Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Cheltenham, Gloucestershire

Theme and variations

Passing through the area of Cheltenham known as ‘the Suffolks’ the other day, my eye was caught by these capitals. They’re part of one of the town’s most beautiful terraces, which runs along one side of Suffolk Square, itself part of a development on land once owned by the Earl of Suffolk and built in 1832–48. The original architect was local man Edward Jenkins, who probably did the overall design before he left Cheltenham* and was replaced by the more famous J B Papworth.

Jenkins included a grand portico-like arrangement of columns and pediments at either end of the row, and the columns are topped by these Corinthian capitals.† I was struck when I looked up how the architect used two variations on the Corinthian design here. There are four round three-quarter columns like the left-hand one in the photograph above, almost free-standing, with a full complement of flutes and the usual Corinthian capital, which has two layers of leaves topped by small scrolls. These are framed by two outer columns, this time square, fluteless, and bearing an abbreviated or truncated version of the capital. This is what you see in the right-hand capital in the photograph, a capital with  leaves only at the corners and a strip of egg and dart moulding that fills the space between them. This different design allows the architect to put two columns very close together without the straight repetition of capital design that one sometimes sees.

These adapted capitals are a reminder that designers and builders were always coming up with variations on the five ‘classic’ orders. In the past I’ve noted the Borromini order (a sort of upside-down Ionic) in Blandford, a Pergamene order in Clifton, a bird stretching its wings among Corinthian foliage in Birmingham, and the wonderfully eccentric and original ammonite order in Lewes§. Classicism in England is often most interesting when not a straitjacket but a jumping-off point for design, a place for elegant variations within a standard framework of features and proportions. And how well it works.

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* For more on the circumstances under which Jenkins left his drawing board, see my earlier post on the church he and Papworth designed, which is very near these houses.

† Their acanthus leaves and small scrolls make them Corinthian; larger scrolls (like those on Ionic capitals) above the leaves would make them Composite.

§ And even a Gothic order, taking us outside the sphere of Classicism


bazza said...

I must say that my first impression of those two columns was that they looked odd together. However, I do agree with your point about how English architecture is very inventive within the classical framework. I often sees buildings that make me think that a purist would be horrified by but they provide great visual pleasure.
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Joseph Biddulph (Publisher) said...

J.S.Curl made the same point in 'Classical Architecture' - that within the "strict rules" there can be almost infinite variation. Keeping within the rules regarding proportion, etc. guarantees a kind of integrity without really trying: like a well-constructed poem with proper metre and rhyme - it can work, even if the sentiment is almost pure nonsense. With pre-cast materials, a Classical facade could be slapped on many a concrete block currently being foisted on urban landscapes - you could order so many yards, Corinthian, so much Ionic, and so on! But, then again, after so many years of looking at good buildings, perhaps I'm just a stick-in-the-mud olde-fashioned Philistine?

Anonymous said...

Hi, that square column is probably meant to 'read' as an anta, which was a classical way of terminating a wall. The fact that it's almost freestanding is certainly unusual, but would produce a nice effect for passersby, visually strengthening the facade while (from certain angles) shielding the sides from view.

Fascinating stuff!