Saturday, March 23, 2019

Cheltenham, Gloucestershire


Looking sideways, reaching skywards

I mentioned in a recent post the perils of concentrating on ‘what one should be looking at’. My point was that in going in search of, say, the rightly celebrated early-Georgian houses of Bridgwater, one might miss a Victorian shop front, an Art Deco clock, and other delights. So you will sometimes find me taking a perverse look in an unpredicted direction – going to Bath and looking not at Royal Crescent but at public lavatories, or finding Gog and Magog in Norwich rather than medieval churches, or when I am in a medieval church, making time for some modern fixtures and fittings as well as the more obviously ‘interesting’ Norman carvings. It’s my version of what the designer Alan Fletcher called The Art of Looking Sideways.*

In Cheltenham, the town where I grew up and near where I now live again, I’ve had several decades to look sideways in many different directions. Cheltenham, of course, is a Regency spa. But there’s much more to it than that. Most visitors, their eyes on the town’s Regency terraces and squares, its spa buildings, the shops in its Promenade and Montpellier, don’t look, for example, at the town’s collection of 19th-century churches. And Cheltenham has some fine, not to say extraordinary, churches, the fruit of an interesting religious history in a town that embraced both Tractarianism and a vigorous evangelical revival – both high and low Anglicanism, in other words (not to mention most other branches of Christianity, from Roman Catholicism to Unitarianism).

Here’s one of my favourite Cheltenham churches. It’s Christ Church, built in 1837–39 to designs by the brothers R. W. and C. Jearrad. Although its architectural components are in many ways standard Gothic ones (Early English or 13th-century-style Gothic mostly, with a Perpendicular or 15th-century-style tower) they are wielded with such originality that the building makes you stand and stare. There are acute-angled gables, pointed-topped buttresses, and little spires on the tops of stair turrets everywhere, all sending the gaze relentlessly upward, as do the narrow lancet windows. The tower’s walls are more ornately carved walls than the rest of the building, but its slender corner pinnacles and tall windows continue the upward pointing theme, as do the curious gable-like features that frame the clock faces half way up. The gable visible on the face of the tower in my photograph makes it look at if the tower is set some distance back from the west front, but actually it’s hardly set back at all.

How to sum up this extraordinary building? Pevsner can do no better than quote the description of Harry Goodhart-Rendell: ‘An outstanding fantasy in the style of a Staffordshire china ornament, that could stand on the largest chimneypiece in the world. There is also a tall Perpendicularish tower with a lamentable expression; you expect it to sob.’§ That’s apt, and gets to the heart of this design. In a way, it’s a decorator’s idea of a Gothic church, the fulfilment of the idea that Gothic points heavenward and uplifts us, with a surge of verticality. It is then, above all, a design that’s keen to provoke emotions in the beholder, in a way that 19th-century churches did much more than those of the previous period. But then (and this is perhaps where the sob comes in) it’s a design that seems to lament the fact that as mere mortals we can never quite reach as far into the sky as we’d like.

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* See Alan Fletcher, The Art of Looking Sideways (Phaidon Press, 2001)

§ For Goodhart-Rendell’s description, see his English Architecture Since the Regency (Constable, 1977)

¶ The way the Victorians placed emphasis on a building’s ability to move its users is excellently expounded in William Whyte, Unlocking the Church (Oxford University Press, 2017), which I reviewed here.

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

The Lea, Herefordshire


The elephant in the room, or, Odd things in churches (11)

Although it’s not at all odd for a church to have a font, this one is odd, as English fonts go. First of all, it’s Italian; secondly, it’s elaborately carved and inlaid; thirdly, it didn’t start out as a font at all, but as a stoup. That I was able to come across this exotic object in a church in Herefordshire, near the border with Gloucestershire, is due to a gift. The font was donated by a Mrs Hope-Edwards, as a memorial to her mother, and she got it from a London dealer who imported it for Italy. It’s said to be of the 12th or 13th century, and Mrs Hope-Edwards gave it to the church in 1909.

The round bowl is carved with various interlacing patterns and a number of small scenes – just visible in my upper photograph are a man in a boat (he’s holding an oar, but the vessel’s large sail is also visible), and a fox making short work of a chicken. Other scenes feature a dog attacking a ram, a peacock eating a fish, and a woman also with a fish. The bowl is set on a distinctive shaft that has a faux-knot halfway up and the staff is carried on the back of an elephant, a creature that seems to have ears very like human ones. As well as the carving, another delight of the font is the mosaic or Cosmati work running around the bowl and around the saddle cloth that is draped over the elephant’s body.
Scholars of medieval sculpture have made comparisons with work in such places as the cathedrals of Canosa di Puglia and Bari. I have seen ‘knotted’ shafts like this one at Modena cathedral. The meticulous mosaic work, with its tiny diamond-shaped and triangular tesserae certainly has an Italian feel too. In the right lighting conditions the golden tesserae must glitter attractively. Alas! England could not provide sunny weather on the day I visited, but the font still brightened a rather gloomy interior.

