Sunday, March 29, 2020

Lewes, Sussex

A swift half

It has become clear to me that I am long overdue a visit to Sussex, a fine county packed with architectural interest, famously situated, unlike my native Cotswolds, ‘by the sea’, and home to good friends, prized even higher than good architecture! So, as my day began with a conversation about alcohol, thoughts of Sussex also led to Sussex beverages, and to the architecture of the fine Brewery of Harvey’s in Lewes.

Now, careful readers of this blog (I know there are some!) may have noticed that I have a few favourite architects who, though not among the acknowledged greats, nevertheless produced work whose qualities I admire. Not the Soanes or Lutyenses, who seem to be able to handle everything – space, form, surface, facade, light, setting – to produce buildings that are both surprising and wonderfully satisfying – but minor masters who could do one thing well, in a way that tickles my fancy. Victorian rogues like S. S. Teulon, with his bizarre OTT decoration and arresting forms and spaces; or Cuthbert Brodrick, who could do grandiose like no one else and did it, magnificently, in Leeds; or really minor minor masters, like disappointed Peter Ellis of Liverpool, who tried, it seems, to invent modern architecture 50 years too early, and apparently gave up, ignored or crushed by criticism. And then – to get to the point – there are the specialists, such as man-of-many-theatres Frank Matcham and brewery whiz William Bradford.

I’ve had cause to admire William Bradford’s work before, at Cheltenham and, supremely, at Hook Norton. How pleasant, then, to encounter his work again in Lewes, as I did a few years ago. This is the place where one of my favourite pints is produced: Harvey’s Bridge Wharf Brewery. Bradford (1845–1919) may have worked in the brewing industry before turning to architecture, but was in practice in his own right by 1879. This was also the date of his earliest brewery work, although he seems to begin with to have specialized in designing and altering pubs. He notched up some seventy brewery jobs (not all new build – many were upgrades or expansions of existing breweries), and developed his own very special style. From the outside, his breweries can be recognised by their striking roofscapes (with towers often topped with wrought-iron crowns or finials), picturesque grouping of buildings or parts of buildings, and an interesting mix of materials – if he could combine brickwork, timber framing, plasterwork, weatherboarding, and dramatic glazing patterns in one building, he did. Harvey’s Bridge Wharf Brewery (1882) is a good example of this style, which also at its best involved the use of white-framed windows in the ‘Queen Anne’ manner.

Internally, the buildings are well and practically planned and his drawings reveal not only good draughtsmanship but also a clear concern for the most efficient placing of all the varied bits of machinery and equipment used in a brewery – tanks, mash tuns, coppers, hoppers, steam engines, pipes, ducts, and cocks. The picturesque placing of his buildings and towers, then, comes more often than not from putting the different brewing functions where they worked best. That, I think, was why he was so successful, and why brewer after brewer went to him for designs.

But Bradford knew too that a striking building was good publicity.§ Many brewers put an illustration of their brewery on posters, advertisements, and bottle labels. If their premises looked the part, so much the better. Bradford’s building at Lewes looks as good as its products taste. And its owners seem, in planning later alterations, seem to have done so in a manner in keeping with Bradford’s work.† I look forward to the time when I can both see the building again, and join ‘the men that live the South Country’¶ and taste its products on their home turf.

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§ He seems to have liked an event that would make good copy. Lynn Pearson, in her book British Breweries: An Architectural History (1999), to which I am indebted, tells how in 1882, the year of the Harvey’s project, he climbed to the top of the 120-foot chimney of the Swan Brewery, Fulham, along with the brewer and contractors. At the top, they ‘christened’ the structure’s iron crown and drank ‘bumpers of champagne’. I hope they had some beer, later, when brewing had begun. 

† Some of what you see in my photograph dates from a later phase than the original Bradford building, but it is all very much is his spirit.  

¶ And the women too. See Hilaire Belloc’s poem, ‘The South Country’ for more praise of this part of the world.

Thursday, March 26, 2020

National Gallery, London

‘You’re the National Gallery, You’re Garbo’s salary…

…You’re cellophane…’ says Cole Porter in the song ‘You’re the top’,* rustling up superlatives, but keeping part of his tongue in his cheek.§ One of the superlative stars of the Boris Anrep mosaics in the National Gallery foyer is Melpomene, the muse of tragedy, whose face – and hairstyle – are based on those of Greta Garbo. Garbo was so famous for being famous, so well known for being able to name her price when it came to a starring role in a movie, so notorious for wanting to reject the trappings of fame (‘I want to be let alone’†), that it’s easy to forget how good an actress she was. Boris Anrep, who had an eye for female beauty, must have found her face captivating but, an artist himself,. no doubt responded to her art too.

