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

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*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.


Anonymous said...

I just watched the first episode (Chichester) and have saved a link to the others. What a wonderful series! Makes me want immediately to hire a car and travel through England...
Thank you.
François-Marc Chaballier

David Gouldstone said...

I love these programmes! I learnt to look at buildings by watching them; they're all on Youtube at the moment, and it's hard to think of a more relaxing and informative way of spending half an hour. I wrote about them on my amateurish blog:

Eileen Wright said...

I don't remember those programmes at all, although I did watch Kenneth Clark's Civilisation, which I absolutely loved. Thank you very much for the heads up, Philip, and also to David Gouldstone for the article on his blog if I may. Alec Clifton-Taylor seemed to have the same love of architectural materials and connection with the landscape that I love too, and which I try to show in the articles on my website. Definitely worth hunting for some of those books, and watching the programmes of course. :)

Philip Wilkinson said...

Thank you all for your comments.

David: Thanks for the link to your blog piece, which I enjoyed. The Pattern of English Building is indeed an essential book. Like you, I agree with some of his opinions while parting company from him occasionally.

Eileen: Civilisation taught me so much. I have left-wing friends who hate it, because of Clark's dismissal of non-western art, specifically of African art. Well, I don't like this aspect of it either, but I don't think this fault invalidates all of what Clark says about western art. By the way, Alec Clifton-Taylor's books of the three English Towns series are easily found secondhand, and not expensive. They follow the television programmes quite closely.

Joseph Biddulph (Publisher) said...

Clifton-Taylor's book encouraged me to visit Lewes - once just a stop on the train to Eastbourne - from which ultimately my little book on Magnus, the Lewes Anchorite. But too easy to name a few "star" towns of outstanding architectural interest - what's more exciting is finding something in unexpected places, or looking closely at something we rather overlooked or despised. And I'm thrilled with the idea of that beautiful (and no doubt serviceable) town hall in Stamford being designed by a cabinet-maker!

One little quibble: perhaps more on the meaning of the heraldry, and the artist who could produce it? Anyone who has tried heraldic drawing will realise that adorning a building with a coat of arms is no easy task, and we suspect the work of specialists.