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.

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* 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.

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*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.*

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*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.

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* 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

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*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.