Saturday, August 19, 2017

Ironbridge, Shropshire


Industrial eyecatcher

You drive through Ironbridge with the river on your left and suddenly you see a row of brick gables with a pointed Gothic window under each and buttresses sticking out on to the pavement. A little further on, the end of the building reveals its from behind some trees and your jaw drops as a pair of slender turrets – crenellated and with faux arrow loops, but far too small for an archer to stand inside – and an apse-like structure with more crenellations and pointed windows appears. Whatever can it be?

The short answer is that it’s the Museum of the Gorge, where visitors can go to learn all about the  Ironbridge area. But of course it has not always been a museum. It was built in around 1840 as the Severn Warehouse, where finished items from the foundries were stored until the River Severn’s water level, which varied greatly from season to season, was high enough for boats to transport them away. The main block, with the row of gables, was the warehouse; the apse was an office; the turrets conceal chimneys. The architect of all this was Samuel Cookson, who clearly wanted a ‘statement building’, something to stand out and catch the eye: architecture as advertisement. There are other warehouses nearby, but they are quite plain.
Looking at the end of the building, one can see a bit more clearly how it worked. On either side of the office are large doors, through which big cast iron objects could be wheeled on carts down the slope to the river. The paved slope has grooves – plateways – along which the carts would run, down to the sandstone walls of the riverside wharf to the waiting Severn trows.

The ironmasters of the industrial revolution liked to show off the versatility of their chosen material, making furniture, signs, even coffins of iron, as well as the more expected industrial machinery and bridge components. But this area was not just a source of iron, it was also rich in clay, spawning potteries, tileworks, and brickworks. Cookson’s extraordinary building is an example of what Ironbridge’s brick workers could do when they tried.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Farley, Wiltshire


Polite architecture

This charming classical church was the goal of my detour to Farley, where I also saw the village hall in my previous post. I’d read about this church and seen a picture of it in John Piper’s Wiltshire Shell Guide, but as the photographs in the Shell Guides are in black and white, I wasn’t prepared for the beautiful warm colour of the brickwork, which has mellowed in the 400-odd years since it was laid in English bond and is set off wonderfully by the surrounding greenery and the pale stone of the quoins and window surrounds.

If this looks rather a grand church for a small country village, there’s a reason. It was built in c. 1680–90 under the auspices of a wealthy and well connected local man, Sir Stephen Fox, who also founded a ‘hospital’ (actually a set of almshouses) opposite, a while after the previous village church had fallen into disrepair. Fox was a friend of Sir Christopher Wren, the greatest architect of the time, the two having worked together on the hospital for pensioners in Chelsea, and it is possible that Wren advised on the design of the church. The work was almost certainly undertaken by Alexander Fort, Wren’s surveyor; Fort may also have acted as the architect of the building.

Looking at the church, it’s clear that it’s a small but sophisticated building. Although it doesn’t look exactly like the ‘typical’ Wren church in the City of London (no white Portland stone walls, no elaborate steeple), it is quite a remarkable design. The layout of the separate parts of the building – tower, nave, chancel, and the projecting chapels provides visual interest as well as delineating different functions (the protruding chapel in the photograph acts as the entrance and vestry, the one opposite it on the north side of the building contains memorials to the Fox and Ilchester families, with a burial vault beneath). The architectural details – window surrounds, door cases, cornice – are very plain, but well made.* I especially like the round window above the doorway. and the way its curve echoes those of the semicircular-headed windows of the nave and chancel. It’s a polite building in a quiet country setting. The only sound I heard while I was there was that of leather on willow from the nearby cricket pitch. After the intrusion of corrugated iron in my previous post, civilization has been restored.

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*The interior is plain too, with white walls, round arches, and oak pews that have been lowered in height.

Friday, August 11, 2017

Farley, Wiltshire


A twinge of nostalgia

Making a trip to Salisbury the other day, I decided to divert and look at the church at Farley, a rather beautiful bit of rural classicism that I hope to share with you soon. I seem to remember reading an account of it somewhere that praised the church while decrying the ‘ugly village hall’ next door. When I got there, this is what I found.

