Sunday, December 24, 2017

South Newington, Oxfordshire

Christmas already

So it’s Christmas already. Since the last one I’ve written a book, Phantom Architecture (see right-hand column), done various editorial odd jobs, grubbed around several bits of England, visited the Czech Republic again, and posted about one hundred times on this blog. That’s (nearly!) enough from me for this year, then. So here’s an almost seasonal Madonna and Child, one of the wall paintings in the church of St Peter ad Vincula, South Newington, Oxfordshire.

Beneath an ornate cusped and crocketed 14th-century painted ogee arch, the Christ-Child reaches towards his mother with one hand while the other holds an apple. There’s just enough left of the painting to give one a sense of the artist’s strong line, his expressive but bony way with hands and fingers, his careful approach to drapery, his love of curvaceous ornament (both architectural and foliate), and what were probably his strong colours. The fragmentary nature of what’s left makes it, as so often with medieval English wall paintings, more moving not less.

I offer the image to my readers, with very best wishes for Christmas and the New Year.

Thursday, December 21, 2017

Shaftesbury Avenue, London

Hats off, here they come…

London’s Shaftesbury Avenue is one of the best known streets in the capital – the part between Piccadilly Circus and Cambridge Circus, which is full of theatres, is in the heart of tourist London. But the northern part, north of Cambridge Circus and bordering the Covent Garden area is less well known. If you’re around there, I’d suggest wandering towards the northern end, and having a look at the Covent Garden Odeon, a large Art Deco building that started life as the Saville Theatre in 1931.  

The reason I think this building is particularly worth a look is the long frieze that stretches across the facade. It’s the work of the sculptor Gilbert Bayes* and depicts theatre through the ages, with the ancient Greeks and Romans at one end and the twentieth century at the other. ‘Theatre’ is interpreted loosely (spectacle might be a better term), with Roman gladiators and Greek Bacchantes included and the very English sight of Punch and Judy also putting in an appearance.

I’ve chosen two sections of the panel.§ The first shows some wonderful horses from the Roman section and a group of fetching Bacchantes (plus, presumably, one of Bacchus’ pards) on the right. The naked Bacchantes have a period, Art Deco look, with their short hair and slim bodies. One can feel Bayes having fun with all these subjects, relishing the chance to depict the naked female form and the opportunity to include animals.
The second panel includes another group of women: the Bacchantes have become tamed, as it were, as 1920s dancers, with clingy dresses and feathered headdresses – one can imagine them coming down the staircase behind Imelda Staunton in the wonderful current National Theatre production of Stephen Sondheim’s Follies. To their left are a bunch of ‘Romantics’ from the 19th century including a variety of actors in period costumes. Further left still is a Punch and Judy booth in which Punch looks down at a lifeless puppet – presumably the unfortunate Judy – while the dog Toby sits on the ground beneath; Punch and Judy were famously ‘born’ a few hundred yards southwest of here, in the heart of Covent Garden.†

There’s much to admire in these fine panels, and in some roundels by Bayes set further up on the building. I’d encourage anyone walking along the northern part of Shaftesbury Avenue to look up at the relief and take it in. Although the frieze is very large, many passers-by miss it when looking to see what films are playing, rather as people quite understandably miss the details above shop fronts when looking in shop windows. It’s another example of the use of sculpture to give interest to an otherwise rather large and lumpish 1930s theatre facade – something I’ve noticed on early Odeons and other cinemas several times before. More modern corporations should consider giving space to the visual arts in this way. ¶

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* Bayes also did the panels showing ‘merfiremen’ adorning the London Fire Brigade Building on Albert Embankment. 

§ More detail in each photograph will be revealed if you click on the image.

† The first written account of a Punch and Judy show was a record of a performance in Covent Garden. Punch’s ‘birthday’ is regularly celebrated in May in St Paul’s churchyard, when the massed ranked of the ‘professors’’ booths fill the greensward and the walls echo to the sound of beswazzled voices.

¶ There are more pictures of the frieze on the Ornamental Passions blog, here.

