Sunday, December 22, 2019


Sun and the city
In Worcester the other day, I paused briefly as the afternoon sun went down, moved out of collision range of passing Christmas shoppers, and spent a few moments admiring the impressive array of buildings on the city’s main street. It’s a row of varied structures including a house, a couple of banks, a church, and a hotel, and positioned as it is in the centre of the city it’s surprisingly easy to walk past, dodge other pedestrians most of whom are heading resolutely for the shops, and not give any of it a second glance.

But, as regular readers will know, it’s one of the points of this blog to linger over architecture that’s most often unregarded or taken for granted. So what have we got here? First, in the foreground, my photograph shows half of an early-18th century brick building that I take to have been built as a house. This shows the decorative grace that Georgian classicism can achieve – acanthus keystones above the windows, swags below, neat quoins and cornice, and a finely detailed Ionic doorway. Next to it is a former bank, designed in the Edwardian baroque style by Charles Heathcote of Manchester in 1906. Although smaller than its neighbours, it manages to be very grand, its Portland stone frontage oozing telling details like those columns on the upper floor, the circular window above the doorway, and the iron balcony on the side wall, as if to enable the manager to look down on the hoi polloi below and calculate their credit ratings by eye before they even reach the front door.

Beyond that building is the other bank, dating to 1861–2. Its detailing is a little more restrained than that of its smaller neighbour, more Renaissance palace than baroque, as Pevsner observes. It was built for the Worcester City and County Bank as their headquarters, and this local business fittingly chose a local architect, E. W. Elmslie, who made such a mark on Malvern.

Next in line is St Nicholas Church, now, like the first bank, given over to eating and drinking. The architect of this building of the 1730s is not known but Pevsner tells us that the landmark tower is taken from a design by James Gibbs, one he did but rejected for the church of St Mary Le Strand in London. Its recessed stages culminate in an octagonal cupola with a delicate circular columned lantern at the top. At ground level this striking tower is set off by tall Doric pilasters and a pediment and the whole thing is a grand climax to this part of the street. Its stone catches the sun beautifully too, as it did on the cold winter’s afternoon when I took the photograph.

Visible beyond the church is part of a brick building, also warmed by the sun and partly striped with pale Doulton terracotta. This is a long block, originally housing the Hop Market and Commercial Hotel, built in two stages between 1899 and 1907. The visible end is the later part of the structure and has a striking open lantern topped with another small dome on the street corner, a colourful counterpart to the tower of St Nicholas.

Each of these buildings provides much to take in for anyone with the time to stand and stare. But even the casual passer-by can appreciate how well they work together: a coming together of periods, building materials, and styles that both enlivens a city street and gives it a sense of grandeur. It’s one of those bits of a provincial city not at all where time has stood still but where something of the quality attainable by local architects and builders has been preserved. We should be grateful for that.

Saturday, December 14, 2019


The room now standing on Platform 2

The Resident Wise Woman tells me that in her youth, taking the train home to the Cotswolds from Oxford, she would hear the guard on Oxford station announce her train: ‘Calling at Charlbury, Kingham, Moreton-in-Marsh, Evesham (Capital of the Vale), Worcester Shrub Hill, and Worcester Foregate Street’.* And so it was that the litany of stations on the ‘Cotswold Line’ traced the train’s journey across the hills, down to the Vale of Evesham and on towards the River Severn at Worcester. And being a hill person, the Resident Wise Woman knew that, as she stepped up from the windy platform on to the chugging diesel multiple unit, she’d soon be on her home turf.

Worcester Shrub Hill, back then, was just a name to her and to me too. So we didn’t know that this station, perched high among factories on the edge of the city centre, housed a rare and unexpected bit of Victorian luxury. In the 19th century, it was not unusual for railway stations to have a ladies’ waiting room where female travellers could sit in comfort and safety before their train arrived. And the lucky ladies who travelled from Worcester Shrub Hill station could wait in the magnificent setting of this room on platform 2. Built in c.1864, the ladies’ waiting room is clad on the outside in glorious majolica tiles made by Maw & Company of Broseley (originally the firm was based in Worcester). The rich red columns and arches surrounding them are part of the room’s cast-iron facade, made by the Vulcan Iron Works of Worcester. The overall effect – especially since the waiting room was restored about ten years ago – is one of polychromatic magnificence outside, clean pale walls inside.

No one knows the full story of this structure. No comparable waiting room, with iron walls and tiled facade, has survived. It seems to have been a one-off, and an informative notice on the station speculates that it may have been built for exhibition purposes, to show what could be done with the most up-to-date Victorian materials. The mid-19th century, after all, was a golden age of ironworking, with foundries supplying all kinds of building materials, from enormous columns and beams for giant train sheds to delicate shop fronts. And tiles were becoming increasingly popular for facades – soon, there would be tiled shops, tiled pubs, even office blocks with ceramic cladding. Maw’s were pioneers of using these brightly coloured tiles for architectural use.

