Wednesday, December 29, 2021

Stowe, Buckinghamshire

Buildings in a landscape, 1

Stowe is one of the biggest and most magnificent of English landscape gardens. It’s a 400-acre masterpiece that bears the stamp of great 18th-century gardeners such as Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown, who sculpted terrain using earth and water and trees to create scenery that was deemed to be more ‘natural-looking’ than the formal gardens that were fashionable in earlier ages. These landscapes were punctuated by dozens of buildings, statues and other monuments that formed focal points for vistas. And at Stowe, men of the calibre of William Kent, James Gibbs and Sir John Vanbrugh all contributed to the architecture.

This array of talent was at the service of the estate’s owners, the Temple family, and of these, Sir Richard Temple (1675–1749), who inherited Stowe in 1697 and was made 1st Viscount Cobham in 1718, was probably the most important. It was he, building on work done by his predecessors, marshalled the talent and provide the funds to create the gardens largely as we know them and to commission the buildings that are one of its major glories still. As is well known, Cobham chose and influenced the architecture to reflect his philosophical and political views, and these views were determinedly Whig, and drew on the ideas of the Enlightenment and of authors from Francis Bacon to Alexander Pope.

To be a Whig in the 18th century meant, so Cobham argued, supporting the British constitutional monarchy, opposing notions of absolute monarchy propounded by the Stuarts and their supporters, and standing up for political freedom and liberty. Cobham saw Whig virtues embodied in certain British heroes, some historical, some contemporary, some people of action, some contemplatives. Many of these qualities were, it was said, embodied in figures such as Elizabeth I, William Shakespeare, John Locke, and John Milton, whose busts are displayed in the Temple of British Worthies, one of the buildings at Stowe.

Another large building in the garden is the Gothic Temple, designed by James Gibbs and part of a campaign of building and gardening that took place at Stowe in 1739–42. Unlike the Temple of British Worthies, the Gothic Temple’s connection to Whig values is less obvious. It’s easy to see it as an exception (most of the architecture in the garden is classical) and interesting as a piece of self-conscious Gothic on a large scale that predates Horace Walpole’s house Strawberry Hill, so often cited as the structure that kick-started Britain’s Gothic revival.

But from Cobham’s point of view, the Gothic Temple could be seen as symbolising virtues that Whigs valued highly. For him, Gothic meant vigour, hardihood, and a love of liberty, and was valuable as a style with north-European roots, standing at a remove from the ‘southern langour’ symbolised (allegedly) by, say, baroque buildings. It is, from this standpoint, thoroughly Whiggish.* And the building is certainly there to stand out, catch the eye, and stimulate thought and conversation. It’s huge, it’s unusually triangular in plan†, it occupies a prominent, elevated site, and is the only one of Stowe’s structures to be built of glowing orange ironstone. One might ask, seeing it for the first time, ‘Whatever is that?’¶ I’ve tried to suggest the sort of answer its creator might have given to this question. 

- - - - -

* Although of course looking at it another way, none of these virtues belong exclusively, or even at all, to Gothic any more than they do to other artistic styles. I am simply trying to describe what Cobham and his Whig friends found in the style.

† Had Cobham or Gibbs got Sir Thomas Tresham’s earlier Triangular Lodge in Northamptonshire in mind?

¶ Nowadays it is also a holiday home, restored and managed by the Landmark Trust.

Thursday, December 23, 2021

Long Melford, Suffolk



Holy Trinity church, Long Melford, is one of those vast East Anglian churches of the 15th century for which the term ‘awe-inspiring’ is for once quite appropriate. The craftsmanship of its masons and of the other workers who constructed it, the wealth of the local merchants and others that made it possible, the sheer size of a building that serves what is now a small Suffolk town – all make us pause. Not only that, but in this case the identities of the principal patrons are known and in many cases inscribed into the stones of the church. ‘Pray for ye sowlis of William Clopton, Margy and Margy his wifis*, and for ye sowle of Alice Clopton and for John Clopto’, and for alle thoo sowlis’ yt ye seyd John is bo’nde to prey for,†’ reads the inscription over the North porch. Several others have their inscriptions too, and some of these inscriptions are dated, so we know that work was underway in the 1480s and 1490s.

