Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Buildings of nonconformity

Christopher Wakeling, Chapels of England: Buildings of Protestant nonconformity
Published by Historic England

The next of my short series of pre-Christmas reviews is of a book that plugs a major gap in English architectural history: a general account of Protestant chapels and meeting houses...

The architecture of England’s Protestant churches (from Methodists to Unitarians, Baptists to Quakers) has been a difficult subject to get to grips with. There has been plenty of research (the old Royal Commission on Historic Monuments saw to that) but there is such diversity of denominations and architectural approaches that it is hard to see patterns or get a sense of overall development. In addition, nonconformist churches, unlike so many Anglican churches, are not often open, so casual visitors rarely get inside them.

Christopher Wakeling’s new book does much to remedy this situation, giving a clear, wide-ranging, and nuanced account of dissenting architecture in England, from the beginnings to today. The book’s approach is chronological, and it shows that, from the very beginnings it was hard to generalise. The diversity is there from nonconformity’s roots in the 17th century, when one found some groups worshipping in former Catholic churches (dissolved monasteries and priories, for example; even Exeter Cathedral was divided in two and shared between Presbyterians and Independents) and others building simple, often domestic-looking places of worship for themselves.

In the period from the passing of the Toleration Act in 1689 to the mid-18th century, chapels start to become more architecturally assured, impressive, and distinctive. Given the general importance of the Bible and the sermon in nonconformity, it’s not surprising that Wakeling finds buildings influenced by the Georgian ‘preaching boxes’ of the Church of England. But his book also shows that the dissenters were much more adventurous with plan forms, especially towards the mid-18th century as the influence of preachers like John Wesley took hold – Chapels of England singles out some impressive octagonal and oval buildings.

Methodism’s great age of the late-18th and early-19th century has its own chapter, chronicling a time when rising populations and vigorous preaching led to many new chapels, including some outstanding large ones. Growth was especially strong in the Regency and early Victorian periods, by which time the first specialist architects of chapels, men like William Jenkins, James Fenton, and James Simpson, had emerged. Wakeling notes a variety of designs, with a trend towards Greek revival yielding in part to the rise of Gothic designs (the great classifier of Gothic styles, Thomas Rickman, was a Quaker). But the author is at pains to stress that it was not simply a question of the Gothic fashion taking over in the Victorian period: the picture was always one of stylistic diversity, within denominations and across the whole field. 

And so the story continues through the period of continued renewal in the later 19th century, when one could find monster Classical town chapels, tiny Gothic wayside chapels, and Gothic town chapels that looked like Medieval churches being erected at the same time. By the end of the century an Arts and Crafts influenced style had been added to the mix, especially in suburbs and Garden Cities. By the time of World War I, it was evident that many of these structures were major buildings, and nonconformist architecture was being taken seriously in books like Joseph Crouch’s Puritanism and Art

Christopher Wakeling’s fine book, lavishly illustrated, clearly written, and underpinned by deep research, brings the story up to date, with a good selection of 20th-century chapels in styles from expressionistic Gothic to modernist. It does an excellent job of bringing all these buildings and the religious motivation for constructing them to life, illustrating their best points, and delineating some sort of pattern to the complex story of nonconformist architecture, a story that is also one of heterodoxy and variety.

Saturday, November 25, 2017

Use and ornament

Roger White, Cottages Ornés: The charms of the simple life
Published by Yale University Press

As the Christmas period approaches, I’m reviewing a small clutch of recent books that I’ve enjoyed and that might give pleasure to readers interested in architecture. First, a book on a kind of house that stands out in landscape and villagescape: the cottage orné

The ornamental cottage – a small rural dwelling made more visually pleasing than the standard worker’s dwelling by means of various decorative embellishments – is one of the most charming phenomena of the 18th and 19th centuries. It has found an enthusiastic and well informed chronicler in Roger White, who begins his survey investigating the roots of the genre in mid-18th century rustic estate buildings before exploring the fashion at the beginning of the 19th century for housing rural workers in picturesque cottages with thatched roofs partly held up with rustic poles, verandahs, bits of timber-framing, fancy bargeboards, and other ornamental features.

From here he moves on to the larger, still more ornate and more varied middle-class cottages that were built in the Regency and Victorian periods, and the cottages enjoyed by the aristocracy and even the royal family. The range covered here is immense, from buildings based on designs in pattern books to glorious one-offs. Among the latter, the expected examples are here – the wonderful A La Ronde in Devon, Plas Newydd at Llangollen, the Queen’s Cottage at Kew, the Royal Lodge at Windsor. But it’s the sheer scope and variety of the lesser known examples that impresses, and the account takes in a broad geographical sweep too, with chapters on cottages ornés on Britain’s ‘Celtic fringes’, in mainland Europe, and further further afield.