Ugly? Well, it’s hardly rural classicism, but as a lover of corrugated iron I found something to admire in the simplicity of this structure, which has clearly been serving the local community for many decades. It looks like something a bit more, too, than the standard off-the-shelf corrugated-iron building from one of the many manufacturers that allowed you to order up a church, village hall, or isolation hospital from a catalogue and have it delivered to you local railway station as a kit of parts. The curvy bargeboard is a nice ‘extra’, while the window at the front, which looks as if it wants the angled portions to be glazed but instead opts for more wriggly tin, is an eccentric touch.

There used to be a hall rather like this a couple of villages along the road from where I live. It didn’t have quite the same pattern to the bargeboards, and it certainly didn’t boast such an unusual front window, but the shade of faded green was exactly the same, and the paintwork was peeling in a similar way. It has gone now, and I looked at the one at Farley with just a twinge of nostalgia.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Big house, small details


Holkham: The social, architectural and landscape history of a great English country house by Christine Hiskey
Published by Unicorn Press


At the end of Holkham by Christine Hiskey are two photographs that for me sum up the turns and turns-about in the history of a great house. The pictures show the same room, the Statue Gallery, in the 1960s-70s and the 1980s. In the first picture, the room is dominated by a rather fussily patterned (but very beautiful) carpet and some chairs upholstered in bright red. In the second, the room has been restored to create the effect it originally made in the 18th century, with bare, polished floor boards and chairs covered in blue leather. The evidence for the blue leather on the chairs comes from the earliest inventories of the house and a fragment of leather caught under later upholstery.

This coming together of documentary and physical evidence, this fine detail, characterises Hiskey’s fascinating account of one of our greatest houses, Holkham Hall in Norfolk, from the time it was built in the 18th century under Thomas Coke, 1st Earl of Leicester, to today, with the 8th Earl (another Thomas Coke) in residence. Holkham is vast, one of the biggest English houses, and very, very grand. It deserves a weighty history and this is what it has got – it’s impossible to do justice in a short review to the 500-odd pages of dense social, architectural, and landscape history in this book. There is so much here and all of it backed up with evidence from the estate’s extensive archives (the author is Holkham’s archivist) and with scores of fascinating illustrations. 

Holkham tells the long story of the construction of the vast house, a task that took the 1st Earl 25 years and was still not finished when he died (his widow saw the building to completion) and involved several different architects, whose contributions are difficult to disentangle. The building of the hall (including the sourcing of materials, the work of the small army of craftsmen, the changes in design) is given a substantial portion of the book. It describes how the family lived in the house, and how the various bits of this vast pile were used – not least in the early years when the Cokes were living in the completed portion of what was otherwise a half-finished building site. It explains the estate, and how the village, farms, and park related to the house. And it chronicles the changes made to the house over the years, often in detail as fine and evocative as that scrap of leather under the chair upholstery.

It covers of course, the Coke who’s best known to anyone with a smattering of English social history – Thomas William Coke or ‘Coke of Norfolk’, who is most famous as an agriculturalist, as well as being a prominent Whig Member of Parliament, staying in office until the 1832 Reform Act was passed. As well as all this he was well liked as a host, and the book quotes several accounts by his guests, who praise his generosity (he seems to have been one of those people who made everyone feel that they were the favourite guest); they also loved his library.

And so it goes on, through the Victorian period and 20th century, to our own. We learn a lot about the vast corps of servants, about relations with tenant farmers and villagers (mostly good – the Cokes were not ones for shifting people willy-nilly or knocking down cottages to create lakes). Then there are the dealings with local tradesmen. The Cokes bought a lot of their supplies locally, and Hiskey has lists of local businesses (apothecary, brush maker, saddler, basket maker, cooper, cabinet maker, druggist, draper, glover…) who sold goods to the house. Even that most important of symbols of country-house grandeur, the servants’ liveries, came not from London but from nearby Holt.