However, my photograph shows a panel of alabaster that must have survived from the church that existed before Holy Trinity got its costly rebuild. It has been dated to the late-14th century, which makes it very early for an alabaster sculpture, and it shows the Adoration of the Magi. It may be a lone survivor from an altarpiece, in which case it’s a marvel that it has escaped destruction. Most images of this kind were destroyed during the Reformation period, particularly when England’s religion turned to an austere variety of Protestantism during the reign of Edward VI. But this panel was removed from whatever position it occupied and was hidden beneath the chancel floor, where it was rediscovered in the 18th century.

There’s much to like in this relief of the Holy Family and the Magi. Mary reclines – a traditional pose much used by the artists of the Byzantine empire, and also in the Christian west. On her lap is a standing, unbabelike Jesus; again, medieval depictions of babies often use this convention, often portraying them almost as miniature adults. He reaches out his hand to the leading Magus to accept the gift, and the giver hastily removes his crown. The other two Magi look on – or do they? They have the hieratic, abstracted expressions and poses characteristic of a certain strain of medieval statuary. There are lovely touches to the left of the panel. A woman (a midwife?) plumps up Mary’s pillow. And the animals in the stable get a look in too: a pair of heads peep from low down beneath the head of the couch.

I find this panel a delight, and I offer it to my readers with season’s greetings and the very best of wishes for the coming year.

- - - - -  

* He seems to have had two wives who happened to share the same name.

† In other words, he is asking us to pray not only for his own soul but for certain others for whom he has promised to pray.

Monday, December 20, 2021

Ely, Cambridgeshire

Logistics, Regency style

Although repainted and sliced off on one side, this old sign is still worth pausing to look at. It begs several questions. How did it come to be missing its right-hand edge when the windows on either side look old? How old is it? Who were Isaac Marsh and William Swan? Answering the last question gives a hint of an answer to the second, at least.

There was a Marsh and Son operating wagons out of Cambridge in 1808, but by 1814 the company is called Marsh & Swan. They covered a range of Cambridgeshire and Norfolk towns, as well as operating their service to London’s Bull Inn, Bishopsgate Street, a major destination for London coaches and for vehicles carrying goods such as the flies, vans and wagons* that Marsh and Swan operated. But by 1845, the company was called Swan and Sons. So this sign must date to the period between the 1800s and the early-1840s.

They’d be called a logistics firm today and run a fleet of trucks and they were as essential to commercial life as the companies whose trucks carry everything from food to pharmaceuticals now. However, their modern equivalents do not leave behind them such well crafted signs as this one, which compares more than favourably not only with the lettering on most lorries but also with that on the modern sign below it.

The sign-writer who restored it seems to have done a good job of recreating the letterforms and ornaments of the original. The balance of thick and thin strokes in the capital letters, the fancy curlicues on the ornamental ’T’, ‘Y’ and ‘B’ , and the decorative arrangement of the ‘and’ between the proprietors’ names – all these, I hope, will meet with well deserved admiration .

- - - - -

* Wagons or waggons were large four-wheeled horse-drawn vehicles for carrying goods. A fly was a smaller wagon, although the term could also be applied to a horse-drawn passenger vehicle – the main feature of both was the ability to travel quickly. Vans were smaller still, with a permanent covered structure.

Friday, December 17, 2021

Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire


A bed for Bacon?

The day I saw a copy of an old book in a charity shop; it was No Bed for Bacon (1941) by Caryl Brahms and S. J. Simon, and it’s a kind of proto-Shakespeare in Love, a comic novel about the trials and tribulations of our greatest dramatist as he acts (badly) in a revival of one of his plays, supports his company as they face competition from their rival, Philip Henslowe, falls in love with a woman (who’s disguised as a boy, naturally), tries to placate fellow actors, and struggles to write a play for performance in front of Queen Elizabeth I while also trying (unsuccessfully) to start writing a sequel to one of his most popular comedies, to be entitled Love’s Labours Won.

All of this made me think of the myths that cluster around Shakespeare. Not so much that the plays ‘must have’ been written by someone else, Francis Bacon perhaps. No, Brahms and Simon fortunately have no truck with that. More the ideas of Olde Englande, all roast beef, good cheer, and half-timbered buildings. The sort of thing embodied by structures such as Stratford’s delightful, early-20th century faux-Elizabethan shop front of W. H. Smith, about which I’ve posted before.

These days most of the other surviving early-20th century shopfronts built by this company are mostly bland modern facades. The buildings’ interiors have been refitted at least once since the shops were built, and features such as plaster ceilings and Gill lettering are nearly all long gone. Newtown in Powys is the best place to to see what we have lost in these shop interiors.