The stylistic inspiration is a typically Victorian hotch-potch. Some of the ornament looks Islamic, some Classical, some medieval. But the decoration does hang together visually, while also giving travellers – and potential clients – a sense of what can be achieved with these materials. For waiting passengers, the room is more than fit fo purpose, and must raise, at the very least, an appreciative smile.

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* Evesham, by the way, is pronounced by local people as something like ‘EEV-uh-shum’, with three syllables, and this is what I hear in my mind’s ear when I remember this story.

Thursday, December 12, 2019

Building touched with emotion

Annette Carruthers, Mary Greensted, and Barley Roscoe, Ernest Gimson: Arts & Crafts Designer and Architect

Published by Yale University Press

The time is ripe for a new study of Ernest Gimson, a man whose multiple careers as architect, designer and craftsman, seem to exemplify the Arts and Crafts movement. Three scholars who have long been deeply immersed in Gimson’s world and work have obliged, and the resulting book, drawing on Gimson’s buildings, designs, extensive archive of drawings, and on the writings and work of contemporaries, fulfils its promise.

The first section deals with Gimson’s life. His upbringing in Leicester is covered, together with his time articled to a local architect, followed by a longer period in the office of J. D. Sedding in London. Already interested in such progressive ideas as Secularism, Gimson is brought through Sedding’s office into contact with luminaries such as William Morris, and he soon shows interests in socialism and in the work of the SPAB. Still a young man, he travels to Italy and France, widening his visual education like many a young architect of the time, and designs both houses and furniture, but he also starts to learn craft skills such as plastering.

The book next describes how Gimson becomes one of those young architect-designers who follows the example of Morris and moves to the country – not merely by finding a rural retreat, as Morris had done at Kelmscott, but by going the whole hog and setting up house and workshop in the Cotswolds. The book’s account of his life at Sapperton in Gloucestershire is full and absorbing. We learn about his marriage, his friends and colleagues the Barnsleys, who also move to Sapperton, and his houses. Above all, we learn about the variety of his work.

Never let it be said that a country life is a quiet one. Gimson soon became occupied practising a range of arts and crafts – architecture, design, plastering, chair-making – and of creating the conditions where related activities – furniture workshops, a smithy – could flourish. He found himself running workshops, managing numerous employees and apprentices, sorting out accommodation for single workers, and arranging for everyone’s work to be exhibited both in Gloucestershire and in London. He was pricing jobs, overseeing work, ensuring that high standards of craftsmanship were maintained, and balancing the requirements of designers, makers, and clients. And then there were houses to design, architectural competitions to enter, and projects for various churches and historic buildings.

Further light is shed on all this by a fascinating chapter on Gimson’s approach to design. This highlights they way he saw design as being integrated with every other concern of an architect – in other words, a design should emerge from a project’s construction and materials, and the tools and techniques used to produce it. This chapter also has illuminating things to say about Gimson’s love of drawing, his use of natural motifs and patterns, his interest in craftsmanship and building materials, and his Morris-like ideals of work. At the end of the chapter, the story of the chance survival of many of Gimson’s drawings. Daniel Herdman, Librarian Curator at Cheltenham, rescued them when they were on the point of being consigned to a bonfire. They remain a part of the outstanding Arts and Crafts collection in Cheltenham’s museum, The Wilson,* and are beautifully reproduced in the book, as are the many photographs of Gimson’s buildings and the objects he designed.

The second part of the book consists of a series of stunningly illustrated chapters on the various aspects of Gimson’s work – from plasterwork and metalwork to interior design and architecture. All are fascinating, but those on interiors and architecture will most interest readers of this blog. Nearly all his buildings use traditional materials and draw on vernacular architecture in their design. Yet the authors of this book show their unusual qualities too – innovative house plans, dramatic roof frameworks, meticulous workmanship, and occasionally unexpected choices of colour. The buildings range from small workers’ cottages to large middle-class homes to still larger houses, like Waterlane House, a Cotswold residence that Gimson enlarged seamlessly. Not everyone will know the striking hall and gorgeous library that Gimson designed for Bedales School – the latter a feast of interior woodwork. Fewer still will be familiar with the ambitious proposals he entered for the competition for a plan and design for the city of Canberra, all towers, domes, and Byzantine-looking arches. The proposed HQ for the Port of London Authority is also unknown to most non-specialists. Whether it is these grand schemes or little known cottages, Ernest Gimson does its subject a service by bringing them and their architect to wider notice.