Monday, December 18, 2017

Hoxton, London

Out of dust…

Drifting around the area north of Old Street the other day I was impressed by how spruced up the area was: quite different from the interesting but run-down district I remembered from when I occasionally crossed it in – when could it have been – ah, yes, the 1980s. Of course, I knew how it had changed, how the old Hoxtonites and young artists of the 1980s had in part given way to an influx of entertainment venues and hi-tech industries, and how some buildings had been converted to upmarket flats. In the process quite a bit of the architecture has been spruced up, but the arts have not gone away: witness this building, the home of the National Centre of Circus Arts.

That’s not all it is. This appealing bit of reed brick and terracotta started life in 1896 as the Shoreditch Electric Light Station and Refuse Destructor. Its job was to burn rubbish to produce steam that was used to drive turbines and generate electricity. The terracotta panels above the entrance tell this story – the name under the shallow arch reminds us that the building was erected by the Vestry of St Leonard, Shoreditch, the forerunner of the local council; above that is the date, 1896, in large ornate numerals; higher still is the motto: ‘E Pulvere, Lux et Vis’: from dust, light and life.
This was early in the history of electric lighting, but not the very beginning. London’s Electric Avenue, Brixton, was the first street in the country to be lit electrically, in 1880. Deptford Power Station, the heart of the UK’s first AC power system, opened in 1891. But the Shoreditch building was the first to combine the functions of refuse disposal and power generation in this way made the Shoreditch Vestry a pioneer; in the next 8 years another 15 (out of 28) Metropolitan local authorities were supplying electricity – mainly for street lighting intitially. Shoreditch also led the way in other fields, opening a workers’ institute across the square from this building and putting up much social housing.

The generating station was due to be phased out in 1940, but was retained as a back-up during the Blitz and immediately post-war. The building became a circus centre in the 1990s and its combination of large internal spaces (the former combustion chamber and generating chamber) together with smaller rooms that can be used as studios, makes it a successful venue, both for circus training and for special events. Light and life continue to illuminate the streets of revamped and scrubbed-up Shoreditch.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Combrook, Warwickshire

A well for all seasons?

Before leaving Combrook, the parish church of which featured in my previous post, I want to share this less obvious feature of the village. It’s one of two well heads, built around the same time as the church and I’d guess designed by the same architect, John Gibson. It has an ogee arch, the double-curved design that is characteristic of the 14th-century Gothic that inspired the church’s west front, and if you look very closely at this opening you can see that it’s decorated with ballflowers, another 14th-century motif.

I take this well head to be more evidence of the care that the landlord was bestowing on this village in the 19th century. The church, two well heads, the former village school (it’s now the village hall) and several of the houses were built or rebuilt in this period. Along with the houses, the water supply was the most important facility of all, and giving the well this kind of ornate gable in white lias and limestone (complete with coat of arms, now worn away) is an indication of that care. One hopes that there was also originally some sort of cover, to keep out inquisitive infants and falling leaves so that it could indeed be a well for all seasons.

Monday, December 11, 2017

Combrook, Warwickshire


Thoughts of St Augustine, Kilburn, were still in my mind recently when I visited Combrook, a village in Warwickshire, not far from the Fosse Way. Combrook was an estate village of Compton Verney and seems to have had a lot of attention paid to it in the mid-19th century, when a number of cottages were built or rebuilt, a school was erected, and the church given a new nave. The architect of the church was John Gibson, who was also at work making alterations to the great house of Compton Verney in the early 1860s. Gibson gave the church a striking west front, a visual highlight in the centre of the village.

The style of this front is Gibson’s very ornate version of what the Victorians often called ‘Middle Pointed’, that’s to say the phase of Gothic fashionable in the first half of the 14th century. Elaborate window tracery, naturalistic carving, and ogee arches are typical features. However, this frontage is hardly typical. It’s a Victorian throwing everything at a small church – very fancy tracery (‘overcusped’, says Pevsner), unusual shapes in the form of a rose window and a pair of ‘circular triangles’, a very ornately carved ogee doorway, the small overhanging turret with its spirelet, and outward-leaning angels flanking both the turret and the doorway.
This is all very impressive in a slightly gawky way, and the oddity continues with the treatment of the aisle roofs, which consist of multiple gables rather than a single lean-to, a design that produces an odd junction between the downward-sweeping angle of the west front and the gables that stick out behind it. Gibson’s work here is a little like that of the Victorian ‘rogue architects’ such as S S Teulon – inventive, ornamental, unafraid to be different from the accepted Gothic models – but without Teulon’s polychrome dazzle or his skill in handling three-dimensional forms.† For all this, the overall effect is pleasant, rather like a large garden ornament, and an admirable focal point for this attractive village. 