But at Stratford, one trace remains, in the shape of a series of coloured glass roundels on the stairs. Here, among the suspended ceilings and modern shelf units, are portraits of British writers. These days they depend for their effect on being lit from behind, and not all were illuminated the other day – Shakespeare himself was as dark as the mysterious lady. But three were glowing with backlit colour: Richard Brinsley Sheridan, Charles Dickens, and, wonderfully Francis Bacon. Not a bad selection: Sheridan was a theatrical star, Dickens loved the theatre and was a virtuoso public reader of his own novels, Bacon was a contemporary of Shakespeare.

These portraits in glass speak of a time when Smith’s were committed and successful booksellers as well as stationers. They remind us that for this company at least, the Olde England myth was more than a fancy front – William Henry Smith loved the idea that he could help people educate themselves with cheap editions of the literary classics, and the idea lasted well beyond his time. You could still buy novels by Thomas Hardy and Charles Dickens in my local WHS last time I looked, although such classics were in the minority on the shelves. And I doubt they’d have a copy of Francis Bacon’s Essays. Back in the 1930s, though, Smith’s might well have provided, if not a bed, a shelf for Bacon.

Monday, December 13, 2021

Moreton Corbet, Shropshire


Gorgeous and stately

Looking at this end-on view of the ruin of Moreton Corbet Castle’s south range, you’d not think it was a castle at all, in the strict medieval sense . The same would be true of a view across the fields taking in what is left of the long south front of which my photograph above shows one corner. What is here are clearly the remains of an Elizabethan country house, and one of some grandeur. It was built by Robert Corbet at the end of the 16th century, who was extending the work done by his father, Sir Andrew, who had begun to transform the structure of his family’s ancestral medieval castle.

Sir Andrew turned his castle into a more fashionable residence by building new rooms against the old curtain wall. Ruins of these are still seen on the other half of the site, to the left of the building in my photograph. Sir Andrew died in 1578, and Robert was more radical, adding this new south range to create what Camden called a ‘gorgeous and stately house’. Its curvy gables, classical pilasters and large, rectangular mullioned windows will be familiar to anyone who’s seen more famous houses of this period – Blickling in Norfolk, for example has similar gables and windows; so does Montacute in Somerset.

So this is high-status building, and the amount of effort and expense involved in its construction is confirmed by the details, especially the pilasters and attached columns, together with the friezes they support (photograph below). These feature a variety of roundels, bits of strapwork, and carved animals of various kinds, some from the standard repertoire of the time (decorative flourishes influenced, like the house’s gables, by contemporary Flemish architecture), but also the heraldic beasts of the Corbet family.

Why is this marvel of late-Tudor architecture now a ruin? During the English Civcil Wars there was much fighting around the house (which was then occupied by Sir Vincent Corbet, who was on the royalist side). As a result, the house was badly damaged, and although the family continued to live in it, they abandoned it in the 18th century. There were plans to build a new house on the site but these came to nothing and the building was left to decay. It is a magnificent, if tantalising, ruin.

Wednesday, December 8, 2021

Ilminster, Somerset

Meeting place

When I was told that one name for this building in Ilminster was the Old Meeting, my first thought was that it was rather showy for the Quakers, who often favour domestic and unobtrusive buildings for their meeting houses. But it wasn’t a Quaker building but a meeting house for the Unitarians, who built it in 1719 and set it proudly towards the top of the hill on which the town centre stands. The structure has been modified several times since, with the addition of a schoolroom behind in the mid-19th century. Julian Orbach, in the Pevsner volume for Somerset: South and West, thinks that the large windows and the pedimented doorcases on either side may be 19th-century additions too – there are records of alterations to the meeting house in 1851, 1894, and 1913.

Whatever the precise history of the building, it still makes an attractive structure and if it looks a bit of a stylistic mishmash, such mélanges of Tudor gothic and simplified classical produced some attractive results in provincial town architecture of the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. I’d call this example attractive too, although might some might prefer a more ‘correct’ mastery of detail – the pediments of the doorways conceal shallow segmental arches: an odd mix. But I’m pleased to say the building has found a fitting use as a local arts centre, with exhibitions held in the main space and the schoolroom behind converted to a café. The café spills out into the garden at busy times – and was still doing so in the summer when I was last there, with customers taking advantage of the fresh air to mix and enjoy a coffee in relative safety. A local asset, in good and bad times alike.