Sunday, March 17, 2019

Gaulby, Leicestershire


The far pagodas

My recent visit to Leicestershire involved the great pleasure of being taken to a couple of churches I’d not seen before. It’s always good to be on the road with my Leicestershire correspondent, and to be taken to little known gems via scenic routes in an under-appreciated but often beautiful part of the country. The church at Gaulby is just such a place, and just the sort of thing I like to celebrate on this blog: not great architecture, but interesting, distinctive building that is worth a closer look.

St Peter’s Gaulby* was rebuilt in 1741 for the squire William Fortrey by the architect John Wing, whose son designed the church at nearby King’s Norton for the same squire. At Gaulby the chancel was left as it was and the rest of the church built anew. Wing took his cue for the architecture of the nave from the existing chancel, which has a five-light east window under a depressed arch, the whole window divided in two by a horizontal bar (known as a transom). So the nave also has transomed windows, also under depressed arches.§

But for the tower, Wing changed styles and made it a classical job with big round-arched bell openings in the upper stage and tiny circular and semicircular windows lower down. At the top of the tower, he added an impressive if bizarre array of pinnacles – little ones like obelisks halfway along each parapet and at the corners tall ones topped with structures like miniature pagodas. I’ve no idea whether the architecture was consciously influenced by pagodas – 1741 seems a little early for architecture chinoiserie in England.† Wherever they come from, they’re certainly arresting, adding an exotic and eccentric highlight to the prevailing texture of vernacular marlstone buildings and stately trees.

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* The name’s alternative form is Galby.

§ The light was rather strong on the morning we were there. It might help to click on the picture to bring the details more clearly into view.

† Sir William Chambers’ book Designs of Chinese Buildings, for example, fruit of his youthful travels with the East India Company, came out in 1757.

Thursday, March 14, 2019

Seeing, drawing, teaching



John Ruskin: The Power of Seeing
An exhibition at Two Temple Place, London
Curated by Sheffield Museums and the Guild of St George

‘Is Mr Ruskin living too long?’ asked the architect E. W. Godwin in a piece written in 1878.* Godwin had revered the great Victorian sage and been inspired by his book The Stones of Venice, but now Ruskin was embroiled in a controversy with the artist Whistler; Whistler seemed the latest great thing in art and Ruskin suddenly seemed old hat. Just under a hundred years later, when I was at university, Quentin Bell, art historian and biographer (and nephew) of Virginia Woolf came to persuade us that it was still worth reading Ruskin: few of us can ever have read more than a page or two of the great man, who seemed a distant figure indeed.

In the 21st century, Ruskin can seem yet more remote: a Victorian who wrote interminable books with impenetrable titles,† who promoted a kind of architecture – Gothic – that harks back to the Middle Ages, who had a famously disastrous marriage, who was active in so many areas that it’s hard to pin him down. And yet his influence has been profound. The proto-socialism of his book Unto This Last, attacking free-market economics, guided pioneers of the Labour party, inspired Gandhi to found a newspaper on which everyone was paid equally, and has been said to prefigure some of the ideas of the Green movement. His writings, especially the vast Modern Painters, gave Turner (among the greatest of all English artists) his due for the first time. He developed a new appreciation of Venice and its architecture – as well as a sense of that city’s fragility – in The Stones of Venice, a book that also made an eloquent case for Gothic architecture. He presented art and history in exciting, if sometimes baffling, new ways in works such as Fors Clavigera, his absorbing series of polymathic letters to the working men of England. There’s more? There’s more. He could draw like an angel. He lectured tirelessly. And he gave away much of his inherited wealth to promote educational projects, such as his museum (it has been called a ‘people’s museum’) in Sheffield, and schemes that taught people how to live a better life, like his Guild of St George.
John Ruskin, Study of Moss, Fern and Wood-Sorrel, upon a Rocky River Bank, 1875–79. © Collection of the Guild of St George / Museums Sheffield

Most of what Ruskin wrote and did was animated by this educational mission, and he went at it with the zeal of a prophet. That’s one of the things that comes across vividly in the exhibition John Ruskin: The Power of Seeing at Two Temple Place in London. This show features drawings and watercolours that Ruskin did that show people how to see – minute studies of leaves or the surfaces of rocks, of mosses and ferns, of glaciers, of a peacock’s breast feather, delineations of architectural details, landscapes inspired by works of Turner and by Ruskin’s incessant travelling. But the exhibition is also stuffed with things that he collected, for his museum and to show anyone (students at Oxford, members of the public who attended his many lectures) how too look at nature – specimen rocks and minerals, botanical drawings, paintings of birds by Audubon and Edward Lear, old master paintings, architectural carvings.

