and glistening. Rain or shine.

- - - - -

* The poet Archilochus has a fragment, variously translated, that contrasts the fox and the hedgehog: ‘The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing’, or words to that effect. And these days, foxes are all over greetings cards, on which they’re nearly as popular as hares.

† Vitrolite was used in the bathrooms at the Savoy Hotel. See my post here.

§ Fox are here.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Shepton Mallet, Somerset


Regular readers of this blog will have noticed my liking for market buildings of all kinds, from medieval mutli-arched halls to the glass-roofed markets of the 19th century. I also like market crosses – the focal points of market activity that still stand in many towns, many of them medieval and elaborately carved.

Market crosses, like this one at Shepton Mallet, are partly shelters for stall holders, partly three-dimensional signs to indicate the site of the market, and partly religious buildings that reminded medieval traders and shoppers that their business took place under the eye of God – and probably that deals agreed under the cross had an oath-like and binding force.

Shepton’s handsome stone cross dates from the year 1500, although it has been much altered and the precise dates of its various parts aren’t entirely clear. The central shaft looks largely original (though it may have been restored in the Victorian period). The surrounding hexagonal structure with its shallow elliptical arches has a 17th-century appearance, so may replace an earlier set of arches, it being unlikely, though possible, that the shaft originally stood without the surrounding structure propping it up. Above the arches are six very Gothic-looking pinnacles that seem out of keeping with the Jacobean arches but very much in keeping with the central shaft: perhaps they date from the 19th-century restoration, when the outer structure was Gothicized, to make it more like the original cross. There is a lot more detail about the history of this building on the local Shepton Mallet website.*

Whatever the exact story, the market cross still forms a focus in the town square.† Shepton is, I think, no longer quite the bustling place it was – although I was last there on a quiet Sunday and it may well be busier during the rest of the week. But the town has obviously looked after this beautiful structure for over 500 years, and I hope it attracts more people to the town’s shops. I hope to be back soon on a weekday, when they’re open.

- - - - -

* For example, the website gives evidence for work on the cross in 1841, with various accounts including one that says only the upper part of the cross was rebuilt at this time – though we are not told exactly what ‘rebuilt’ means in this context. However, this online account is itself a very shortened version of a much longer study. See the website for more details.

† One more thing hat adds to the historical interest of the market cross is an old iron road sign, attached to one corner, that shows distances to various towns and cities. I did a post about this sign some time ago, here.

Saturday, November 19, 2016

Tate Britain, London

Looking down again

Among my recent posts, one of my personal favourites (and if web statistics are anything to go by, one of my readers’ favourites too) is one I did in August about the mosaic floors in the National Gallery, created by the Russian-born artist Boris Anrep, starting in the 1920s.* Anrep adorned one other London gallery, the Tate (now Tate Britain), and these mosaics are just as fascinating, though not quite so easy to see.

The Tate was damaged in a Zeppelin raid in World War I, and after the hostilities ended needed a new floor in one of the octagonal corner galleries. Boris Anrep, who was yet to do his bigger floors in the National Gallery but had established himself as a mosaic-maker of some flair, offered to make a mosaic floor for the room. Better still, from the gallery’s point of view, he was prepared to work for nothing if no funds could be found.

This suited Charles Aitken, the gallery’s keeper, although as it turned out he was able to secure some money for Anrep’s materials, and Anrep settled on illustrating eight of William Blake’s proverbs, this being a room, at that time, where some of the gallery’s considerable Blake holdings were displayed. The proverbs are of course very Blakean: ‘Exuberance is beauty’, reads one; ‘If the Fool would persist in his Folly, he would become wise’ is another.

There’s quite a lot of tension in these mosaics. In ‘The fox provides for himself, but God provides for the lion,’ the lion has a bottom-up pose, a spiky mane, and prominent claws: a well-fed and powerful feline. The fox by contrast in long and rangy, with matchstick legs: providing for yourself can be a hard business. ‘Expect poison from standing water’ has a different kind of tension: the female figure seems about to drink, but the restraining hand of God hovers above – will she heed it? 
These striking mosaics are easy to find. Blake’s works have been moved elsewhere and the octagonal room is now given over the the Tate’s print sales area. The gallery have tactfully positioned the display units so that they do not cover the main parts of the mosaic, but the floor cannot have its full effect, and it’s hard to photograph some of the panels without also including bits of the gallery’s tasteful grey display units in the frame.† However, the mosaics are well worth searching out, and one can understand the excitement that attended their unveiling in 1923. The general praise for Anrep must have helped him secure the National Gallery commissions a few years later and the Tate had a colourful new work of art, full of exuberance and beauty.

- - - - -

* This earlier post also has more information about Anrep, which I have not repeated here.

† There is also a certain amount of reflection from the lighting, which I have tried to minimise but which can still be seen in the photographs.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Strangers on the shore

Last of my current clutch of book reviews is a new book about London. It’s about mudlarking, the wonderful pastime of recovering objects from the banks of the Thames. But it’s also about the history of London, and the fragmentary nature of the mudlark’s finds says something too about the fragmentary nature of historical evidence, about the way the past comes back to us in bits – but bits that can shine with the vividness of jewels...

