Thursday, April 29, 2021

Black Country Living Museum, Dudley

In motion and at rest, 2: Delivering the good news

The idea of the Christian minister travelling around and preaching wherever he went is as old as St Paul. It was a practice taken up enthusiastically by John Wesley, who travelled widely and often preached outdoors, to large and appreciative crowds. No wonder, then, that many other Methodists followed in his footsteps and did the same. One way to travel was to use a wagon, caravan, or living van – call it what you will – pulled by a horse, which could act as mobile dwelling, means of transport, platform for preaching, or even tiny, mobile church in which to teach or preach to small groups. The Methodists (both Wesleyan and Primitive branches) used these vehicles in the 19th and early-20th centuries, and called them ‘Gospel cars’.

This one is in fact a replica that has found a permanent parking place near the boat dock at the Black Country Living Museum. It is painted dark blue, from which numerous blessings and Christian maxims painted in white stand out. Along the bargeboard at the front is emblazoned the name ‘Ebenezer No. 11’ – it’s one of a series, then, and calling it Ebenezer is a way of implying that it’s a much a chapel as any bricks and mortar building that bears the same name – a popular one among the Methodists in the 19th century.*

Inside, the gospel car is neatly kitted out with a stove, seating that can turn into bedding at night, and, in true chapel fashion, an organ. Or, I should say, a harmonium, an organ of a very particular sort, with reeds instead of pipes, and an air supply provided by the player as they pump away at a couple of foot pedals. In my childhood I remember seeing the inside of quite a few chapels (maybe some of them were ‘Ebenezers’ – I’m not sure), and before I was born, my mother played the harmonium in her small Methodist chapel in Lincolnshire. So maybe that’s why I didn’t feel at all alienated by this chapel on wheels and why I felt some sympathy for the person ‘on a mission’ and preaching to a handful or a crowd from the platform – framed by roof brackets carved with crosses – of a horse-drawn ‘Gospel car’.

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* A while back I had an email exchange with an old friend who’d been speaking to someone who thought that, because of his name, Dickens’s character Ebenezer Scrooge was Jewish. Brought up among nonconformists, who often called their children such names as Isaac or Leah, this had never occurred to me. There’s nothing in Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, as far as I can see, that says Scrooge is Jewish. To someone like my mother, descended from both Jewish and nonconformist ancestors, such names were both ‘Jewish names’ and ‘Biblical names’, available for use by followers of either faith, and so were names like Salem, Zion, and Ebenezer, when used, as they were frequently, on Methodist chapels. 
Thanks to one of my regular readers (see Comments section) for reminding me that Ebenezer means ‘Stone of Truth’, in commemoration of a memorial stone set up by Samuel to mark the victory over the Philistines. Among other common chapel names, Salem means ‘Peace’, Bethel ‘House of God’, and Bethesda ‘House of Mercy’ or ‘Healing pool’. 

Monday, April 26, 2021

Black Country Living Museum, Dudley

In motion and at rest,1: Immortal Diamond

A memory from a visit to the Black Country Living Museum in 2019. Diamond is part of the museum’s fine collection of canal boats. The museum is crossed by canals that belong to the Birmingham Canal Navigations and on a small branch of this network the museum has built a boat dock populated by vessels that were once common on the canals around Birmingham and the Black Country. Many of these are day boats – designed to take cargoes such as coal, iron, limestone, and clay over short distances that you could cover in a day. Among their number are one specific type – the Joey boats, steerable from either end, that I’ve already mentioned in an earlier post.

Diamond is not a Joey boat, but an impressive composite narrow boat (with metal sides and a wooden bottom). She was first registered in 1928 and was built by John Crichton & Co of Saltney, Chester, for the Midland and Coast Canal Carrying Company of Wolverhampton. She was no day boat, but had two cabins, making her suitable for long journeys between the Black Country and the Mersey. She was damaged in an air raid on Birmingham in 1944, and rebuilt, after which she was renamed Henry, under which name she had 16 years carrying coal, after which she was sold again, rechristened Susan, and continued to work until the museum acquired her in the 1970s.

The fact that a narrow boat could be built in the 1920s and see the best part of 50 years’ service before being ‘retired’ to a museum reminds us how long-lasting canal transport was in Britain. Canals began before the railways, survived the coming of rail, and were only really killed off by the inexorable rise of road transport.* So boats sporting the delightful paintwork of Diamond – both the bright colours of the exterior and the lovely images of castles and flowers that appear when the folding doors are opened – had a long innings. That we can still appreciate these beautiful boats is due largely to the canal revival, spearheaded by campaigners such as Tom Rolt and bodies like the Inland Waterways Association in the postwar period. Museums like the BCLM have also played their part. Thank heaven they did, so that such things can still be appreciated and enjoyed, and so that, in these confined times, I can remind my readers of the richness of colour, historical interest, and folk art that’s available online. 

