Monday, January 21, 2019

Radstock, Somerset

More scrolls

I want to share one more stone detail from the Somerset town of Radstock, to add to the one in my previous post. It’s the name stone for the Victoria Hall, obviously, and the building bears the date 1897. That was the 60th year of the reign of Queen Victoria, and the hall’s name apparently marks this milestone in the life of a queen who held, until the current queen surpassed it, the record for the country’s longest reigning monarch.

The building’s name plaque shown in my picture is one of a couple of carved plaques surrounded by small scrolls that adorn the front of the hall. The other gives the date and notes the commemoration of the queen. From all this, one would be forgiven for thinking this a hall of 1897. But beware of dates on buildings. They’re not all quite what they seem. This is in fact a building of 1866, which was enlarged in 1897. It was originally a Working Men’s Institute – a place, then, where men could attend informative and enlightening lectures, and where they would find other beneficial facilities, probably including a reading room.* However, in 1902 the hall’s function changed, when it became council offices, and it has now found another life as a community arts centre.
The building looks well made and solid, with some pleasant touches – the round-headed windows and the ornate gables, for example. The central gable boasts a pair of large scrolls, and scrolls, too, make their appearance as a decorative motif in the frame of the name plaque. The lettering is also decorative. It has not, it is true, broken out into the outré and curvaceous style of Art Nouveau lettering,† but it has its moments – especially the capital V, with its curving left-hand stroke, splaying to a forked termination at the top and its right-hand stroke, straighter but ending with a long flourish. That flourish is also interrupted by a tiny indentation about one third of the way along the top,§ so that the whole stroke looks like a raised leg with the foot enclosed in a tight-fitting shoe. Not so Victorian, then, after all.

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* For more on institutes, see a post I did long ago on a building in Banbury.

† There is an example of full-blown Art Nouveau lettering here.

§ My apologies if the small picture makes this detail difficult to see. I promise you, it’s there, and not a product of my imagination!

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Radstock, Somerset

Ups and downs

When I looked up Radstock in the Pevsner volume Somerset: North and Bristol, I had to smile. It seems that my perception of the town has changed, and that this alteration reflects exactly a change in the way the great architectural guides have seen the place. When I first saw Radstock, passing through with my father some time in the late 1960s, it seemed dark, dusty, and, frankly, ugly. It was a small mining town and, although there was some interest to be gleaned from passing trains and trucks and clanking machinery, it didn’t seem as if the place need detain us. The other day, the sun was shining, the buildings in the town centre were clean, and the architecture revealed interesting details; the pit had long gone, of course.

Pevsner, writing in 1958, found Radstock ‘really desperately ugly...without dignity in any building’. But his successor Andrew Foyle, in the revised volume of 2011, commented ‘...yet Radstock is among the best survivors in England of a small Victorian colliery town’. Tastes have changed, of course, and architectural historians are now open to a wider variety of subjects than they were in 1958 – thanks, it has to be said, in part to the work of Pevsner himself.

What struck me the other day was an array of buildings in clean, pale stone (white lias, I believe), festooned with interesting details. Most of these structures were part of a redevelopment by the Waldegrave family in the late-19th century, and they range from public buildings like the Victoria Hall to shops and a hotel. The peculiar capital in my photograph is a detail from one of the buildings. It must be an adaptation of a Classical order, perhaps the composite, but instead of a pair of downward-curving spiral volutes, there is a kind of scroll, in which one spiral goes upwards, the other down. For further adornment, there’s a rosette in the middle of each scroll. In spite of the worn stone, it’s still a charming detail, one small confirmation that there was plenty of room for inventiveness in this small, long unregarded, Somerset town.

Saturday, January 12, 2019

Bridgwater, Somerset

A small triumph of design

While I was in Bridgwater a few weeks ago, I spotted this rather good shopfront that I’d never noticed before. How could I have missed it? Perhaps because on my previous trips to the town I was on the look out for what I was ’supposed’ to be looking at – the town’s outstanding early Georgian houses, say, or Castle House, the surprising early concrete building of 1851 that I wrote about in my previous post. But on this occasion I devoted part of my visit to aimless wandering, and was pleased with what I found.

This is a late-Victorian or early-20th century shop front with a deep entrance lobby and a very attractive sign. You’d have to go a fair way to find as good an example of a gilded shop sign of this sort – the bold, chunky lettering is attractively proportioned, highly legible, and well laid-out. When you look closely, the panels on either end are also very decorative. It’s not just the filigree ornament around the panels; the words ‘Silk mercer & draper’ reveal flared uprights and frilly terminations to virtually every letter and the two words on the top line are separated by a tiny star, as if to compensate for the rather tight word spacing. None of this compromises the legibility of the letters – the sign is easy to read from some distance away.
Shops signs like this, better by far than the majority of modern signs in terms of craftsmanship, clarity, visual quality and durability, are small triumphs of design. The ones that survive should be cherished, and I take off my hat to any shopkeeper (like several of those in the Worcestershire town of Upton on Severn) who keep the old sign while displaying their own business name elsewhere, in the window itself, perhaps. I hope when a new business takes on this empty building they’ll do likewise. 

