Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Neal Street, London

Advertising your wares

However many times (it must be hundreds, maybe thousands) that I’ve walked along Neal Street in London’s Covent Garden, I never fail to spare a glance for the Crown and Anchor. It’s not a pub I ever patronized when I worked in the district, even when, in the early days, a key requirement for holding down a job in publishing seemed to be the ability to ingest large volumes of alcohol.* Nevertheless, its architecture has that inviting quality associated with the urban variety of the traditional British public house.

‘Traditional’ in this case means a building put up in 1904. There’s much to like in the architecture of this corner-dwelling building – a neat domed corner turret, a datestone high up on the Neal Street side, helpfully telling us when it was built, and what you can see in my photograph: a bright red tiled frontage, liberally supplied with arched windows in that brown wood finish that many associate with similar finishes that once made English pubs so warm and inviting inside. The fashion now is for lighter wood effects (‘Out with the brown furniture!’ cry the mavens of the modernist revival), but the darker look can work well in an Edwardian pub.

The red tiles and dark wood also set off the fine tiled panels advertising what, back in 1904, one could expect to be served from the pumps: Watney’s ales and, as in this panel, Reid’s bottled stout. These panels are done with typical Art Nouveau lettering. What’s Art Nouveau about it? Mainly, the way the letters are proportioned – the way the S and the B have tighter curves at the top, broader ones at the bottom; the high position of the cross-bar of the E; the larger, tapering loop of the R. It’s stylish stuff, but also clearly legible, not over the top.† The other letters visible here are the big gold capitals of the pub name. These are probably standard off-the-shelf letters and may well be made of wood. The way they stand slightly proud of the red wall (producing a bit of shadow), their clarity, and colour are all effective. It’s a shame the R is hanging loose. And was it intentional to make the ampersand slightly bigger? Who knows?

Set all this off with some colourful hanging baskets and no wonder the pub was already attracting lots of custom when I passed one late morning recently. I must return and sample the interior.

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* The culture changed, and both my own alcohol intake and that of most of my colleagues, dropped appreciably as the 1980s progressed.

† The position of the apostrophe, high and oddly tilted, is perhaps a bit eccentric, but it’s my impression that you often see it on lettering of this period.

Friday, April 26, 2019

From Bloomsbury to the Downs

Celebrating Batsford books

Bradley Thomas Batsford opened his doors as a London bookseller in 1843 and by the end of the century was one of this country’s most prominent publishers. B. T. Batsford was a family firm, steered in those early decades by its founder and his three sons, who built up a reputation as general publishers with a particular strength in architecture and the arts. These were the subjects that they became particularly known for, although their list was strong in other areas, from science to theology (many of the early customers in the bookshop were clergymen). The expertise in selecting and reproducing illustrations that they developed for their books on the arts continued to grow in the 20th century, when they produced many striking and popular illustrated books on history, arts, crafts, architecture, and, at the junction of all these subjects, the heritage of the British Isles.*

Batsford was also notable for producing series of books that readers wanted to collect – the Batsford Heritage Series (begun in the 1930s) and the Face of Britain Series (starting during World War II) were pivotal. Batsford chose knowledgeable and often excellent authors for the books – in the Face of Britain Series you can find W. G. Hoskins writing about Midland England, M. W. Barley on Lincolnshire and the Fens, and Richard Wyndham on Southeast England. Another Batsford favourite of mine, is John Russell’s Shakespeare’s Country – it wasn’t published under the banner ‘The Face of Britain’ but is similar in format.