One could go on citing fascinating and animating details – from primitive electricity generators to provision for fire-fighting: before the house was finished, men had to put out a fire in the room of Matthew Brettingham, resident architect, and by 1750 the house had its own fire engine, with leather hoses. Hundreds of such details make up this absorbing account, a fitting tribute to one of the greatest English houses, its builders, households, and owners.

Saturday, August 5, 2017

Pix and mortar


The next in my short series of book reviews is a book full of photographs of buildings – and full of information about taking architectural photographs...

Photographing Historic Buildings by Steve Cole
Published by Historic England

One of my first jobs in publishing was editing books that taught people how to take better pictures. I noticed back then, in the days of film and darkrooms, that there weren’t many books about architectural photography (there was a good one by Eric de Maré, but not much else). There still isn’t much, and Photographing Historic Buildings by Steve Cole closes this gap and is written very much for the digital age.

The author is well qualified. He worked for more than 40 years as a photographer in the cultural heritage sector – for the old Royal Commission on the Historical Monuments of England and for English Heritage. He knows his subject backwards and upside-down, and is able to tell us about it in clear, succinct writing backed up with exemplary images. He’s concerned with using photography to make a record of the built environment. That means he’s less exercised by mood and atmosphere (although many of his photographs convey these qualities) than with the techniques and standards needed to make a faithful documentary record. However, most people who photographs historic buildings, whether for the record or for more artistic purposes, can learn something from this book.

This is a very practical handbook and Cole starts with the most basic practicalities – logistics (getting to the location, obtaining permission to take photographs); equipment (the various virtues and drawbacks of digital technical cameras, SLRs, bridge cameras, and compacts*); digital file formats (JPEG, TIFF, RAW, etc); different lenses and their uses; lighting; colour rendition; and so on. Then there’s a terrific chapter on composition, showing, for example, the importance of selecting the right viewpoint and revealing the pitfalls of distortion that can occur with a wide-angle lens. The composition chapter also covers matters such as photographing interiors, capturing a building’s context, the importance of when the picture is taken, and the sense of scale. There are also useful chapters on light (especially helpful with buildings that are lit unevenly) and subjects (covering everything from staircases to plaster ceilings, industrial sites to stained-glass windows, all of which are challenging in different ways). Much of this information is pulled together in case studies, which show multiple images from four different buildings (a modernist house, a timber-framed house, a nonconformist chapel, and an industrial site) used to build up a complete record (and demonstrating in the process solutions to many of the challenges outlined in the previous chapters). The last part of the book deals with post-production, explaining a range of image-editing techniques from cropping to the correction of distortion, all with practical tips.

I’ve already learned quite a bit from this book. I’m hoping soon that, having read Cole on the subject, my photographs of stained glass will be much better than they were; that I’ll produce better images of interiors; and that I’ll benefit from understanding that my wide-angle lens, useful in tight spots but also prone to produce distortion, is not always my friend. This book, though, promises to be a welcome friend on my bookshelves.


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*I have to say that as a user of a mirrorless camera, I feel slightly short-changed by this section – but not hugely: my camera does most things that an SLR will, and most of what Cole says when it comes to taking pictures is relevant whatever your equipment. My guess is that most readers of this book will be users of digital SLRs.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Oxfordshire revisited

Around this time of year English Buildings becomes a book blog for a week or so, as I cast an eye over some recent books on subjects that I write about here. First, a new volume in a familiar series of architectural guides – but no less impressive for that...


The Buildings of England: Oxfordshire: North and West by Alan Brooks and Jennifer Sherwood
Published by Yale University Press


It’s time to ease the cork out of another bottle of the fizzy stuff in the Wilkinson household when another revised volume in Pevsner’s invaluable Buildings of England series comes out – especially if, as is the case with the latest, Oxfordshire: North and West, it covers an area close to my home. In the original edition, Oxfordshire (written jointly by Nikolaus Pevsner and Jennifer Sherwood) was covered in a single volume, so this is a substantial expansion as well as a revision – it includes the bulk, in terms of area, of the county, leaving the city of Oxford and the southern part of Oxfordshire for another volume.

