Friday, December 28, 2018


An old favourite

I’m sometimes asked which is my favourite among England’s fine group of cathedrals. I start by giving an evasive answer that goes a bit like this: I like Durham for the majestic Norman architecture of its interior, York for its stained glass, Southwell for the dazzling carving in the chapter house, Ely for the unprecedented ‘lantern’ crossing, Gloucester for the vaulting, Wells for the west front, Salisbury for the spire. But I also add that more than any of these* my favourite is Lincoln cathedral. It has so much: a hilltop setting that makes is visible for miles,† three towers of surpassing elegance, a masterful interior in which different stones are combined effectively, good misericords, and excellent carving in the Angel Choir and elsewhere. And, well, I was born in Lincolnshire, and I just like it.

It’s one of those cathedrals that’s also linked in my mind to music, partly because I’ve had some cherished visits when the choir has been singing. The accidental experience of a musical performance can be one of the best kinds of musical experience there can be and I’ve been bowled over by impromptu organ recitals and orchestral rehearsals in Gloucester cathedral and a mesmerising piano trio in Oxford’s small secretive cathedral tucked away within the vast college of Christchurch. Lincoln is also linked in my mind with William Byrd, one of England’s greatest composers, who was organist and master of the choristers in the 1650s and 70s.

So I’m not going to go on about the magnificent architecture of Lincoln cathedral, which deserves a whole book to itself, never mind a blog post. I’ll limit my comments to saying simply, if you’ve not been: go; if you’ve been: go again. Without further ado, I’ll offer below some music by the great William Byrd, with my very best wishes to all my readers.

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*And more indeed that the sometimes surprising architecture of Canterbury, than Lichfield with its three graceful spires, than Peterborough with its dramatic front, than Norwich, than Winchester, than domed St Paul’s, all wonderful, but…

† Almost as good as the setting of Durham.

William Byrd, Ave Verum Corpus, sung by the Tallis Scholars 

Sunday, December 23, 2018

National Gallery, London

 Season’s Greetings  

It is time once more for me to say ‘Happy Christmas’ to my readers. I know no better architectural way of doing this than with the floor mosaic of a Christmas pudding, by Boris Anrep, from London’s National Gallery. Regular readers may feel that the Christmas pudding mosaic is an old friend, and I’ve written about these mosaics in an earlier post. So for now I’ll add one further panel from Anrep’s National Gallery mosaics, one that I’ve not posted before, to express the hope that your lives be filled with wonder this Christmas.

Friday, December 21, 2018


An Englishman, a Scotsman, and…

Having started a short series on clocks, I couldn’t end before sharing this one, the veritable grandfather of all shop clocks, on Baker’s Jeweller’s in Gloucester. It’s as if the ‘Practical Watchmaker’ of the shop sign had had enough of making miniature timepieces and decided to take his one chance to make something really big. As well as an ornate round clock face (above the figures and not included in my picture), he created a series of five figures, representing each of the four countries of the United Kingdom plus Old Father Time himself, who stands in the centre. These figures strike their bells at each quarter. They are usually known in the trade as ‘jacks’, although this masculine term seems inappropriate for the Welshwoman and the Irishwoman. Are the women ‘jills’? Whatever we call them, I call them impressive.

The person who carved them – someone who specialised in those highlanders outside tobacconists,* perhaps – went to town on this set. The details of the dress, the musical instruments (that harp, especially), and the characterful faces are all done with verve. Father Time has a magnificent Shavian beard and what look like well carved wings (though it’s hard to see them in the gloom); his scythe is at the ready behind his right shoulder, and he also has a symbolic hourglass. The hourglass, of course, is not strictly necessary with all the hard work that’s being done by Edwardian clockwork.

These figures have stood in their niche at the front of Baker’s shop, right in the middle of the city, since 1904. Their position in the niche means that as one approaches, they’re not all immediately visible, and discovering them up there is a process of steady revelation as one walks along the street. The arch also means that quite often the figures are in shadow, but the bright colours help them to stand out and their bell-ringing display still inspires amazement from tourists as it joins Gloucester’s other bells, ringing out from the cathedral and some of the city’s other medieval churches, across the shops and offices of the modern city.

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* I did a post about a fine tobacconist's highlander here.

Tuesday, December 18, 2018


An exercise in style

As a pendant to my previous post on a clock in Bridgwater, here’s another outstanding Art Deco clock. It’s in the centre of Gloucester and it’s something I’ve meant to post for ages. If you look at this next to the Bridgwater clock, a few similarities of design are obvious – the stepped shape of the case and the cross-braces on the bracket in particular. But whereas the Bridgwater clock has just the one step at each corner, this one has five. It also has some seriously twentieth century lettering: all sans serif, but with the shop name, Avant Garde, treated to striking graphic variations – a sloping vertical arrangement on the edge of the clock case, and a shrinking/expanding visual effect on the front. I remember that dual shrinking/expanding effect used quite widely when I was a boy – which was in the early 1960s, though I suspect that the examples I was looking at, on signs and bus destination blinds among other places, were survivors from the 1950s or even 1940s. All this tricksy lettering certainly gets our attention, and it’s complemented by a very clear clock dial. It’s altogether an effective advertisement for the no doubt stylish stylists who plied their scissors beneath.

Saturday, December 15, 2018

Bridgwater, Somerset

Still pressed for time…

So how about a couple of posts about clocks on buildings? Like my previous couple of posts at this time of frantic activity, this one is a kind of reprise. I’ve used the picture before, but I’ve written a bit more about it this time…

The gift of time is one that has been made architecturally for centuries. Church clocks and sundials were the first widely available public timepieces. They were a guide to the canonical hours at a time when clocks were a scarce luxury and most people did their basic timekeeping by looking at the sun. In the 19th and 20th centuries, commercial companies continued the tradition started by church and civic clocks. So a clock on a shop could be both a public service and an advertisement, something more compelling and commanding of attention than a mere owner’s name sign.

Jewellers and clockmakers were of course well placed to put clocks on their shops. Many of these clocks survive on shop fronts, even when the original jewellers who placed them there have gone. This example is from a multiple jeweller, H. Samuel. It’s very much an Art Deco design: the square clock face, the stepped form of the case, the style of the lettering, and the cross-bracing on the bracket all have the look of that decorative style that was prevalent in the 1930s and that lasted in places into the post-war period. The Roman numerals are more old-fashioned, but it wasn’t unusual for otherwise rather modern-looking Art Deco clocks to have such figures on the dial – and here they are given a modern twist by being distorted so that they follow the line of the pointing hands.

My British readers will be familiar with the company name on the clock. H. Samuel is a ubiquitous high-street multiple jeweller: hundreds of towns have a branch of Samuel’s. If many people know the name, though, few will know what the ‘H’ stood for. Not Henry or Herbert or Hugh – but Harriet. Harriet Samuel took over the business of her father-in-law Moses Samuel in 1862. Perhaps she used the initial in those time of prejudice to disguise the fact that her business was run by a woman. Whether or not that’s the case (and apparently she was sometimes referred as ‘Mr H. Samuel’ in Victorian newspapers), the business throve and countless people who have not been in a jewellers for years have cause to be grateful for a free time check courtesy of H. Samuel.

Monday, December 10, 2018

Farmcote, Gloucestershire

History in the hills

For my third reprise in this busy month, I offer a place I’ve actually already posted about twice. This multiplicity is an indication not that it’s somewhere of great architectural richness, because the building I’m focusing on is modest to say the least. It’s because the place means a lot to me: for the atmosphere (especially for the quietude that surrounds it), for the layers of history visible in and around and beneath it, and for memories associated with it. So here’s Farmcote once more, ten years on from when I first wrote about it. I called that original post The End of the Road...

Take the steepest and narrowest of the roads leading out of the town where I live, a route that rises rapidly up the Cotswold escarpment. Turn left along a narrower lane that leads up again through remote country dotted with the odd farm and racehorse stable and bounded with fields where the brown ploughed soil reveals thousands of fragments of Cotswold limestone. Turn off once more up an even smaller lane that passes sheep pastures and offers glimpses from the high hills northwards and westwards towards Worcestershire and Wales. And at the end of the track you reach Farmcote, a tiny, isolated hamlet consisting of a few stone houses and a church.

From this angle, St Faith’s, Farmcote, could almost be a Tudor building – the windows and doorway are probably early-16th century and the furnishing inside is a satisfying mixture of Tudor and Jacobean. But in the end wall is a blocked archway indicating that this building was once bigger. Small as it is, the arch would have led to a demolished chancel, and the stonework of the arch is unmistakably Saxon. People have worshipped here for over a thousand years.

The evening light is often beautiful on this west-facing slope. When I first came here is was dusk, and I felt I needed a candle to see the medieval roof timbers and Jacobean furniture. Today there was more light, but it was fading as the sun began to drop behind the next hill. The farm dogs were quiet. The only thing moving was some smoke from a nearby chimney. Restored by the silence I crept back to the car, and drove off, making as little noise as I could.

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Stow-on-the-Wold, Gloucestershire

Stone from the wold

Here’s another repost from ten years ago to entertain my readers during my stretch of pre-Christmas work hyperactivity. It’s a house in the Cotswold town of Stow-on-the-Wold, and a place I always glance at when I pass. Its architecture gives me pleasure – although I do worry that some of the unusual bits of carving on the front are eroding away. The old-fashioned tea shop that used to occupy the ground floor has now closed (there’s a lot of competition in Stow, some of it very impressive), and last time I went by the building looked empty. But the architecture, albeit crumbling at the edges, is still there to enjoy.

Here’s what I wrote about it back in December 2008.

There are some buildings that just make me smile, no matter how often I see them. This is one: a house of about 1730 (now a café) on the market place in Stow-on-the-Wold. What I love about this house is the decoration. It’s Classical, up to a point – look at the fluted pilasters with their Corinthian capitals. But whoever built this place was determined not to stick to the rule book. Those pilasters begin, not with a base, anchoring them to the ground, but with a peculiar block of stone sticking out from the wall, a couple of feet above pavement level. The strips that run up from either side of the central niche, dotted with carvings of flowers, are another odd, but charming, touch.

Pevsner (who describes this façade as ‘rather gauche’) tells us that there’s a local tradition that the building was the work of a pargetter named Shepherd. That’s odd, as pargetting (the art of decorative exterior plasterwork) is native to eastern England. It’s not something you see much round here, where the decorative medium is stone. And yet the exuberance and richness of the carving, especially the flowers, is not unlike the sort of thing you might see on a pargetted house in Essex or Suffolk. It certainly sticks out here, not in the manner of a sore thumb, but like an elegantly manicured digit raised in defiance of convention. Stow off the wall.

As an extra, I add a photograph taken earlier this year showing a detail of one of the stone benches positioned in front of this building. As you can see, they are supported by rather fine lions. A few months ago some protective tape had been put around them – I’m not sure if it’s visitors or the stonework that was being protected, though. 

Sunday, December 2, 2018

Winchcombe, Gloucestershire

Sounds familiar

Christmas is approaching and, as has happened before, I find myself with various uncomfortable work deadlines. Why does the publishing industry organise things in this way? It would take too long to explain and my time is limited at the moment. So I thought I’d look back, see what was happening ten years ago, and repost some of my thoughts back then. Turning to December 2008, what did I find? On 3 December 2008 I was sitting looking at the view of the church tower and thinking virtually the same thoughts. Plus ça change, as they say.

Here’s my post from 3 December 2008:

It’s customary, even in these difficult times, to count the number of shopping days to Christmas. But this year I’m counting the number of writing days left before the publishing business shuts down the corporate computers for the festive season, because I have a Christmas deadline. Travelling to look at old buildings has taken a backseat, and my blog posts may shrink in length and number. I’m fortunate, though, to live in Gloucestershire, a county rich in interesting buildings, so I’ll be putting up some posts about local buildings in the next week or two.

And for me, this is as local as it gets. If I crane my neck a bit, this is the view from my desk. It’s the tower of St Peter’s church, Winchcombe, its Cotswold stone walls glowing in the golden light of a winter’s afternoon a couple of days ago. The church was built in the 1460s, during a building boom in the area that saw many churches acquire new windows, extra aisles, taller towers, or complete makeovers. Winchcombe got its new church through the generosity in part of the abbot of Winchcombe Abbey, whose own church, long gone, was a close neighbour, and of Ralph Boteler, a local grandee – well, not that grand: his name suggests that he came from a rather distinguished family of butlers. The tower is not that grand, either. No elegant spire, as it might have in Northamptonshire; no elaborate carving as there might be in Somerset. Just good honest building in beautiful stone.

The fine weathercock was regilded recently and looked about 5 feet five tall when, swathed in bubblewrap, it was hoisted back up the tower. It came here in 1874 from the much larger church of St Mary Redcliffe, Bristol. According to which version of the story you believe it was either too small or too big for the spire of St Mary Redcliffe. A stonemason who worked on the Bristol spire claimed he’d climbed on to, or into, the cockerel, ‘which was the size of a donkey’. Having seen the bird close-up, I can tell you that’s not such a cock and bull story as it sounds.

Thursday, November 29, 2018

Into the light

Adrian Barlow, Kempe: The Life, Art and Legacy of Charles Eamer Kempe
Published by Lutterworth Press

Most people who visit churches admire the stained glass, but how many of us know more than a smattering about the people who designed and made church windows? Stained glass certainly isn’t my own area of expertise, and like many others, my knowledge is limited mostly to those who are famous for doing something else – people like Edward Burne-Jones or John Piper. Many stained glass artists are shadowy figures, even if we know their names. One figure whose name is familiar (from countless church guidebooks, from Pevsner) but whose life is little known is the Victorian designer and maker of stained glass Charles Eamer Kempe. Adrian Barlow’s new biography is here to put us right.

Kempe: The Life, Art and Legacy of Charles Eamer Kempe tackles the life in the opening chapters . Barlow leads us through his subject’s upbringing: the unhappy prep school years of a shy and stammering boy, the happier times at public school and university. It was a good time for a young man interested in church art to be up at Oxford, with G E Street’s office in the city, William Morris and his friends around (and painting the murals in the Oxford Union library), the study of ecclesiology rife, and the Oxford Movement that worked towards a more ritualistic approach to worship getting going. Oxford also gave Kempe the chance to make visits to churches such as Fairford, across the county border in Gloucestershire, with its stellar late-medieval stained glass. His time there also forced on him the realisation that his stammer would make him unfit for his chosen career in the priesthood. Following Oxford, there are accounts of post-university travels, including Kempe’s discovery of the 15th-century stained glass of Normandy, which influenced his own, and his early work, especially with the great architect G F Bodley, and the setting up of his own studio.

From then on, the studio became Kempe’s life, and the life is one of friendships with colleagues and patrons. Kempe never married, but he was a good friend, and the book deals at length with his relationships with three people who became (if not by name at least in practice) his chief draughtsmen: Wyndham Hope Hughes, John Carter, and John William Lisle. This is where the book is variously illuminating, because these three, and Kempe’s final notable colleague, Walter Tower, all get the attention they deserve. Barlow is able to correct several misconceptions about them. Until recently for example, even the identity of Wyndham Hope Hughes was unclear – he’d long been confused with the Pre-Raphaelite painter Arthur Hughes. Barlow is also able to be more even-handed in his assessment of Walter Tower, who has not had a good press in some quarters, and that’s a useful and revealing redress of the balance.

More that all this, there is the glass. These biographical accounts bring out much about how it was produced, and by whom. Kempe is given his considerable due as a creative artist, but so are the other people in his studio – one should not, as the book makes clear, run away with the idea that being a ‘draughtsman’ involved merely the mechanical skills of the copyist. These people were creative, and Kempe’s relationships with them were creative, as were those with Bodley, and with various patrons. Barlow’s assessment of the work is further clarified by case studies of some key projects, backed up by some excellent photographs by Alastair Carew-Cox.

One comes away with a sense of the shape of Kempe’s life, an interesting set of insights into his working methods, and, above all, the sense that he’s a considerable artist. There’s no doubt that Kempe has been undervalued. My own view of him had been tainted by no less a person that Sir John Betjeman (whom I revere, generally), who proclaimed that Kempe’s glass was green and gloomy and, apart from some of the early work, not very good. A rare slip, and a great shame given Betjeman’s prominence and influence. Adrian Barlow’s Kempe will send people back to the work, with much more background knowledge, with a clearer understanding of how his big Victorian studio worked, and, above all, with new enthusiasm and new eyes.

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* Kempe chose Pembroke College, Oxford (or failing that, Corpus, he said, but Pembroke took him).

† Betjeman did not slip up that often, but he did sometimes speak too quickly. He could change his mind though. He began, in his early years at the Architectural Review, as a thorough modernist, but then ditched the white boxes when he realised how wonderful Victorian architecture could be. That change and his subsequent campaigns for threatened Victorian buildings were to his and our lasting benefit, and showed a kind of courage when architects and architectural writers had turned away from everything Victorian. This engagement with the Victorians makes his lapse regarding Kempe both puzzling and sad.

Saturday, November 24, 2018

Soft machines for living in

Iain Sinclair, Living with Buildings and Walking with Ghosts 
Published by Profile Books in association with Wellcome Collection

No sooner had Iain Sinclair, apparently tireless writer about London, walker of mean streets, grubber around in corners, tracer of psychogeographical force-fields, and seer of beauty in dilapidation, said his writerly ‘farewell’ to London*, than he’s at it again: walking and writing about the place in an account, made at the behest of the Wellcome Foundation, to explore the relationship between buildings and health. It’s not just London, though, that Sinclair visits. He’s off to Mexico, up to Scotland, and out to Marseille to visit Le Corbusier’s Unité d’habitation. One almost expects him to reprise some of his visits (made for London Orbital) to the former asylums around the periphery of the capital, but instead, he looks at the site of the Royal Victoria military hospital, Southampton, with its memories of shell-shock. As the title-page of this book suggests, along with buildings come ghosts.

Although a commission, this is an intensely personal book. It comes most alive in the parts (the majority of the book) where he writes about his friends: the hardships they and those around them have faced and the way in which the buildings they occupy and use have affected them. ’Gentle’ is not the first adjective that might occur to one when thinking about Sinclair’s writing – he’s known and savoured for the kind of lively language that threatens to set the page on fire. But gentle, tender even, he can be. Writing about his friend the film-maker Andrew Kötting and his daughter Eden, who lives with Joubert’s Syndrome, Sinclair enumerates the effects of this disorder using the medical terms that it demands (‘hypertonia, ataxia, psychomotor retardation…’) but if this sounds cold, it’s in contrast to the warmth which which Sinclair describes her and her relationship with her father, with whom she early learned to ‘play, collaborate, hug and laugh out loud’. The flat in Deptford’s Pepys Estate that the family occupied when Eden was young might look a cold place too: the area was one in which the council narrowed the rubbish chutes to make it impossible to use them to dispose of ‘inconvenient bodies’. The place is a 1960s mix of low- and high-rise that John Betjeman denounced in a film (flying over Deptford, he concluded, ‘It can’t be right.’) Yet Kötting, his partner Leila Macmillan and their daughter Eden found it a nurturing place, a space they enjoyed living in, where they found friendship and support, and to which they look back fondly.

Sinclair’s book contains several stories concerning people in often challenging circumstances in buildings that might, from outside, seem unforgiving – Emma Matthews and her son Louis in Golden Lane, sculptor Steve Dilworth and his wife Joan on the island of Harris, Jonathan Meades in the Marseilles Unité (which belies its image as an overly hard-edged Corbusian ‘machine for living in’), artist Rebecca Hind at various locations. Sinclair never comes to the obvious conclusions; he doesn’t offer easy answers either. He’s after a more elliptical approach, one that presents the complexity of what we’re dealing with – people, their wellbeing, whole environments not just walls or rooms.

This is a rich book, full of the breadth of allusion that one might expect from Sinclair – Rembrandt, Sir Thomas Browne, W. G. Sebald. It’s studded too with bits of arresting language that make one sit up and pay attention – in a pleasurable way. I relish his turns of phrase, from the disturbing notion of body snatchers as ‘part of the local food chain’, to blazing images like the author burning inside ‘like an owl that has swallowed a firelighter’. It comes, too, with a good dose of Sinclairish appreciation of things ‘counter, original, spare, strange’.† But not just in architecture – in people too. It’s an attitude that is open-minded then, though now and then with a healthy does of scepticism – Sinclair, a doctor’s son, recalls ‘consulting room chatter’ along the lines of ‘Avoid hospitals like the plague’. But it’s animated also by the credo of Simenon’s Maigret and Sinclair’s father: ‘Understand and judge not’. Not a bad motto – for policemen, doctors, architects…and writers too.

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* See Iain Sinclair, The Last London (Oneworld Publications, 2017).

† I’m raiding Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem ‘Pied Beauty’ here – though where Hopkins found beauty in trout and cows, Sinclair’s epiphanies are more likely to occur when encountering rust or flaking paint.

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Dorset reperambulated

Michael Hill, John Newman, and Nikolaus Pevsner, The Buildings of England: Dorset
Published by Yale University Press

Another year, another small clutch of revised volumes in Pevsner’s revered Buildings of England series. I’ve chosen Dorset for review because, although it’s not a county I know intimately, it’s a fascinating part of England and one that has given me a lot of pleasure, from its coast and coastal  towns such as Poole and Lyme Regis to inland places like Blandford Forum. I have therefore used the old 1972 edition of Dorset (in which Pevsner himself wrote about the churches while entrusting the secular buildings to John Newman) quite a bit over the years. Dorset has so much interesting architecture: great houses and historic castles, some terrific churches, and a lovely coast – lovely both scenically and architecturally, from Lyme Regis to Poole.

To reflect this richness and like every recent revision in the series, Pevsner’s Dorset has grown considerably (from just over 500 small pages in 1972 to 780 larger pages today), thanks to the addition of new buildings, more detail on those already covered, and the inclusion of structures that lay outside the original remit or that Pevsner and co simply missed – for even Homer nodded, and the busy compilers of the Pevsner epic, especially in a rich county like Dorset, a place of shady nooks and sunken lanes, may be permitted to have nodded in their turn. But Michael Hill, reviser of Dorset, can have left few stones unturned. A major centre like Poole now has a substantial section, incorporating various changes to the built environment and the generally beneficial effect of the conservation areas designated after the 1972 edition came out. The town’s new development is treated with discrimination – the Dolphin quays development criticised for its too-large scale (seven storeys dwarfing the nearby historic buildings), the RNLI College given praise. Poole is also a place to note what Pevsner does not cover. I’ve recently become fascinated by the use of architectural ceramics in Poole. Some of this is mentioned (the Poole Arms on the Quay, with its glowing green tiled gabled front, for example), but some isn’t.

Hill, like the other revisers of books in this series, treads around the original text with care. Gems from the old book remain, like the opening of the entry on Shaftesbury with its yearning quotation from Thomas Hardy’s Jude, all ‘vague imaginings’ and ‘pensive melancholy’, and the 1972 book’s comment on this: ‘Hardy was easily thrown into a pensive melancholy, but these are the right thoughts with which to approach Shaftesbury’. The original description of the famous Gold Hill is retained too, but in the new volume it merits a photograph, and a mention of Gold Hill Museum and its extension of 2011.

Some places, such as Lyme, benefit from large amounts of new detail. Lyme now has three perambulations instead of one, and some of the new detail makes me want to return to the town and look again. There’s apparently a 1930s cinema, unremarkable outside but with an interesting interior (a ’minor Art Deco gem’) and several other older buildings that the original edition did not notice. Hill also updates the coverage of Eleanor Coade’s wonderful house Belmont, with its ‘frenzy of decoration’, covering its recent restoration and the alterations to it which are controversial, but through which Hill tiptoes with tact. When new scholarship is available, Hill is informed by it. In Blandford, for example, Hill is sceptical of the role of the Bastard family as architects of the rebuilt 18th century town and notes that master mason Nathaniel Ireson may well have been responsible for the baroque touches in the town’s Georgian architecture.

The new Dorset is illuminating, then, and manages to incorporate the essence, and much of the text, of the old volume while adding much to it. The photographs are good as usual and there are several of the maps and plans that make the revised volumes still more useful than the old ones. Dorset, then, does well by this small but enchanting county and confirms that the old series in its new guise it still very much alive and kicking.

Sunday, November 18, 2018

Homes for heroines

It’s that time of year again: for a week or so this blog is given over to some reviews of new and recent books – for your friends’ Christmas stockings, perhaps, or your own...

Elisabeth Blanchet and Sonia Zhuravlyova, Prefabs: A Social and Architectural History 
Published by Historic England

In the late-1940s, Britain had to build more houses than ever. A huge chunk had been taken out of the housing stock by bombing – and there were pre-war slums to clear. The call went up again, as it had after World War I, for ‘homes for heroes’. One solution was the prefab – the prefabricated bungalow, mass produced and able to be quickly erected; a way, it was hoped both of filling the housing need and providing work for factories that had made the fighters or bombers that were, mercifully, no longer required in such numbers.

The story of Britain’s postwar prefab has been told before,* but there is room for another book, and especially at this time, when so few prefabs are left and residents of those that do remain are having to fight for the survival of their much loved homes. This new book by Elisabeth Blanchet and Sonia Zhuravlyova tells their story in the light of new research,† a fresh emphasis on their social history, and the sense of the urgency and relevance that’s needed if some of these modest but important buildings – and their histories – are to be preserved.

The book looks at the historical background to prefabrication in building (everything from Paxton’s Crystal Palace to Nissen huts), the modernist architectural context of thinking about prefabrication in the 20th century, and the setting up and implementation of the governments Temporary Housing Programme that brought the prefabs into existence. It deals with the various different designs of prefab (Tarrant, Uni-Secos, AIROHs, and so on), but much of the fine detail here (production figures, costs, number off each type made, etc) is hived off into an appendix, which makes it easy to find and allows the authors’ main narrative to stick more to cultural and social history.

So we learn quite a bit about the people who lived in the prefabs – who they were and, especially, what they thought of their new homes. The reaction, on the whole, was very positive. Many early residents found the prefabs futuristic: not just because of their rapid construction and unusual materials (asbestos, aluminium), or because they had electricity when many houses outside cities did not, but also and especially because of their fitted kitchens and bathrooms, features very rare in British homes of the 1940s and 1950s.§ Women especially liked these, and also praised the fact that prefabs came with gardens – somewhere to grow plants and a place for children to play safely. The interiors were uncluttered and easy to clean too.

Postwar prefabs were greatly loved by their occupants, and the narrative is well supported by residents’ comments and anecdotes, and by historical and recent photographs. But Blanchet and Zhuravlyova don’t gloss over the bungalows’ faults. For example, the heating was not very effective in many of the first prefabs. People complained of the houses getting stuffy in winter and freezing cold in winter. But this was put right later.

The authors extend their survey to look at other kinds of prefabricated housing built after the initial postwar programme, ranging across concrete Airey houses, wooden Swedish houses, and other types. Most of these, unlike the postwar prefabs, were intended to be permanent, and some have lasted well. But to the surprise of many, a few of the postwar prefabs, meant to last a decade, are still going strong, 70 years after construction. Some of the best preserved – those in Moseley, Birmingham, for example, and a small group of what used to be a crowd on the Excalibur Estate in Catford, London – have been listed. If only there were more. Blanchet and Zhuravlyova have done them proud.

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* I have learned much in particular from Brenda Vale’s Prefabs: A History of the UK Temporary Housing Programme and G Stevenson, Palaces for the People. But Vale’s is an academic book focusing on the technical and architectural history and Stevenson’s is most valuable for its excellent pictures – and neither are that easy to obtain. This new book gives a more rounded picture. 

† The authors draw, particularly, on Elisabeth Blanchet’s work with the Moving Prefab Museum and Archive, which has researched, documented, and archived much material (oral as well as physical) relating to the history of prefabs and their occupants.

§ Some of those moving to prefabs in the 1940s had been used to a lack of: electricity, a fitted kitchen, hot running water, and even, in some places, mains sewers. I remember my own maternal grandparents, living in rural Lincolnshire in the early 1960s: they survived without any of these facilities.

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Taunton, Somerset

Georgian Art Deco

Here is something I have little to say about – with the exception of single a observation. This Post Office in Taunton was built in 1911 in the neo-Georgian style (red brick with stone dressings on the upper floors, stone on the ground floor) then popular for Post Offices. I have noticed before how this style was popular in the early-20th century, and seemed to work well.

But look at the letterforms used on the identifying 'Post Office' sign above the door. Cut carefully into the stone, the letters look nothing if not Art Deco – those elongated letters popular on shop fronts in the 1920s. I am thinking of the Fs and Es with cross bars near the top of the letter, the enlarged bowl of the P, the slightly forward-sloping S. Is the lettering later than the rest of the building, or unusually forward-looking? I really don't know, but I like the way the two things work together – and how they made me pause and ponder as I walked along the street.

Friday, November 9, 2018

Stoke Newington, London

Grave matters

I was reminded today of the importance – historical, architectural, and religious – of London’s great 19th-century cemeteries. The reminder came in the form of an article in the Evening Standard* that was reporting a call from Historic England§ to support London’s seven historic 19th-century cemeteries, which are in constant need of help because the upkeep of these fragile places is increasingly labour- and money-intensive as vegetation spreads and stones decay and fall. Naturally, the media now calls these cemeteries (Highgate, Kensal Green, Brompton, West Norwood, Abney Park, Tower Hamlets, and Nunhead) ‘the magnificent seven’, a description that may be modishly allusive to popular culture but is also apt.†

My own favourite was always Nunhead, in part because I once lived near it and got to know it. But now, thanks to my son who’s currently living in Stoke Newington, I’ve become an admirer of Abney Park too. Founded in 1840, Abney Park was special in several ways. It was designed by William Hosking, a professor architecture and engineering, who laid it out with generous planting of trees and shrubs, and a vast number of roses. Unlike most London cemeteries, it was not consecrated and was not rigidly Anglican. So dissenters could be buried here, and were, in large numbers; they valued the opportunity to have a grave here all the more because what had been the usual nonconformist cemetery, Bunhill Fields, was filling up by this time. Among the prominent graves of nonconformists is that of William Booth and his wife Catherine, founders of the Salvation Army. Abney Park was also home to the deceased of poorer families. It did not charge the burial fees you had to pay in the Anglican cemeteries, so it answered another pressing need among a large part of the capital’s population.
Nowadays, Abney Park cemetery is not at all its former self. It’s very overgrown, and the Gothic chapel, shown in my upper photograph, is the worse for wear.¶ And yet… Regular readers will guess that I’m not totally out of sympathy with the dilapidation and the advancing greenery. I know that overgrown weeds need to be cleared if they’re not totally to overwhelm and destroy the memorials and pathways. However, I can still see beauty in this overgrown place, where one gets glimpses of worn stone angels through thickets of foliage, and where shafts of sunlight find their way through the trees. The place is still an oasis in this part of London, still the green world away from the noise and traffic that it was always intended to be.

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* The Evening Standard article is here.

§ There is a good short piece on historic cemeteries from Historic England here.

† There are good accounts of London cemeteries in Catharine Arnold, Necropolis: London and its Dead (Simon & Schuster, 2006)

¶ As a reader has pointed out, my use of the term Gothic here is rather far from the whole story. The building displays a spire, pinnacles, and a pointed ogee arch that are certainly Gothic inspiration, but some of this is certainly more like Georgian Gothick than the authentic recreation of medieval Gothic that Victorian architects such as Pugin advocated. The chunky turrets on either side of the entrance, square at the bottom and octagonal higher up, with their round-arched openings at ground level, are different again: they remind me a bit of Vanbrugh’s architecture (as if the architect had been admiring the mock-castle Vanbrugh built for himself in Greenwich). I should have mentioned, too, that if the rose window looks odd, it’s because the tracery that would have filled the opening is missing. I do not know the story of how the building came to be designed this way, but am resolved to find out more when the current heap of work is reduced somewhat in volume.

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

Harrogate, Yorkshire

Hotel town (3)

Seasoned visitors to this blog will know about my liking for three-dimensional inn signs and for swans. These two interests have collided at several places (including Wells and Leighton Buzzard†). Here they are again in Harrogate, in the form of this beautiful 3D sign, nicely posed and modelled. I don’t know how old the sign is: it stands on a post well distanced from the facade and most ‘vintage’ images of the Old Swan Hotel in Harrogate zoom in close and miss out the sign completely.

The inn itself goes back at least to 1777, but much of the current building probably dates from a remodelling during Harrogate’s boom years in the late-19th century. This was when the hotel was upgraded as the Harrogate Hydro and fitted with Turkish baths and other luxuries. Today, as the Old Swan, it looks very spruce and more welcoming than the rearing swan on its sign which, feathers up and bill at the ready, still pleases the swan-loving bystander.

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† This avian combination makes me wish that the village of Hanley Swan in Worcestershire had a Buzzard Inn; alas it does not.

Friday, November 2, 2018

Harrogate, Yorkshire

Hotel town (2)

Harrogate’s Crown Hotel, in my previous post, straddles the mid- and late-19th centuries in style, with the restrained classicism of the first period topped and tailed by the more elaborate architecture of the end of the century. The Majestic is from the very turn of the century, and isn’t just grand, but very grand. It’s huge, but the design avoids the impression of any sort of tedious uniformity because the architect, G. D. Martin, packed the facade with architectural incident – bays, balconies, fancy gables, and a great central dome.

Whether you’re in a suite with a balcony, the building seems to say, or in a smaller room up in the mansard roof, you’ll be aware that you’re sharing the experience of staying in a landmark building that makes its mark on the skyline. Placed solidly on a rise behind an expanse of greensward and beside trees and shrubs, it must make you feel that when you arrive here, you’ve really arrived.*

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* A short post, this, as some may well be for the next month or so, as I wrestle with work commitments, deadlines, and the gloom of cloudy wintry days and lengthening nights. But the photograph is enough: just look at this pile – it’s almost as wide-angle-lens-defying a monster as the vast civic buildings of Leeds.

Saturday, October 27, 2018

Harrogate, Yorkshire

Hotel town

Harrogate is well supplied with large hotels, many dating to the town’s boom in the late-19th century – or even before, the spa being well established by the early-18th. One witness to the town’s earlier life as a watering places was the traveller redoubtable Celia Fiennes, who visited in 1697 and recorded that she could not force her horse to come near the ’Sulpher or Stincking Spaw, not improperly term’d’.* She tried a couple of quarts of the noxious water and found these doses to be ‘a good sort of Purge if you can hold your breath so as to drink them down’. The hotels are variously classical, Italianate, or a sort of free style with many bays, prominent gables, and mansard roofs. My photograph shows the Crown, which is in a mixture of styles, and has a long history.

Before the current building was put up, there had been a hotel here for a long time, even before the Crown was owned by the Thackwray family form 1740. Lord Byron, who stayed in 1806, was one of the best known guests, and he recorded that his beloved dog Nelson§ had to be put down after attacking a horse in the hotel’s stable yard. The Crown was very convenient for the town’s sulphur well, which only a few yards away and available to all. Joseph Thackwray, however, sunk his own private well in a building adjoining the Crown, greatly reducing the flow from the public well. There was an outcry from other innkeepers, and when a group took legal measures against him, he relented. It is said that this case actually alerted the town to the value both of its wells and of its pleasant environment generally, and so preserved the generous public green spaces that distinguish the place to this day.

In 1847 the Crown was rebuilt in the classical style, and this building remains the core of what’s there now – the 3-bay central section (pilastered, with rectangular windows), flanked by slender 1-bay side wings. This was extended in the Italianate style (bay windows, with round-topped central openings) in 1870, when the two parts were unified by building the balustered parapet across the top of the whole front. almost concealing the low hipped roof behind. There were yet further elaborations, including extensions to the sides in around 1899, including the tower visible on the right. The result is an impressive ensemble, near the centre of the town and not far from the greenery of The Stray. In short, an excellent venue for the festival† I attended two weeks ago and no doubt a fine centre for visitors who’ve been coming for hundreds of years.

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* Christopheer Morris (ed.), The Journeys of Celia Fiennes (The Cresset Press, 1947)

§ A mastiff, apparently, not the poet’s most famous dog, the Newfoundland Boatswain.

† The Raworths Harrogate Literature Festival

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Harrogate, Yorkshire

Yorkshire philanthropy, Yorkshire grit

Last week I spent an enjoyable couple of days in Harrogate, speaking at the excellent Raworth’s Harrogate Literature Festival and spending a lot of time just standing and staring at the architecture. As someone who grew up Cheltenham and has a particular affection for Bath, both spa towns, I’ve always liked the spa town of Harrogate too – though I’ve not been there for years. I was struck by the stone: Harrogate is a stone town, like Bath (and unlike Cheltenham, where the buildings are predominantly stucco). But whereas Bath’s local stone is creamy limestone, the builders of Harrogate used mainly sandstone from the surrounding area, the various millstone grits with picturesque names (Follifoot Grit, Addlethorpe Grit, Upper and Lower Plompton Grit, and Libishaw Sandstone) that give the place its characteristic look. These stones vary in colour from grey to brown, and many look darker than the southern limestones typical of places like Bath. They’re also often finished less smoothly – sometimes rock-faced, sometimes with a flat face but with the chisel’s tool marks left very much visible.

The other thing that marks Harrogate out from those other two great spas is its date. In contrast to Georgian Bath and Regency Cheltenham, Harrogate came into fashion in the second half of the 19th century, so much of its architecture is Victorian. This building, for example, is of dark stone in a mix of masonry finishes – mainly rock-faced stone for the walls, with smooth ashlar around the windows and doors. The trefoiled upper windows and the clock tower with its short spire take their cue from the Gothic style, as is not unusual for for almshouses of the Victorian period. They were built in 1868 by textile manufacture George Rogers, whose business was in Bradford but who had a close connection to Harrogate and intended as houses for elderly people from either place.
Rogers's emblem of hard work, the bee and its hive, is placed above the central doorway. Bees must be in evidence, too, in the courtyard’s lovely garden, which was still showing a little colour in the late-October warmth. That garden, together with the architectural flourish of the spire, suggest that a decent environment was (and is) being valued here, not just a necessary minimum. Victorian values weren’t all bad.

Thursday, October 18, 2018

Hurstbourne Tarrant, Hampshire

Down in the chalk country

In a lot of southern England the rock that underlies the fields, villages, and towns is chalk: there’s a lot of chalk underfoot in Dorset, Wiltshire, Hampshire, Sussex, Kent, and Surrey. You can build with chalk, but it’s a soft rock and not an ideal building material, but along with the chalk goes flint, which is found in the upper layers of the chalk and is used in many places for building. Flint, on the face of it, isn’t an ideal building material either. It occurs in rounded nodules, and to build a wall out of these small lumps of flint, you usually need a lot of mortar. When napped or split into workable pieces with a flat side to form the face of the wall it often looks black or grey, and this can be overwhelming in large stretches.

So for visual reasons and for structural ones (lots of mortar can make a weak wall) the builders of the chalk areas have devised lots of ways of combining flint with other materials – bands or strips or blocks of other more workable stone, or courses of bricks. This kind of combination of flint and brick, which I was looking at in Wiltshire and Hampshire the other week, can be particularly attractive.

These houses are in Hurstbourne Tarrant, where there are several such buildings. Brick is often used at the corners, and around windows and doors, as can be seen clearly in the left-hand house. In the thatched house to the right, the combination is more of a mash-up, probably because the building has been altered or rebuilt at some point (or at several points). One often sees houses that combine these flint and brick walls with walls of other materials – a side wall that’s all brick, for example, or, nearly as often, a front wall of brick and a side wall of both flint and brick. The resulting patterns are usually pleasing from whichever angle you view the building, with ingenuity and visual flair working well together: in places with this kind of architecture there’s never a visually dull moment.

Sunday, October 14, 2018

Stockbridge, Hampshire

Staging post

I’d never looked properly at Stockbridge before, and when I finally stopped for a walk round I was struck by it in several ways. ‘A walk round’ is not quite the right phrase in Stockbridge, because the place is basically a single long street, which you walk up and down. It gives them impression, with its generous width, its imposing Town Hall, and its landmark hotel, that’s it’s the High Street and market place of somewhere much larger. As you walk along you go over bridges – you’re never far away from moving water because the place stands on various branches of the River Test, fast-flowing, trout-rich, and beloved of fishermen for centuries.

So this street is very much what Stockbridge is about, and not just because it’s so impressive but also because it must once have been an important travel route. Coaches travelling west out of London would mostly have travelled on roads that lie further north – through Andover, say, or Newbury – to head for Bristol, Bath, and the far West. But someone in the 18th or 19th centuries wanting to go to Salisbury, or on down to Weymouth, beloved of George III and those who travelled in his wake, might well have travelled through Stockbridge.

They could have stayed at this inn, the Grosvenor, which is early-19th century, built of yellow brick, and sash windowed. Its stand-out feature, the one that stopped me in my tracks, is this large porch. Its bowed front is big and the windows are huge. There must be a very light, grand upper room in there, with a ceiling higher than those on either side, as one can see by comparing the window heights and positions. The slender Doric columns shelter a commodious ground floor area through which you could almost drive a car. Or at a small carriage, enabling passengers to alight in the dry and get quickly indoors for a side of beef or a bumper of sherry.*

No doubt the porch also did its work sheltering passers-by from the rain and wind. Now its job seems to be to house tables and chairs for afternoon tea. Not the only place, as I discovered, where it’s possible to sit, enjoy refreshments, and watch the passing pedestrians and traffic, which the day I was there included no carriages, but what was to me a pleasing selection of classic cars. The High Street still seems to be a well used road, if more for local and leisure traffic than for those travelling long distance, who nowadays sacrifice urban scenery for speed, and make for the faster-moving A303.

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*Or if you couldn’t quite drive underneath it, you could at least pull in at the front, and your passengers would be undercover in an instant.

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Portishead, Somerset

Where the light is right

The small, sturdy metal structure of Black Nore Lighthouse was put up in 1894, to assist shipping in the Severn Estuary. It flashed every ten seconds to guide countless vessels towards and away from the harbour at Bristol, until it was taken out of service in 2010. It originally had a clockwork drive mechanism and this was only replaced with electric motors in the year 2000. Although this light is no longer needed, there’s another not far away at Battery Point, which still guides ships.

Fortunately, the lighthouse has been preserved (it now belongs to a trust that looks after it), so I could find it the other day when I was in Portishead to give a talk and arrived – as is my wont – much too early. I’m a great advocate of arriving early for meetings and talks, as it usually gives me the opportunity to have a look round somewhere and, as often as not, find some interesting bit of architecture or structure. I especially like the metal cross rods, attached with screw threads and nuts to the bit of metalwork in the centre, shown in my lower photograph.

So I was pleased to have a little time here, to find this relic – even if the sun was obscured by clouds and the scene looked a little more gloomy than I’d have hoped for. Light is as vital for photography as for navigation.

Saturday, October 6, 2018

Hurstbourne Tarrant, Hampshire

Look on my works…

Churchyards are often interesting places and you never know quite what you might find in them. Having admired a number of memorials in the churchyard at Hurstbourne Tarrant, including some near the church that dated to the early 19th century, I walked towards the northern edge of the graveyard, through trees, and up a considerable slope. I wasn’t quite sure where I was going as I picked my way through windfall apples. What I found was a further section of churchyard, screened from the church by the trees, and at its far edge this mausoleum, with classical pilasters and a pyramidal roof, itself almost hidden by vegetation.

At first I thought I’d found a bit more funerary architecture of the Regency period, a squire’s tomb of c. 1820, perhaps, with a nod to the Egyptian taste on a firm classical base with a couple of bands of rusticated masonry. But there was something not quite right about it. Weren’t those wrought-iron gates with their curvaceous metalwork rather Art Nouveau in appearance? And inside I made out a plaque recording a death in 1935. Yes: didn’t the details look a bit like 1930s Georgian revival in places?

They did. There seemed to be nothing about the building in the church, nothing in my old Pevsner volume*, and, when I got home, it didn’t seem to be listed either. Odd. Eventually I turned up the story in an online copy of an old newspaper, the wonderfully named Kingston Daily Gleaner, for February 23, 1935.†

At some point in the early 1930s, Henry Wykey Prosser was told by a London specialist that he had less than five years to live. He immediately began putting his affairs in order, a process that involved drawing up a will providing a fund of £2000 so that elderly residents of Hurstbourne Tarrant could have Christmas provisions and leaving the then considerable sum of £100,000 to his housekeeper (provided that she remained unmarried and continued to live in his house). His last years were also spent supervising the construction of this mausoleum.

The newspaper records that although Prosser spent a lot of money improving his house and estate, he was not well liked in the village, because he was constantly arguing with local people, particularly about rights of way, drove a hard bargain, and went to law if he did not get his way. He was also obsessed with security, overseeing a nightly ritual of door locking and shuttering before taking his loaded revolver to bed with him.

The position of the mausoleum at the far end of the churchyard at the top of the slope suited Prosser because he could see it from his house – and keep an eye on its builders without leaving home. For visitors, however, it means that this little structure, which down near the church would look bulky and assertive, is out of the way – and for many I’m sure, completely unregarded. The atmosphere felt for me like one of those lesser known London cemeteries – Nunhead, say – where among the ivy and leaning gravestones, one comes across the mausoleum of some Victorian worthy, once famous or notorious, now forgotten. Look on my works, ye mighty…

*Note to self: I must invest in the updated edition.

†Yes, a Jamaica newspaper. Postscript: One of my readers wonders whether Kingston, Jamaica, was named after the Duke of Kingston, of Thoresby Hall: She notes: ‘He was still an Earl in 1703. He was a (very?) rich man, and a Tillemans painting of him of c. 1726 shows him with a black servant… Very possibly, he was a plantation owner/slave trader. He laid out a vast landscape at Thoresby on the 1700s.’ If anyone knows more about him, this reader would love to know more, so did please reply via the Comments section of this blog.

