Monday, June 27, 2016

Wisbech, Cambridgeshire

Deco memories (2)

Here is one more memory from my brief visit to Wisbech a year ago, and it is another Art Deco structure that probably gets overlooked by visitors – even those who appreciate architecture – this town being so rich in buildings from earlier eras. This is the Empire Theatre, built in 1932 to designs by F B Ward and C E A Woolnough. A lovely example of its type, it features symmetry, metal-framed windows with stunning geometrically pattern glazing bars, and jazz-age details like that central pinnacle – all things that we associate with this type of cinema, but which are all too rare these days.

I did not manage to get inside, which is a pity, because when I returned home I read that the Empire (now given over to bingo) has a magnificent period interior. And that is even rarer, as so many cinema and theatre interiors of the 1920s and 1930s have gone, often as a result of perfectly understandable moves to upgrade, convert, or modernize. Fortunately, there are images of this extraordinary interior online, revealing stylish plasterwork, luxurious inlaid wood, metal banisters, and all kinds of other details. No wonder the building has a grade II* listing. I hope the sustaining bingo business thrives.

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Addendum An Australian reader comments on the brownish stone cladding of this facade, which would be unusual on a movie theatre in Australia. It's not that common in the UK either. In my experience, British interwar cinemas are generally built of brick, with the entrance front often covered in stucco or sometimes clad in white ceramic tiles. Back, sides, and unregarded portions generally are usually left unclad: it's the entrance front that is meant to count, and to catch the eye. I've posted about a ceramic-clad cinema before and also one in which which the brickwork is left exposed (although on that occasion my main interest was a decorative element in the form  of a carved relief).    

Friday, June 24, 2016

Wisbech, Cambridgeshire

Deco memories

I quite often take photographs, intend to blog them, and then, such is the richness of English architecture – and such the breadth of my enthusiasms – pass on to another building that seems more enticing. Looking back through my pictures for something else, I came across just such a building, which I photographed about a year ago. It’s the office building of a canning factory in Wisbech and was originally built for the Smedley’s company in around 1923.

The flat roof line, gridded windows, and Art Deco detailing make it typical of a spate of industrial buildings put up in the period between the two world wars, although this one is rather early – most of them, in my experience, date from the late-1920s or 1930s. The Art Deco elements are confident but quite restrained compared to the Egyptian ornament of London’s Hoover Building or the feline extravaganza of the Carreras Black Cat tobacco factory, also in the capital. Here we have a stepped pediment, some more stepped effects on either side of the entrance, some diamond and rectangle motifs framing the facade at either end and picked out in red and blue, and some red saw-tooth pattern along the top of the frieze. There are more touches of red above the doorway.

True to the tenor of the times, this bit of modernistic display was laid on for the offices, the company’s public face. The working buildings are round the back and no doubt in the 1920s, as now, they were low utilitarian shed-like structures, with very little decoration to them. The building now belongs to Princes, who have inserted their company name where the sign previously said ‘Premier Foods’ and before that, according to the building’s listing text, ‘National Canning Company Ltd’.

I’d not associated this kind of building with food production. Most of the examples I’ve seen, on the outskirts of towns and along London’s arterial routes like Western Avenue and the Great West Road, have been engineering factories, electronics producers, firms making goods associated with the automotive industry, cosmetics companies, and so on. But there’s no reason why canning peas or baked beans shouldn’t be done behind a smart Art Deco facade, and the new owners have integrated the glowing red letters of their name rather well into the design. Can do.  

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Suffolk Place, London

A cunning plan

I often walk down side streets to avoid the bustle of the more well trodden thoroughfares. Suffolk Place was just such a cut-through, between Regent Street and the National Gallery, and I was glad I took it, because what I found was a rare architectural survivor of the Regent Street development – the grand scheme created by John Nash in the 1820s. This particular row of houses was built as a speculative development by Nash and has the sort of classical proportions and Greek Revival details that would have attracted buyers or tenants – particularly those generous full-height first-floor windows set off by shallow arched recesses, suggesting luxurious and airy drawing rooms inside.

The iron balcony rail with its elegant design made up of long rectangles and ‘wheels’ is another attractive touch. It’s very much of its period, and very much what we think of when we think of Regency architecture. The balconies are supported on Greek Doric three-quarter columns, which frame the ground-floor windows and give the lower part of the building a sense of solidity. I did wonder whether these columns were cast-iron, like those on Nash’s similar frontages on The Mall, but I could not get close enough to give them an investigative tap or kick.*

Whatever they’re made of, though, these columns are not quite as robust as they seem. When you look more closely, the building has a basement with, as is usual in houses of this period, a void (known as the area) in front of it, so that the basement can have windows. Pedestrians are prevented from falling into the area by the railings, but from the pavement one can look down into it, and it is very narrow.
Suffolk Place: a three-quarter column resting on a bracket, saving space in the area below

The columns, if they continued down to basement level would obstruct the area too much, so the architect has placed them on brackets, leaving the area easier to access. It’s not quite proper to support such columns on brackets. According to the conventions of Classical architecture, the columns of the ground floor should stand on bases or, if they’re Doric, on the ground itself.† But the arrangement works, combining structural support, convenience, and elegance – almost the triad of ‘firmness, commodity, and delight’, which the Roman writer Vitruvius said were the three essential qualities of a building. Clever Nash.

