Thursday, May 30, 2024

Clifton, Bristol

Classicism, but not as we know it

‘You can park on Clifton Down,’ I was told. ‘Walk down the Promenade and Litfield Place: you’ll like some of the buildings along the way.’ Even so, I was not quite prepared for the sheer size and grandiloquence of some of the 19th-century houses in this part of Clifton. They were built for the most part for merchants, who were dripping with wealth from transatlantic trade, much of it involving slavery, and who wanted sizeable houses close to some greenery, well away from the bustle of Bristol’s city centre and docks, but near enough for convenience. There are views, too, from Clifton’s heights towards the city or the countryside.

Some of these houses are from the first third of the 19th century, like Trafalgar House, which was built in the 1830s with an enormous ‘statement’ two-storey portico. The ground floor level has a lower ceiling and shorter windows thatn the enormous sashes of the floor above, and the masonry of the portico at the bottom is treated with banded rustication. This is in line with the use of ground floors as service rooms, whereas the floor above contained the large, grand rooms, where the owner received guests in the most magnificent of surroundings. So rusticated masonry on the ground floor acts as a kind of class-marker, and this floor (or the basement where there was one) was often known as the ‘rustic’ in the 18th century. The columns on the upper part of the portico are in the plainest of all classical orders, the Tuscan, indicating a sober quality somewhat belied by the statue of the cartoon character Gromit, from the Wallace and Grommit films by Bristol’s animation company Aardman, on the balcony.

But the portico is neither entirely serious nor wholly orthodox. Whoever designed it adorned the lower level with a row of three arches, an unusual touch, which gives the architecture a sense of relaxation and unorthodoxy it otherwise would not possess. The building’s architect is unknown – suggestions include Charles Dyer, who designed other houses nearby, and Charles Underwood, who started in Cheltenham as a builder before moving to Bristol to practise as an architect. Whoever it was created a striking effect that must have pleased the house’s original owners, and pleased me as I passed by the other evening.

No comments: