Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Cookham, Berkshire...and Buckinghamshire

Where is it?

It’s odd, said a Czech friend, how many English houses have their chimneys at the end. We were having this conversation in southern Bohemia, surrounded by houses with chimneys right in the middle of the building, where the warmth they generate helps to heat the whole of the house. I was showing him Cotswold pictures, and here every house seemed to have its chimneys at the end, in the gable. I explained that this was partly to do with history – many of these houses had started as timber-framed buildings, with a brick chimney built as a semi-independent structure, to best protect against fire damage. The layout survived the change to stone building.

Of course, end chimneys are not the invariable rule. Here’s a house of an unusual shape, with a chimney right in the centre of its octagonal plan. The building is a toll house, and such houses were often polygonal, so that the person inside could see traffic coming from different directions. With such a building it seems natural to put the chimney in the middle, both for convenience – keeping the fireplaces away from the walls, freeing them up for windows – and aesthetics.

When I saw this small brick tollhouse on the end of Cookham Bridge, I looked it up in Pevsner’s Berkshire volume. There was the entry for the bridge (1867, iron, by Pierce, Hutchinson and Co of Darlington, with quatrefoils on the parapet). So far, so good. But no entry for the tollhouse. Then it dawned on me. Here we are right on the border between Berks and Bucks – the river (it’s the Thames) marks the boundary. The tollhouse is in Buckinghamshire. It’s said to be early-19th century, so perhaps it’s older than the bridge. It still seems to be used as a house, and though the days of tolls for this particular crossing are long gone is still a shining example of usefulness and elegance.

Saturday, May 27, 2017

Longleat, Wiltshire

Illustrations of the month: Servants’ Hall

A good browse in a favourite secondhand bookshop the other day threw up a small surprise. I was attracted by a book cover bearing the title Before the Sunset Fades and an illustration of a group of people standing in front of a tent. The author’s name was The Marchioness of Bath. The fact that the purple colour of the cover had itself faded added poignancy to the effect: surely this was going to be a lament for the country house life that declined in the period between the two World Wars, written by one who could remember the days of glory?

Well, yes, in a way. This small work of 1951 is indeed about the life of the great house in its Edwardian and Georgian heyday, but most of the book is actually about the lives and duties of the servants. In its brief 32 pages, it tells us about the life of the kitchen, the stillroom, the butler’s pantry, and the rest of the below-stairs world. It recalls servants’ balls and shooting parties, the jobs of the coachman and the bothy boy and the ‘tiger’. It illustrates the servants’ hall and the housekeeper’s parlour.
Longleat: The housekeeper in her parlour
The illustrations are by Cecil Beaton. Beaton is best known as a photographer. He started in the 1920s and by the following decade was a key man on Vogue, having a long career in fashion and society photography and in the post-war period he was a bright old thing, still active and influencing a younger generation of photographers including David Bailey. He was also a notable stage designer.

Beaton was not a great draughtsman, but the illustrations he did for the Marchioness’s book are charming and do a good job at evoking a world unknown to most people. I like the rather stern-looking housekeeper in her parlour, in which a riot of Beatonian squiggles evokes the rather fussy patterned carpet and wallpaper, or the economy with which kitchen workers are caught at their task. The book and its illustrations also summon up forgotten rituals, such as the ceremonial removal of the joint of meat from the servants’ hall after everyone had taken their fill – a procession headed by the steward’s room footman, followed by the ‘upper servants’.

For an upper-class author to dwell on the work of her servants in this way was quite unusual in 1951, even if the overall tone is one of nostalgia – something, the author says, that was shared by the staff themselves – for the allegedly ‘good old days’. She only occasionally allows a note of regret that the servants’ lives weren’t better, noting for example how arduous was the work of the housemaids who were constantly carrying hot water jugs to bedrooms and moving heavy hip-baths around the place. But to write about this at all was unusual. It was decades before the National Trust began to devote the effort they do now to displaying below-stairs areas in country houses and explaining the lives of the staff in kitchen, pantry, and garden. It’s interesting to see the Marchioness and her illustrator doing this just six years after the end of the war.
Longleat: the kitchen

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Moreton-in-Marsh, Gloucestershire

The colours of memory

I’ve gone on before about the stick-on advertising signs that shopkeepers sometimes put on their windows, and how these stick-on signs sometimes stick around for many years. I was reminded of this the other night in Moreton-in-Marsh when I came across this particularly evocative example: a Kodak sign that is obviously quite old, though I don’t know how old.