A couple of weeks before the virus made travel unwise, let alone proscribed, I spent a short while in the National Gallery looking at some Dutch paintings, and made what has become a habitual stop to look at the mosaics on my way out. They have become for me one of the symbols of what this blog is about. That’s to say, they’re not architecture, but one of the adjuncts to or enhancements of architecture; they’re fun and a bit whacky (people playing cricket and Christmas puddings sit near Apollo and the Muses), and they’re not much noticed.

Now the gallery routes visitors in via another entrance, the mosaics are on the way out and people think as they leave that they are done with art and are making singlemindedly for the door. When people did come in this way, they were heading singlemindedly for the galleries, so didn’t notice the mosaics then either. Now of course the gallery is closed to visitors, no one sees them at all and Garbo, along with Anrep’s other models (Virginia Woolf, Anna Akhmatova, Edith Sitwell, Bertrand Russell, and the rest), are let alone at last.

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* From the musical Anything Goes, 1934.

§ Cellophane? Well, although it was invented in 1908, Cellophane was only licensed for US distribution in 1923. An enhanced version of 1927 made it waterproof and suitable for wrapping food. So in 1934, when the Porter song appeared, it was still a modern wonder-material.

† Which everyone remembers as ‘I want to be alone,’ because the actress was later given this line in the film Grand Hotel. Thanks to the Resident Wise Woman, my go-to authority on Garbo (and much else) for helping me get that straight.

Monday, March 23, 2020

Park Street, London

Take Courage

This is one of my favourite London ghost signs, one that I’ve been meaning to post for a while: now seems like a good time. The plain brick structure is in the area of Southwark known as the Borough, and was once part of a brewery – the largest brewery in the world, I’m told.* It advertises the products of the brewers Courage, who once owned this building.

The sign is said to date from 1955, which which was when Courage (founded in 1787) merged with Barclay, Perkins and Company, who already owned the Anchor Brewery on this Southwark site. The building with the sign accommodated brewery staff. Brewing on this site stopped in 1981, when much of the land was sold for redevelopment – a common pattern with industrial buildings in central London in the 1980s, when many firms realised they could make money by selling their valuable properties and relocating on a cheaper site elsewhere. Mercifully the sign, although faded now, is still there.

The way the sign straddles the wall, the two gables crowning it and drawing attention to it, must have caught the eyes of thousands of people, including many passing to and from London Bridge station. When passing myself, I’ve heard others puzzling over its meaning and assuming that it’s simply an appeal to people to stiffen the upper lip and face misfortune bravely. But beer drinkers, especially those who live in London, know that it refers to their favoured tipple, and when I lived in the capital, Courage Best and Directors bitters were the standard pints in many a London pub. I expect they still are. In these tough times, when pubs are closed, we need courage as much as ever – and Courage too, many would add.

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*It is actually on the corner of Park Street and Redcross Way, close to some of the many railway tracks that criss-cross this part of London, mostly elevated above the roads on brick arches.

Friday, March 20, 2020



The two vintage road signs in my photograph come from a long-gone generation of British signage, once common on this country’s roads. They conform, I think, to a 1934 standard, which used a red triangle to denote a warning or hazard that was specified in the rectangular plate below. This plate often bore a graphic symbol, such as the inclined plane for ‘STEEP HILL’, in the sign in the background. Speed limit signs had a red open circle, and a triangle within a circle was a combination of a warning and an order, as in ‘HALT AT MAJOR ROAD AHEAD’, in the foreground.

The COVID-19 pandemic is changing the way I live my life. As someone over 65, I clearly need to watch my health, and I need to look after my wife, whose pre-existing medical condition puts her at risk. More than this, since one can be infected without knowing it, it’s not worth putting others at risk by indulging in unnecessary travel and the human contact that comes with it. So, in spite of the fact that exploring historic architecture has long been for me a necessary part of life, I am leaving the house and garden only to get essential supplies.

This does not, though, mean ‘HALT’ for the English Buildings blog. There are lots of places I have visited or passed by over the last few years that I have something to say about, and since readers seem to appreciate what I say and what I share, it seems worthwhile carrying on. More now than ever,  in fact, as theatres, museums, galleries, and other sources of entertainment and cultural nourishment are having to stop their normal work. The excellent Black Country Living Museum, where the photograph above was taken, is one of those that has had to close its gates.

Many musicians, actors, museums and others are stepping up and nobly presenting concerts, plays, and talks online. In the last day or two alone, I’ve come across poets doing online workshops, a classical pianist podcasting from his music room at home, and an exhibition curator, who must have spent years researching and planning a major exhibition, talking about the exhibits and giving us all the chance to see the art on the walls. Hats off to those who are offering information, interest, and inspiration in this way to anyone who’d have sought them out live – or who are interested enough to give them a try in virtual form.