Gimson himself was noticed by his contemporaries, by colleagues who carried on the tradition, like Peter Waals and Harry Davoll, and by members of groups like the SPAB, with which Gimson worked. W. R. Lethaby, architect, writer, and teacher, was one of those whose judgement continued to be respected when he described Gimson’s work approvingly as ‘building touched with emotion’. If time has been less kind to the ethos of craftsmanship that Gimson lived by and fostered, the buildings and craft objects remain – houses still lived in and loved, the Bedales library still in use, furniture and metalwork still cherished or admired in museums. The authors of Ernest Gimson deserve congratulation for making this legacy more widely known and more deeply understood.

* The Wilson is hosting a special exhibition, Ernest Gimson: Observation, Imagination and Making, until 25 February 2020.

Tuesday, December 10, 2019

Before and after

Eric Musgrave, Leeds Then and Now
Published by Pavilion Books

Leeds Then and Now is one of a stable of books featuring paired photographs of buildings and streets from great cities, each pair accompanied by succinct and informative text. They’re not the first books to take this approach, but they are certainly among the best. The quality comes through most immediately in terms of the visuals, well chosen historical images from a range of dates, some as old as the 1860s, some as recent as the 1970s, twinned with excellent photographs of the same scenes today taken by David Major. The text for each pair of images is succinct and informative. Both author and photographer have local roots and their knowledge of and pride in Leeds shines through.

The range of subjects extends from the city’s major buildings – such as the Corn Exchange, Town Hall, and City Market – to lesser structures that form part of the complex mix that makes up most of the central streets of Leeds. Impressed on a recent visit how well the greatest of the buildings are standing up to the trials of modern life, I turned to the pages on the Town Hall. Here, a photograph of 1905 shows Cuthbert Brodrick’s monumental urban temple substantially the same, less hemmed by signs and bollards than it is today, but without the trees that now soften its corners. The Corn Exchange is likewise slightly encumbered with signs compared to earlier, but the great sweep of street that runs up to it is still largely clear, and similar to how it was apart from one modern interloper. Another big building, the mock-Egyptian Temple Works, was looking dark and soot-blackened in 1935, but at least you could see it – when the ‘now’ photograph was taken the main block was hidden behind scaffolding and protective plastic; the frontage has also acquired railings that weren’t there in the 1930s. One hopes that the works will be restored and thrive, as have most of the city’s fine arcades like the Grand, Cross, and County, the latter a masterpiece of the great architect Frank Matcham, normally at work designing theatres. An image of 1949, however, shows the striking Victoria Arcade, one that has been lost.

I can get annoyed with a plethora of intrusive modern signs, but a look at the some the street views shows how much interesting signage we have lost. The losses range from Victorian and Edwardian monsters to more elegant bits of Art Nouveau, not to mention some jazzy signs from the 1930s onwards. A stretch of Briggate, for example, displayed enormous signs, with letters almost six feet high, across the upper floors of the Cash Boot Company in 1944. These signs are long gone, and the part of the front that remains has been cleaned so that its bricks and stone gleam; also gleaming is a facade of 2010 fronting one shop, a completely glass-clad front butting comfortably up against brick, stone and terracotta.

So Leeds Then and Now shows us some of what has been lost – stretches of Gothic or Renaissance shops demolished in the 20th century, 16th or 17th century merchants’ premises knocked down by the Victorians, Dickensian enclaves such as Rotation Office Yard, a striking Victorian market hall, the dazzling timber-framed premises of the Universal Furnishing Company, and so on and on. But it also makes us look more closely at what is still there, from details of 19th century shops to the City Markets (still fulfilling their function) to the Third White Cloth Hall, which is now a Pizza Express. Meanwhile we can weigh up for ourselves whether we’re grateful for some of the new building or in mourning for demolished architectural glories; sad about the vanished Victorian shop signs or pleased that the buildings beneath them can be more clearly seen. Either way, the book is a feast, and will encourage readers not only to study its engaging images further, but also to look carefully at what’s left – in my case by making further visits to Leeds.

Saturday, December 7, 2019

Deco displayed

Elain Harwood, Art Deco Britain 
Published by Batsford, in conjunction with the Twentieth Century Society

Art Deco is fashionable now. For decades the jazzy and decorative design style encapsulated in many cinemas, factory fronts, apartment blocks, shops, and office buildings had been out of favour. So many Deco buildings have been knocked down that it’s sometimes hard to know where to look to find the survivors. It’s even a challenge to define exactly what Art Deco is.