The revision is by Alan Brooks, who has already revised the two Gloucestershire volumes, Worcestershire, and Herefordshire. He did a fine job on those, and doesn’t disappoint with Oxfordshire either. Revising a ‘Pevsner’ is not a simple task. It’s not just a question of bringing the book up to date by adding new buildings and deleting those that have been demolished. It also involves taking in corrections, adding buildings that the original authors missed, noticing alterations to fabric, and, perhaps most importantly of all, incorporating the results of new research. Alan Brooks, for example, has benefitted from recent publications, especially on the vernacular architecture of the county, and is an expert on stained glass, so has strengthened the book’s coverage of that subject considerably. This adding of new detail demands a gentle touch. Brooks has been able to preserve a lot of the wording of the original book, although the words get moved around to accommodate new research and occasional changes of emphasis or modifications of opinion. Alan Brooks deserves congratulations for keeping all these balls in the air while delivering such a wealth of architectural information.

Looking at familiar places with a ‘Pevsner’ in hand is usually a revelation, all the more so in this case, for someone who has been used to using the 1974 first edition of Oxfordshire. Looking at places I’ve visited recently, I notice enhancements and interesting additions everywhere. At Fifield, for example, the architect who did the church’s 19th-century restoration is named, and we are told more about the artists who produced the stained glass. At Hook Norton there’s an extended description of the brewery, a wonderful building given short shift in the first edition. In many places there is more on small (and not so small) houses – at Horton-cum-Studley we are given more on the almshouses, cottages, and a timber-framed house that even merits a diagram. I was pleased to see the inclusion of the occasional bit of background, such as the expanded coverage of the stained glass at Horspath depicting John Copcot, a 15th-century student at the Queen’s College, Oxford, famous, we are told, for killing a wild boar with his copy of Aristotle. This is all about filling in detail on buildings that could have been given better treatment first time round. But there have also been changes in Oxfordshire’s villages. For example, North Oxfordshire’s great set piece village, Great Tew, has been transformed from the sorry state of dilapidation noted in the 1974 edition to the revived and thriving place of today. Brooks notes that ‘much solid conservation work has been carried out by the estate’: how true.

Towns get markedly better coverage. Chipping Norton for example, has much more detail about houses, shops, former hotels, and schools, sometimes with more precise dating than in earlier editions. Visiting the town with the new edition in one’s hand, one emerges with a better understanding of the place’s vernacular architecture, its notable local baroque buildings, and its 20th-century architecture. I’ll be returning to Chipping Norton, to look more closely at various buildings, from the masonic hall to the former workhouse, now converted to flats. Banbury and Burford, to name just two other towns I know quite well, will repay further visits with the new Pevsner. Repeated and redoubled visits, indeed. It will take a long time to drink dry the deep well of information marshalled in this latest Pevsner. Meanwhile, I’ll raise another glass of fizz.

Saturday, July 29, 2017

Martock, Somerset


Well provided for

I always think of the Tudor and Stuart periods as the great age of English market houses, which are so often built in a kind of rustic classicism that suggests local pride and modest prosperity. The one at Chipping Campden is a favourite, Abingdon another, on a far grander scale and far from rustic. The stone town of Martock, however, has a mid-18th century one.

It’s quietly classical, with elliptical arches and piers that don’t have capitals but just a continuation of the stringcourse that runs around the building to show where the arch begins. Up above there are sash windows and, at the end, a Venetian window above a row of scroll brackets, and above that a blind niche in the form of a semicircle that, when you look at it closely, turns out to be a vent.  It’s very simple, a local builder’s assemblage of basic ingredients, but a satisfying enough recipe for a small country town.

Next to it is a structure known as the Market Cross or the Pinnacle. It’s a tall Tuscan column (about 6 m in total) that bears the date 1741. It is allegedly a copy of one once at Wilton, but wherever the idea came from, it’s effective enough as a corner feature on this junction. Not that it needs a landmark, with the Market House there too. In this, as in its profusion of stones buildings generally, Martock is well provided for.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Swerford, Oxfordshire


Lumps and bumps

It was only by chance that I came across this place. I was on the lookout for the church, but what I’d taken to be the main village of Swerford, a cluster of houses at Chapel End, is not where the church is – it’s next to another cluster a few hundred yards away. And then, when I did find the church what caught my eye first were various lumps and bumps in the adjacent field. They are all that’s left of a castle: two main raised grassy partly tree-covered areas – the motte or mound and the bailey or courtyard – plus another smaller one that looks like a lesser bailey or outwork. The churchyard cuts into the nearest bump, which you can see in my photograph just beyond the churchyard wall, telling us that the graveyard, and no doubt the church, are later than the castle.

This small fortification was built during the 12th-century civil war between rival claimants to the English throne: Matilda, daughter of Henry I, and Stephen, his nephew. The local lords, the D’Oyleys, were related to Matilda and so on her side; their neighbours, the de Chesneys of Deddington, backed Stephen and threatened to take the D’Oyley lands. This small castle was built by the D’Oyleys to defend the ford over the Swere Brook, a key point on a local route.

The castle would have been built of wood and put up quickly some time after the death of Henry I in 1135, so that a small garrison and their horses could be based here. Twenty years later it was not needed, as the war had ended with Stephen on the throne but an agreement that Matilda’s son would succeed him when he died. That son, Henry II, had the unauthorised castles of the civil war dismantled when he came to the throne in 1154, and this one was probably taken down then. Some of the rubble from the mound may even have been used to build the church, which dates from some time after 1300. Archaeologists say that whether or not this was the case, the site was cleared fairly comprehensively and there have been few finds.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Shorncote, Gloucestershire


Viva Maria!

A few weeks ago I injured a leg and for a while could hardly move and was unable to bend sufficiently to get in and out of the car – let alone drive it – without pain. By last weekend things had improved sufficiently for me to take my leg for a test drive, as it were, and, as things went well, I ended up a few miles beyond Cirencester and found myself in a tiny place called Shorncote, where I’d not been before.

The church at Shorncote is very small – just a nave, chancel, small side chapel and porch – but is full of the sort of things that I like: fragments of wall painting, an old timber roof, a tiny Easter sepulchre, a reading desk knocked together out of medieval panelling, and so on. As I was looking round, the sun came out and threw light on all this, and also on something I had not noticed until that point, a carved graffito on a window ledge, made up of a capital W or what this symbol is usually taken to be, a pair of overlapping Vs.
Matthew Champion’s excellent book Medieval Graffiti* is enlightening on this mark, which he and fellow graffiti-researchers have found in many medieval churches. He says that it is widely believed to symbolise the Virgin Mary, and written as two overlapping Vs is said to stand for ‘Virgo Virginum’ (Virgin of virgins), though it is also sometimes written upside-down, when it appears as a capital M, so it works that way too. Champion cites at least one place – a church at Fakenham, Norfolk – where the symbol is reproduced formally (i.e. not as graffiti), in the flint patterns on a late-medieval church wall, in association with the word ‘Maria’.

However, the symbol outlasted the Reformation, turning up in all sorts of places, including 18th and 19th-century secular buildings, suggesting that it might have acquired a significance beyond the church, as a kind of sign of good luck. In 20th-century Italy, incidentally, the symbol had an afterlife as an abbreviation for the word ‘Viva’ (long live).† There can be a lot to tease out of a small scratched mark on a church wall.

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* Matthew Champion, Medieval Graffiti: The Lost Voices of England’s Churches, (Ebury Press, 2013). I reviewed this book here. I’d recommend it to anyone with an interest in these things.

† To go off piste for a moment: The American poet E. E. Cummings gave one of his collections the title VV [ViVa], with the Vs printed to overlap (and often, given the limitations of typography, as a W), in the ancient manner. Cummings liked titles that were unusual or difficult to pronounce. Another of his was XAIPE, which is Greek, and I’m told sounds roughly like ‘chiry’, with the ‘ch’ as in the Scottish ‘loch’ and the word rhyming with ‘wiry’; the meaning is ‘Be happy!’, as witness Lawrence Durrell in Prospero’s Cell: ‘When you see the gravestones from the little necropolis of Cameirus . . . it is the so-often repeated single word – the anonymous Xaipe – which attracts you . . . . It is not the names of the rich or the worthy . . . but this single word, “Be Happy,” serving both as a farewell and admonition, that goes to your heart with the whole impact of the Greek style of mind.’