This commitment to education is something that shines through the exhibition. Most of what Ruskin drew or collected seems to have been drawn or acquired for a practical, instructional purpose – to reproduce in books (works like The Seven Lamps of Architecture and The Stones of Venice are full of wonderful prints from his drawings of buildings), to illustrate lectures, to add to the museum.  Ruskin is talking to us through these objects – revealing tiny worlds among the mosses and ferns, showing the effect of light on a carving, demonstrating the use of ornament or different coloured stones on a building, explaining how an artist like Turner saw and painted the St Gothard Pass. It’s a wonderfully varied exhibition, because, as he said, ‘The teaching of art, as I understand it, is the teaching of all things’.

Because art, for Ruskin, is at the heart off all things, this makes The Power of Seeing a very serious exhibition. This does not make it dull, though. Far from it. The interest and quality of what’s on display justifies the seriousness, and makes it worth one’s while waiting to get close to some of the watercolours so that one can take in the minute detail. But there is amusement to be had too. A couple of large panels display quotations from his writings under the heading ‘Fifteen Things Heartily Loathed by John Ruskin’. What does he loathe? The Renaissance buildings of Venice (‘amongst the worst and basest ever built by the hands of men’), lawyers (‘Not one of them shall ever have so much as a crooked sixpence of mine’), Palladio, Wagner’s Die Meistersinger, railway stations, cycling, being photographed, Victorian church statuary (‘A gross of kings sent down from Kensington’), and more. Out of step with his time? And with our own? In part, perhaps. But no less absorbing for that and still, at Two Temple Place, very much alive and kicking.

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Top illustration: John Ruskin, Santa Maria della Spina, East End, Pisa, Italy, 1845 © Collection of the Guild of St George / Museums Sheffield

* Ruskin was to live until 1900, but by the time Godwin asked his question much of Ruskin’s greatest works were written, with the exception of the later numbers of Fors Clavigera and his autobiography, Praeterita.

† What do all these Latin or Latinate titles mean? Praeterita means ‘Of past things’; Fors Clavigera is difficult to translate, and its author wanted it understood in several parallel ways – you just have to read it.

Friday, March 8, 2019

Church Langton, Leicestershire


The old order

This house, which I’ve admired several times when I’ve been driving northwards through the Langtons, a cluster of villages in Leicestershire north of Market Harborough, seems to be the epitome of Georgian country life, something that looks as if it has been at home in its setting since the 18th century, an admirable and unchanging bit of domestic architecture in the style of the great Robert Adam. The balanced composition, the central arch, the urns and swags – all these evoke the age of Adam (1728–92) beautifully. And yet, although I can do no more than scratch the surface of a building I’ve never been inside, it has actually changed a bit over the years.

The house was built, probably in the 1780s, for a member of the Hanbury family, one of a line of Hanburys who were rectors of this once prosperous living. Its architect is not known for certain, but the design is very similar to that of a house in Mountsorrel and both buildings have been attributed to the architect William Henderson of Loughborough. However, it’s now the Old Rectory, so is no longer the home of the rector. A friend who lives locally showed me a photograph taken in the 1970s from the rear, which shows that the side wings were then little more than brick walls – dummy wings, in short, made to make the house look larger and to balance the grand centrepiece; now they seem to be proper wings with rooms in them.

A further change is that at some stage the urns on the parapet were removed, along with the decorative relief of swags and urn in the central pediment. An illustration in the old Highways and Byways book on Leicestershire, which came out in 1923, shows the front of the building without these adornments. By the time the revised Pevsner Buildings of England volume on Leicestershire and Rutland was produced and published in 1984, there were urns on the parapet once more (modern cement ones, as now) but no pediment decoration. But the other day when I passed and took the photograph above the decorative ensemble had been restored (my local friend assures me it was there in 2007 when he took another photograph), so perhaps the house now looks as good as it ever did. Which in my book is very good indeed.