Elain Harwood’s new book certainly helps a lot. It’s got an elegant picture-book format – at its heart are about 115 double-page spreads with one building each and one stunning colour photograph per building. But don’t let that fool you. The text is packed with information about the buildings, which are arranged by type, making it easier to compare wonders such as the Carreras cigarettre factory in London (all black cats and “Egyptian” lettering) and the more stripped-down but magnificent India tyre factory in Renfrewshire; or to weigh-up the virtues of the interiors of the Midland Hotel in Morecombe with the Regent Palace of Hotel in Westminster. All this provides a colourful picture of Art Deco buildings. They can vary from highly ornate structures that allude to the past, like the jaw-dropping interior of the Granada Cinema, Tooting, made over in around 1930 by émigré theatre designer Theodore Komisarjevsky, to the stripped-down architecture of buildings like the Saltdean Lido.

Can structures as different as these all be Art Deco? Well, yes, they can. One of the best bits of Harwood’s book is the Introduction, which explains how in the 1920s and 1930s architecture in Britain came under an array of influences – decorative developments in France, a leaner architecture in the Netherlands, a new appreciation of Viennese turn-of-the-century design and the closely related work of Charles Rennie Mackintosh, the theatre sets and costumes of the Ballets Russes, a fresh awareness of certain historical sources (notably ancient Egypt), the advances in building materials happening at that time. This rich soup of influences helped designers in Britain develop in different but parallel directions, creating a range of styles from the full-blown cinematic Art Deco to the plainer mode sometimes called jazz moderne or streamlined modern or just moderne. None of the latter was quite as plain and spartan as the purer architectural functionalism of white boxes and strip windows, though some came close.

It’s not all about classification, though. A joy of the book is the stories that some of these places throw up. Harwood entertains her readers with tales of firemen making covert use of light sockets to run wireless sets at Heston and Isleworth Fire Station; of the beehives and putting green once on the roof of Adelaide House in the City of London; of an intrepid flight across the Atlantic in a Puss Moth in 1931. And she reminds us of the not always obvious visual effects of Art Deco architecture. Some buildings, like Osterley Underground station, need to be seen lit up at night to reveal their full glory; some have details undreamed of (by me, at least), like the unaltered manager’s flat in Blackpool’s White Tower Casino.

Art Deco Britain is a cornucopia of buildings, although there could, as Harwood herself says, easily have been twice as many. I’m grateful for the hundred-odd that are here, and that the appreciation of these buildings will be extended and enhanced by this beautiful and informative book.

Tuesday, December 3, 2019

The joy of Essex

For the next ten days or so, I am offering a small clutch of reviews of recent books that might appeal to readers of this blog. First of all...

Gillian Darley, Excellent Essex
Published by Old Street

There used to be lots of county books: county histories, county guidebooks, meandering accounts of counties by bellettrist old “countrymen” full of clichés about nestling villages and “delightful churches”. There’s not so much of this about now, and some say we think less about counties than in the days of before local government changes messed about with county boundaries and names in the 1970s. That’s debatable, but people certainly have prejudices about counties, and none more so than about Essex – Essex Man and The Only Way is Essex are familiar parts of Britain’s media landscape. Gillian Darley’s Excellent Essex blows all this out of the window, and wafts some welcome fresh air into the idea of the county book.

Excellent Essex does a good job of evoking the great variety of Essex, which is part rich countryside, part London fringes, part absorbing towns, with a very long coastline thrown in too. And of confronting the contradictions of a place that’s widely pro-Brexit but has always welcomed newcomers. Darley knows her Essex, and gives us absorbing nuggets of history and topographical fact about all these aspects of the county. Essex is full of memorable architecture, much of it there thanks to the wealth coming in from local industries – whether it was Courtauld’s textiles, Bata footwear, or Tiptree jam. Interesting and sometimes highly influential ideas have been born, or at any rate bred, in Essex, which has been home to future American Pilgrims, Tolstoyan anarchists, and women’s suffrage campaigners.

Darley, who has an honourable track-record of writing about architecture and its contexts, is the ideal author for all this, and is alert to the county’s sometimes surprising buildings and their stories. Essex is where we will find historical wonders like Thaxted Guildhall and the pargetted quaintness of Saffron Walden. It is home to Critall metal-framed windows, the Bata buildings of East Tilbury, and the glorious “seaside modern” houses of Frinton – all at the heart of English modernism of the 20th century. The county is also, of course, the site of the memorable and wonderful House for Essex, created by the architectural practice called FAT along with Essex man and artist Grayson Perry. The county also has its share of plotlands and the various offbeat joys of Canvey Island. All human culture, oner might say, is here, from the music of Gustav Holst (who spent a lot of time in Thaxted) to that of Sandie Shaw and Wilko Johnson, from the art of the Great Bardfield painters to that of Alfred Munnings or, yes, Grayson Perry.

Essex is, then, as diverse in its combination of old and new, high and low art, idealism and entrepreneurship, inventiveness and conservatism, as England as a whole. Gillian Darley does a superlative job of portraying this, and her account, rich with history and anecdote, also makes the trip to Essex a highly entertaining ride.