Ted Sandling, London in Fragments: A Mudlark’s Treasures
With a foreword by Iain Sinclair
Published by Frances Lincoln

Once or twice I’ve walked down one of the sets of steps by the River Thames in London, to take a photograph from the shore. I’ve always felt a bit uneasy down there (Should I really be there? Will I be apprehended by a River Policeman or some imagined embankment beadle?). But I’ve also wondered what it would be like to be a mudlark, walking slowly along the shore and scavenging the historical detritus – old clay pipe stems, bits of pottery, colourful chunks of glass, the odd Victorian lemonade bottle – that gathers there.

Now I know. Ted Sandling’s enchanting new book reveals what it’s like to be a mudlark, and tells stories from London’s history, based on the fragments he’s found down on the shore. It’s a winning way to look at history, juxtaposing photographs of the finds with narratives about their origin or use or context. Sandling makes bottle stoppers speak to us about the history of London’s consumption of mineral water; bits of glass reveal an international industry embracing Asia, the Levant, the Mediterranean and the Adriatic; an ink bottle has things to tell us about the history of literacy; pins provide evidence of early mass production; and so on.

There’s a very special immediacy about the connection with history. You pick up a bit of clay pipe stem. It’s one of the most common things to find on the shore, but you may be the first person to handle it since its owner threw it away, broken and useless, 200 years ago. It’s very intimate, too, this connection. That original user put his lips to that stem; another grasped the wine glass of which you’re holding a fragment; yet another curled his wig with those curlers.

Some of the fragments animate very specific stories. A bit of glass marked ‘ECKHAM’ and some bits of letters that look like ‘Manwaring’ lead to the origins of a South London pickle manufacturer. ‘BATTERS’, ‘ENGLAN’ and a bit of ‘Morgan’ is evidence of a firm making patent ceramic crucibles (first in Wales, then in Battersea, then back in Wales again). They were the state of the art then, and they still exist as manufacturers of crucibles – and, now, of parts for jet engines too.

There are even bits of buildings washed up by the tide. A chunk of masonry from the old Palace of Westminster that burned down in 1834 is a prize exhibit. Delft wall and floor tiles are no less fascinating. And I learned, in the course of a passage about a wine bottle neck, that bottles as well as buildings had string courses. Such things, the objects themselves and the short accounts of them, do not lose from being fragments – visually, they are stunning, and historically they exemplify how the past comes to us in fragments that we have to piece together.

Sandling’s enthusiasm for his material is infectious. He can luxuriate in the coloured decoration on a tile, the glow of a piece of glass, the texture of anything he holds. He’s good at recreating the surprise of discovery and the strangeness of some of the finds – some of them, after all, have taken long journeys to get here: the river both is the essence of London and is something flowing into it from outside. Even what were everyday objects – a pipe bowl in the shape of a horse’s hoof, a Tudor money box – can seem strange until their stories are filled in, and Sandling is good at getting this sense of strangeness, as well as giving us the background information we need to understand the objects better. He recognises, too, that odd, uncertain feeling that I felt when stepping on to the mixture of sand, gravel, and mud beside the Thames. Nearly everyone feels it, he says, when they first go down there. Bottles and buttons and bear heads (yes) and writers and mudlarks too, we are all strangers on the shore.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Shakespeare's county

The next of my handful of new book reviews is of the latest addition to Pevsner’s Buildings of England series. For many, these books are self-recommending. But now the revised editions are coming out, many of them getting on for twice the length of the original books, it seemed a useful idea to have a closer look at the benefits of revision – and it’s certainly not just a case of deleting demolished buildings and adding newly built ones...

Chris Pickford and Nikolaus Pevsner, The Buildings of England: Warwickshire
Published by Yale University Press

The arrival of a new revised edition of one of Pevsner’s Buildings of England volumes has me rubbing my hands with glee, especially when it’s on a county in my local area. As I live in north Gloucestershire, not so far from the border with Warwickshire, the new edition of Warwickshire is right up my street.

Pevsner’s original Warwickshire came out in 1966, so a full update was due. As seems usual these days, the new Warwickshire has 800 pages (there were just 529 smaller pages in the 1966 edition), but unlike its processor it doesn’t include Birmingham, which will appear in a forthcoming volume on Birmingham and the Black Country. There’s plenty of space, then, for new extended entries on Warwick and Coventry Universities, and for many individual new buildings (Pevsner’s account of Coventry Cathedral, a new building in 1966, is reproduced with little change, apart from some notes on recent minor alterations and additions). The old buildings (and there are some belters in this county: Warwick and Kenilworth Castles, Baddesley Clinton and Stoneleigh Abbey) are covered in more detail. The book also includes much more information about many places – small towns such as Bedworth and Atherstone, for example, are covered in much greater depth. We get a richer picture of this fascinating county as a result.

One huge gain in the revision process is the scope to draw on the results of new research about all kinds of buildings. Recent books on the architect Sanderson Miller (very active in his native Warwickshire) are a case in point. Andor Gomme’s work on the architect and builder Francis Smith of Warwick is another. Recent research also throws light on the designers of important houses such as Compton Verney. And on rediscoveries. Why didn’t the 1966 Pevsner tell me about the wonderful Norman tympanum in the church at Billesley, I wondered? Answer: because it was only rediscovered in 1988! The new book includes it, and provides a photograph of it too.