We’re back in the analogue era here, when most people took their films in to the local chemist to be developed and printed. Digital photography changed all this, of course, and it has been around for decades now – and was becoming popular when the new millennium got going. This Kodak sign goes further back than that, I think. The emphasis on colour and the use of the curve-sided box, like an old TV screen, have a rather 1970s feel. Those were the days, when many people still had black and white TVs, and when colour was something to shout about.

Having taken my digital photograph of this analogue sign and downloaded it on to the computer, I noticed another story that it has to tell. The yellow band of colour on the left is actually not part of the sign. Do you notice how it’s wider than the other bands, and that there’s no white line separating it from the band next door, as there is with the others? It looks as if, having got hold of a sign that wasn’t big enough to go right across the window, the shopkeeper retained part of a previous sign (maybe even a yellow Kodak one of a still earlier era) to fill the gap – and make the whole width of the window glow with Kodak colour.

- - -

Links to other stick-on signs I’ve posted:

Procea bread and the Procea bakerman, in Bromyard and Cheltenham
Atlas bulbs and Wilkinson Sword gardening tools in Ludlow
Every Ready batteries in Uppingham
Tea in Winchcombe
Ariel motorcycles in Frome

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Balham, London

The colours of London

Walking around Balham with a friend and local resident the other week I was struck by the number of Victorian and Edwardian houses built of white bricks. I’m used to thinking of London as built in a mixture of red bricks and yellow London stock bricks – when I lived in London my own house was built of such a mixture. But in some streets in Balham there seem to be almost as many white bricks as reds and stocks. I knew about Suffolk whites, but the origin of the white bricks in London is varied – there are a number of places as well as Suffolk with clay containing the amount of lime that produces the white colour. In this house they’re combined with reds, to decorative and glowing effect.

I also admired the tiled paths in this part of London. This house has a path of terracotta- and buff-coloured tiles, producing an effect similar to the medieval encaustic tiles still occasionally found in old churches. Even worn, like these, they make a beautiful approach to the front door, which clearly has an impressive display of stained glass too. London can be a colourful place, if you stop and look.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Photographers’ Gallery, London

The street where you lived

There are still a few weeks for anyone within striking distance of London to see the current exhibition at the Photographers’ Gallery of the work of British photographer Roger Mayne (1929–2014). Mayne is remembered particularly for his images of street life – notably of young people – in London in the 1950s and 1960s. He is especially associated with this point in British history, when children still played in city streets, when local communities were tightly knit, and when the first generation to be known as teenagers were making their mark.

His most famous sequences of photographs was taken in West London’s Southam Street, which soon after he made the pictures was flattened to make way for Ernö Goldfinger’s Trellick Tower. The exhibition shows these images, as well as others taken in Leeds, and a group showing young workers in the Raleigh Cycle factory in Nottingham. Some of the images were used on the covers of Penguin and Pelican books, of which a selection are included too. One can see why Penguin chose Mayne's images: he nails his subjects decisively, time after time.
Roger Mayne, Park Hill Estate, Sheffield 
Photograph © Roger Mayne / Mary Evans Picture Library

Another group, which appeared in the magazine Architectural Design in September 1963, capture Sheffield’s Park Hill estate, which was designed in the early-1960s as a council estate in one huge building, by Jack Lynn and Ivor Smith, working in Sheffield Corporation’s City Architect’s department under J. L. Womersley. What’s striking about these images is the way they rewrite the rules of architectural photography. Instead of pristine buildings in a setting empty of human life, Mayne’s pictures have people everywhere – chatting on walkways, sauntering on pavements, playing outdoors. They’re refreshing and lively, in a way that so many photographs of new buildings are not.

The final part of the exhibition contains an installation, a whole exhibition in itself, called The British At Leisure. This was made for the Milan Triennale in 1964 and consists of 310 colour photographs projected on to screens, to the accompaniment of a specially written jazz score and the constant clacking and clunking of five Carousel slide projectors. Here are people playing every imaginable sport from cricket to cycling, people relaxing in parks and cafés, at the opera or art gallery, fishing, gardening, motoring, enjoying Christmas and November 5th, sunning themselves on the beach, sailing model boats, riding, showing dogs, and so on and on. It’s a kaleidoscope of British life in the early-1960s, and I was riveted.

This is a terrific exhibition of work by a man who insisted that photography is an art and who proved it in image after image, who portrayed a time in British history like no one else, and whose work endures for its ability, again and again, to capture decisive moments.

- - - - -

The images are © Roger Mayne / Mary Evans Picture Library
The exhibition ends on 11 June.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Burford, Oxfordshire


I don’t recall coming across a Methodist chapel so ornately Classical as the one in Burford. The entrance front is in a local version of the Baroque style made fashionable by architects such as Nicholas Hawksmoor and John Vanbrugh (we’re not too far from Vanbrugh’s Blenheim Palace here). This is very much not the curvaceous Baroque of mainland Europe, but the British Baroque – a style that makes architecture theatrical with visual devices such as banded rustication (the horizontal bands in the masonry), an emphasis on size or height (the narrow windows help make the building seem higher than it is), big keystones over the windows, and doorways with Gibbs surrounds (the protruding square blocks are the key feature of this sort of door surrounded, popularised by James Gibbs, architect of St Martin in the Fields, London).

It’s an unusual chapel, and that’s because it was originally a private house. It was built for a lawyer called Jordan in 1720–30 and remained a house until 1849, when it was converted to a chapel by removing the interior floors to make a large hall and installing a gallery for extra seating. At this time the urns that decorated the parapet (another Baroque feature) were removed. It's interesting to find a house converted into a chapel: these days, one is more likely to find the opposite – a redundant chapel made into a house. Its rich combination of banded masonry, tall Corinthian pilasters, and all the Baroque features make the chapel’s facade a striking feature on Burford’s main street. Even though it is set back from the main building line, it stands out.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Brodsworth, South Yorkshire

The privy corner of the garden

It’s not long since we had a lavatory on the blog, but these matters have been in the news recently. English Heritage have just restored a garden privy at Brodsworth Hall, Yorkshire, one of their country houses. Brodsworth is a grand Victorian building that has a place in my affections because the architect was a man called Philip Wilkinson, an otherwise little known figure. I don’t know who designed this privy, though, a brick structure that has been submerged in ivy for years but has now been given a new lease of life by English Heritage.

The simple brick building now has a fine pergola-style porch with a lovely concave roof. Inside the wooden seat seems to be ready and waiting. The big house had flush lavatories by the time this privy was put up in 1864, but the owners, the Thelluson daily, clearly felt the need for a little extra convenience in the garden. They clearly valued their garden and spent plenty of time there. The little building is sheltered by a yew hedge and is now surrounded by sweet-smelling plants – roses, orange blossom and so on – to mask any unpleasant odours. 

This privy was for the use of the family and guests. The only time the servants went in (officially that is) was to clean it and empty the bucket.  No doubt the garden benefitted from what was collected. Buckets of congratulations to English Heritage for preserving this special little building.

- - - - -

The photograph is from the English Heritage website and is presumably Copyright © English Heritage 2017

For more photographs, visit EH’s website here.

