Tuesday, July 5, 2016


Oh, Shakespeare he’s in the alley…

St Stephen’s Street is one of Bristol’s narrow central thoroughfares, a street that’s easy to overlook and if one does come across it, one’s attention is likely to be taken by its main architectural attraction, the eponymous church, which has a glorious tower, a sibling of the late-medieval towers that make Somerset so architecturally rewarding. Across the road, though, are other delights, mostly unregarded and, I’d guess, rarely photographed, because the street (a bit more than an alley, to be fair, but far from wide) makes these quite tall buildings hard to get in the frame.

One example is this building of 1878. It was originally a warehouse, apparently, through I don’t know what was stored in this four-storey structure faced in multi-coloured glazed bricks. My top photograph, showing just the central section of the facade, gives you the idea – mostly yellow, with an orangey-brown plinth, some bands of blue, a little Pennant sandstone here and there, and terracotta ornaments.

The ornaments are three terracotta busts of English poets: Milton, Tennyson, and Shakespeare. The Shakespeare looks like a Romantic poet, with more flowing locks and a bonier face than the familiar portrait by Martin Droeshout that appears in the First Folio. The Milton is not too far from portraits of the poet in early printed editions of his works and the Tennyson is faithful to the writer’s profuse beard and sometimes upward-curling moustache. The Tennyson bust has him wearing a hat –  several contemporary photographs and portraits show the poet hatted. At one time in his life Tennyson favoured a cloak and a very broad-brimmed sombrero, a get-up well beyond the ken of most Victorians. A young woman who went for a walk with him was embarrassed when everyone stared at them, transfixed by this outré garb; she was even more embarrassed when he turned to her and said she ought to wear a less conspicuous dress next time she went out because ‘People are looking at us’.

I suppose the choice of poets is unsurprising for the period. Shakespeare is always with us; for the Victorians, Milton’s works too were much-read classics, even if their author did not have the huge influence he’d had for the previous generation of Romantic writers. As for Tennyson, he was very popular in his lifetime. His long poem In Memoriam, an elegy for his friend Arthur Henry Hallam that grapples with matters of faith and doubt (burning issues for the Victorians), was a bestseller and a favourite of the queen; some of his other poems, such as Enoch Arden, Maud, and The Idylls of the King, also sold in numbers far beyond the sales figures of poetry today.

We got a lot of good things from the Victorians (hospitals, Education Acts, Charles Dickens, drains…). I’d suggest that their love of poetry is another influence that we could emulate.
Bust of Alfred, Lord Tennyson, 1809–92


Hels said...

Ahhh the question of which men of letters to choose was quite well handled and the terracotta busts of Milton, Tennyson and Shakespeare look good. But my question would be: why would a warehouse, in the back lanes of Bristol, spend money on poets' busts on the facade? To inspire the workers, as they entered the building each morning?

bazza said...

I really like being in Bristol but I have never been in this street. I have always been a sucker for interesting brickwork and this looks rather special though I would have guessed this building to be a school rather than a warehouse.
Also, I note the Bob Dylan quote from 'Stuck Inside of Mobile'!
CLICK HERE for Bazza’s fabulous Blog ‘To Discover Ice’

Joseph Biddulph (Publisher) said...

Poking round the back streets of Bristol is often rewarding. Brilliant piece of photography. There is a certain civic pride in this building, warehouse or not. I hate to think what metal box would be put up these days. Poets were celebs - could the terracotta busts have been mass-produced, as some terracotta panels in terraces obviously were? - In which case, perhaps there are identical ones somewhere else?