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* For a vivid account of the lives of those working and living on narrow boats in the 20th century, see Sheila Stewart, Ramlin Rose: The Boatwoman’s Story (OUP, 1993)

Friday, April 23, 2021

Rochester Row, London


Built to last?

When I first passed this piece of 1960s concrete sculpture in London’s Rochester Row, I’d no idea who created it. A while later I found out about the sculptor William Mitchell, who made a specialism of creating abstract sculpture out of concrete. I’ve since encountered his work in Coventry and elsewhere. However even then I didn’t make the connection because it slipped my mind that I’d taken this photograph (I got carried away with a nearby fire station, not to mention the famous Blewcoat School just up the street.) Much later, looking for the image of the fire station, I found this picture next to it in my files, and thought, ’Surely, that must be by William Mitchell.’ And so it proves to be.

What the image shows is actually only part of the artwork, which is too long to photograph in one go because it stretches all the way along the concrete beam that links the building’s main structural columns. So I photographed a bit that I particularly liked. Even when I found the picture again, I didn’t realise its full significance. William Mitchell told a friend: ‘This was the first integral piece of concrete art ever produced.’ It’s a ‘ring beam’ which linked all the columns and on which the remainder of the structure depended. ‘I designed it, made the moulds and the builder poured the concrete,’ said the sculptor.

Now William Mitchell’s work is better known, in spite of the fact that much of it has disappeared because it forms part of buildings that have fallen out of use and been demolished – like the northern part (about one third of the whole) of this very building. I think that’s a shame, and I hope plenty of Mitchell’s remaining sculptures do survive. I think they often enliven streetscapes and buildings that are otherwise dull, and that they show a true artist responding to a 20th-century material in creative ways. They are very much of their time, but also, in my opinion, deserve to outlast their time. I’m glad the work of William Mitchell is appreciated at last.

Monday, April 19, 2021

Salisbury, Wiltshire


Doomsday, 2

The painting of the Last Judgement in the church of St Thomas, Salisbury, is the largest of medieval ‘doom’ paintings and one of the clearest. It is, one could say, the rich cousin of the faded doom at Oddington that featured in my previous post. Details of costume suggest that it dates to the last quarter of the 15th century. Like nearly every English medieval church wall painting it was covered with whitewash some time after the Reformation, rediscovered (when traces of colour were noticed during cleaning) in the Victorian period, and restored. It doesn’t seem to be known for sure how much of the rich detail in the painting survives from the 15th century and how much was added by the Victorian restorers, but the overall effect is impressive – indeed, overwhelming – and when a visit is possible, I’ll be able to see has changed since the most recent restoration a couple of years ago and whether the process of conservation has yielded any more information about what the Victorian restorers did or didn’t add.

Meanwhile, even in my photographs, it’s a feast for the eyes. Christ sits at the centre, on a rainbow, with his feet resting on another rainbow. Beside him stand angels holding the instruments of the Passion (cross, crown of thorns, pillar, spear, sponge), and nearby are the Virgin Mary and John the Baptist. Beneath the lower rainbow stand the 12 apostles. To the left, angels blow their trumpets to waken the dead, who climb from their tombs, some naked, some in shrouds, one with a hat on, another with a bishop’s mitre. Angels guide these righteous souls towards Heaven, the architecture of which awaiting in the background. To the right, devils chain up a group of souls and drag them towards Hell. Hell, as is common in such paintings, has the fearsome mouth of a monster, in which flames are licking the souls who have already been pushed inside.

Even if some of the detail may be attributable to 19th century restorers, this doom painting takes one back to the 15th century with a jolt. It’s a colourful scene (medieval churches were colourful of course), it teems with figures, it’s at home with symbolism, both the symbols of the Passion and the symbolic headgear of some of the participants – mitres and royal crowns are visible among both Heaven-bound and Hell-destined souls. This painting lacks the faded atmosphere of Oddington, but repays lengthy scrutiny in its details – where both God and the devil reside.
St Thomas, Salisbury, Heaven

St Thomas, Salisbury, Hell

Saturday, April 17, 2021

Oddington, Gloucestershire

Doomsday, 1

Medieval wall paintings are among the most fascinating and tantalizing works of art. The fascination comes often not from the quality of the drawing but from the fact that virtually every English example is damaged, faded, and fragmentary. This is a result of iconoclasm in the 16th and 17th centuries, when images in churches were destroyed, often by covering with whitewash. Nearly every English church wall painting has been recovered from beneath at least one coat of whitewash, and the art’s condition depends on the damage done by this overpainting and the skill of the restorer or conservator, as well as the effects of time, damp, and modifications to the building.