So I resolve to keep blogging, returning in my memory and via my photo library to places I’ve visited in the past, as a reminder of what’s out there, to entertain and inform, and to signpost what we all hope we’ll be looking at again for ourselves, in months and years to come.

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* To make it clear: the photograph was taken earlier this year at the Black Country Living Museum, Dudley, which preserves many relocated old buildings, as well as vintage signs like these. I took the picture last year.

Monday, March 16, 2020

Adam Street, London

The decorative touch

In London the other week and walking down the Strand, I remembered that I’d promised myself another look at a house in Adam Street, one of the few survivors of the ambitious development called the Adelphi, designed by Robert Adam and built by him and his brothers in the 1770s. I’ve actually posted about this building before (there is a picture of the whole front here), and have also used it in a talk I gave about Georgian London, recalling how the Adams cleared an area of small slum houses and built their streets of grand Georgian terraces – pouring a fortune into the venture. Their investment proved difficult to recoup, because a banking crash sent house prices tumbling. Contemporary engravings show glorious terraces, including a spectacular one overlooking the Thames, but most of them have gone, pray to 20th-century demolitions.

It occurred to me when I spoke about the development in my talk that I really needed a photograph that showed the decorative detailing on the surviving facade in Adam Street, specifically the front of a house that has especially elaborate treatment because it faces up John Adam Street, providing a focus for the view along that street. So I stood in the middle of the road, pointing my phone at stucco pilasters and ornamental ironwork, producing some puzzled glances from passers-by and the photograph above.

What it shows is a pair of vertical pilasters in white stucco, standing out from the dark brickwork. The pilasters are decorated all the way up with repeated anthemion motifs – part of the standard ornamental repertoire of ancient Greek architecture, but not often used up a pilaster like this. Below them are the pilasters flanking the door, similarly ornamental, though here the motifs are framed by ovals made up from snaking bands that make their sinuous way up the pilaster. There aree also swags in the lintel above the door. The ironwork complements all this, but this time in black rather than white.

The Pevsner volume on this part of London adds the interesting note that this ironwork was produced by the Carron Company of Falkirk and was some of their earliest. John Adam, furthermore, was a shareholder in the Carron Company, so the choice was a natural one. The financial difficulties with the Aldephi development reveal that the Adams’ investments did not always work out. John’s stake in Carron probably did well for him though. Carron went on to produce architectural ironwork by the ton. I’ve noticed before their ubiquitous ‘heart and honeysuckle’ ironwork used (as here in little ‘balconettes’ or elsewhere in full-blown balconies) from London to Cheltenham.

The Scottish iron founder’s products work well in the context of the Adams’ decoration and the overall effect of their grand, if ill-fated, scheme. People sometimes think of Georgian architecture as sober and plain. But often it has charming decorative touches. especially in the hands of Robert Adam, who usually had a light and felicitous touch.

Friday, March 13, 2020

Dartmouth, Devon

Star turn

I was instantly drawn to the brightly coloured tiles on the outside walls of the Dolphin Inn, Dartmouth. I don’t know much about the building or the tiles, except that it’s a 19th-century inn and was clearly made over in the late-19th or early-20th century.* I’ve posted about tiled pubs before. The dominant colour of the tiles is often bottle-green, but here there’s a different palette – dark blue, a paler blue, turquoise, yellow, and a splash of red around the white star that symbolises Star Ales.

The lettering is striking, and there’s a daringly vertical arrangement for the brewery name. Why daring? Because when you stack the letters on top of each other, thinner letters like the ‘I’ have empty space on either side of them, risking an unpleasing effect. This kind of layout works better with the chunkier Bs, Rs, and Es. I especially like the ‘R’, with its large loop and curvy diagonal leg, and the ‘E’ with its lively serifs and slightly curved cross-bar.

The framing tiles on either side of the lettering are very architectural – they’re pilasters, essentially, from the vocabulary of neoclassicism, but with extra decoration provided by the diamond-shaped panels and all that colour. I’d love to know which company produced the tiles that make this facade sing out, catching the eye – probably even the eye of people who spot them, glistening, from across the market place as they shop, do business, or pass idly by.

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* The Plymouth Breweries company name was first registered in 1889, so the tiles must be after this date.

Monday, March 9, 2020

Trafalgar Square, London

On the look-out

How many people miss this as they walk across London’s most famous square? It has been called ‘London’s smallest police station,’ although even this is perhaps too grand a name for such a small building. It’s really a cousin of the blue police boxes that used to be a familiar sight and that acquired a new fame through the TV series Dr Who.