We get glimpses of the owners of these places – a smattering of vicars and retired sea captains, unconventional bankers, pairs of spinster ladies like the creators of A La Ronde and several other cottages ornés. We discover the specific areas of Britain especially rich in this widespread architectural type – the Isle of Wight, Sidmouth, the Lake District. We take in a specific, Picturesque, view of the pattern book tradition, in which bargeboards and Tudoresque chimneys are more important than the Classical orders. And we luxuriate in a variety of images (both photographs and prints) of such things as shell rooms, stump houses, rustic masonry, and walls lined with quatrefoil windows.

People are apt to think that there’s something rather frivolous about cottages ornés.  But Regency landowners were quite serious about housing their workers in attractive houses so that they would be happy and more inclined to work hard, and theorists of the Picturesque were serious about the life-enhancing importance of a good view. In any case, one little regarded purpose of architecture is to entertain: Cottages Ornés shows that this is not an ignoble aim, and both the aim and book are worth celebrating.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Uffington, Lincolnshire

Tame and wild

I’d probably not normally have given the two lodges outside the village of Uffington, near Stamford, a very long glance. As we passed, we wondered what house might lay behind them and I thought they might be early-19th century. Then suddenly, simultaneously, two pairs of eyes met two pairs of eyes.’Look! Wild men!’ we cried, seeing the carvings on top of the rusticated gate piers. Wild men, men of the woods, wodewose – grisly of hair and beard, they have various names and many incarnations, but are unusual adornments for a pair of gates at the entrance to a country house.§ They seemed worth another look, so I began to search for somewhere to pull in.

The parking place turned out to be next to a pub, the Bertie Arms, and I realised the significance of the carvings on the gate piers. ‘Of course,’ I said. ‘Bertie wild men.’ The remark brought an interrogative stare from the Resident Wise Woman. ‘The Bertie family,’ I said. ‘They have a wild man on their coat of arms.’* I knew about Bertie wild men because there is one on one of their family tombs in the church in Spilsby, also in Lincolnshire, near where I was born – although what we were actually looking at were Saracens – see the note* below.
Looking the place up afterwards, I learned that Uffington House had been built for Charles Bertie, 2nd Earl of Lindsey in the 1680s and was destroyed in a fire in 1904. It was one of those late-17th century houses with rows of sash windows, a hipped roof, dormers and a central pediment.† Now this gateway and some other gate piers remind passers-by of the house’s presence and these very Classical, civilised-looking lodges make a memorable contrast with the splendid, vigorously carved heads atop the piers who, making a welcome change from the usual urns, stare wide-eyed across the fields towards Bourne, Spalding, and the endless fens.

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§ Wild men are everywhere in myth, literature, and heraldry. Perhaps Enkidu in the Epic of Gilgamesh, the most ancient of all surviving epics, is the first wild man; they are still around in the works of Tolkien and Ted Hughes. They occur on coats of arms from the low countries to Central Europe, and Antwerp has a wild man and a wild woman as supporters of their arms. The Danish royal arms has wild men supporters and when the Danes began to rule Greece, the wild men became figures representing their Classical cousin Herakles.

* There were no wild men on the pub sign, though, presumably because the wild man on the coat of arms is one of the supporters, and the pub sign did not show these. A reader has pointed out that a wild man does indeed appear as a supporter on the Bertie coat of arms; what is on the gate piers is actually their crest (the symbol on the top of the arms), which is a crowned saracen's head.

† Uffington was one of the hundreds of houses included in the famous 1974 V&A exhibition The Destruction of the Country House.

Saturday, November 18, 2017

Stanway, Gloucestershire

In I go? 

In spite of the fact that it has a handful of houses and a charming but over-restored church, the Cotswold village of Stanway is one of the richest sources of architectural enjoyment for miles around. Glorious Stanway House, J M Barrie’s wooden cricket pavilion, my favourite war memorial, and a length of churchyard wall of more than usual antiquarian interest are just a few of the highlights.* Here’s another, and one of the best: the gatehouse to Stanway House.

This 17th-century stunner, probably dating to the 1630s, is built in the rich ashlar, golden verging on orange, of the rest of the village. It displays that blend of old and new styles that appears so often in the early-17th century – Tudorish bay windows, ornate shaped gables, and a more Stuart-looking Classical door surround; the door opening itself has another Tudorish feature, the flattened four-centred arch, and above it are Tudor-looking roses in the frieze.

The finials to the gables are scallop shells, which also appear elsewhere on the building – on the wall above the twin columns that flank the doorway, for example. These shells are the badge of the Tracy family, who were leasing the big house from Tewkesbury Abbey at the time of the dissolution of the monasteries and bought it when the abbey closed.