It didn’t take long before I got out and about with the new Warwickshire in my hand. It throws light even on places that are familiar to me, as I discovered when I took it on a journey through parts of the south of the county. There was much more than in the original book on the large village of Brailes, for example, and about smaller ‘hidden’ places like Idlicote, with its church, house, and dovecote, and about places I’d driven through hundreds of times, like Halford, a village on the Fosse Way with a good church (another bit of excellent Norman carving (who said Herefordshire had all the best Norman sculpture?) and some elegant early-19th century houses. I finished my trip in Shipston-on-Stour, which I thought I knew like the back of my hand. But the Pevsner encouraged me to explore more closely a former nonconformist chapel I’d overlooked before, and introduced me to a bit of the town I’d not visited, where it pointed me towards an extraordinary former police station with, of all things, 19th-century Gothick ogee windows.

So Warwickshire doesn’t disappoint with the familiar places. And I’m already noting down buildings I don’t know that I want to see. I think the list will continue to grow for some time. Anyone with any kind of interest in Warwickshire, its history, and its buildings, will I’m sure react in the same way. There’s no need to hesitate to buy this latest Pevsner.

Sunday, November 13, 2016


With continuing news of change in British retailing (Marks and Spencer are among the latest to announce store closures and a change of emphasis), it’s time to look back over the history of another great name on the British High Street. So here’s a new history of the impact the Woolworth’s chain made in our towns...

Kathryn A Morrison, Woolworth’s: 100 Years on the High Street
Published by Historic England

From 1909 until their demise in 2008, Woolworth’s* was a ubiquitous and familiar name on Britain’s High Streets. Selling, at various times, everything from children’s clothes to gardening equipment, recorded music to sweets, they were famous above all for low prices and good value. Woolworth’s red-signed store fronts and signature lines (pick n’ mix) were so familiar that they were taken for granted. Everyone was shocked when they closed.

Kathryn A Morrison, historian of retail architecture, is well qualified to chronicle the American company’s story in this country, with special reference to the way in which they designed, decorated, and arranged their stores. She begins with the man himself, Frank Winfield Woolworth, the American entrepreneur who built up a huge and successful chain of fixed-price nickel-and-dime stores before exporting the idea to Britain. She charts the company’s progress through the challenges of World War I, the subsequent recession, World War II, the post-war reconstruction, and the peak of the 1960s when the company had some 1130 outlets and had reached saturation point in Britain. There follows the sad decline, with the company making repeated attempts to revive the business with new names and approaches (Woolco, Shopper’s World, Woolworth by Post, Savermarket, Furnishing World, Kidstore, etc, etc), restructurings, and redesigns, before the final closure in the relentless economic crash of 2008.

This story, fascinating in its own right, is just the background to the main subject of this book, which is the history of the way Woolworth’s designed and presented their stores. At the beginning it’s a canny tale of careful choice of sites (near bus stops and railway stations), enticing signs and window displays and notices assuring the customer that everything inside cost just 3d or 6d, of drawing customers in with weighing machines in lobbies, of creating an identity with Classical facades and carved stone lions. Morrison shows how the stores were distinctive inside too, with goods laid out on open counters rather than out of reach as was normal then. This arrangement proved an irresistible temptation to shop-lifters (early reports showed stolen items ranged from soap, combs and scissors to a tortoise – a revealing snapshot of the sort of stock that was carried).

Later highlights from the history of Woolworth’s architecture and design include big Art Deco and Moderne frontages from the interwar period, more stylized Classical fronts for smaller shops, and a restrained neo-Georgian style that seems to have been adopted in response to the increasingly strong 1930s conservation lobby. All these styles were being built at the same time, but the stores were unified visually by motifs from the bright red signage to the use of a distinctive ‘W in a diamond’ monogram that became closely associated with the company. The design of everything from cafeterias to counters, window frames to pressed-steel relief panels, is noted along the way, and illustrated in a rich array of period photographs.

Period photographs, indeed, dominate – a lot of these stores have gone, or have been very thoroughly adapted. But there are hints and traces of these formerly glorious stores all over the place, and Morrison shows us what to look for and where to find it. She also features some of the outstanding stores that remain with little alteration to frontages at least. The 1930s shop in Monmouth (original windows at street level, stylized Classical brickwork above), the flagship store in Lister Gate, Nottingham, all faience fins and mouldings like an Art Deco cinema, and Ledbury’s small-town neo-Georgian outlet are the stars here.

I have space only to mention a tiny fraction of the fascinating things in this book, which throws light on subjects as varied as the company’s treatment of its staff in the early days to their change from leasehold to freehold properties and how this affected their growth. Morrison’s book is wonderfully revealing about the design and history of a business that was a familiar, and much loved, presence in Britain for a century and is essential reading for its insights into architectural, retail, and social history.

Friday, November 11, 2016

The white stuff

It's that time of year again. As winter sets in and Christmas approaches, I post a few reviews of recent books that have struck a chord with me this year. I begin with a new book on Brutalism and, especially, on concrete – subjects that I've only rarely touched on here...

Barnabas Calder, Raw Concrete: The Beauty of Brutalism
Published by William Heinemann

Over the last few years, Brutalism, the architectural style of the 1960s par excellence, has begun to be described, discussed, and appreciated more than ever since the building boom in which these boldly massed and often controversial structures were built. In this new book, Barnabas Calder nails his colours to the mast. He likes these buildings, has always liked them, and likes, more than likes, loves the material most of them are made of. The book’s first sentence is, ‘I am a lover of concrete.’