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J. B. Firth, Highways and Byways in Leicestershire (Macmillan, 1923)

Monday, March 4, 2019

Little Washbourne, Gloucestershire


A short diversion

I have posted about this church before, but wanted to show you another photograph of it because as I drove past the end of the no-through-road where it’s sited today, I noticed that the blossom was already out. A short diversion brought me back to the lane and the churchyard, to see that there are not only trees with blossom but also daffodils in bloom up the grass path to the church.

No through road, lane, grass path – it all makes the tiny church at Little Washbourne sound remote. However, it’s only a couple of hundred yards from the road between Tewkesbury and Stow-on-the-Wold – hardly a trunk road, but not remote either. Yet when you turn off, this spectacle of quiet greenery and blossom awaits you. Part of the joy of English buildings is their settings, whether smack in the middle of a town, like the factory in my previous post, or up a country lane and a grass path.

There’s no grand architecture here – just a medieval parish church modified by the Georgians and left much as it was since then. But where it is, the flowers on the approach to it, the clouds of white blossom to its left, and the still whiter clouds in the sky, all make it worth stopping and looking. And when the main road is quiet, the noisiest thing here is the buzzing of bees for the nearby hives.


Friday, March 1, 2019

Market Harborough, Leicestershire


Clothing the world

My first acquaintance with Market Harborough was when I was a teenager, during a long and exhausting bus journey across the country. There had been a series of traffic hold-ups, driver changes, and diversions, and as far as I can remember the route was not scheduled to include the quiet rural roads of Rutland and this part of Leicestershire at all. By the time the bus reached Market Harborough, it too was quiet. The shops had closed and most of the workers had gone home. But it was time for the bus to make a surprise stop, with ten minutes for a what was then euphemistically described as the opportunity to ‘stretch our legs’. There was just time to find a gents and notice the parish church with its tall spire (dedicated to St Dionysius – I wouldn’t forget that in a hurry), the timber-framed old grammar school, and a vast Victorian red-brick factory, then rather down at heel but still apparently in use, right in the middle of the town.* I had no idea that the factory’s products were almost as outdated as the architecture: this was the corset factory of Symington and Company, who once had the ambition to provide supportive undergarments for every woman in the world.

Yesterday I was passing through the town quite early in the morning and thought it might be quiet enough to take a photograph of the factory without too much traffic around it. There wasn’t the total lack of parked vehicles I’d hoped for, but the towering brick walls dwarfed the large white van that had pulled in on the pavement and the nearby trees, still without their leaves on this February morning, allowed one to make out the architecture. Rows of tall windows make for what must be a very light interior – necessary for the sewing that went on within, using ranks of Singer sewing machines. Symington’s were one of the first companies to modernise their production process by using these machines. The millions of garments they made bore the labels of retailers, such as Marks and Spencer’s, so the company was not famous outside its field. But the formula worked, and Symington’s went on to open factories in Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa. When fashions changed, and women and girls sought alternatives to the restrictive corset, they invented the liberty bodice, as well as continuing to make corsets and what Symington’s, with good old-fashioned Francophilia, called brassières (grave accent and all).

At first glance the factory’s architecture is a bit like an overgrown Victorian board school, but it’s enormous, and set off with a succession of tall gables, each with a distinctive semicircular window. There’s another such window in the Italianate end tower, too, which is topped with a tapering roof and small cupola – as if the factory were not already a noticeable landmark, visible above the surrounding shops and grammar school. The size of the building speaks of the company’s success – they’d commissioned the factory in 1889 when their previous premises, an old carpet works to the southeast, proved too small. Local architects, Everard and Pick, did the design, and they were still around to extend the building in 1894 and 1926. When the factory finally closed in 1980 and it was converted for use by the local council, the successor practice, Pick, Everard, Keay & Gimson, were the architects. In more ways than one, it seems, the Symington’s factory has long been at heart of life in Harborough.

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* A major part of the impact of this building comes from its town centre site, where it dwarfs the surrounding buildings. It is comparable in this respect with the enormous Wadworth brewery in Devizes, about which I posted here.

Update 5 March 2019 A reader has provided an excellent extended comment, containing much information on the factory and company. You can read this buy pressing the word COMMENTS just below. 

Monday, February 25, 2019

South Bank, London


Back in the swim

This sculpture, called The Sunbathers, by Peter Laszlo Peri, is now on an internal wall in the Royal Festival Hall on London’s South Bank. The piece was made for the 1951 Festival of Britain, and was installed on a wall of the Waterloo Station Gate to the Festival’s South Bank site, on York Road. Like most of the Festival, the sculpture was not intended to remain there permanently – nearly everything on the South Bank, except for the Festival Hall, was swept away after the Festival closed.