Monday, May 8, 2017

Farmcote, Gloucestershire

Ancient peace

Modern life, even here in the country, involves a lot of noise. Traffic, tractors, chainsaws, guns, the sounds of restoration, the crashes and bangs gleefully made by the people (known as the ‘clanky men’ in our house) who collect the glass bottles we put out for recycling. It’s part of life, and I accept it for what it is – and put on noise-cancelling headphones, or head for the hills. If it’s the hills, you will not be surprised to learn that it’s often some tranquil architectural setting where I end up. Often a church. Churches have more uses than the purely or conventionally religious ones. Churches: places to be quiet in and maybe even to ‘grow wise in’ (Philip Larkin*). Or graveyards: ‘Personally I have no bone to pick with graveyards’ (Samuel Beckett, naturally†). I have posted before about a couple of local favourites, Elkstone, a cherished Norman building, and Farmcote, partly Saxon, partly Tudor. Both attract me back, partly for the architecture, partly for the quiet.
Going back, there is always something different to see or learn. At Farmcote, talking to a local resident, I learned that the unassuming building in my second photograph started life as one of the farm buildings of the great Cistercian abbey of Hailes, just over the hill from here; a granary I think. It shouldn’t be a surprise. All over these hills the Cistercians must have run sheep and grown crops. Any building of great age in an outlying farm around here might have some medieval origin involving the monks. Their abbey may be in ruins, but their presence is still palpable, as palpable as that of the sheep, still ubiquitous on the Cotswolds, who break the rural silence with that gentle baaing noise of their own.

* ‘Church Going’
† Oh, it is mean not to quote just a little more: ‘Personally I have no bone to pick with graveyards, I take the air there willingly, perhaps more willingly than elsewhere, when take the air I must.’ Samuel Beckett, First Love, with an unfailing eye, and nose, on the word ‘must’.

Friday, May 5, 2017

Castle Cary, Somerset

Round house

Regular readers will have noticed my fascination with lock-ups, those small town or village prisons, generally used to hold miscreants temporarily – either until they sober up or until they can be brought before a magistrate. I suppose what particularly interests me about those small structures is the various ingenious ways in which they are roofed, often with stone in order to make this part of the building as strong and secure as the walls. The roof here is shaped like a bell (or like some kinds of military helmet), and so adds a touch of distinction to the square behind the town hall, where this lock-up has stood since 1779.
As usual with this kind of building there are no windows – just small grilles in the lower section of the roof to provide ventilation. It must be dark inside (in some places the lock-up is known as the ‘blind house’, from the lack of fenestration) and uncomfortable. But the round shape, unusual roof, and ball finial give it a touch of visual distinction, so that it acts as a better visual focus from outside than many a larger prison. 

- - - - -

A friend asks: What’s the reason for all the different shapes that lock-ups seem to have? I think it all starts with the roof. To be really secure, a lock-up needs something stronger than an ordinary roof of wooden rafters and ceramic tiles – any miscreant can push them off and escape. So the tradition began of building these little prisons with solid stone roofs, bonded together with mortar like the walls. There are various ways of making a stone roof, including building a dome, which can be round or octagonal, or constructing a pyramid. And of course these unusual roofs require support from the walls, hence the tendency for lock-ups to be circular, or eight-sided, or even pyramidal in shape.

Monday, May 1, 2017

Bosbury, Herefordshire

Tower power

The first thing you notice on approaching Holy Trinity, Bosbury, is the tower. There’s nothing unusual in that except that this tower is detached from the main body of the church. There are quite a few detached towers in Herefordshire,* and it’s sometimes said that the reason for their detachment is that they were built as defensive structures, in case of incursions from over the Welsh border. 

It’s difficult to say if that’s true. In the case of Bosbury, the tower’s walls are very thick and its windows very small – noticeably smaller than many windows of the 13th century, when the tower was built. These are useful attributes for a defensive structure. Against that, there’s an argument that towers are not very effective for defence, as their internal floors make them vulnerable to attack by one of the most widespread medieval weapons – fire; although in this case the small windows make the building hard to attack in this way.

Clearly, not every detached church tower in Herefordshire was for defence. The tower at Pembridge is made mainly of wood, and that at Yarpole has a wooden upper section: they are bell towers, pure and simple. This one at Bosbury and other similar stone towers in the area seem different, though whether built for defensive purposes, to express a preference for particularly chunky architecture, or for some other reason, is difficult to say.

- - - - -

*Pevsner lists seven detached Herefordshire towers and another four that were originally free-standing but later joined to the building they serve. I have previously blogged about the one at Richard’s Castle.