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A couple of other unexpected things in churchyards: a bee shelter and a beautiful sculpted seat.

Wednesday, October 3, 2018


On the move (3): Scriven’s Conduit

Just a few yards from the building in my previous post is another structure that has been relocated from its original site. This ornate octagonal pavilion is Scriven’s Conduit, built in 1636 in Southgate Street in the centre of Gloucester as part of the city’s water supply. It displays a wonderful mix of architectural styles, Gothic rubbing shoulders with Classicism in a way not unusual in the 17th century. The top was rebuilt in 1705 and originally bore a finial featuring Jupiter Pluvius (Jupiter in his role as rain-bringer) pouring water on to Sabrina (the goddess of the Severn). Although this has now gone, there are still some magnificent lion masks and some very worn roundels depicting notable trades found in Gloucester. Like the King’s Board, it was taken down when no longer needed in the city centre and moved. It went to Edgeworth Manor before returning to Gloucester, this time to the site in Hillfield Gardens where it remains to this day. Gloucester, an ancient city that has lost much through redevelopment, actually preserves quite a lot of historic architecture – several medieval churches, some friary buildings, its great dock warehouses, not to mention its magnificent cathedral. Search a little further, and, as I hope this and my previous post have helped to show, it’s amazing what riches the city discloses.

Saturday, September 29, 2018


On the move (2): The King’s Board

My second example* of a building on the move is a small building known as the King’s Board, which now stands in Hillfield Gardens in Gloucester. You can just see it from the road as you pass the gardens and when I’d driven past previously I’d taken it for some elaborate garden seat or gazebo built by the owners of Hillfield House, Gloucester’s grandest Victorian house and now occupied, I think, by offices – an effective and unusual garden feature, indeed, which it still is.

However this little building did not begin life as a gazebo. Originally it was in the centre of the city and looked quite different, because the arches, which now make up the sides of a polygon, were once arranged in a straight line along the front of a rectangular building. This rectangular building can be seen in Kip’s engraving (c. 1710) of Gloucester and had been in Westgate Street (one of the city’s four main streets named for points of the compass). It had been a butter market and was reputed to have been given to the city by Richard II. By Kip’s time the roof had been altered to house a water cistern but by 1750 it had been taken down and relocated. After several more relocations, including a spell in the grounds of Tibberton Court, northwest of Gloucester) it was moved yet again to its current site in 1937. It’s not known for sure at which of these moves it was remodelled as a polygon rather than a rectangle.

No doubt its polygonal form, the fact that it once had a cross on the roof, and the religious relief carvings it bears fuelled the tradition that it began life as a preaching cross, though the rectangular layout shown in the 1710 engraving – and the fact that archaeology has confirmed this – put paid to that theory. Medieval markets often bore crosses and religious imagery too. The sculptures are charming. They cover the story of Christ’s Passion, including the entry into Jerusalem, the Last Supper, the Resurrection, and other subjects. Although partly restored and even so highly worn, they preserve plenty of detail – the crenellated walls of the city, the monkey, St Peter’s keys, for example are all visible in the image of the entry into Jerusalem in my lower picture. The King’s Board is still highly effective in offering interest and shelter, some 80 years after it was re-erected here.

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*Following my post about Carfax Conduit, in Oxfordshire, here.

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Nuneham Courtenay, Oxfordshire

On the move (1): A distant prospect of Carfax Conduit

I went to Nuneham Courtenay to look at the church and, as so often happens, saw something else as well – or at least caught sight of something else. Nuneham Courtenay is home to a large 18th-century house, built by the first Earl Harcourt, who famously displaced the village to make his garden and park, inspiring Goldsmith’s poem The Deserted Village in the process. Although the house is much altered, the nearby church built by the earl is not. It’s a gem of the classical revival, to which I will return. I’d been reminded of it by the Heritage Open Days leaflet for Oxford and, as I was in the city, I drove out to Nuneham, parked (almost certainly in the wrong place) and made my visit. I expect I’ll do a post about the church soon.

Then I decided to have a walk and find this other, still more surprising building. I suspect, having parked in the wrong place, I missed the helpful person from Heritage Open Days who’d have directed me, and having set out, I came up to a gate with a very serious notice saying ‘Wildlife protection area. No admittance’. Another path seemed to lead to an impassable stream. Running out of time, I turned back to retrace my tips and go home when I saw in the distance the building I was looking for.

It’s Carfax Conduit, and was originally built in 1617 as part of a scheme to supply the city of Oxford with fresh water. Its name comes from Carfax, the crossroads at the centre of Oxford where the building was sited at the end of an underground pipe that led from a spring on a hill at North Hinksey, outside the city. Being able to get clean water from the tank in the Carfax building would have been a health-giving boon to most city residents, who had no private water supply of their own and had to rely on a medieval system that by this time was leaky and dysfunctional. Although I didn’t get close to the conduit this time, I could make out quite a bit of the detail. The overall design is rather like a medieval market cross – or, as the listing text has it, a Renaissance version of such a structure. The square lower section is plain, with very simple pilasters and mouldings; it’s mostly 18th-century, replacing the original structure that housed the water tank. The upper part is original, richly ornamented, and bristling with statuary and other carving. The Os and Ns are the initials of Otho Nicholson, who built the conduit, and the statues are a selection of mythical and historical figures.

Earl Harcourt snapped up the building when it was taken down in 1787, when it was deemed to be holding up traffic. Oxford got a smaller tank, the earl got a garden ornament, which he had re-erected where he’d planned to build a Gothic eye-catcher. The 18th-century taste for an interesting garden ornament resulted in a bit of creative preservation and posterity benefits too – even if it only manages to achieve a distant prospect of Carfax Conduit.

Saturday, September 22, 2018

Irreplaceable at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London

History and places

On Tuesday evening I went to the Victoria and Albert Museum for a dual celebration: to celebrate Historic England’s campaign Irreplaceable and to mark the publication of my new accompanying book, Irreplaceable: A History of England in 100 Places.* The idea of the campaign was to highlight and celebrate one hundred remarkable places that have in some way shaped the history of England. The public were asked to nominate their favourite historic places and a panel of ten expert judges¶ then took the thousands of nominations and reduced them to a list of one hundred, equally allocated over ten different thematic categories, from “Music and Literature” to “Power, Protest and Progress”. The result is a fascinating and diverse list of places, from obvious and internationally famous buildings such as Canterbury Cathedral and Windsor Castle to less well known sites, such as a rainy Jewish cemetery in Falmouth and some allotments in Wiltshire.

My job was to write something about each place and so create a book, illustrated with Historic England’s excellent photographs. It has been fascinating. Half the time I have been writing about places I know well, half the time about places and buildings that were new to me. The book we have produced is not a continuous history of England but a patchwork, reflecting not just the variety of the choices but also the many different ways of looking at history and at England in particular – cultural, social, military, industrial, technological, political, and so on and on.

The gathering at the V&A was well attended and convivial. We were honoured to have several distinguished speakers – Tristram Hunt, Director of the V&A; Duncan Wilson, Chief Executive of Historic England; Mark Hews, Chief Executive of Ecclesiastical;† and Rosie Ryder, Media Manager, Historic England. Among the many filling the main domed hall of the V&A were a good number of representatives of the one hundred places, including people who’d come to London from Durham, Rochdale, and Birkenhead. It was a great pleasure to meet many of these people and hear about their enthusiasm for ‘their’ places and the hard work that goes into maintaining and running all kinds of places, from museums to open-air swimming pools, from Bletchley Park to the Dreamland Theme Park in Margate. Everyone seemed pleased with the book, and I hope it plays its part in celebrating these wonderful sites, in telling their stories, and in highlighting in general the extraordinary diversity and richness of England’s historic places. 