Perhaps The Sunbathers was always meant to be an occasional piece – many of the sculptures made for the event were destroyed. It’s not the greatest depiction of a pair of human figures, but it has significance of several kinds – historically, for its prominent place on the Festival site, compositionally, for the innovative way in which its position on the wall enforces an unusual viewpoint, and technically,  because it was an experiment in making figurative sculpture out of concrete. However, like so much of the art made for the Festival it was long thought lost.

In 2016, Historic England put on an absorbing exhibition in Somerset House called Out There: Post-War Public Art. The show included several images of lost public art, and asked visitors to submit information if they knew the whereabouts of any of these lost works. Two people responded that they had seen The Sunbathers in the garden of the Clarendon Hotel in Blackheath. Investigation revealed the two figures, badly damaged, under a tarpaulin in the garden where they had been left with the hope of restoring them and displaying them somewhere.

For over six decades, The Sunbathers remained a memory, of which readers of histories of the Festival and of Dylan Thomas’s essay about the event* were occasionally reminded. After a crowdfunded project to restore them, the figures are now on show inside the Festival Hall, not far from displays about the Festival of Britain and the origins of this famous concert hall. This spot on the wall in the foyer, a short walk from the work’s original home, does not seem a bad place for it to end up.

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* ‘The Festival Exhibition’, reprinted in Ralph Maud (ed.), Dylan Thomas: The Broadcasts (J. M. Dent & Sons, 1991). 

Note On 26 February 2019, I corrected the text of this post because as originally posted, the title of the sculpture and the date of the Historic England exhibition were incorrect. 

Thursday, February 21, 2019

Temple Place, London


At a slight angle to the universe

In Temple Place the other day* I was charmed to see this – a 1920s K2 telephone kiosk, designed by Giles Gilbert Scott, still in situ and sill apparently with a telephone inside. This is the ‘original’ red telephone box design – not in the sense that it’s the earliest type of telephone kiosk, but that it is the first of the red, shallow-domed designs by Scott to be made in quantity. I’ve notice before the prototype, preserved at the entrance to the Royal Academy in Piccadilly and slightly different in detail from the ‘standard’ K2 that developed from it.†

It was an instant success in terms of effective, recognisable design: from the 1920s on, until the 1970s, the ‘red box’ meant a public telephone – even if the later, slightly shorter and simpler K6 box was the one that was made in the largest quantities.§ The K2 has a taller upper part than the K6, gold crowns (which are pierced for ventilation), and a band of fluted moulding running around the doorway. Today, relatively scarce K2s are listed and although they can now be little used they are such a familiar part of the scene that it’s good to see them retained. This one did slightly worry me, though. Look and lean as I might, the box itself does seem to be leaning rather alarmingly. Every other building around it seems to be vertical, but the box is a few degrees out of true. I hope it’s stable, and continues to give visual pleasure and good service for many years.

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* To visit the current exhibition about John Ruskin, which is well worth catching. It’s a curious coincidence that I seem to notice telephone boxes when going to art exhibitions: see the links below for a couple of other examples.

† My post about the prototype K2 box near the Royal Academy is here.

§ There is post about a K6 box near Henry Moore’s old house at Perry Green here.

Monday, February 18, 2019

Old Street, London


Sign of past times

Crowning a rather utilitarian looking building on Old Street – mostly a mix of brick walls and long, metal-framed strip windows – is this fancy pediment carved in an elegant letterform ‘H. Snuggs & Co’. I can’t be the only person to have looked up there above the fourth floor and wondered who H. Snuggs was.

He was, it turns out, an ironmonger, who was in partnership with Joseph Snuggs and John Edward Harwood in the late-19th century. This partnership was dissolved in 1899, when Henry Snuggs seems to have left, but the firm carried on until at least the 1920s. The notice of the partnership’s dissolution in 1921 says they were ‘Wholesale ironmongers’, so they would have been supplying goods to many different retail outlets, probably mainly in London but perhaps further afield. Ironmongers offered huge ranges of stock, from cutlery and kitchenware to stoves, grates, doorbell systems, tools of all sorts, and, in the country, agricultural equipment too. No doubt those light upper rooms would have been full of such stock.

It’s a tall, narrow building, and the sign, with its thin-stroked lettering, seems rather subtle for a commercial company that needed to signal its presence on a busy street. However, I recall a photograph from more than twenty years ago showing the sign looking rather different, with the letters picked out against a terracotta background, as if it, like the walls, were built of brick. With this sort of colour scheme, and no doubt a bold sign lower down at shop-front level, it was probably clear to everyone where H. Snuggs was, and what it was he was selling.