Monday, July 17, 2017

Bristol and beyond


Small but perfectly formed

Before I return to regular posting, I would like to offer my readers one more selection of past posts, to celebrate this blog's tenth anniversary. This, time, I've chosen a handful of very small buildings. This is in part a reminder that, over the past decade, the English Buildings blog has taken pride in noticing very small structures that many people pass by without a thought. It's also, in a way, a tribute to the great architectural writer Nikolaus Pevsner and the colleagues with whom he worked. A very long time ago I bought my first volume in his Buildings of England series: it was Gloucestershire: The Cotswolds, and I added it to my shelves shortly after it came out, in the 1970s. In fact, it was one of the volumes not actually written by Pevsner – the great man was getting old and realised that the only way to complete the series was to enlist some help. So the Gloucestershire volumes were written by local expert David Verey. Be that as it may, they followed Pevsner's lead in including many small buildings among the more obvious churches and big houses.* I was made aware of this when I looked up the entry on a place I knew to find that the most unassuming building of all – a privy – had been singled out for notice. I learned something that day, that even the most modest structure could be worth looking at. I have tried to keep that in mind ever since. So here are five of my posts on small buildings, easy to miss but very memorable...

A public lavatory in Bristol

A Turkish bath in London

A fountain in Warwickshire

A lock-up near Oxford

A churchyard seat in Herefordshire.

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* Now that revised editions of the Pevsner volumes are appearing, with more and larger pages allocated to each county, more and more of these small buildings are included, and a good thing too.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Shugborough, Staffordshire, and more


Retrospective (3): Feline tales

It has been said à propos of social media that, having invented the most sophisticated form of communication yet devised by humankind, we use it for sharing pictures of cats. I offer no apologies, though, for this short selection of cat posts, offered as my third retrospective to celebrate a decade of this blog. These, after all, are architectural cats, and the image of the feline form, used as an embellishment on or near buildings, says something about our fascination with these intriguing, beautiful, and sometimes infuriating creatures.* My handful of posts contains cats from the mid-18th to the late-20th century, but which show artistic influences stretching back thousands of years. And that is proof enough that not just our relationship with cats but also our artistic engagement with them is far, far older than the internet.

A sea-going cat in Staffordshire

A church cat in the Cotswolds

A museum mouser in Hereford

A landmark cat in...Catford

The Egyptian-style cats of Mornington Crescent

A ginger tom in Thaxted.

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* The novelist Raymond Chandler referred to his cat Taki as his 'secretary' because whenever Chandler tried to write anything, the creature would drape itself over his notepad or sit on the copy he wanted to revise. I have had this experience with a cat myself and have found it beguiling and maddening by turns.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Burford, Oxfordshire, and beyond


Retrospective (2): A handful of fragments

As my next short sequence of backward-glancing links to celebrate ten years of blogging, I'm concentrating on fragments – those broken bits and pieces that can tell us so much about history – or occasionally fox us – while also being so evocative. Whether it's bits of medieval stained glass or chunks of old masonry, such unregarded scraps have often surfaced on the English Buildings blog over the last ten years. Here are a few you may have missed...

Tantalising bits of stained glass in Oxfordshire

Old bits of pottery put to architectural use in Northamptonshire

Traces of a mason's yard in Shrewsbury

A revealing broken pinnacle in Somerset

A whole wall of fragments in Gloucestershire.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Dungeness, Kent, and more


Retrospect (1): a poetic handful

To celebrate ten years of blogging, I am going to do a short series of retrospectives, each highlighting a small selection of posts on some of miscellaneous themes that have preoccupied the English Buildings blog over the past decade. These past posts are some of my personal favourites, and all but the most dedicated of regular readers will have missed quite a few of them, so I hope the following links will give them another place in the sun.