These series were instantly recognisable because they had covers illustrated in colour (in itself a stand-out feature back then) with distinctive cover artwork by Brian Cook, Bradley Thomas Batsford’s grandson and therefore the third generation in the family firm.† Brian Cook created a style that was boldly simple, and brightly coloured: were any book jackets back then as bright and colourful as his? Very few, I’d guess. To print them, he used the Jean Berté process, which employs water-based colours and rubber printing plates, one per colour, into which the artist cuts the design.§ In the right hands, the results are stunning, and books with Cook’s jackets are prized by collectors. I have a whole shelf of them, but most of mine are quite badly faded (as this was a watercolour process, the inks fade in the light). Catching sight of one that has preserved its originally vivid palette is like being warmed by a ray of sunshine from another age.¶

The long history of Batsford, from those beginnings as a bookseller to the name’s current life as an imprint of Pavilion Books (still producing good books, in artistic and historical subjects especially) is charted in a small exhibition currently in Holborn Library, Theobalds Road. It’s good to see the imprint commemorated in this way and if you’re near that part of London the exhibition is worth a look.‡
There have been other celebrations. A notable one, which also marks 80 years since the outbreak of World War II, is a reprint of one of the Face of Britain series with a Brian Cook illustration on the cover. This is the volume originally called Southeastern Survey, by Richard Wyndham. It has been reissued this year with a new title, Sussex, Kent & Surrey 1939, with an introduction by Peter Ashley. Wyndham’s text is one of the better ones in the series and, written in 1939 and published in 1940, it marks that moment when the war began and people increasingly reached for books about the Britain they were fighting for. All of Britain was vulnerable of course, but these counties close to London felt that vulnerability as much as any. And books about England had another urgency. The war made foreign travel impossible for most, and few inland journeys were undertaken lightly. Authors like Wyndham reminded people what they’d got, and what, on these brief journeys, they might see.

The author, designer and photographer Peter Ashley, who’ll be no stranger to many readers of this blog, is an excellent person to introduce the book. Peter is a Batsford collector and is knowledgeable both about England’s places and the books that have described them. I’ll certainly be shelving a brightly covered copy next to my faded first edition of the book: it’s a worthy companion.

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* Quite early in my life I realised that the books on English historic architecture I was taking out of the local library to inform and develop my new interest were published by Batsford: in the 1960s, they were dominating the field.

† Brian Cook changed his name to Brian Batsford Cook, adopting his mother’s maiden name to emphasize his family connection to the firm.

§ The French printer Jean Berté (1883–1981) patented his method in 1926, so Cook was on to something quite new when he started using the Jean Berté process soon after 1930.

¶ For more on the early history of Batsford, see Hector Bolitho, A Batsford Century (B. T. Batsford, 1943)

‡ Batsford: 175 Years of a Bloomsbury Publisher is at Camden Local Studies and Archives Centre, Holborn Library, Theobalds Road, until 28 June.

The top image is Brian Cook’s depiction of Kersey, Suffolk, for The Villages of England (Batsford, 1932).

Monday, April 22, 2019

Somerset House, London

Taking pains

Quite often I find myself in or near Somerset House in the centre of London – partly because work sometimes takes me to the Strand, partly because I’m a regular visitor to the Courtauld Gallery, both for its stellar permanent collection and for its often excellent temporary exhibitions. You get into the gallery through a door inside the vast building’s entrance archway, but I often take a minute to walk around the vast courtyard while I’m there, marvelling at the building’s size, proportions, and plethora of architectural sculpture. It’s easy to take for granted Somerset House’s 18th-century classicism and vast size now, but back in the 18th century this was an innovative building: London’s first office block and a formidable feat of organisation in bringing together several diverse bodies of scholarship and government – the Royal Academy, the Navy Board, the Stamp Office, for example, and accommodating them within what looks like a classical palace. This year, however, the Courtauld Gallery (which occupies just a small part of the complex) is closed for redevelopment* and I’ve not been in the Strand entrance – my most recent encounter with Somerset House happened to be at the back, when I was walking along the Thames embankment.