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* This is the phrase used by the architect and writer Harry Goodhart-Rendel to describe an adventurous and sometimes outré group of Victorian church architects. For my post on a church by Teulon, look here.

† Gibson’s best known church, the ‘marble church’ at Bodelwyddan, in the lower Vale of Clwyd, also has very elaborate tracery and carving, but is more conventionally roofed and massed. Gibson is most famous for designing banks, but was clearly much more versatile than this suggests.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Kilburn, London

Pearson’s triumph

I was reminded the other day by an article by Gavin Stamp in Apollo that this year marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of the Victorian architect John Loughborough Pearson.* I’ve been a fan of Pearson since the 1990s, when I got to know his lovely early church of St Peter, Vauxhall. Gavin Stamp rates the architect highly too, although he rightly insists that Pearson was sometimes too eager to rebuild to his own design when restoring ancient buildings.†

Pearson’s masterpiece is the church of St Augustine, Kilburn, known to some by the nickname ‘the Cathedral of North London’. From the outside it has a fine soaring spire, but it’s the interior that really sets this building apart. I’d single out three aspects of it that work especially well.

The first is the handling of space. It’s tall, and the large windows at gallery level make it also very light. It’s also broad, because there are double aisles, meaning that there is plenty of room for a large congregation and also, no doubt, for elaborate processions. The depth of those aisles and of the gallery above them is due to the way they contain concealed internal buttresses, a feature that Pearson adapted from the great southern French cathedral of Albi.

Those buttresses are the key to the second outstanding feature of this church, the stone vaulting that they support. Pearson was very good at vaulting and the vaults dominate the interior of St Augustine’s. The shafts from which the vaults spring begin at floor level, leading the eye up from the rather low arcades, past the much taller galleries, to the ceiling itself. This consists of a simple quadripartite vault with slender ribs, whose pale stone contrasts with the darker brick of the infilling. The vault is continuous, covering both nave and chancel, which gives the space unity and also leads the eye eastwards, towards the altar, as well as upwards.
St Augustine, Kilburn, chancel

But if our gaze is led east and up, it also pauses along the way because of the third remarkable thing about this interior: the decoration. There is a lot of it, too much even to list here, from the paintings depicting miracles along the gallery fronts (done by Clayton and Bell, who were also responsible for the stained glass) to the collection of sculpture (the Crucifixion, Resurrection, apostles, saints, angels) in the chancel.¶ Everything exemplifies the Victorian view of church building outlined in William Whyte’s book reviewed in my previous post: that a church should contain a collection of symbols that can be read and that it should move the visitor and worshipper. It certainly moves me.

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* I was pleased that Stamp also singles out one of Pearson’s smaller churches, the one at Daylesford, Gloucestershire, another favourite of mine.

† Pearson was by no means unique in this, of course, but his treatment of the north transept of Westminster Abbey is a particularly glaring example of a Victorian redesign where replacement would have been both possible and appropriate. See Stamp’s piece for more detail.

¶ All this is a far cry from the temporary corrugated iron church that was built for the congregation to use while St Augustine’s was being built, the subject of an earlier post here.

Monday, December 4, 2017

Churches unlocked

William Whyte, Unlocking the Church: The lost secrets of Victorian sacred space
Published by Oxford University Press

Here’s the last of my Christmas book reviews: an illuminating study of 19th-century church buildings that’s also a good read…

William Whyte’s new book offers a revealing way of looking at Victorian churches, one that highlights neither the battle between architectural styles nor the distinction between ‘high’ and ‘low’ church. Whyte instead concentrates on the ways the Victorians understood and experienced church buildings, stressing in particular two key ideas – the church as a symbolic building that can be ‘read’ and the idea that church architecture can shape people’s emotions. Both of these themes are given a new emphasis in the 19th century and they cross theological boundaries: they are expressed by High churchmen and Evangelicals, by Catholics, and even by nonconformists.