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* I posted about Nash’s iron Doric columns, and the occasional need to kick a building, here.

† There are other ways of solving the problem of the attached ground-floor column above a basement. In Bath, for example, the attached columns of The Circus rest on a stone ledge, created by setting the lower wall forward slightly. The result is more solidity, but the design takes up more space. 

Friday, June 17, 2016

Brockhampton-by-Ross, Herefordshire

More musicians

When my recent post on the medieval carvings at Adderbury provoked some interest, I found myself being rather apologetic about the lack of precision in some of those vigorous, if rustic, sculptures. One carving of a person playing a stringed instrument, probably a rebec, showed the musician holding it in a rather odd way. But how do you hold a rebec, anyway? As with skinning a cat, there's more than one way, apparently.

Questions such as these sent me rummaging in my archives for other images of medieval musicians – or musicians portrayed in a medieval style. Then I remembered Christopher Whall's windows in the wonderful Arts and Crafts church at Brockhampton-by-Ross, one of which shows angel musicians. I'm not going to apologise (again!) for the somewhat moppet-like faces of these young angels (the most recent Pevsner volume for Herefordshire calls them 'somewhat sentimental'). There's too much else to like – the beautiful drawing and rich colours for a start. And then the way one suddenly realises, having studied the details for a minute, that these angel musicians are perched in the branches of trees.

So I offer you a string player and an angel blowing at a woodwind instrument. I'll try not to get tied into too many knots trying to decipher what the instruments are. The stringed one has the indented waist and sideways-protruding pegs of the viol family; the wind instrument to me has the look of a shawm (an ancestor of the oboe). I expect Whall took them from earlier depictions of instruments in medieval art – from other stained glass windows or from carvings. I think they're worth celebrating for themselves.
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For readers who have not heard a shawm, and would like to know what it sounds like, there's a recording of a shawm here.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Wing, Buckinghamshire

Above and below

When I arrived at All Saints’ church, Wing, last week, a service was just finishing and I stood back while the parishioners chatted by the porch and gradually dispersed and made their way home. There was plenty to hold my attention, especially at the church’s east end, where I admired the architecture of the apse (in the foreground of my picture above) in particular. This unusual, seven-sided structure probably dates to the ninth century, which puts it on a par with the church at Brixworth (slightly earlier) and the tower at Earls Barton (slightly later) as one of the stand-out examples Anglo-Saxon architecture. The walls are decorated with narrow bands of stone (called pilaster strips) and blind arches – typical Saxon motifs – but the two big windows in this part of the church are later insertions. The apse would originally have had very small, single-light windows like the one remaining low down on the left, where the structure of the apse joins the later medieval aisle.

I knew from reading that this apse stands above a small crypt, and as I walked around the walls I could see the entrance to this crypt, protected by some iron railings (again just visible at the base of the apse walls in my photograph). I could see that the entrance was firmly locked. However, when I finally went inside the church I was greeted by the vicar and several parishioners, lingering after the service, and had an enjoyable few minutes’ conversation about the beauties and history of the building. At the end of this I was offered the chance to go down into the crypt, which was generously unlocked for me.

Descending a few stone steps, I found myself in a small space, vaulted and held up by massive stone piers. The rubble masonry and unplastered stonework make the space feel very ancient and primitive to modern eyes, and yet to design and execute the vaulting in this unusual polygonal space required some sophistication. The overall impression nonetheless is of ancient simplicity. It’s very hard for a non-specialist to date a structure like this. Experts think it may even predate the apse above, being part of an earlier church, and being modified when the upper part of the apse was built. Niches in the outer walls may have housed the remains of the church’s founders; the possible partial rebuild may have been to house holy relics (like those in the Saxon crypt at Repton), but it’s impossible to be sure about this.

I am sure, though, that I’m very grateful to those in the church when I happened to arrive the other day, for giving me access to this bit of history. The life of the inveterate church-crawler and building blogger is so often made more rewarding by the kindness of strangers.
Crypt, All Saints’, Wing, Buckinghamshire

Friday, June 10, 2016

Leighton Buzzard, Bedfordshire

Blue? True…

Here’s one further bit of signage, spotted above the crowds in Leighton Buzzard, as was the lovely swan in my previous post. This is a detail of the Conservative Club, built in 1913 as the Unionist Club*. I rather like the original lettering, which is somewhat restrained but has just enough of the curvaceous (look at the curls on the 9 and 3, and the little ornamental protrusions on the U) to give it some character. I’m pleased it’s still there, although it has been superseded by the bolder blue letters beneath.† These are good letters too, with decent proportions, and well spaced. Sadly, though, they don’t seem to have been made to last in the way the original sign clearly was. The C and L appear to be losing their deep blue hue and their visual homogeneity.¶

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*Non-British readers might not know that the British Conservative Party’s official name is the Conservative and Unionist Party.