The sun is relevant to the first of these posts, but the overriding theme here is poetry, and the way my encounters with buildings have reminded me of some favourite poems...

John Donne and Derek Jarman in Dungeness

Philip Larkin and doors in St John's Wood

Thomas Hardy and wagonettes in Worcestershire

P J Kavanagh, mourning, and temperance in Fulham

C P Cavafy and Patrick Leigh Fermor in Gloucestershire

Friday, July 7, 2017

A decade of English Buildings


Oh, pioneers! or, Ten years a blog

At the Amara Awards ceremony* last year, one of the other bloggers I was talking to asked how long I’d been blogging. ‘Over nine years now,’ I replied. ‘Nine years?’ she said. ‘Then you’re a pioneer!’  And now, in July 2017, it’s ten years. Ten years, a thousand posts, hundreds of thousands of readers.

I didn’t feel quite like a pioneer when I started out. The Resident Wise Woman had just begun blogging about our parallel life in the Czech Republic. There were quite a few other blogs around too, focusing on everything from politics to recipes, but not too many design or architectural blogs, and nothing doing quite what I wanted to do. The architecture blogs, for example, were most often about new architecture, and many blogs were just unadulterated opinion, much of it highly critical of whatever the blogger was writing about. I wanted to do something different – to be more appreciative, to cover historic architecture, to highlight buildings that were worth preserving, and to point out things that other people might not have noticed.

So, in a way, yes, I was a pioneer. And in a particular sense, in that I deliberately didn’t model my blog on what other people were doing, just saw that a blog might be a way of writing short pieces about buildings that I liked and that struck me, short pieces that might entertain a few friends and help me to remember some of the things I’d seen.

Preserving
I am exercised, then, by the desire to preserve, to notice things that are fragile, and make a record of them – not necessarily before they fall down but before my memory of them fades. The poet Philip Larkin wrote memorably about how his main motivation for writing poems was to preserve transient experiences. There is something of that behind what I do. I’m not claiming any other sort of literary comparison with Larkin (for all that a generous friend has called some of my better posts ‘prose poems’), far from it. But I do recognise Larkin’s urge to preserve experiences. My blog posts themselves are preserved, archived for as long as Google is prepared to store them on its servers, and they can all be searched using the search box at the top of the screen, or accessed using the ‘blog archive’ links in the right-hand column.§

And, of course, I want to preserve historic architecture too. At least two architectural features noticed on the English Buildings blog (a striking civic heraldic gate pier and a remarkable Victorian shop sign) have disappeared since I posted about them; another, a piece of relief sculpture, has been carefully moved to save it from destruction. I’m also happy to dwell on memorable examples of preservation, such as the tiny church at Inglesham in Wiltshire (hich only exists at all thanks to William Morris) or the extraordinary Oxfordshire village of Great Tew (much of which was falling to pieces when I first saw it in the 1970s, but which is now thriving and beautiful). 

Beginning
I’ve written before how I began blogging exactly two years after the July 2005 London bombings, which punched holes in several of London’s underground stations, destroyed a London bus, and killed 52 people, including a valued colleague. July 2007, the month I began blogging, was the month of the great floods in my home county of Gloucestershire, which brought further danger and destruction. People often talk of society’s lucky ones ‘giving things back’ and in a way, this blog is like that, giving back appreciation in the wake of destruction. It’s also, I suppose, giving back in the sense that it’s writing for no payment by someone who makes his bread as an author.

So I began – in Tenbury Wells in Worcestershire, as it happens – writing down impressions of what I’d seen and posting them, together with a photograph or two (rarely more than one or two) for each post. I found that what interested me especially were buildings that weren’t ‘great architecture’. Not the big cathedrals and country houses that we mostly read about in architecture books, but the smaller buildings, or the unfashionable ones. Not the ‘good examples’ of architectural styles but the oddities and unclassifiable structures – privies, prefabs, sheds, shacks, small churches, architectural weirdos like Tenbury’s peculiar spa buildings (nineteenth century, prefabricated, and also wonderfully conserved in recent years) shown in the photograph above.