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Marylebone Road, London


Maestoso, etc

I often walk along Marylebone Road and I usually admire the Royal Academy of Music as I pass. The other day I did what I’ve always meant to do, and stopped to take a photograph. It’s a building of 1910 by Sir Ernest George, a good late-Victorian and Edwardian architect known for his country houses and his versatility (his practice designed all kinds of buildings from Golders Green Crematorium to mansion flats) but always rather in the shadow of his even more successful pupil, Edwin Lutyens.

I like the well-mannered baroque of his Royal Academy design. The materials, red brick and Portland stone, are thoroughly at home in London, the facade looks rather like a country house, with its side wings, but is also urban, somehow – perhaps it’s the sense of height conveyed by those vertical ranks of windows and the tall chimneys.
Towards the top it gets very fancy, with those round oeil de boeuf windows, the curved pediment, the reclining figures with musical instruments to hand, and the extraordinary window in the centre of the pediment, that can’t make up its mind whether it’s oval or rectangular. It’s majestic, but also very lively – in musical terms, maestoso, but with decidedly allegro passages. Altogether, it’s a building that enlivens my days when I pass, as the work of some of its alumni enlivens my evenings.

Saturday, February 9, 2019

Shoreditch, London

 Pub tile style

Its tiles gleaming in winter sunlight, the Hope Pole in Pitfield Street, Shoreditch, is certainly an eye-catcher. Although it’s no longer a pub, it retains its mottled green exterior tiles and the tiles that bear its name in large letters, both above the entrance and at cornice level. Truman’s had quite a lot of pubs with green tiles and ceramic lettering, a very effective combination offering the publican the benefits both of a highly visible building and a set of walls that were easy to clean. But Truman’s weren’t the only brewery to use green tiles on pubs – Charrington’s, Young’s and others also used green; oxblood, buff, and an orangey-yellow were also popular colours for pub tiles. The Hop Pole also has some brown ceramic work, which is used to particularly good effect on the decorative surround of the dormer window.

Today’s Londoners might find the name an appropriate one for a house serving beer, even if hop-poles seem a world away from what is virtually Central London. And yet, even north of the river, Kentish hop farms weren’t far off once you got to one of the South London stations. Many poor London families in the 19th and early-20th centuries, unable to afford a proper holiday, took temporary work helping with the Kent hop harvest. Hopping (or, more popularly, ‘oppin’) was, if not quite a rest, at least a change looked forward to by many dwellers in the capital.
The lettering that bears the pub name is effective too, from the generously full-bodied forms in the name sign at the top of the building to the more elongated letters of the name above the door. The way they stand out in low relief adds the effect of natural shadow on a sunny day. This makes them very visible from afar and also satisfying when viewed close-up. This is hardly the most elaborate pub tiling – tiles could be put to much more decorative use, as at Poole’s stunning Swan Inn – but it’s attractive and the Victorian publican must have been proud of the building. If it’s sad to see so many pubs that have closed, it’s heartening that a few of these Victorian exteriors live on.

Wednesday, February 6, 2019

Farthinghoe, Northamptonshire


Lift up your eyes…

Here is the other monument that caught my eye in the church at Farthinghoe. It’s to George Rush, father of the two young women whose monument was the subject of my previous post, and he died aged 70 in 1803, just two years after his daughters. He was clearly a man of substance – the inscripton on the monument refers to him as ‘late Patron of the Rectory of Farthinghoe and Benefactor to the Parish’. He died, what’s more, at his house in Upper Brook Street, Grosvenor Square, London, an address almost as upmarket then as it is now. The family could clearly afford a good sculptor to do his effigy, and the man they chose was CharlesRegnart.

Regnart was the son of a carver from Flanders who settled in Bristol, but by the time this monument was made he had moved to loved, where his studio was established in Fitzroy Square. His family claimed descent from Raginhart, a Goth who had fought with Alaric when Rome was sacked. If his ancestor really did take part in the fall of the Roman empire, Charles Regnart did not work in a Gothic style. This monument is classical in sensibility, and certainly striking in its quality. The sculpture shows Rush recumbent, holding a substantial book, presumably a copy of the Bible. But he has looked up from his reading, to stare not at us, but at something beyond, at the beyond, it may be, or at the sky or ceiling at any rate. His expression doesn’t look at all sad: maybe his heirs took heart that he had found consolation or inspiration from what he was reading. It seems that he had finished the book…and that the book of life was about to be closed.