Tuesday, January 8, 2019

Bridgwater, Somerset

An Englishman’s home…

A few weeks ago I was in Bridgwater and wondered if Castle House, long hidden under scaffolding and protective sheeting, was at last visible again. I decided to have a look, but I was a few days too early. I’ll explain…

I first came across Castle House in 2004, when I was writing the book for the second series of BBC2’s programme Restoration. I learned that the house was built in 1851 and is a very rare early example of concrete construction. It was conceived and built by John Board, a cement manufacturer, and was designed as a showpiece for the material – in particular a way of showing that concrete was as good as conventional masonry at producing the kind of ornamental architecture that the Victorians loved. So the concrete was designed to look like stonework, and it was covered with ornamental flourishes – bands of interlocking circles, Tudoresque dripstones over the windows, scrolls over doorways. The building was designed as a family house, but it  also contained rooms for Broad’s offices: no doubt he was keen to show clients the potential of the material he manufactured and championed.

By 2004 the building was fire-damaged, derelict, decaying, and propped up with scaffolding. It had been empty for years and Historic England once called it ‘the most endangered historic building in the South West’. Its importance was championed by SAVE Britain’s Heritage,* and slowly, over many years, the plans and funds for its restoration came together. When the action got going, the painstaking work went on behind a swathe of scaffolding poles and sheeting.† And now the work on the walls and roof has been completed and the covering has been removed. The interiors are still to be completed, but the building is sound and watertight, and can at least be seen from the outside. I’ll have to return to Bridgwater and have a look for myself in the New Year.

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* The photograph at the top of this post comes courtesy of SAVE Britain’s Heritage.

† The architects for the restoration are Ferguson Mann Architects, who have been involved with the project since 2009.

Saturday, January 5, 2019

Cirencester, Gloucestershire

Above standard

I thought this building, just a couple of streets away from the timber-gabled, tile-hung pub in my previous post, would make a good follow-up to it. This is the former offices of the Wilts and Gloucestershire Standard newspaper.* It’s almost the same age as the pub – 1904 rather than 1902 in the case of the Brewer’s Arms – and also has timbered gables. But there the resemblance ends. The ground floor is in a sort of Cotswold Renaissance revival style – the mullioned window, Elizabethan-looking pilasters, and carved capitals would be at home in any Cotswold town, Painswick, Chipping Campden or Cirencester itself. But above, things change gear and the whole frontage is timber-framed, with big oriel windows and very fancy woodwork, from carved beams studded with Tudor roses to elaborate bargeboards. The upper floor is also jettied out to overhang the street.

This fine and rather surprising† building is the work of a Cirencester architect called Vincent Alexander Lawson, who worked in the town between 1885 and 1928. This example of his work is clearly very assured. He designed plenty of other buildings in the town and round about, and civil engineering work (he was a qualified civil engineer) as well as a lot of more straightforward Cotswold revival buildings. This striking office structure shows him exploring styles a bit more widely, if not wildly.
“Photograph it before it goes!” exclaimed the Resident Wise Woman, and she was right. The building is for sale, and though I’m sure the frontage will be preserved, the signage should be protected as well as the structure. The building is listed, and the signs are mentioned in the listing text, so there’s hope. That’s good because signs are often what go first from an old town-centre building, and the former newspaper office has not only some good lettering above the door and window but also a lovely hanging sign. This is shield-shaped, well lettered, and suspended from a very lively wrought-iron bracket. Information, craftsmanship, and enjoyment in one small package. Worth holding the front page for, I’d say.

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* The building only ceased to be used by the newspaper in 2017, and for much of its life combined the editorial office at the front with a print works at the rear. 

† Surprising, that is, in the context of Cirencester, where one might expect that a fine building of this period would be built entirely out of stone.

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

Cirencester, Gloucestershire

Rebus inspector

This is a pub that certainly stands out. Most of its neighbouring buildings in Cricklade Street in Cirencester are built of Cotswold limestone, which is also the dominant material in Cirencester as a whole. The Brewer’s Arms, on the other hand, is a resplendent concoction of 1902 with timbered gables at the top and red tile cladding on the middle floor – plus some red brick with bands of stone on the ground floor just visible in my photograph. The records show that a pub with the same name was here in the 1840s, so this must have been a rebuild, and the design was by William Drew & Son, from Swindon. The Drews threw everything at this facade, rather in the manner that the great brewery architect William Bradford liked to throw everything at a brewery, combining many different materials in a single structure, something he did most memorably perhaps at Hook Norton.
It’s no accident that the architects came from Swindon, because in 1869 the Brewer’s Arms became an Arkell’s pub, and Arkell’s brew their beer in the great railway town. No doubt the beer travelled from Swindon to Cirencester along the Cheltenham and Great Western Union Railway, which was built precisely to connect Cirencester to the GWR ‘capital’. The pub still serves Arkell’s beer, and it’s not just the big painted sign that tells us this. The facade also bears one of Arkell’s charming ceramic plaques with its boat and the date of the brewery’s foundation, 1843. It’s not just a boat, of course, but an ark, for this is a rebus: Ark + L = Arkell. The idea came from one of Arkell’s directors and the prototype was made by Heber Matthews in 1948, and went into production in 1952.* As with several other brewery plaques or ‘house marks’, the manufacturer was Doulton.† It’s just the sort of long-lasting marker of commercial distinctiveness that I admire.

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* I’m indebted to the website Defunctimissive for information about the date and designer of the plaque.

† I’ve previously posted examples of the West Country Breweries and Morland plaques.