Saturday, March 30, 2019

Ilminster, Somerset

‘The war’

In 1940 long defensive lines were constructed running across southern England to hold up an enemy advance in the event of an invasion. These lines, made of barbed wire defences, tank traps, and thick-walled concrete pillboxes, were extensive, but they had weak points where access routes crossed them. One such point was at Ilminster in Somerset, where, in those days, the A303 passed through the middle of the town. Ilminster itself was therefore fortified, with a ring of barbed wire and tank traps, some earthworks, 17 pillboxes (each with a machine gun), and a heavy gun emplacement.  As well as the machine gunners, there would be riflemen dug in, and altogether about 400 people (up to half of them local home guard members) were needed to man this complex, defend Ilminster, and, so it was hoped, play their part in repelling the invading force.* Parts of this defensive line still exist. This pillbox is on a public footpath that once formed part of one of the long entrance drives to Dillington House, connecting the mansion to the town. The thick concrete has survived well, and the polygonal structure still looks fit for purpose. Eighty years’ growth of moss, plus some ivy, only help to camouflage the box.

When I was a boy in the 1950s and 1960s, local pillboxes in Gloucestershire were somewhere to play. We all knew they had been built ‘for the war’, but the reality, that, if we’d been boys 20 years earlier and things had gone differently, our own fathers, or, more likely, grandfathers, might have been risking their lives defending them, hardly impinged.† Seeing such boxes now (and experiencing briefly the temptation to ‘play’ with them in another way, imagining not the brutality of war but the origins of brutalist architecture) brings one up short, as I’ve been brought up short by reconstructions of the First World War trenches in Piccardy or by exploring the formidable defences put up in Czechoslovakia, to no avail, in the late 1930s in the hope of protecting the country from invasion by the Nazis. I hope I’ll never have to confront this brutality in person, and that neither my son nor my nieces will either. All politicians should look at such buildings, use their sometimes limited imaginations, and reflect.

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* Information panels on site tell the story of these defences. I’m indebted to them.

† Back then, c. 1960, memories of World War II were close for adults; everyone knew what you meant when you said ‘the war’.

Wednesday, March 27, 2019

Whitelackington, Somerset

Quietly showy

This is the west lodge to Dillington House, a mainly Jacobean revival house, now leased by Somerset County Council and run as a centre for continuing education, conferences, and other events. It’s a small cottage orné of about 1830,* sited where the drive to the house joins a bend in the road, its three ‘front’ faces looking out on the road and giving no doubt a useful range of views of the curve. It would originally have been occupied by someone whose job (or part of whose job) was to oversee and open and close a gate to the grounds of the great house. The accommodation would be small and basic – I’ve seen inside a similar cottage built for toll gate on a road and it was on the cramped side of compact. Polygonal buildings also have the drawback of non-rectangular rooms, which can pose difficulties with fitting it furniture, although these difficulties aren’t insurmountable. Many such buildings, if in use today, have been extended at the back.

This house’s Y-tracery, Gothic doorway, and thatched roof into which the upper windows protrude are all classic features of the ornamental cottage of the 19th century. The building is clearly meant to be a small landmark, telling visitors that they have arrived at the entrance to the grounds, and its ashlar masonry on the front walls, rubble on others, makes it obvious that it was always designed to be seen from the road. The ‘three sides to the road’ design is similar to that of other lodges not far from Ilminster, which mark another former way in to the house, but these lodges don’t have the thatched roof that makes this little house stand out. None of the buildings is grand. They’re not the kind of lodges that bring instantly to mind the phrase ‘trumpet at a distant gate’† although the gates in both cases are certainly distant from the main house. If a trumpet sounds, it’s fitted with a mute. The tune it plays is charming nonetheless.

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* For more on this kind of house, see Roger White, Cottages Ornés (Yale U. P., 2017), which I reviewed here.

† See Timothy Mowl and Brian Earnshaw, Trumpet at a Distant Gate: The Lodge as Prelude to the Country House (Waterstone, 1985)

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.