In my book, the carving is very good indeed. The face is well handled and characterful, the hands lifelike, the folds of drapery dramatically undercut. Even the book is believable – the thick leather binding, the pages delineated, some pages even slightly ruffled to tell us that this is a volume that has been used. I was very impressed indeed by this sculpture, and even though the lighting didn’t make it easy to photograph, I hope my image has captured its essence. Hats off to Mr Regnart. I hope that the family of the deceased found the monument consoling and maybe even uplifting. Over 200 years on, I was not a little uplifted myself.

Sunday, February 3, 2019

Farthinghoe, Northamptonshire


The old order, changing

I have learned, as an inveterate church-visitor, to accept that old churches have had to evolve in order to accommodate changing usage, and that such evolution continues. Many of the buildings are medieval, and since they were built churches have acquired now-common features such as vestries and organs that take up space or mean that parts of an ancient building have had to be adapted for new purposes. The locations of major fixtures and fittings – seating, pulpits, screens, the main altar – may have changed. And church buildings may have to accommodate such facilities as kitchen areas, children’s corners, and the Mothers’ Union noticeboard.

Much as I might find some of these things intrusive, in years of church-crawling I’ve learned to look around or beyond such distractions, and have found rewarding carvings in vestries, stained glass behind organs, and monuments in all sorts of places. I have benefitted from the hospitality of vicars and churchwardens, who have ushered me through locked doors to find hidden Norman doorways and Saxon crypts.* And I have occasionally quietly moved notices and bits of freestanding furniture so that I can get a better look at things, before carefully replacing them.

At Farthinghoe, I was enticed by a plinth and a bit of carved drapery poking out from beneath a pinboard containing all kinds of notices to do with the choir, the Parochial Church Council, and the Mothers’ Union. This noticeboard was set upon a table that was to one side of the drapery; to the other side was a white, formica-covered shelving unit. It didn’t feel right for me to move either of these pieces of furniture, but the noticeboard was not attached to the wall, resting only on the table, and could easily be shifted to one side. What was behind it is in my photograph.

It’s the monument of Henrietta and Catherine Rush, unmarried sisters, who both must have died in or around 1801. The accompanying tablet, of which I caught sight at the other side of the table, says that the monument was ‘erected by their afflicted father, 1801’.† Pevsner adds that the monument has been broken into two parts – two parts comprising the figure and the tablet, presumably, though I couldn’t work this out fully because I couldn’t quite see what was going on behind the furniture. But at least I could appreciate the delicate carving of the figure and urn, the pretty if rather stylised face, the folds of drapery, the fluted pattern on the urn.

If I’m occasionally irritated by the inelegant impedimenta of the working church, I console myself with the thought that this at least means that the building is used…although I also remember with sympathy the exasperated words of Pevsner, finding a church full of worshippers who made it impossible for him to examine the building properly: ‘Really, the uses some people put these buildings to...’¶ It was, of course, partly the great man’s joke about himself. So it was with a wry smile at least in part at my own expense that I carefully replaced the noticeboard, tiptoed out into the sunshine, and went on my way, grateful for what I’d seen.

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* And sometimes at inconvenience to themselves, to help someone who had turned up out of the blue; I am humbled. On one occasion I was chilled to be shown a crypt full of human bones, a sight I have not yet found it possible to write about.

† The father, George Rush, has his own monument, another stunner, to which I will return.

¶ The remark was remembered by Pevsner’s collaborator Bridget Cherry and is quoted in Susie Harries’s excellent biography of Pevsner; see Nikolaus Pevsner: The Life, p. 541.

Thursday, January 31, 2019

Ilmington, Warwickshire


Old school ties

On the day of my recent visit to Ilmington the sun was quite strong and while this brought out the wonderful colour of the church’s stone walls, other buildings were plunged into shadow. I had to work quite hard to get a clear picture of this building, Old School House. The house immediately struck me, with its geometric pattern of white glazing bars making diamonds and hexagons in the pointed Gothic windows. Then there’s the trefoil-arched entrance porch, another characterful touch in this house of the 1840s.

At first, the light being less clear than it looks in the photograph, I hardly noticed the masonry except to note that it’s the local butterscotch-coloured marlstone. The walls are mostly coursed and squared blocks, but not as finely finished as ashlar, except for the window surrounds, which are altogether neater. But look at the corner. Some of the quoin stones are whoppers, giving an impression of great if discreet solidity, even though the walls are strengthened these days by some X-ended tie-rods.

The Ordnance Survey map of 1885 shows a school to the northwest of the church, next to this house. So presumably this was the school-master’s house, and if it was built in the 1840s, that was well before compulsory state-funded elementary education – whoever paid for it did the teacher proud.