These ideas are in sharp contrast to those of the Georgian period, in which churches lacked rich symbolic content. But, as Whyte shows, they predate the influence of the Cambridge Ecclesiologists and the Oxford Movement, which were in other ways so influential on the Victorian church. They go a long way to explain Victorian architectural preferences, and underpin changes in the way churches were lit, their seating arrangements, and such things as the use of flowers to decorate churches. And they influenced the way churches were used, not just in the increased number of church services, but also the way in which churchyards were reclaimed as sacred spaces, the development of church parades and processions, the movement to keep churches unlocked during the week, and even the design of buildings such as parsonages and schools.

The people behind all this are central to the story. Whyte dwells not only on clergymen and architects, but also on lay patrons and, importantly, antiquaries. These were the people who wrote about church architecture, who interpreted it for the public, and who regularly insisted on its symbolic content – not least in the thousands of church guidebooks that were written in the 19th century. We are the heirs of these people, not just because we still use and visit Victorian churches (and, of course, churches restored by the Victorians) but also because we inherit these notions of symbolism and of architecture that moves us. If we want to preserve Victorian churches or their fittings, it is often because they move us, or because they are powerfully symbolic.*

Unlocking the Church is a necessary corrective to the tendency to look at Victorian churches in purely architectural terms. If we cannot quite see Victorian buildings as the Victorians saw them, the book helps get much nearer that elusive ideal.

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*Ironically, the fact that buildings have this power is even behind reorderings that attempt to do away with Victorian church fittings (if buildings did not have such a powerful effect, ‘modernizers’ would not take so much trouble to try to reorder them), as Whyte points out.

Friday, December 1, 2017

Plans and people

Richard Rogers with Richard Brown, A Place for All People
Published by Canongate Books

My next pre-Christmas review is an account of life, works, and beliefs by one of our foremost architects...

We tend to think of famous architects in terms of their most high-profile projects. Richard Rogers, one of the pre-eminent architects of his generation, brings to mind instantly major buildings like the Pompidou Centre in Paris and the Lloyd’s Building in London. But there is much more to him than that, and this book – part memoir, part architectural inside story, part manifesto – tells the stories not just of these but also of many less well known designs, from his early houses to more recent social housing projects. All these have fascinating aspects, and it’s one of the pleasures of reading this book to discover more about familiar and unfamiliar buildings alike – what drove the designs, the thinking behind them, how they got built.

The book is revealing, as one would expect, on the architect’s formative experiences.His closeness to Italy is key – his Italian parents and cousin, the architect Ernesto Rogers, his admiration of Italian piazzas, his love of Florence, his work with Renzo Piano. There is also the formative influence of innovative architects in Britain, such as Peter Cook and Cedric Price, and in America, where his first experience of New York and his time at Yale are described. But history and historic architecture are important too, whether it’s the achingly beautiful piazza in Siena or the work of great Victorian engineers like Brunel or Paxton.

Then there’s the work. Rogers’ account of the various crises involved in getting the Pompidou Centre designed and built, and the controversies that surrounded Lloyd’s, are vividly told: it’s worth reading the book for these alone. A major theme is the development of adaptable buildings, and of lightweight structures, from the early Reliance Controls building near Swindon to the Millennium Dome, aka O2.

Another important leitmotif is public space. Rogers loves lively public spaces, especially those Italian squares. He not only promotes public space when he can, but actively encourages it and builds it into his plans – the piazza next to the Pompidou Centre is a key part of the design and Rogers and Piano’s was the only scheme for the site that provided this facility. He is exercised, quite rightly I think, by the poor provision of public space in some British cities and the erosion of this space as it gets sold off to private owners who let the public in on their own conditions. And he is particularly engaged by the spaces in capital cities. He believes that every Parliament should have a public space next to it for people to demonstrate ion, and finds it an embarrassment that Britain’s government sought to banish demonstrators from London’s Parliament Square.

A Place for All People, this book is called, and people are at its heart. Star that he is, Rogers is constantly at pains to credit his partners, co-designers, and engineers (he’s worked with some of the best of those), and to build up a picture of some of the ways in which a large architectural practice works. People’s importance to him is not just about socialising in the River Café or enjoying big family get-togethers in his enviable London house. People are at the core of what he does and understanding that offers a way of understanding Rogers and his remarkable buildings.