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.