Sunday, January 27, 2019

Ilmington, Warwickshire


Looking ahead

I’d not got far up the churchyard path to St Mary’s, Ilmington, before I saw the extraordinary monument near the church’s south doorway. Once I was a little nearer I began to take it in, and to see what it was: an 18th-century tomb (the date is 1750, it turns out) that aspires to be a miniature building, with a lower section parapeted with castle-like battlements, and the whole thing topped with a lantern-tower and spire.

The masonry of the lower part looks plain at first sight, but close-to one can distinguish some pilasters at the corners topped with tiny cusped blank arches, while the battlements are decorated with quatrefoils that have partly weathered away. The tower is quite elaborate – there are cusped openings all the way around and the spire also has (tiny) windows and a carved finial at the top. It all looks more like the mid-18th-century Gothic that it is, and yet the highly fancy Gothic that Horace Walpole promoted had really only just going – Walpole had begun to remodel his famous house at Strawberry Hill in 1749. 

So who created this forward-looking bit of design? It was built for Ann and Samuel Sansom. Pevsner compares their tomb to the Despenser monuments in Tewkesbury Abbey, and it’s true that some of the Tewkesbury chantry chapels do have similar, if much more ornate, tops. He also directs us to the researches of Howard Colvin, who points out that the Chipping Campden mason-architect Edward Woodward had proposed a similar design of tower and spire, at full scale, for the church at Preston-on-Stour.* It could well be Woodward, experienced in building plainer Gothic structures not far away from here, trying his had at something more adventurous.

If he did, it was admirable, although as I attempted to photograph the miniature building I had to try several angles so as not to get the spire clashing with window mullions and tracery behind. And then it occurred to me that the tomb was sited rather invasively near the church and its entrance. I wondered what the parishioners thought when they had to pass it every Sunday? I like it, but it must have been a bit of a shock, and an enforced reminder of the deceased couple. Let’s hope they were remembered with affection.

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* The Woodwards – Thomas and his son Edward – were certainly on the ball: they were doing very rococo Gothic work at Ascot Park, Warwickshire, in the 1750s. Their proposal for the Preston-on-Stour tower showed a crown-like top like St Nicholas, Newcastle, with the finial designed in the manner of the tomb at Ilmington: amazing. For a reproduction of the drawing, see the recent revised edition of the Warwickshire Pevsner.

Thursday, January 24, 2019

Radstock, Somerset


Set in stone

The last of my trio of stone details from Radstock is this sign for the Bell Inn. I’ve posted quite a few inn signs in the past – a search of there blog will yield all kinds of three-dimensional animal ones, some lovely wrought iron, a couple of unique pub names, and one that overhangs an entire street. This is more modest, but I like the way it is integrated into the building, asserting its intention to remain a permanent fixture. And the inn is only part of the story. When it was rebuilt in the late-19th century, it adjoined a bewery, one of several hereabouts owned by the Coombs family and part of the Coombs’ Clandown and Radstock Breweries and Hotels company. Their Clandown bitter was well known in the West Country in its heyday, but now only part of the brewery building survives – but this sign, with the initials G.C. for George Coombs on the bell, still stands proud.

Just before I sat down to write this post a fortunate coincidence occurred. I was looking for another reason entirely at Ian Nairn: Words in Place, Gillian Darley and David McKie’s excellent book on Ian Nairn, one of the heroes of this blog. As I glanced at a page, the word ‘Radstock’ jumped out and I was reminded that this Somerset town was one of a number listed by Nairn in The Observer in January 1965 in a list of ‘threatened towns’. When I’m not snowed under with other work, I’ll have to look up the back issue of The Observer and find out what Nairn said about it – no doubt he appreciated the chunky industrial buildings and evidence of the mine working, and no doubt he liked the way the buildings had got grimy, the very grime giving character to the place and acting as a record of years of history and work. He could enthuse such qualities, in a way few could back in 1965.

At least one of Nairn’s readers, Graham Fisher (an admirer of Nairn), demurred. Nairn wrote back to him, thanking him for his comments and adding, ‘If you don’t see what I saw in Radstock, that’s marvellous: you’ve gone there and looked and assessed.’ That, above all was what Nairn asked of his readers: go, look, respond. He went his own way, and encouraged others to do so too. Nairn’s way inevitably was via a pub, and I like to imagine him drinking in here – before the drink got to him and ruined his health. His responses to places were often provocative, but always honest – they were what he felt, and made all his readers look, and respond, anew.

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.