Over 300-odd pages, Calder presents a detailed account of a clutch of Brutalist buildings, documenting their history, anatomizing their design, and explaining what’s good about them. Several are the usual architectural suspects in London – structures such as Ernö Goldfinger’s Trellick and Balfron Towers, the vast Barbican development by Chamberlain, Powell and Bon, and Denys Lasdun’s National Theatre. There are also less well known and more far-flung but equally interesting buildings, like New Court, Christ’s College, Cambridge, and buildings I’d not thought Brutalist at all, like Stirling and Gowan’s Engineering Building for Leicester University. And there’s the commercial Brutalism of Richard Seifert, the architect of London’s Centrepoint block. 

They all throw up memorable stories. We meet the rebarbative Goldfinger getting angry that someone in his office isn’t working and sacking him on the spot; the victim turns out to be a visitor. We get insights into the struggles between architects and builders at the Barbican. We marvel at how Denys Lasdun coped with multiple and contentious committees when building the National Theatre. And we meet Sir Leslie Martin, the quiet man of Brutalism, overseer of so many projects for the LCC and mentor to so many young architects.

Along the way, Calder tells us a lot about concrete. That, after all (and notwithstanding Jim Stirling’s red buildings, which flaunt their red brick and problematic glazing) is where Brutalism begins, with béton brut, the raw concrete of the title. Calder loves this material but his is not an unquestioning love. He loves it most when it is good quality concrete. And although many people think of concrete is a cheap material, good concrete isn’t cheap. His accounts of the hammered concrete at the Barbican make this clear. Bush hammering produces the artistically roughened surface that makes much of the Barbican so impressive. You get it by hammering off the topmost layer. But that doesn’t mean you can pour the concrete any old how. Concrete destined for hammering has to be just so before you set to work with the hammers – if it’s not, the stuff breaks off unevenly and you have a mess. And the hammering itself takes a lot of time, noise, and dust. It’s a tough job. Similar pains went into the production of the concrete at the National Theatre. Here it was poured in situ into wooden shuttering. But the shuttering had to be just right, and only reused once – more than that and it would not produce the crisp image of the wood on the concrete surface that is such as feature of the building. Structures like the National required as much craftsmanship as good brickwork or stone masonry. All this is conveyed with the author’s winning mixture of clarity and zeal.

Calder talks about how the buildings work, too. And he’s honest about this. While thoughtfully explaining how well planned most of the structures are, he also admits some of their shortcomings, such as their energy consumption – they were built at a time of relatively cheap electricity. Even so, for Calder, these buildings are about as good as it can get. He’s always their advocate and his book is an enjoyable, informative, and entertaining read.

Monday, November 7, 2016

Great Rollright, Oxfordshire

Only connect

A few weeks ago the Resident Wise Woman and I decided to grab an hour or two out and go over to the Rollright Stones, a prehistoric* stone circle that we’ve visited a few times before. I don’t know what it is about this place. Some say it feels spooky, others that it recharges their energies. I find it atmospheric – but very hard to photograph. My pictures of it seem to show expanses of grass with some tiny stones in the distance, or close-ups of stone that look like just…stone. My best effort was probably on a misty morning† when you couldn’t see the stones very well at all – at least there was atmosphere, even if it was mostly made of water vapour.

Once we’d had a walk round, imbibed the atmosphere on this much clearer day, and admired the way people had been decorating the hedge with coloured ribbons, we decided to walk around the neighbouring field to look at a smaller, associated group of stones, the Whispering Knights. They’re probably the remains of the inner chamber of a neolithic burial mound. The earth mound has long gone and the stones now form a tight cluster. Huddled together against a background of the gently undulating Oxfordshire countryside they make it easy to see why people imagined them as a group of conspiratorial figures speaking to each other sotto voce.

The Knights hold people’s attention just as magnetically as the stone circle. On approaching we saw that visitors have tossed coins that have gathered in a shallow depression in one of the lower stones; they have also left little twists of straw and a bunch of flowers. Offerings to the gods? To Mother Earth? Memorials to loved ones who loved this place? Or just encouragement to the people who look after the stones? Maybe all of the above. Evidence anyway of the ways in which people today still connect with this fascinating and haunting place.
Offerings to the Whispering Knights, Rollright
- - - -
*The stones have their own website, here, which gives approximate dates of 2500–2000 BC for the stone circle and 5000 BC for the Whispering Knights.

† My previous, misty encounter with the Rollright Stones is remembered here. The comments section to this earlier post includes accounts of various legends associated with the stones.

Friday, November 4, 2016

Cheltenham, Gloucestershire

Birthday box

Post boxes: readers who return often to this blog might have noticed that I have bit of a thing about them – I must have done at least half a dozen posts about post boxes over the years. Although they’re not strictly buildings, they’re built structures, and some were designed by architects. And the people who decide which buildings should be listed don’t have any problems with including them: there are quite a few listed boxes.

A number of these are Penfolds, the lovely Victorian hexagonal boxes that celebrate their 150th birthday this year. They’re named for their designer, architect John Wornham Penfold,* and they are rather architectural in character, with the acanthus leaves around the top. They were made between 1866 and 1879 before being superseded by cylindrical boxes that were less costly to manufacture.