Trafalgar Square became a scene of large gatherings and popular protests in the 19th century. There was a at least a perceived need to have a police presence here in response to such assemblies and the police had a temporary wooden box erected in the square in the early-20th century, but no one was happy with either the appearance or durability of this. By 1926, with the General Strike alarming the authorities, it was suggested that a more permanent police observation post should be set up in here so that protests and demonstrations could be monitored. To begin with, the idea met with such public opprobrium that it wasn’t acted on, but then someone* had the idea of hiding such a structure in plain sight – in a grandiose stone lamp sited at one corner of the square. It was large enough for one officer and a telephone so that he could summon help from the nearest fully staffed police station. After it was converted from gas to electricity, the rather beautiful lamp at the top would flash to summon the officer if he had left his post to patrol the square.

I’m not sure when the box was decommissioned, but it’s now apparently used as a store for street cleaners’ equipment, although there didn’t seem to be much inside on the occasion recently when I passed. From a tiny ‘police station’ to a monumental tool cupboard: that’s progress.

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* The idea seems to have emerged in an exchange of letters between Sir Lionel Earle, permanent secretary to the Office of Works, and a Mr G. Edwards of the Metropolitan Police. Some sources attribute the idea to ’Sir Lionel Edwards’ but as Ian Visits points out in a generally excellent article, Sir Lionel Edwards seems not to have existed.

Thursday, March 5, 2020

Glentworth Street, London

Arriving in style

In its dozen or so years of existence, this blog has rarely been quiet for more than a week at a stretch. It’s not usually difficult keeping this up in quite a busy life of writing, teaching courses, working my way through piles of books that want to be read, having a social life, and helping the Resident Wise Woman sort out the implications of Brexit for a life that has been lived, for a decade and a half, in two European countries. Needless to say, in the face of such things blogging has to take second (or third, or. fourth) place and in the midst of such pressures the thought is apt to arise that I’m not sure I’ve seen any buildings recently that I want to share.

And then, I take a trip to London and start walking along a street and immediately see things that I want to engage with. Sometimes the thought is, ‘Blimey! I’d not noticed that before!’, sometimes it’s ‘Of course! I always wanted to look more closely at this.’ Here’s an example of the latter. I’ve posted before about the striking Art Deco apartment blocks on Marylebone Road. This time, a little early for my train, I walked around the block occupied by one of them, the huge Berkeley Court. It seemed too late in the day for photography, but modern mobile phones are very forgiving in low light, and here were two things I like: illuminated lettering and stylish ironwork.

This is the way out (there’s a matching way in) of a drive at street level. The idea is that your taxi* can turn off the street, sweep around a curve, deposit you at the entrance, and sweep out again, keeping you out of the rain and giving you the leisure to alight gracefully, without any of the fluster or disruption that can come when the vehicle blocks a busy street. Staircases and lift are nearby, allowing you to ascend to your flat with ease.

It is all very luxurious, like turning off the Strand to arrive at the door of the Savoy, but this was built to be no mean block of box-like pieds à terre. Some of the apartments on the plans have six bedrooms – I don’t know if they are still so large, or if they’ve been subdivided. And the finish reflects this. There’s pleasant illuminated lettering† for the name of the block – the colour seems to have faded irregularly, but never mind, this helps to make it more authentically period.§ The ironwork is wonderfully angular without being aggressive or unfriendly. This entrance is an asset to the street as well as to the people who use it.¶

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*I think this is the residents’ entrance. There is apparently a matching drive for service vehicles, but I didn’t see that.

† The stroke widths seem to me to be a bit uneven, but I’m not quibbling.

§ The date of the block is c. 1931, the architect W. E. Masters.

¶ My post about the neighbouring, slightly more ocean-linerish, Dorset House, is here.

Sunday, March 1, 2020


En passant

It was a case of ‘park and run’. I’d left the Resident Wise Woman at the top of Park Street, Bristol, and driven further down in search of somewhere to leave the car. On the agenda were coffee and an exhibition, so I didn’t linger long. But near my parking space was this imposing building, atop a rise of forty-odd steps. ’So that’s where it is,’ I thought: St George’s, Bristol (aka St George’s, Brandon Hill), the church by Sir Robert Smirke made redundant in 1984 and set to be turned into offices when the BBC pointed out that, with its excellent acoustics, it would make a good concert hall. I’d heard numerous broadcasts from the building but somehow had missed seeing it before.

It’s dominated at the entrance front by the large and very plain Doric portico, the columns of which turn out to be based on those of the Temple of Hephaestus in Athens, which, like St George’s, was designed to be seen from the bottom of a slope. Above the portico, Smirke set a round tower, again rather plain, as is the interior, apparently. It’s an austere building, grand in the early-19th century Greek revival manner that was fashionable in 1821, when St George’s was designed. The banners outside advertise cultural events, so presumably its success as such a venue continues. I was glad I’d stumbled across it and seen it in winter when the trees are bare – although perhaps a few leaves soften the building’s hard edges. I resolve to return for a longer look.