As you move along the pavement on this river side, it’s hard to take in the facade because it’s enormous – some 800 feet long. It’s also part of a major engineering project. The architect, William Chambers, had to cope with the fact that there is a 40-foot drop between the Strand frontage and the river shore. So he had to construct the embankment to allow for this and support the southern part of the building. From the pavement, you see a succession of massive stone walls, much of the masonry heavily rusticated, some of it vermiculated, and punctuated with arches, niches, and occasional pieces of carving on keystones.

What struck me as I took all this in was not just the sheer scale, but also the meticulous craftsmanship. A close-up of an arch and a neighbouring bit of wall, above, might demonstrate what I mean. For a start, the sheer effort in cutting by hand all that vermiculation on the stone blocks. Admirers of the brutalist architecture of London’s Barbican Centre sing the praises of the concrete, in which many of the surfaces have been bush-hammered to give it a textured finish. True enough, this takes care and skill, and the effect is admirable. But look at this detail of Somerset House – square yard upon square yard of hand-cut vermiculation: it represents skill and effort in abundance. So does the moulding of the arch and the precise cutting of its blocks. But look still more closely (clicking on the image should help) and one can see that the surfaces of these apparently flat pieces of stone have been expertly and finely tooled so that their surfaces are actually made up of a series of precise parallel lines, the work of who knows how many skilled man-hours. A similar affect is even visible on the bevelled edges of the vermiculated blocks.

I’ve recently been reading Richard Sennett’s Building and Dwelling, and looking back at one of his previous books, The Craftsman, which focuses on the kinds of skills involved in this kind of work and highlights the importance of doing things well.† There’s lasting value, and also pleasure, in taking pains to get it right. It’s easy enough for admirers of Somerset House to praise the architect who brought it into being: Chambers certainly deserves admiration for his design. But spare a thought – spare more than one thought – for the masons and carpenters and sculptors and plasterers who brought it into being. In these days when developers are content to put up a host of poorly designed, ill-finished and no doubt ephemeral blocks along the banks of the Thames in order to make a fast buck, it’s worth lingering here and reflecting on the effort this building took and the way it has lasted.¶

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* A small selection of master works from the permanent collection is currently on display in the National Gallery and remains there until April 2020; some are also on loan to the Fondation Louis Vuitton, Paris. Reopening is not expected until some time in 2020.

† Richard Sennett, Building and Dwelling, Allen Lane, 2018; The Craftsman, Allen Lane, 2008

¶ The photograph is slightly high resolution than usual, because I hope that will help readers to see the surface of the flat stones clearly. I have also increased the contrast a bit, to bring out this effect. Clicking on the image, as usual, will enlarge it.

Thursday, April 18, 2019

Paris: Reflection on the destruction in France

Seeing a cathedral burn

I spent much of Monday evening staring at the television screen, in silence like most of the watchers in Paris, as the cathedral of Notre-Dame burned. I kept thinking of an essay by the American writer Guy Davenport* in which he describes the sculptor Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, who was descended from the carvers who worked at Chartres. During World War I, Gaudier watched in northern France as a cathedral caught fire, and he saw ‘great globs of lead’ falling from the cathedral roof on to the floor below. For Davenport, watching a cathedral burn was a symbol for the disintegration of civilisation that occurred during World War I: nothing afterwards was ever quite the same. This notion got somewhere near suggesting how important medieval cathedrals are in European culture, and the Gothic cathedrals of France especially. It was in France – at St Denis, north of Paris – that Gothic began, and the style spread, thanks to the advocacy of churchmen and stone masons, across the continent, as the ideas of western Christendom spread. Gothic was revived in the 18th and 19th centuries, and for many architects was the essence of architecture, and of church architecture especially. Of all French architects, perhaps the greatest 19th-century advocate of Gothic was the magnificently named Eugène Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc, who restored Notre Dame and built the slender central spire that was destroyed this week.