Even so, medieval wall paintings can be extremely powerful. Visiting St Nicholas’ church, Oddington – which entails a trip down a long lane to a spot far away from houses and wonderfully quiet – makes one unprepared for the surprise on opening the south door. The enormous 15th-century doom painting stretches over virtually the entire north wall of the church.

The doom or last judgement is the event that takes place when, at the end of time, the souls of the dead are allotted their final place in Heaven or Hell. The events are complex and doom paintings are crowded with figures. As the light in Oddington church isn’t ideal for photography, I’ll describe what I think is going on in this one.§ At the top sits the figure of Christ (slightly to the right of the centre in my picture), with his feet above a disc, symbolising the earth. On his left and right sides are disciples. On either side of the world-disc are angels, and they are probably blowing trumpets to waken the dead and announce that the last judgment will take place: it’s possible to discern a narrow pale line coming from the mouth of the right-hand angel: the tube of a trumpet, I think. Next to the left-hand trumpeting angel stands a figure with a crown: St Peter. Groups of the righteous and repentant are welcomed to heaven by more angels, clearly recognisable by their spread and feathery wings. Heaven itself is, of course, architectural – there’s a slender tower with crenellations on top, linked by a wall (with more crenellations) to what is probably another tower on the far left. The celestial city had a wall, naturally, as any medieval city would do. One of my favourite touches is the small angel on top of the tower, who seems to be helping a soul into Heaven (or is it a bad soul trying to get into the city without authorisation and being pushed away?). On the right is Hell.* Yellow flames are discernible towards the bottom right. A horned devil fans the fire with a bellows. Other devils, dressed in striped garb, round up sinners and get on with the business of torturing them. Further touches: a person hanging from a gallows and another figure kneeling as if begging for mercy. Gruesome stuff, but it would have looked even more dreadful when the paint was new.

The fact that the colour has faded and so much of it has gone is perhaps what makes these paintings so moving. We can only look at them at all thanks to the lucky accidents of discovery and conservation, and their distressed state seems to lengthen the distance between our time and the painter’s. If medieval worshippers trembled with awe at the fate of the lost souls, we are more likely to be awed by the connection this art helps us make with their distant world. We don’t travel back in time or indulge in some ‘virtual medieval experience’ when we look at these paintings. We’re forced to confront another harsh reality: the power of passing time.

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§ Clicking on the image to enlarge it may make it easier to see the details. 

* The whole lower part of the painting has two different background colours. The right-hand half has a red background: this is hell; the left-hand section has a grey-looking background which maybe was once blue: it’s the heavenly realm.

Tuesday, April 13, 2021

Stanton, Gloucestershire

More curves

Bear with me, patient reader, as I indulge my interest with yet one more bit of corrugated iron. The key to the material’s success, from the time of its invention in the 19th century to today, is how the corrugations give this thin, lightweight material strength. Another of its virtues is how it can be bent during the building process, to make roofs that are inexpensive, strong, and curved to shed the rain effectively. Hence its widespread use in barns and sheds – as long-suffering regular readers will know from various past posts.

Here’s another use of the curving process. The photograph was taken some years ago at a plant nursery tucked away in the Cotswolds. The owner was then using several corrugated iron sheds and Nissen huts for work and storage, and where two sit together, whoever erected them has improvised a broad gutter between the two to take the rainwater that runs off. This entailed merely bending a sheet of corrugated iron into a semi-circle. It’s disarmingly simple, and could be made to fit the gap, which is a little wide for a single conventional gutter. Of course, like any gutter, it needs cleaning out, otherwise plants will grow in it, as they have begun to do here. But it’s an ingenious bit of bricolage, to which I raise my hat.

Saturday, April 10, 2021

Ryall, Worcestershire


Somewhere in rural Worcestershire, on a road I use quite often when there are no restrictions on travel, these pleasant curves pop up near the roadside. They’re one of the rural landmarks that tell me roughly where I am, how near I might be to one town or another, and they take their place in the ranks of field barns, outlying farms, lone pines, lonelier pubs, and telephone boxes on corners as my personal markers. I suppose I first noticed these buildings because they’re pale in colour, standing out from but harmonising with the surrounding landscape, as they harmonise with the cow parsley blooms in this view, taken when I finally stopped to take a better look.

They confirmed my liking for corrugated-iron buildings with curved roofs – the barns, railway sheds, Nissen huts, and other structures I’ve noticed here from time to time. And they confirm too that corrugated iron can look good in colours other than the usual green or the railway liveries now seen mostly at preserved or ‘heritage’ stations. I think they probably show the material’s adaptability too. I don’t know how these sheds began life – I’d not be surprised if they were built for agricultural use, given where they are. But they now seem to be used as some sort of automotive body-repair shop. They can’t be a bad fit for this use: they are spacious and provide plenty of headroom for vehicles much larger than the chunky classic Land-Rover in the foreground. The shelter and space are no doubt useful for paint jobs too. A good honest working building: so often, that’s just what’s needed.