Original 1866 Penfolds are quite rare. There are 20 of them in use on Britain’s streets, including a fair number in London and no fewer than 8 in Cheltenham†. So as I live near Cheltenham, it’s a local Penfold I’ve chosen to share with you. It’s rather special in that it still has the original white enamel flap over the slot, chipped and spattered with red paint, but still hanging there, helping to keep out driving rain and autumn leaves.
They weren’t always red, which became the official colour in 1874 (although it took a few years to repaint all the boxes). Before that this Cheltenham box was probably green. Penfolds are certainly effective in glowing Pillar Box Red, and it’s good to find them, showing off their ‘VR’ royal monogram, the bold legend ‘POST OFFICE’, and the lovely acanthus top with its strip of beaded ornament and smart finial. Among the trees, leaves, and miscellaneous and unglamorous street furniture of today, Cheltenham’s Penfolds still stand proudly out.

- - - - -

* Penfold was a distinguished member of his profession. He became President of the Architectural Association and a Fellow of the RIBA. There’s more about him and his post boxes here. I'm also indebted to an article in NADFAS Review, Autumn 2016, for reminding me about this anniversary.

† The total number of Penfolds in use, both 1866 examples and later ones, is about 70.

Monday, October 31, 2016

Axbridge, Somerset


1636.* Charles I, full of a sense of his own importance as an absolute monarch, is ruling without Parliament; he’s attempting to get round the awkward fact that only Parliament can raise taxes by imposing the hated feudal levy called Ship Money (normally only used in wartime and only charged in coastal areas) in peacetime and across the whole country. The church is being reformed by a new Archbishop of Canterbury, William Laud, who is reducing the Calvinist influence on the church, standardizing liturgy (emphasizing the use of the Book of Common Prayer) and ordering churches to be arranged – with altar rails, and an altar raised on a platform – in a way that sharpens the focus on the altar and on the sacred rite of Holy Communion. Both these changes – the taxation, the religion – cause upset and tension. More tension, and the Civil War, are around the corner.

In Axbridge, Somerset, it’s not just fittings like altar rails that are exercising the parishioners. They’re reroofing the nave of their church – and giving it an astounding ceiling quite remarkable in its network of plaster ribs and decorations. The very idea of a ceiling is, if not unusual, far from the norm in English parish churches: many make do with open roof timbers and these are often displays of virtuoso carpentry. This, on the other hand, is virtuoso plasterwork, from the hands of a local man called George Drayton.

In the 1630s, plaster ceilings in grand houses often have a network of protruding ribs, frequently with pendant features where the main ribs intersect. The patterns can be intricate and dizzying to look up at, and the effect is frequently one of worldly richness.† Here, Drayton has taken this idea and adapted it, adding curves and pointed cusps that turn some of the shapes into quatrefoils. This cusping and quatrefoiling is a motif of the Middle Ages – in other words the plasterer has taken a 17th-century design and applied medieval additions to it, turning it into something that looks almost Gothic. The result, combined with the striking blue and white paintwork, is dazzling.

I don’t know whether this mix of old and new styles reflects in any way the mix of old and new ideas prevalent in England at this time. Some would perhaps see the addition of Gothic into the decorative scheme as a nostalgic backward glance to the old Catholic religion that inspired medieval churches. Others might compare it to the nostalgia prevalent in the theatre of the period, which featured frequent reworkings of earlier dramatists like Shakespeare and Jonson, as if Charles I’s anxious citizens wanted their previously great country back. Or perhaps it was a more neutral preference – people just liked Gothic.

Such speculations are interesting. But today we can marvel at this ceiling for its own sake, and for the pleasure in the ways that English churches, so apparently conventional and part of the establishment, can pull breathtaking tricks on us, just when we think we have them taped.

- - - - -

* This has turned out to be a rather long post. Here’s an executive summary for those in a hurry. This is a wonderful intricate church ceiling. It was made in 1636 but incorporates design elements from 250 years earlier. There are many possible reasons for this stylistic puzzle, but we don’t need to know the answer to enjoy the effect.

† Such ceilings in country houses were also often studded with images of heraldic beasts, flowers, and other decorations. There’s one from Lanhydrock on this page.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Halford, Warwickshire

Off the road

The old Roman road called the Fosse Way is one of my favourite routes to the Midlands. It runs almost as straight as the proverbial die* from Cirencester up to Leicester and Lincoln (old Roman towns all), and I often join it at Stow on the Wold or Moreton in Marsh to head towards an exhibition at Compton Verney or to visit an old friend in Leicestershire. Once you’re past Moreton heading north there aren’t many villages or towns on the Fosse, and those that there are, I tend to pass by quickly. One such is Halford, which I’d registered for years as having an inn (with an archway redolent of 18th-century stables and coaches) and a few roadside houses. But the other day I decided to pull in and have a look at whatever lay beyond.

I was heading for the church, but, as often when I’m heading somewhere, something else caught my eye – a group of houses around a little green, tucked away off the main road. The traveller in a hurry would never know they’re there. Here’s one, Halford House. At first glance I took it to be a Georgian house to which the porch and windows above had been added a bit later, in the Regency period. But who would make such a small addition to a house in this way? A closer look confirms that the whole thing was built in one go, in the early-19th century.† The ironwork of the balcony and the wooden door surround certainly look to be from that period, the cornice is all of a piece, and the upper string course (the horizontal band below the upper windows) runs continuously.

