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.

- - - - -

*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. 

- - - - -

* 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.
- - - - -

* 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.

Thursday, September 13, 2018

Croome, Worcestershire

A connoisseur of views

On a couple of occasions in the past I’ve explored the grounds of Croome Court in Worcestershire, and have looked not only at a building in the park near the great house but also further out, to take in structures built as eye-catchers in the wider landscape. One of these outlying buildings that I’d not seen was the panorama tower, which was put up on the western side of the estate, in part as an eye-catcher and in part as a place from which which to admire the views. Recently I set off to find the panorama tower, an exercise that first off all meant getting over to the western side of the M5, the motorway having sliced through the old Croome estate, cutting the tower off from the house, park, and other eye-catchers. Coming out of the village of Kinnersley, I missed the place where I thought it was, and so pulled in where there was a parking space near a road junction. As soon as I got out of the car and peered over a gate I realised that I could see the tower not far away across a field – I’d reached the right place, by accident rather than design.

The tower, I saw, was round, domed, and classical in design. James Wyatt was the architect but apparently he based the tower on a drawing by Adam, so its design is earlier than the years on either side of 1810 when it was built. It’s very plain – the columns are Tuscan, the niches blank, the cornices simple, the dome shallow. Yet the overall effect is satisfying, thanks to the rhythm of the openings, the relationship between the lower section and the small domed upper storey, and the modest way in which the building occupies its elevated position, not dominating it but offering itself up and affording views eastwards towards Croome itself and westwards towards the Malverns and the Welsh hills.

The tower’s builder, the 6th Earl of Coventry, had a thing about towers and views, as many landed aristocrats did in the 18th and 19th centuries. The panorama tower beautifully complements the medieval-looking eyecatchers elsewhere in the park and also reminds us that the earl built the great Broadway Tower, miles away to the southeast on his Spring Hill estate. This is a sizeable and impressive presence on the Cotswold scarp, built to give views over thousands of square miles towards Croome and, again, far into Wales. Although much preoccupied with gardening and building, the earl must have been aware too of the beauty of Britain as a whole, and his towers – pigeonholed by some as ‘mere’ follies, both enhance that beauty and aid its appreciation.

Monday, September 10, 2018


Sun and shadows

Some architecture only looks really good in the sun. That’s true, in my opinion, of this building, the Catholic church of St Francis Xavier, in the middle of Hereford’s Broad Street. When I first saw it, drizzle was closing in and I didn’t feel inclined to linger and look at it. My mind pigeon-holed it away as a rather grandiose bit of early-19th century neoclassicism, trying hard to assert itself over the surrounding buildings, which fence it in. And there was another thing which seemed odd to me about it. The fact that there were only two Doric columns on such a big building seemed somehow strange, as did the paucity of fine detail: just flutes, triglyphs, and a bit of moulding. There was something about this that gave the impression of a small building that had been put under a magnifying glass. All this passed through my mind in a second or two as I passed by the building, without giving it much more thought. The other day when I found myself in this street again, the sun was out and the facade made a completely different impression. The sun lit up the mouldings and flutes, creating tonal contrast and casting shadows that gave a much better impression of their modelling. It also brought out the facade’s rich cream colour. There was something to engage me, after all.

When I got home, I looked the church up in Pevsner, and found that the architectural guide was illuminating about the building. It was designed by Charles Day and built in 1837–39, making it just Victorian. The design of the facade was based on the Treasury of the Athenians at Delphi, but the church is taller and the proportions are narrower than those of the ancient Greek building. The architect also intended there to be a pair of short towers, which presumably never got built. Pevsner also told me that Pugin, who was exercised particularly by churches, Catholic churches above all, hated it. He called it ‘a pagan temple’ and ‘a Catholic concert hall’. Only Gothic would do for Pugin. Much as I love Gothic, I don’t share the great Pugin’s doctrinaire views, but on that rainy day I’d have nodded in at least half-agreement with him. Now I’ve seen the church in the sun, I’m inclined to moderate my view. It’s amazing what a bit of tonal contrast will do.

Wednesday, September 5, 2018


Have a butcher’s at this

After a necessarily brief trip to Hereford recently, the Resident Wise Woman and I simultaneously came up with the thought that we ought to return and explore the place more thoroughly. It was not just that interesting buildings other than the familiar cathedral seemed to be popping up all over the place, but also that the sunshine brought out many details I’d not really looked at before, like some of the carving on this timber-framed building in the city centre. This landmark of 1621 is known as Butcher’s Hall, and was originally part of a row of wooden-framed shops and houses built by the city’s butchers. The rest of the row was demolished in a wave of architectural violence that occurred, I think, in the 19th century, when the city’s extraordinary medieval market hall was also destroyed. Only this stunner, now isolated at one end of the long open market place called High Town, remains.

The building’s name is almost certainly misleading. It seems not to have been a public building but was put up by one man, said to be the butcher John Jones, for his own use. It’s a riot of wooden posts, beams, and braces, and is generously windowed with what would have been very costly glass. The carving, on corbels, lintels, and bargeboards, is particularly lavish, although some of that on the porch is actually an 1880s addition, done when the building was converted to form the premises of a bank. In a fishing touch that many must miss, the square brick chimney is finished with crenellations and corner projections so that it resembles a tiny castle keep. With buildings like this, there’s always something that repays a second look. Butcher’s Hall is now a museum, and when I have more time I plan to return and go inside.
Butcher’s Hall, Hereford, chimney and bargeboards

Saturday, September 1, 2018

Poole, Dorset

Fine detail

It occurred to me after I did my previous post about the threshold mosaic in Hereford that I had a recent picture of another, which is better preserved and more artfully put together. On my recent trip to Poole I noticed the entrance lobby of Morton’s jewellers.* I was struck at first glance – and when I looked at it more closely, it seemed better still.

On this shop front the lobby starts at right-angles to the street before deviating to the left, making an odd shape for the mosaicist to work on. However, the result here is actually very impressive. One immediately notices a stylish border with groups of three short vertical lines that recall the triglyphs of Classical architecture. also clear to see is a very effective piece of lettering, with elongated Art Deco influenced forms and an extra-long central T. But look closer (clicking on the image to enlarge it will probably help) and you can see the careful way that the pale background tesserae have been laid. Those closest to the letters follow the lines of the strokes. Those outside the lettering area form fan-shaped swirls.

The whole thing is an impressive piece of work. It’s not strictly necessary, of course, to have an entrance floor like this. A few large tiles would have done the job. But advertising helps any business and intricate decorative work is appropriate for a jeweller’s premises. It suggests that the company cares about details, quality, and style.

- - - - -

Like my Poole tile finds, this was thanks to an excellent walk guided by The Tile Lady