Viollet’s work was a reminder that the medieval cathedrals have been subject to repair and restoration almost as long as they have existed. Monday’s fire was terrible, but it was one in a catalogue of mishaps and disasters from which these buildings have often recovered. In Britain we think of the fire at York, the damage caused to Coventry in the blitz, the destruction of old St Paul’s in London’s ‘Great Fire’, itself one of a succession of city fires. York represented a recovery; Coventry the survival of a ruin and a spire; St Paul’s destruction, but a destruction that brought into being Wren’s magnificent 17th-century cathedral, a resurrection of a different kind, as Wren himself proclaimed.

The medieval cathedrals often survive, because their structures are built mainly of stone, which can certainly be damaged by fire and be badly affected by smoke and fire-fighters’ water, but which is more resilient than flammable wood and lead, the materials used in their roofs. So as I watched the television I kept hoping that, once the wooden parts had been consumed, once the ‘globs’ of lead had fallen, the stonework would not be too badly affected and that perhaps even the stained glass might escape at least in part. Then we would not need quite yet to contemplate the vision in a poem by Gérard de Nerval, in which he foresees a moment, in some future millennium, when time has laid waste to Notre-Dame and all we have to contemplate is a magnificent ruin, through which we can imagine the old cathedral, ‘like the shade of one dead’.† My hopes may have been justified. It’s far too soon to know how much damage there has been to the stonework. But a lot of the stone vault is still there – surveyors will be watching it like hawks in the coming days and weeks. The twin west towers still stand, and the stone skeleton of walls, columns, and buttresses seems largely complete. There’s even glass in some of the windows. It’s enough to give one hope.

Another thought I had was that restoring the building would have to be a vast project of collaboration. The French would of course be the prime movers in this, and they don’t lack expertise, experience, or skill. But if people from other countries could take a hand too then something might be gained among the losses. So I was heartened to hear what President Macron had to say about restoring the cathedral (though I questioned his five-year target for the project§), and pleased to see that offers are already coming in from a range of places – with estates in England setting aside oak trees, with offers of expert help coming from the Czech Republic, to mention only two examples from countries with which I’m connected. Such a coming together, reflecting the coming together of international talent that produced the medieval cathedrals in the first place, would be heartening and valuable. If all this comes good, we won’t be looking at Nerval’s ‘shade of one dead’ for too long. We’ll be acknowledging that a building 850 years old has to be conserved, and has to be occasionally renewed. Instead of a shade, we’ll be marvelling at one of the very greatest medieval buildings, arguably the best of the Gothic cathedrals and one of the first, the one Ruskin dubbed the noblest of them all.¶ And, disaster that the fire has been, we’ll not be experiencing the worst consequence of seeing a cathedral burn.

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Photograph: AP.

* The essay is in The Geography of the Imagination (Picador, London, 1984). The cathedral would have been Reims, as suggested by an anonymous commenter to this blog and as I have now confirmed by checking in H. S. Ede’s book Savage Messiah, his account of Gaudier’s work and short life.

 † Notre-Dame is one of those buildings with a literature of its own. There is, most famously, the book by Victor Hugo that we Anglophones call The Hunchback of Notre-Dame (simply Notre Dame de Paris in French), which Nerval refers to as ‘le livre de Victor’ – we know which book he means. There are bits of Henry James (a wonderful response from Strether in The Ambassadors); there’s Nerval’s poem, another by Théophile Gautier, another by D G Rossetti, to name but some. There’s a selection in the magazine Apollo, illustrated with paintings and prints, here. I use Geoffrey Wagner’s 1958 translations of Nerval, in an edition that also includes the original French text.

§ Big restoration projects take years; conservationists can debate for months about a handful of decisions; everyone will brawl about new designs for the spire, maybe for years. But a spirit of collaboration could still work. We’ll see.

¶ In The Seven Lamps of Architecture, 1855, he said that the building’s Gothic architecture was the noblest of all.