The deep bay window and balcony are very Regency things. I’ve noticed bay windows of this period in Aldeburgh (and in many other seaside places such as Brighton). This is no coastal town, but there’s still that feeling of slightly relaxed architecture, as the fashion changed, the Georgian liking for a more restrained symmetry being replaced by something a bit less formal. If I think of it as a style about relaxation and sea views, it works equally well in a quiet village, just off the road.

- - - - -

*The road is the A429 and the B4455. As a boy I heard older relatives reminisce about how it was a narrow, minor road north of Moreton, with gated portions where you had to stop and open gates before you could pass through. It’s very different, of course, now, but still a rural road in many places.

†The new Pevsner volume on Warwickshire confirms this date. I'll be posting a review of this fine addition to the Pevsner series soon, in my winter clutch of book reviews.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Chipping Campden, Gloucestershire

The gift of water

As the rain drizzles down in the Cotswolds, we’re apt to take for granted the regular clean water supply that we expect, in most of Europe, to be just there, at the turn of a tap. We grumble, of course, when they dig up the road to lay new water pipes, as they’re doing in my town at the moment. But our pipes have been there a while: in this town ‘the water’ was laid on in the Victorian period when the local bigwig and benefactress decided that installing piped water would be a good way to celebrate Queen Victoria’s jubilee in 1887. Many villages, such as the one where I was born in Lincolnshire, had to wait until the 1960s.

Some places were more fortunate. The mysterious structure in my photograph is on the hill outside the Cotswold town of Chipping Campden. It looks rather like a village lock-up, but it’s actually a conduit house, built as part of a system of pipes that brought spring water to the town. It has, apparently, a water trough inside it – such structures marked the point where one or more pipes from springs converged and exit pipes carried the supply on to the users. There might also be a holding tank.

Campden’s conduit house is built, like most of the rest of the town, of Cotswold stone. The virtually windowless construction, with stone flags attached firmly to make a vaulted roof, is indeed as secure as a lock-up, and not without reason. The people who built this did not want vandals getting in, or slates blowing off so that the supply could be contaminated. So it’s built to last, and its builders of c 1612 seem to have known what they were doing. It certainly proved durable, staying in use until the early-20th century. The water supply it served was the gift of another benefactor, Campden’s generous and aqueously named Sir Baptist Hicks, to whom the town is variously and continuously thankful.

Friday, October 21, 2016

Ham Yard, London


It is my great pleasure to announce, to my utter astonishment, that this blog has won the Amara Award for Best Architecture Blog, for the second year running. This is indeed an accolade, and I want to thank the people who nominated the blog, all the friends who voted for it – thereby ensuring that it got on to the shortlist – and the judges who finally whittled that list down to a single winner.

As it was last year, the awards ceremony at the Ham Yard Hotel in London was highly enjoyable, with gracious hosting from Amara, many smiles and much appreciation from Sophie Robinson, who presented the awards, generous support from the sponsors (special thanks to Umbra, sponsors of my award) and a large crowd of enthusiastic people, including some fans of English Buildings.

There was much to take away from this occasion, not least the sense that there are a lot of people with interesting and engaging blogs in the world of interior design and that they blog because they love what they do and want to share designs, ideas, colours, objects, etc, etc, with the rest of us. And all of this is very positive – this is people telling others what they like, with the hope that they will like it too.

The list of winners in all the different categories is here.

Monday, October 17, 2016


Monument of commerce

Corn Street is the heart of old commercial Bristol. It’s where the Exchange is, and it’s full of old bank buildings and the offices or former offices of insurance companies. Some of the buildings have statuary celebrating Bristol’s roots in exploration and trade (I’ve posted one staggeringly ornamental bank building before*).

Here’s another of these mercantile structures, the Commercial Rooms, built in 1809–11 as a club for merchants. The façade can certainly hold its own – the big Ionic portico and side windows hark back to the Palladian proportions of the previous century.† However, the Commercial Rooms’ impact comes just as much from the sculpture – the three figures at the top are personifications of Commerce, Navigation, and the city of Bristol itself. 
Inside, there’s a big room with a very striking domed ceiling. This consists of a shallow dome at the top, raised on slender caryatids (in between which are glazed panels), themselves supported on pendentives. The pendentives are the triangular bits that enable the circular dome to fit on top of a square aperture. It’s altogether an elegant design, lending the interior both grandeur and light. I imagine it would originally have been painted in more restrained colours, pastel shades perhaps.

The Commercial Rooms is no longer a club for merchants.§ It’s a pub now, and all can enjoy its striking interior. I’m glad I had a look inside.

- - - - -

*My post is here.

†The Pevsner city guide to Bristol notes that the architect, C A Busby, drew on a couple of slightly earlier buildings (the Liverpool Lyceum, 1802 and the Manchester Portico Library, 1802–6) for some of these effects – the library certainly has a big portico and a domed ceiling inside. The guide points to Sir John Soane’s domed Consols Transfer Office in the Bank of England (1798–9) as one source for the interior dome.

§ It’s now a Wetherspoon’s and there’s more information here.