This gatehouse has enough of the Classical about it to have been attributed to the architect Inigo Jones in the past. However these days historians, aware of the very severe and correct Classicism of Jones’s designs for the Banqueting House in Whitehall and the Queen’s House in Greenwich, are apt to reject this attribution.† A more likely designer, says Pevsner, is Timothy Strong, who worked on the Canterbury Quad at St John’s College, Oxford. Whoever did the design, the gatehouse beautifully enhances the corner where it stands, its stone glowing in the winter sun.

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* I am fortunate to live only a few miles from Stanway. This, as well as the sheer interest of the place, accounts for its appearance on this blog five or six times. No apology, I think, is necessary.

† Fifty years ago, there was a tendency to attribute every other 17th-century building to Jones. Now scholars are much more circumspect.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Farmington, Gloucestershire

England and New England

Farmington’s lovely octagonal stone bus shelter, featured in my previous post, has a still more elaborate counterpart on the village green: the pump house. This is another eight-sided structure with a complex tiled roof topped with a little lantern feature with an ogee cupola. This architectural jeu d’esprit was built as a memorial to Edmund Waller, the lord of the manor, who died in 1898. The roof was originally thatched, but the thatch – presumably in need of replacement by the mid-1930s – was replaced with Cotswold stone tiles in 1935. This work was paid for by the people of Farmington Connecticut, to commemorate their state’s 300th birthday.

The Cotswold stone tiles look just as good as thatch on the roof, and are perfectly in keeping with the architecture of the village, making the pump house a double memorial, to Waller and to the links between England and North America. The reroofing was a generous gesture by the people of the American Farmington, and as the leaves turn yellow and orange, this English scene might well remind us of the autumnal colours of New England. Local distinctiveness can also have a global dimension.

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Farmington, Gloucestershire


I think I have mentioned before in a blog post that I once went to a talk by Sue Clifford, one of the authors of the excellent book England in Particular. She illustrated the concept of local distinctiveness with a series of photographs of bus shelters built of different, local materials – it might have been cob and thatch in Dorset, brick and tile in Sussex, limestone in the Cotswolds, that sort of thing. It was a good way of making the point because it showed how even the most modest building could be distinctive and could exemplify local geology and local cultural traditions.

There are, indeed, plenty of limestone bus shelters in Gloucestershire, with walls and roofs of Cotswold stone. But there are few as memorable as this one, a perfect octagon with a neat gable over the entrance in Farmington, a village just off the A40 between Cheltenham and Oxford. Making a building octagonal requires special effort, of course, in both walls and roof. The builders who took this challenge on did so in 1951, to create a small building to mark the Festival of Britain.

This bus shelter must have been very well used in the 1950s and 1960s, when rates of car ownership were still quite low. Today, most households here probably have at least one car and there are few local buses – all I could find after a quick look online were buses serving local schools during term time. But there’s still shelter here for anyone who needs it, and an attractive bit of Cotswold architecture for anyone passing, in car, by bus, or on foot, to admire.

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Stand by for another post on a nearby octagonal building.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Tenbury Wells, Worcestershire

The Tenbury oval

When I began this blog some ten years ago, the very first building I featured was the extraordinary spa at Tenbury Wells in Worcestershire. When I chose it to start me off, I had some inkling that it provided the kind of qualities – architectural originality and quirkiness, strong colour, striking form, unusual materials, and the fact of being little known – that might be ones I’d be celebrating often in the posts to come, and so it has proved. I had another inkling, that at some point I should return to Tenbury Wells and share another of the town’s remarkable buildings, the Market House, also known as the Round Market, which shares several of these qualities.

So here it is. As with the spa building, it’s quite unlike what we’d expect. Victorian market halls, it’s true, do sometimes use striking brickwork to help them stand out. But you’d have to go a long way to find another quite like this, a ‘round market’ that’s actually oval in shape, with walls of a mix of red and blue brickwork, and a roof, set on brackets, that slopes up to a ventilation feature at the top. It’s a building, what’s more, that uses a delicate form of Decorated Gothic in its window tracery, which combines trefoils, quatrefoils, cusps and arches within a series of rectangular frames.

This original design of 1858 was the work of James Cranston, who was also (surprise, surprise) the architect of the spa building. He seems to have been a Birmingham man who did a lot of work in Worcestershire and Herefordshire (including the usual Victorian architect’s staple diet of schools and church restorations).* In Tenbury, he was given a chance to shine, and took that chance with considerable flair. The town got a building that still, nearly 160 years after it was built, is being used for buying and selling: a good record in these times of out-of-town and online retailing and a tribute to those who have kept it going and to its original architect, unsung but well worth celebrating. 

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*If he’s the architect I think he is, he had a son of the same name who played cricket for Gloucestershire under W G Grace and once made it into the England team to play against Australia.

