Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Cheltenham, Gloucestershire

Mary-Ann backs

There’s an old expression, ‘Queen Anne fronts and Mary-Ann backs,’ sometimes used to describe the town houses in places like Bath and Cheltenham. It means that while the fronts are designed correctly, politely, and in a way that conforms with those around them, the rear aspects of the houses are more chaotic and heterogenous. The phrase, as far as I know, has no actual relevance to the reign of Queen Anne (who reigned from 1702 to 1714) or to the architectural style, sometimes called ‘Queen Anne’, which was fashionable towards the end of the 19th century. It is just a matter of using two similar but contrasting names to sum up the gaping aesthetic gulf that opens up between the fronts and backs of many buildings.

These examples are in Cheltenham. The front facades are elegant and Regency and arranged in a sweeping crescent – all white stucco and wrought-iron balconies. Classic Cheltenham, even though it does overlook, sadly, that necessary but scenically unfortunate interloper, the town’s bus station. Round the back it’s very different: Exposed brick or darker stucco, or concrete render, and a range of rear wings, some of which step down with roofs varying from flat (watch your felt roof, they don’t last for ever), through hipped and slated (making an attempt at elegance and certainly practical as far as rainwater is concerned), to flat and parapeted (‘Let’s sit out on the terrace and look at the view. Hang on, there’s someone taking a photograph!’).

Some of these wings were probably added or extended at different stages in the building’s history, some have always been there. The original ones say something about the way such houses were put up. Landowners very often planned out a development, and got in an architect to design facades and the basic elements of the houses. Then they leased building plots to others, who might buy just one or two plots and build the houses on them, laying them out internally, and adding rear extensions, as they liked, but following the architect’s design for the facades.

So a long terrace or crescent, although uniform at the front, often had many builders, who pleased themselves at the rear. No doubt such flexibility enabled houses to be built for a variety of different needs. The buildings might later be adapted to suit yet other requirements. And by the 20th century, the way the houses was being used changed greatly, with many split into flats or turned into offices. ‘Mary-Ann’ may have been humble, but she also had her practical side.


David Gouldstone said...

The pedant strikes again, I'm afraid. Anne reigned until 1714, not 1707. (The confusion may arise because she was Queen of England until 07 and then became Queen of the UK.) Your blog is as enjoyable and enlightening as usual, however!

Joseph Biddulph (Publisher) said...

To me, these are the interesting bits.See the washing on that line! How many times they had to expand without moving house. What's it like, being that family, and living in that house? When was that good slate roof put on - good old Blaenau Ffestiniog slates - you can't get them any more.So many teddies and dollies on the window-ledge, it's a wonder that little girl gets any light in her bedroom at all! I bet those pantiles were recycled from somewhere else. Somebody as hopeless at painting rendered walls as I am...

Philip Wilkinson said...

David: Thank you! Your pedantry is greatly appreciated! You were not the only one to spot this schoolboy error. I kicked myself when I realised what had happened here, but I've corrected the post now.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Joseph: I so agree. People are always telling other people to look up. Fair enough. But let's also look round the back, grub around in alleys, pay attention to the view from the railway carriage. Etc.