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.

1 comment:

Joseph Biddulph (Publisher) said...

The former Harveys brewery in Old Town, Eastbourne, looked like an exact copy of this (if I remember aright). My list of "must see" buildings in Lewes is a long one, including the "American Colonial" church and of course St Michaels with the Round Tower and the Fifteenth Century Bookshop (unfortunately, I didn't see any 15th cent. books there on my last visit - only reprints!). Please, keep them coming! Bring back more memories!