†The ‘CLUB’ shown in the picture is preceded by the word ‘CONSERVATIVE’.

¶I will make no cheap political points…

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Leighton Buzzard, Bedfordshire

Swan, up

I’m always telling people to look up, an activity that, on the streets of Leighton Buzzard on Sunday, was somewhat perilous. Because there was lots going on, the place was very crowded, and anyone glancing upwards for a moment risked colliding with fellow passers-by. I just about avoided major impacts, and the wrath of the queue for the ice-cream van, to take this picture of the swan, high up at parapet level, on the eponymous hotel in the High Street.

I was impressed by this swan, red-beaked and footed, wings lifted, and feathers delineated, although it’s not a white as it might be. It reminded me of the lovely swan in Boston, Lincolnshire, marking the building that was once Anderson’s (later Fogarty’s) feather factory. Leighton’s Swan Hotel is an imposing building of the early-to-mid-19th century but there was a Swan Inn or Hotel there long before this, stopping place for coaches, source of much hospitality, and place where numerous auction sales and market deals took place.

It seems the facade has looked spick and span since the Wetherspoon’s chain took it over a few years ago, and it’s good to see its neat pale plasterwork and red lettering proclaiming its name and still, above the courtyard access to one side, advertising it as a ‘posting house’. It would be even better if the owners could get someone up there to remove the green growths and make looking up at the swan more rewarding still.

Friday, June 3, 2016

Great Tew, Oxfordshire

Narrow gateway, wide world

Just opposite the vicarage in my previous post is this grandiose gateway, through which one walks along a path to the parish church. You may well feel that there’s something odd about this structure. It seems vastly out of proportion to the low wall on either side of it, and the opening itself looks disproportionately narrow in relation to its height. I think the reason for this is that the gateway has been moved from elsewhere – probably one of the entrances to Great Tew Park – and rebuilt on a smaller, narrower scale to serve as this eye-catching prelude to the churchyard.

What remains is certainly imposing, and the ornament is very much redolent of the first half of the 17th century, when Inigo Jones and his followers were starting to introduce their disciplined and scholarly form of classicism to Britain. The masonry is carved with horizontal bands of vermiculation – the ornamental motif that is supposed to create the effect of the stone having been eaten away by worms – and each pier has a large niche topped with an arch in the form of a shell. Above each niche is a smaller oval indentation. The lintel is carved with festoons of fruit on either side of a central keystone. The use of banded vermiculation reminds me a little of the much more elaborate gateway in London’s Embankment Gardens, another 17th-century gateway that has lost its original purpose and that looks stranded but still magnificent in its current setting.
This carving from perhaps the 1620s takes us back to a time when the manor house at Great Tew was owned by one of the most remarkable figures of the time, Lucius Cary, who became 2nd Viscount Falkland and subsequently Chancellor to Charles I. One of my readers (see the Comments section to the post on the vicarage) has already mentioned Falkland, who invited to Great Tew a stellar group of his contemporaries, men who relished the intellectual discussions on offer, gatherings compared by contemporaries to those convened by Erasmus.* Many of those present came from Oxford (only about 12 miles away), but Falkland had friends from further afield too. In his Brief Life of Falkland, John Aubrey mentions some of the period’s most celebrated writers who were guests at Great Tew: ‘For learned Gentlemen of the Country, his acquaintance was Mr Sandys, the Traveller and Translator; Ben. Johnson [sic]; Edmund Waller, Esq.; Mr Thomas Hobbes, and all the excellent of that peaceable time.’  Falkland, says Aubrey, was not a great writer himself, quoting Dr Earles who said that ‘he wrote not a smoth verse, but a great deal of sense’.

Falkland died young, when the peaceable times had ended and he was fighting for the king at Newbury. It was said that he threw his life away, riding rashly into the fray when he need not have done so, and various reasons have been suggested for this, from his pessimistic analysis of his side’s chances in the war, to his deep grief at the death of the woman he loved.

Whether or not he actually had it built, this gateway, with its design that seems at home here but derives from a wide world of culture and scholarship, is no doubt the sort of thing Falkland would have appreciated. His house has been rebuilt and he has only a modest, 19th-century monument in the church, but such architectural fragments as this can act as his memorials.

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*It was Clarendon who made the comparison, and he also compared Falkland to Cicero, the great Roman consul, philosopher, orator, and letter-writer, who was as it happens an important character for Falkland’s friend Ben Jonson too.