Friday, October 14, 2016

Piccadilly, London

Dashing for the post

Facebook reminded me today that one year ago I went to the excellent Ai Weiwei exhibition in London’s Royal Academy, an occasion that not only left me with enduring memories of the art, but also gave me reason to notice the very old telephone box in the entrance to the RA’s building, Burlington House.

Looking back through my pictures, I notice that I also have an image* of the wooden post box under the Burlington House entrance arch.† This is all that remains of the Post Office that was once in a room to one side of the entrance arch. The Post Office closed as long ago as 1940, and this box is a reminder that in the 19th century, post boxes were far from standard in form. Big cast-iron monster boxes, pillar boxes like Doric columns, and the elegant hexagonal Penfold boxes§ were all around in the 19th century, along with various other forms, and some of these old ones have still not been replaced with newer designs, much to our visual benefit. For Burlington House, with its classical forms and intricate Renaissance revival ornament (see the left and right edges of the picture), something still more different was fitting. So this very formal wooden box is complete with classical pediment, in which a carved crown is set amid scrollwork. Beneath, there are two slots, which are now marked ‘Franked Mail’ and ‘Stamped Mail’. Above the plate saying ‘Stamped Mail’ one can just discern part of the word ‘London’ beneath – originally these two slots would have been for letters to London and elsewhere respectively.

I have a hunch, and it’s only that, that the shape of this bespoke wooden box has a practical raison d’être. Not only is it made to fit neatly in the available wall space between the pilasters but it’s also not very deep (and wall-mounted, so that it does not occupy floor space). This is not a wide passage and it can get busy. Plonking a ready-made letterbox here just wouldn’t have been very convenient. Altogether, it’s an elegant solution.

- - - - -

* My photograph contains a blurred figure walking quickly into the frame. I doubt if this figure is recognisable, but if you do recognise yourself and would rather not have your image online, please contact me using the ‘comment’ button below, and I will remove the picture.

† The sign above the box reminds us that the Linnean Society, Britain’s learned society concerning itself with biological sciences, is based in rooms above the entrance arch to Burlington House.

§ I plan to post more about Penfold boxes soon; 2016 is the year of the Penfold’s 150th anniversary.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Southwold, Suffolk

Corner shop

The Resident Wise Woman is a great one for coming home from the shops with bargains, and she is in the habit of including in her bargain baskets a few of what the supermarket is offering in the way of bottled beers. They’re an interesting lot, too, ranging from the products of microbreweries I’ve never heard of to beers from stalwarts such as Shepherd Neame, Martson’s, and Adnams.

When I see a bottle of Adnams I usually think two things – that this is going to be a good glass of beer and that it comes from Southwold, one of Suffolk’s most beautiful towns. And in Southwold is Adnams’ wonderful shop*, which has one of the best 19th-century shopfronts you could wish for. This is, they say, a building of the early-19th century (it originally housed a chemist’s) but the actual frontage, with this glorious semicircular, bay, is from about 1860.†
I am, as regular readers will know, a sucker for buildings that turn a corner memorably and there are few corner shops that do so as memorably as this one. It’s not just the curving window, nor the neat Doric pilasters that frame the doorway, nor even the way that the line of the pavement echoes the curve of the window. It’s also the lettering of the sign – gold, standing out against its red background, with pleasant proportions and pretty good spacing. I can even live with the fact that the comma in ‘Ltd.,’ is rather eccentrically lying on its side and that part of the leg of one of the Rs is broken. It’s all part of the character of this very characterful facade. Cheers!

- - -

* It’s actually Adnams wine shop, and adjoins the Red Lion pub. Adnams also has a newer shop elsewhere in the town. There’s more on Adnams stores here.

† I was first alerted to this shop front by seeing a picture of it in one of the beautiful pocket books that Peter Ashley did for English Heritage some years ago. The book is Local Heroes: Pubs and Inns (2001).

Saturday, October 8, 2016

Lisle Street, London

A good skin

I’m endlessly fascinated by the ability of the late Victorians to produce buildings that, while basically in a revivalist style, exude decorative added value. They had lots of different ways of doing this, using styles from Gothic to Jacobean revival, as well as a whole range of different versions of classicism – plus extra decorative bells and whistles that buildings in these styles would’t have included.

Here’s a highly ornamental late-Victorian building, but one in an unusual style: a sort of northern Renaissance, with Dutch stepped gable (and what a stepped gable), scrolls, terracotta panels, and obelisk finial – not to mention a variety of window types to enliven the frontage and no doubt the interiors too. It’s the sort of thing you’d see on the main square of a Dutch Renaissance town – Haarlem, suggests Pevsner – and even among a host of neighbouring stepped gables it would stand out.

The design was by Frank Verity and when it was finished in 1900 it housed the French Club, before being taken over by the film company Pathé, before, in 1935 it became St John’s Hospital for Diseases of the Skin. The idea of this hospital was that regular clinics were provided discreetly where members of the ‘artisan class’ could attend without it being obvious (once they’d made it through the door, presumably) that they had an embarrassing skin disease. By the 1930s the skin specialists had outgrown their premises in Leicester Square (they were treating around 1,000 outpatients a week) and had this building in Lisle Street converted for their needs. They remained here and in adjoining buildings until moving to the St Thomas’s Hospital complex in the 1980s.