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* Irreplaceable: A History of England in 100 Places is published by Historic England. It is available from bookshops, the usual online sources, and from Historic England themselves. For more information, click on the book cover in the right-hand column.

¶ The expert judges (and their categories) were: Monica Ali (Music & Literature), Mary Beard (Loss & Destruction), George Clarke (Homes & Gardens), Will Gompertz (Art, Architecture & Sculpture), Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson (Sport & Leisure), Bettany Hughes (Travel & Tourism), Tristram Hunt (Industry, Trade & Commerce), David Ison (Faith & Belief), David Olusoga (Power, Protest & Progress), and Lord Robert Winston (Science & Discovery).

† This whole project – campaign, book, and the celebration at the V&A itself – could not have happened without the support of in the insurance company Ecclesiastical. This company insures the majority of the Grade I listed buildings in England and donates its profits to charitable causes, including many heritage-related projects.

Thursday, September 20, 2018

Cheltenham, Gloucestershire

Far from sheepish

This is one of five elaborate carved piers set at the entrance to a driveway that serves some houses in Cheltenham’s Bath Road. The houses stand back from the road, and have their own driveway, running parallel to the street, so that owners could dismount from their horses and carriages (and now from their cars) away form the bustle of the main drag. The five piers vary in design (some are topped with urns) but these caught my eye one day when waiting in a traffic queue on the Bath Road.

The fluted columns and the swags put them very much in the Regency taste – that’s exactly the period (the late-18th and early-19th centuries) when Cheltenham expanded as its fame as a spa grew. The neighbouring houses were built in the 1820s and early-1830s, and online sources date the piers to c. 1823. The rams’ heads are a charming and intriguing touch. I doubt if they’re symbolic of anything specific. They’re a popular motif of the period, seen sometimes as terminations for arms on chairs, as bits of ornament on buildings, or with fountains gushing out of their mouths. Now I’ve noticed these, no doubt I’ll be seeing others in all kinds of places.

The piers look as if they have been carefully restored, but they have actually changed quite a bit. They originally provided a bit of local street lighting: they were topped with iron tripods bearing oil lamps. Later these were converted to gas and later still they were removed completely. Now the piers simply perform the other part of their function: to mark the entrance to the driveway and to add to the elegance of this bit of Regency Cheltenham. And they’re good enough at that and at complementing the nearby houses to ensure admiration and a grade II listing. Hurrah!

Monday, September 17, 2018

Where credit is due

Readings and rereadings (1): Lucia Moholy, A Hundred Years of Photography

The chance purchase in a secondhand bookshop recently of three paperbacks form the late 1930s prompted me to think about a woman who, like many in the history of the arts, has been marginalised. She is Lucia Moholy, and among her publications is A Hundred Years of Photography, published by Penguin Books in 1939.

Lucia Schulz was born in Prague in 1894. A good linguist (like so many people in that city where it was an advantage to be fluent in both German and Czech), she qualified as a teacher of German and English, before studying philosophy and art history at university in Prague. She then worked as an editor in various publishing houses, including Rowohlt in Berlin, before marrying in 1920 the artist László Moholy-Nagy. He was developing his interest in photography and the couple explored this medium together. 

When Moholy-Nagy went to teach at the Bauhaus – first in Weimar then at its new school at Dessau designed by Walter Gropius – Lucia, now known as Lucia Moholy, joined him, working first as an apprentice and assistant in one of the Bauhaus photography studios, then as a Bauhaus-based freelancer. She collaborated closely with László on the experimental images (photograms, for example) made at the Bauhaus, but this work was published under his name only. She also made immaculate photographs of many of the objects created at the Bauhaus and at Dessau also photographed the buildings. It was Lucia Moholy’s photographs that introduced the Dessau Bauhaus to the world, that illustrated Bauhaus publicity, and that made Gropius’s designs of the school and the associated masters’ houses well known as leading examples of modernist architecture. For most people who could not go to Dessau for themselves, Lucia Moholy’s images of Bauhaus buildings and objects were the Bauhaus.*

By 1933 Lucia had split up with Moholy-Nagy, moved to Berlin to work in Johannes Itten’s school there, and had a communist boyfriend. Realising that her life and values would not appeal to Germany’s new National Socialist regime, she emigrated, travelling to Prague and Paris before reaching London, where she found work as a portrait photographer and wrote her history of photography for Penguin books. Allen Lane of Penguin was producing his Pelican series of non-fiction titles, their blue and white covers contrasting with the orange and white of the main Penguin list, which was mostly fiction. Books that seemed to have a pressing contemporary interest, like Anthony Bertram’s Design were published as ‘Pelican Specials’, and stood alongside ‘Penguin Specials’, which covered key subjects in the news or in contemporary politics. Photography, although it had been around for a century, was clearly developing quickly, with photographers responding to contemporary events, and taking their medium in interesting new directions, so Moholy’s book became a Pelican Special.§

The book is short, succinct, and covers the pioneers with authority and grace. Nicépohre Niepce, William Henry Fox Talbot, Louis Daguerre, Nadar – all are there, their significance explained with clarity. Perhaps Moholy allowed herself (or was allowed by Lane) too little space to cover the more recent photographers – some significant figures are mentioned only briefly. But her account would have been a useful primer for anyone engaged by photographic imagery but not sure of how it came to be, anyone who did not know their collodion from their silver nitrate, or their David Octavius Hill from their Roger Fenton. The short book and its three dozen pictures have just enough scope to show the amazing range that photographers had achieved by the 1930s, with everything from the Crimean war reportage of Fenton to a portrait by Cecil Beaton, from infra-red shots to high-speed photographs, from the clear imagery of Nadar to a portrait with the face daringly in shadow by Moholy herself.

Most of these images are scrupulously credited to their makers. Lucia Moholy was not so lucky with her own photographic work. At her hasty departure from Berlin, her beautiful glass-plate negatives of the Bauhaus were passed to Gropius, who used them widely in publications to showcase his architectural work without ever mentioning the photographer. Several times, when things were more settled, she asked Gropius to send the negatives back; several times he refused or ignored her requests. Meanwhile she carried on taking photographs, organising exhibitions, directing documentary films, and writing about art. She never did get all her photographs back from Gropius, although she was able to explain her work and that of her husband László in a bilingual publication, Moholy-Nagy Notes, which came out in 1980, nine years before her death.

Thanks to this later book, to contemporary archivists, to the internet, and to broadcasters such as Roman Mars, Sam Greenspan and the team at 99% Invisible,† Lucia Moholy’s story is much better known today. She has become one of many women in the history of the arts, once overlooked, who are now recognised for their achievements.¶ I was pleased to find out more about her story after listening to the 99% Invisible programme about her and the other week by buying a copy of her 1939 Pelican Special almost 80 years after it was issued, finding it in a secondhand bookshop here in Gloucestershire, priced at just one English pound.

Masters’ Houses, semi-detached house Kandinsky-Klee from north-west, architecture: Walter Gropius / photo: Lucia Moholy, 1926. Bauhaus-Archiv Berlin / © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2016.
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* For much of the post-war period, most people could not go to Dessau, because for outsiders travel to East Germany was difficult if not impossible – and in any case photography at the Bauhaus building was banned between 1950 and 1980.

§ Lucia Moholy wrote the book in English.

† 99% Invisible, ‘a tiny radio show about design’, is exemplary; its website contains dozens of illuminating back episodes. The one on Lucia Moholy is here. There is more information about Lucia Moholy here.

¶ Some of these eclipsed women – for example, in music Fanny Mendelssohn and Clara Schumann, in architecture and design Charlotte Perriand, Ray Eames, and Eileen Gray – are now being given their considerable due.