Saturday, November 4, 2017

Tixover, Rutland

A church, a meal, a view   

Shared experiences, and the common frames of reference that they create, are among the boons of friendship. Sharing particular memories – of an event that happened long ago, a book, a piece of music, a place – with someone else strengthens social bonds and makes vivid recollections brighter still. There are times when the merest allusion can click the connection firmly in place. Mentioning to the right person one surname from childhood, a single line from a book, a specific image from a description, can do it.

Something like this happened chez my friend Mr A the other day. ‘Where haven’t you been, round here?’ he asked, wondering what architectural delights, in his neck of the woods, he could introduce me to. I replied: ‘You know that bit in The Shell Guide of Rutland where the author, W G Hoskins, says that the churchyard at Tixover is a good place for a doze? Well, I’ve not been there.’* Mr A is the only person I know who would respond to this allusion with instant recognition and approval, so off we went to Uppingham, to buy food, including an excellent pork pie from Culpin and Son,† and made our way through the October sunshine to Tixover.

It is obviously one of those villages that relocated centuries ago, leaving the church isolated and the few houses along a lane a few fields away. So when you arrive in the village you pick up the key to the church from a farmhouse and drive on, through a farmyard, along a track, and across a field. You come to a halt in front of a small church with a squat Norman tower and a nave and aisles with rectangular, Tudor-looking windows.‡ There’s no noise apart from a distant mechanical whine¶ that could be an aeroplane but may also be some sort of farm machinery; other than that nothing, apart from an intermittent, faint tapping coming from one of the trees, as if of a woodpecker who couldn’t be bothered to peck really hard. The ideal setting for an alfresco meal of pork pie, samosas, and ginger beer in the churchyard.

Inside the church we enjoy medieval carved capitals of various dates, a Jacobean monument, and the pattern of quatrefoil windows projected by sunlight on to the walls. And some interesting 17th-century stained glass panels, which we admire and scratch our heads over – they look imported from elsewhere.§ Then the bonus – a view of the church from the other side of the River Welland. This view involves another trip across a field, this time on foot – to appreciate its setting among farmland, trees, tussocky grass, and water. It was all even better than I’d imagined from Hoskins’ description in the old Shell Guide that had set us on our way.

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*If it seems to you eccentric of two grown men to be reading an old guidebook to England’s smallest county, think again. The Shell Guide to Rutland, being by the great landscape historian W G Hoskins is very well informed and well written. Rutland has changed less than most English counties in the last 50 years too, so the traveller can still learn much from this guidebook’s account of the place and its descriptions of its towns and villages.

†This butcher does produce seriously good pork pies. As someone born in Lincolnshire, a county that prides itself on its pork products (especially its outstanding sausages), I know what I am talking about.

‡ There’s a debate about these domestic-looking windows. They could be Tudor or Jacobean; they’re unlikely to be 13th-century, which was the date proposed by the antiquary Thomas Rickman.

¶ It’s rarely perfectly quiet in the English countryside. There’s usually someone not far away driving a tractor, using a chainsaw, or shooting pheasants: people at work, and a good thing too.

§ Pevsner says nothing about them.

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Hastings, East Sussex


I was delighted to learn last night* that the Royal Institute of British Architects has awarded its annual Stirling Prize for Britain’s best new bulding to Hastings Pier. Going back to 1872, the pier was a popular entertainment venue, but closed in 2008 after storm damage. In 2010 there was a fire, which nearly finished the pier off for good.† But the people of Hastings and its council rose to the considerable challenge of restoring and rebuilding the structure, raising money locally, enlisting the help of the Heritage Lottery Fund, and finding 3,000 shareholders to buy a stake in the project at £100 a share.

A RIBA design competition was won by dRMM Architects, who have masterminded the restoration and creative reimagining of the pier. The 19th-century structural ironwork, hidden below deck, has been painstakingly restored and strengthened. The surviving Victorian pavilion, one of two buildings on the pier, has been transformed into an open plan, glazed café-bar.

The vast pier deck has been set aside as an uninterrupted flexible expanse for large-scale concerts, markets and public gatherings. The new timber-clad visitor centre building in the centre of the pier has a viewing deck on its roof providing a dramatic space for visitors to experience epic views along the coast and across the English Channel. The architects have used timber throughout the project, much of it reclaimed from the original pier. The reclaimed timber has also been used to create the pier’s striking new furniture, manufactured locally as part of a local employment initiative. It is a cause for celebration Hastings once more has the pier it deserves and that the project’s quality has been recognised by RIBA.
Hastings Pier: new building with reclaimed timber cladding

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* I share this information in part for British readers who may have been distracted from it last night by Hallowe’en or by television (apparently there was the final of some sort of cake-baking programme on).
† I posted about the fire damage here.
Photographs James Robertshaw (top) and Franceso Montaguti (bottom)