Thursday, May 7, 2020

Bishops Castle, Shropshire

Shop prop

This photograph was taken through a shop window in the small town of Bishops Castle in Shropshire. It’s a detail that opens up a whole aspect of shop design that most people don’t notice: how to hold up the building’s structure when almost the whole of the ground floor is glazed. Back in the Georgian period and before, shop windows were relatively small, and this wasn’t such a big problem. In the Regency period, windows got larger, and shops with rows of Classical columns became fashionable, creating a facade that looked a bit like an ancient Greek temple (there’s a detail of such a row of columns on a shop in Oxford here).

By the mid-Victorian period, however, shopkeepers were going for still larger windows, so that the shop front became made up of little but glass and glazing bars. And so it became the thing to prop up the front of the building with columns on the inside, just far enough from the glass to allow the window display to overlap them and make them disappear. Since the columns weren’t meant to be noticed, they are often quite plain, and these days end up being painted white, so that they blend quietly into any window display.

It’s the top of one these internal columns that is the subject of my photograph. But as you can see, the people who made this example weren’t content with a plain column. On the contrary, it’s very ornate, with a spiral band running up the body of the column and a decorative capital at the top. The capital isn’t from the standard range of Classical design (it’s not Doric, Ionic, or Corinthian) but is made up of a combination of standard motifs – scrolls, stylised leaves, a fleur de lys – combined together to created a design that a Victorian builder might simply have labelled ‘fancy’. ‘We could do a plain column, sir, but for a stylish shop like yours, I’d recommend the fancy.’ And with the client’s approval, the builder would order up a set of fancy columns from an iron foundry and the shopkeeper would be proud to have the latest thing in elegant shopfitting.

Such columns were not uncommon. I have seen similar, but not identical ones in the Kirkgate Market in Leeds, propping up the roofs of cast-iron stalls. Kirkgate Market was put up in 1901–1904, and I’d not be surprised if this column was of a similar date. It was still propping up the shop a couple of years ago, when I passed by and took my picture through the window, much to the surprise of the other pedestrians on the street, who, no doubt, had not seen this bit of architect’s or ironworker’s fancy.


Anwyl said...

These shopfronts/ pillars would presumably also be dependent on the availability and price of plate glass?
Very nice! Definitely enjoying getting your posts.
Many thanks, Anwyl

Philip Wilkinson said...

Anwyl: Yes. Plate glass became more easily available after 1851 (when the building of the Crystal Palace in London stimulated advances in the glass industry), and most of the shop window columns are later than that date.

The Sartorial Rake said...

My parent's shop retains its original Victorian shopfront, complete with stained glass plus 2 cast iron doric columns to hold up the 2 stories above. However the shop frontage is slightly projected from the building so the columns also act as internal drain pipes from the roof. The Victorians were always ingenious. I love the unnecessary detailing of something structural.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Sartorial Rake: That sounds great. The idea of using columns as drain pipes was also used on the Crystal Palace in 1851.