Sunday, April 14, 2019

Enstone, Oxfordshire

Passing wonders

This drinking fountain is on the roadside at Enstone – actually in Church Enstone, which stands slightly apart from what I take to be the ‘main’ village, although, as is clear from the name, it’s where the parish church is. The fountain was designed by G. E. Street, with carvings by Thomas Earp,* and was built as a memorial to Eliza Marshall, who died in 1856. When I first saw it, my eye caught by the band of acanthus carving, I thought of it as ‘a horse trough’, but it’s actually three troughs, at different levels, with lion-mask spouts taking the water from one to the next. So far, so ingenious, I thought – a clever bit of design, taking advantage of the slope in the ground, and providing a no doubt once well-used facility for passing traffic as it made its way through the village.
It struck me at the time that the lion masks were rather more badly worn than the rest of the structure, and I wondered if they were carved from a different stone – the lions, looked at close to, seemed less pinkish in colour the the other carved sections, although the differences in colour are probably due at least in part to the presence of moisture and the growths of lichen. Then, my memory prodded by Pevsner, I recalled the Enstone Marvels, a series of waterworks, cascades and grottoes, built in the 17th century at an another nearby hamlet, Neat Enstone, and visited by Charles I and his queen, Henrietta Maria. On the main road there’s a cottage, one part of which is built of chunky and deeply vermiculated masonry inset with niches, which may well be part of a grotto from the Marvels.§

Spectacular waterworks were, as they say, a thing in the 17th century. For example, Salomon de Caus, a French Huguenot engineer, published a book in 1615 called Les Raisons des forces mouvantes, which illustrated an early form of steam pump as well as various elaborate waterworks, fountains, grottoes, and the like. He and his brother, architect Isaac de Caus, worked in England and Isaac was an associate of Inigo Jones. The fact that such experts in the field spent time in England, and that the king was interested, goes some way to demonstrate the fashion for such works, mostly now long vanished. As for the Enstone Marvels, we know about them from Robert Plot’s Natural History of Oxfordshire (1677). This much I knew, but the further possible link between the Marvels and this Enstone drinking fountain is drawn by the author of the website Polyolbion, who has images of both the cottage and the lions on the drinking fountain.† These beasts indeed have a baroque look about them and might just possibly be a bit of inspired, historically important, bit of recycling.

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* A specialist in architectural sculpture and a regular collaborator with Street

§ The cottage is visible from the road, but not easily photographable without the kind of intrusion I was not prepared to make.

† The relevant page from the Polyolbion site is here.

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

Ross-on-Wye, Herefordshire

Shadows abound

A long time ago I absorbed the idea that photographs with a lot of shadow were a bad thing. The idea was, I suppose, that the shadow obscured the subject and there wasn’t much point in a photograph in which half of the frame was a vaguely legible black hole. There’s something in that, but it’s not the whole story.

For one thing, shadows exist. A photograph with a lot of shadow can be an accurate reproduction of reality, and there’s something honest about that. I was reminded of this fact when looking through my images the other day and coming across this one of the Market House in Ross-on-Wye, built in around 1650 at the top of the hill occupied by the town’s centre. You can imagine me walking along the street, struck (yet again) by the beauty of the pink-tinged Herefordshire sandstone and the way in which the sun’s rays illuminate and warm the side wall of the Market House. As I paused to look, I became aware too how the light and shadow threw the stonework into relief so that I could really appreciate its appearance: the worn stones of the arches and the pier holding them; the coursed but rather rough blocks of the middle parts of the wall; the smoother ashlar blocks further up – clearly the gables and roof were renewed at some point. Then you can imagine me leaning against the shop to my left and waiting for a gap in the traffic and for a moment when most of the passing shoppers were enveloped in shadow.

Later there world be time to admire the clock tower, which Pevsner says is probably early-18th century. Maybe that is when the roof was altered too. Or was the change made as early as 1671, when the building was said to have been ‘newly erected’. Relevant to this period is the stone roundel, between the two windows, which has a portrait of Charles II on it. This sculpture was recut in 1959, but presumably goes back to the king’s reign (1660–1685). It’s a drawback of my contrasty picture that you can’t see the details in this carved roundel, but I went back later and took another one, as a reminder that you can see things in more than one way.