Tuesday, April 6, 2021

Cheltenham, Gloucestershire

Flexible friends

I’ve done several posts in the past featuring new uses for redundant red telephone boxes. An art gallery in a creative dialogue with the art in Henry Moore’s former house nearby, a village information centre, the vibrant planters in central Bath – these have been the stars. There are also telephone boxes where coffee is served or defibrillators housed, boxes housing miniature libraries, and, in a gloriously self-referential bit of recycling that I wish I’d photographed when I last passed it before lockdown, a business offering mobile phone repairs. Here’s one very close to where I live; or rather, here are six, because these K6 boxes on The Promenade, Cheltenham’s main shopping street, are a throw-back to the time when phone boxes congregated together in groups. In my teenage years I remember making a call or two from one of these boxes. In fact, I remember queueing outside them to make a call, so well used were they in the days before everyone had a phone in their house, let alone a mobile in their pocket. On this street, on a broad stretch of pavement near what was once the General Post Office, there’s this group of six and, a short distance away, another clutch of four.

These six were for a while a sort of outstation of The Wilson, Cheltenham’s Museum and Art Gallery. They have housed various art installations that have entailed peering through the glass at items variously rich and strange. When I last passed, the display was bolder and attached to the windows themselves. It was like a combination of gallery and advertisement: a 3D billboard for a group of artists, with samples of work and contact details. It was part of a project called Art in YOUR Quarter, curated by the Cheltenham Trust and showcasing art created in the community during lockdown and its colourful, bold work had to be able to hold its own in the uncompromising red frame of the glazing bars, and to work across the eight large glazed panels of each outward-facing wall or door.*

If to outsiders this might seem a trifle brash for leafy Regency Cheltenham, that may true only up to a point. In recent years, the town has made a bit of a name for itself as a place that hosts an annual festival of street art. This means that, each summer, a group of artists descend on the town and apply themselves diligently to an agreed stretch of wall. The chosen sites are often tucked away in unregarded corners – unlovely end-walls on street corners, boundary walls in car parks, subways that frankly need brightening up, and so on. It’s a form of sanctioned graffiti that has won over many, including many sceptics. This display on the telephone boxes is not part of the festival but its aesthetic and its street location are compatible with it, yet also on a scale that works better in its town-centre setting. I for one am grateful that it has been brightening up a world that in these times can feel dull, or worse.

And another thing. For many of us, art is an important, even necessary, part of life. You don’t have to be a painter or sculptor to look at it that way: you just need eyes. But not everyone feels that art is ‘for them’. Putting it in phone boxes is one way to make art more visible to more people. And adding the contact details helps too. It’s not just that people might want to buy work from the artists, or to commission them. If these are local artists, it reminds people that art isn’t just in London galleries, isn’t only on rich people’s walls. It’s here, now. And importantly, you don’t need to take a train ride to London to find it. Now more than ever, that’s a message worth remembering.

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* The six boxes featured: illustration by Luna Lotus, photography by Danielle Tipton, illustration by Jose Casey, collage by Ross Morgan, illustration by J.P McCrossan, illustration by Emma Evans, illustration by STISH, illustration by Tom Graham, illustration by Martha Kelsey and illustration by Art Lad.


Friday, April 2, 2021

Malvern Link, Worcestershire

Art and nature

Malvern Link is an area to the north and east of Great Malvern, adjoining a swathe of land called Link Common. Development began after the railway arrived in the 1850s, and continued through the second half of the 19th century into the 20th. Along the main artery, Worcester Road, many of the houses , especially those near or overlooking the common, were built as substantial middle-class homes; there were also several hotels catering for Malvern’s role as a fashionable spa.

This is an example of the former, an attractive house of the very late-19th or early-20th century, glimpsed through the trees and bushes fringing the front garden. Attracted by the winning combination of red brick, white woodwork, tiles, and windows with small panes in the upper sashes, I began to think of Bedford Park, the west London garden suburb that was a product of the 1880s and hugely influential. I think, from looking at old Ordnance Survey maps, that these are slightly later, but in a similar mode.

My eye was drawn especially to the ornamental panels running across the middle of the bay. The subject is stylised foliage and flowers of a fairly standard sort, of course: just what you’d expect on a house of some pretension in a prosperous area. Often such panels are in terracotta, a material popular during the fashion for ‘Queen Anne’ architecture from the 1870s onwards. Architectural ceramics companies had a repertoire of foliage, flowers, curlicues, and various other ornamental details, and builders drew on them widely. Terracotta was usually brick-red but was also available in a less common buff shade that resembled stone. Often it is hard to tell the difference between stone and terracotta, and I am having this difficulty with these Malvern Link examples. But whatever their material, they provide a pleasing touch, now complemented by the living greenery, which, having arrived more recently than the house, seems to be imitating art.