At that point the lower part of the building became a pub, the Crooked Surgeon, later becoming a Slug and Lettuce. If this feels a step down, no doubt the hospital gains from its site at St Thomas’s, and the wonderful facade remains. And it still does something (pleasurable, absolutely) to the skin at the back of my neck as I pass.

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Sapperton, Gloucestershire


Last week brought the news that the Churches Conservation Trust has taken on its 350th church. The Trust is an excellent charity that takes over and looks after church buildings that can no longer be maintained by their local parishes. The churches are all of outstanding architectural and/or historical interest and the Trust opens them to the public and sells guidebooks and provides other information about them – but the buildings are still churches and occasional services are still held in them. I’ve noticed, and praised, their work before on this blog and I am just one of a legion of enthusiasts and supporters.

The 350th church on the Trust’s list is St Kenelm’s, Sapperton, Gloucestershire.* It’s a beauty – for its exterior, with its lovely little spire (far from the norm in this county, where most churches have towers) and its lovely setting, and for its contents. It is a medieval church, but one much altered in the Georgian period with the addition of a number of large round-headed clear-glazed windows, which flood light into the nave.
Jacobean pew ends, Sapperton

Inside are two outstanding monuments – a 17th-century one to Sir Henry and Lady Poole and an 18th-century one to Sir Robert Atykyns, the first historian of the county of Gloucestershire. The place would be worth a visit for these two monuments alone, but what sets the church apart still more is the woodwork – the most extraordinary set of Jacobean pew-ends, together with a gallery front, a big wall of oak panelling, and other pieces. This rich 17th-century carpentry came from nearby Sapperton Manor and was given to the church by the 1st Earl Bathurst† when the house was demolished in 1730. It’s secular woodwork that has been repurposed, then, and the pew ends certainly look secular in origin – each one bears a vigorously carved supporter figure bearing on the head a capital: a sort of Jacobean version of a caryatid or Atlas figure. The males have satyric beards and the few females bare breasts and necklaces, so they might have been even more at home in the dinging room of the manor house. But these figures have plenty of character – the chiselled beards and almond eyes, the little locks of hair – so that, stylised as they are, they’re an asset to the place. The modest capitals don’t really conform to the standard classical orders: they could be Ionic with a bit of extra foliage, or cut-down Corinthian. But they’re fun too and the whole lot make the church very special. You’d have to go a long way to find any pew ends quite like these.

All credit to the CCT for taking on this memorable church. No doubt they have lifted a heavy financial burden from the small parish in so doing. As usual, we owe them our applause and whatever other support we can give.¶

- - -

* Sapperton church’s page on the CCT website is here.

† The Bathurst who was the recipient of Pope’s famous poetical epistle, and who created the great park next to his house at Cirencester, a stone’s throw from Sapperton.

¶ I've posted about quite a few CCT churches over the years, but there are a couple of my particular favourites here and here.

Saturday, October 1, 2016

Stamford, Lincolnshire

A view of a town

I have recently been watching an old television series called Six English Towns, written and presented by the architectural historian Alec Clifton-Taylor. This was a formative series for me when it first came out in the 1970s – it must have been one of the first things that made me look closely at the buildings around me.* It’s wonderful that these old programmes are available again, and I intended to say more about them.

Clifton-Taylor covers some of my favourite towns, and a lot of the buildings he describes are still there. Stamford in Lincolnshire is a particular favourite: a limestone town of extraordinary grace, once on the busy A1 road but now bypassed – and still bustling and thriving in spite of now standing to one side of this arterial north-south route.

Clifton-Taylor says a lot about stone, and a lot about the Georgian houses and other buildings in Stamford built of this material. One thing he noticed was the number of variations on the carved keystones above windows: the town really is an exhibition of the art of the keystone carver. Looking through my own photographs, one example struck me in particular: Stamford’s Town Hall, a building of the 1770s.
At first glance, this building, with its rows of sash windows, its rusticated ground floor, its low-pitched roof hidden behind a parapet, could be a grand Georgian town house. But the coat of arms at the top gives it away. The architect isn’t known fort certain but it may have been Henry Tatam, a local cabinet-maker who also designed buildings. The window surrounds (detail at the top of this post) don’t protrude very much, although the lasts-afternoon sun that shone when I took my photograph does its best to catch the surface variations on the facade. The sun also catches the decoration around the upper windows – the pattern of rosettes and linear forms that give these windows their elegant character. This pattern is taken up in both the keystones and the cornice, giving the decorative scheme its character – a sense of unity or repetitiveness, as you wish. The walls themselves, with their very tightly jointed stonework of the kind common in Stamford, set all this off well.

Clifton-Taylor mentions this building in his film, and shows many others, often just as interesting. His programmes are good old-fashioned TV† – no gimmicks, just a man talking about what he likes for half an hour in an informative way – and well worth watching. 
Alec Clifton-Taylor, Six English Towns: Stamford

- - -

*There were a further two series, so he covered 18 towns in all, and he brought out books to accompany each series too.

†Very much of their time, these programmes show a middle-class, rather schoolmasterly Englishman unglamorously talking to camera – and showing off the buildings he discusses with relevant, informative footage. The sort of thing that’s sneered at too often as paternalistic, like Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation (another formative series for me). One shouldn’t let prejudice get in the way of their genuine insights.