Saturday, April 6, 2019

Cheltenham, Gloucestershire


It was back in 2014 when last I posted about a relief on the building that was once Cheltenham’s Odeon Cinema, and before that its Gaumont cinema: a pair of naked women, tangled in curls of celluloid, who’d been removed from the building’s facade prior to its demolition. Back then, I wrote this about the sculpture:

These relief panels are by Newbury Abbot Trent, a prolific sculptor who produced many war memorials. He was the brother (or, according to some sources, the cousin) of the cinema’s architect, W. E. Trent. The panels are the kind of thing that often adorned cinema buildings of the 1930s, although they were often carved in stone, with a more neutral surface than the shiny metallic finish of these Cheltenham examples. Such sculptures often show female figures – always glamorous, often naked, sometimes, like these, with exaggerated proportions – and were meant to entice us into the magic and seductive world of the cinema, at a time when only a tiny minority had television and cinema-going was a regular weekly recreation for millions. When they were new, shiny, and properly lit, they would have reminded film-goers and passers-by alike of the magical, flickering world inside. It’s a shame they are no longer there.

Several times since, I’ve had the chance to admire this piece of work in its new setting, at ground level, where it can be studied in much more detail and where it is protected by a transparent covering. It’s great to be able to see these ladies from close quarters. I’d been vague about the material when writing about them in their original location, high above the pavement, referring just to their ‘metallic’ surface. For ‘metallic’ read ‘metallic-looking’. They actually are carved out of stone, but stone has been painted to resemble silvery steel or aluminium. At eye level their surface still looks shiny, but also grainier. The details of the carving also look rather coarser – after all, the sculpture was never intended to be seen from so close. It’s still good that it were preserved, though. It’s a bit of Cheltenham history and part of the career of a notable sculptor whose work, so often attached to buildings (and cinemas above all), is frequently vulnerable to the demolition ball or the contractor’s hammer. With their exaggerated figures, sleek hair-dos, and filmic context, the women are very Art Deco and very evocative. Let’s raise a glass (filled with a cocktail of our choice, of course) to their creator.
The sculptures in situ on the front of the cinema (now demolished)

Wednesday, April 3, 2019

Piccadilly, London


My obsession with the unregarded aspects of English architecture often brings me up against a small detail on a very famous building, a detail that seems to be unnoticed by most people. I’ve posted before about the unique telephone box in the entrance way to Burlington House, the grand home of London’s Royal Academy in Piccadilly. When I enter the building’s courtyard I also often pause at a place close by, to admire a set of relief carvings that encrust the stonework of the entrance arches. No one is ever looking at these when I go through – there is, after all, usually something else inside in the form of a major loan exhibition that’s waiting for their attention. But I think the carvings are worth more than a glance, even if the combination of animal and plant life with urns and ornament, plus cameo-like heads (not to mention classical draped figures in the spandrels of the arches), is hardly fashionable.* The work is certainly interesting if one bothers to look – if the urn in all its swagged and pelleted elegance is out of a pattern book, that bird with its opening beak, carefully delineated feathers, and inquisitive eye is a charmer. And the beast in the lower photograph is arrested and engaged me as I looked and tried to work out the relationship between head and massive paw and wings. I’m not sure who made these carvings – someone out there must know.†  For the rest of us, they’re a diverting free show for the eye, a prelude perhaps to the serious art inside, or an interlude on the way up Piccadilly.

* Perhaps I should say, especially because it’s hardly fashionable…

† Pictures of Burlington House’s architectural sculpture appear quite often on line, on photo-sharing sites, but I’ve not seen anywhere the name of the person who did these carvings. There’s an excellent post about the more prominent statues of artists on the same building at the Ornamental Passions site, here.