One thing I realised pretty quickly was that I’m not interested in architecture alone. Actually the adjuncts to architecture – carvings, painted signs, terracotta ornament, the crafts (from sculpture to stained-glass making) allied to architecture – these interest me as much as the architect’s work of creating spaces, ‘volumes’, plans, and elevations. And the settings of buildings and how they contribute to the character of a place and are part its history – Pope’s famous lines about consulting the genius of the place are often in my mind. I’m interested in all this, then, but not to the exclusion of architecture. I can get excited about a perfect Palladian facade, a medieval cathedral, or a great Picturesque landscape garden too. But I often try to find an unusual angle, an unregarded detail, or a different approach to such subjects when they appear on this blog. So you will find among my posts not only the beautiful dying gladiator (or dying Gaul) statue in the famous landscape garden at Rousham, Oxfordshire, but also the sculpted sign of the Dying Gladiator pub in Brigg, Lincolnshire: high art and low, nurturing one another and offering food for appreciation, to be enjoyed equally, as I enjoy both claret and beer.

Viewing
And so it has continued. Roughly two posts a week, on everything from palaces to plotlands, for ten years. As I have work and commitments outside this blog, my blogging has had to be concerned mostly with places that I visit as part of the rest of my life. That means mostly places south of a line from the Humber to the Mersey. I am sorry that the North has had short shrift, but that is how it has had to be if the blog is not to take over my life.

It’s my perspective, then, and the places about which I blog get seen through the sometimes distorting lens of my interests. In Bath I am as likely to admire an Italianate villa or a cast-iron pissoir as the Georgian terraces and crescents for which the place is famous; in Brighton I might seem to ignore the celebrated Pavilion while lavishing praise on, say, some post-war relief carvings. There is more to say about this individual perspective and the surprises it can produce (an effect that I call ‘the shock of the view’), but for now, I’ll add simply that the web is full of images of the Royal Crescent and the Royal Pavilion; I can add to what’s there by concentrating on my more out-of-the-way interests.

Connecting
What I have done seems to interest many of my readers and give them pleasure. If you’re reading this, you’re part of a much larger bunch than the group of friends I wrote for at the beginning. I feel grateful, because it means a lot to me that people read what I write. I am nurtured by the connections I’ve made with readers and have been nourished beyond my dreams by the information I’ve received via the Comments button and through emails. Over the years I have been pleased to find out more from readers about fin de siècle sculptors, round Norfolk church towers, the locations used in the television series Foyle’s War, shifting county boundaries, and all kinds of buildings, from pubs to petrol stations. There is more to be said about this, too, but the main thing to say, for now, is ‘Thank you’ – to all my readers, whether you have left feedback or not.¶

Persevering
When I began I had no idea how long I’d be able to carry on. Would I run out of steam after six months, a year, two years? Five years, at the most, seemed enough; I had no thought that the blog would continue as long as it has. For now, I resolve to persevere with it. I can’t promise I’ll continue at the rate I’ve done in the past.† But I hope, if there’s a running-down of energy, that I’ll slow down rather than stop. I’m not ready to toast the next ten years, but I’ll raise a glass (see my picture in the right-hand column) to, in the words of the great Alan Bennett, keeping on keeping on.

Reflecting: your author, reflected in one of the mirrors inside a showman’s living van at Avoncroft Museum

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* I won the Amara Award for the best architecture blog twice, in 2015 and 2016. ‘Do they have term limits?’ asked a friend, thinking of the rules that forbid, say, a US President from serving more than two consecutive terms. Not as such, but Amara have decided to concentrate on their core interests, especially blogs covering interior design, so are not having an architecture award this year. I continue to wish them well, and remain grateful to the readers who nominated me and the judges who gave me the awards.

§ Another way of using the blog is via the links headed ‘About English Architecture’ in the right-hand column. These links take you to very short introductions to the architecture of England in different periods, and from these short texts there are links to some of my posts that act as examples of the kind of architecture of each period.  

¶ A word too of appreciation and gratitude to the friends who have started their own blogs in my wake. I have been particularly inspired, stimulated, amused, and educated by the blogs of three of my friends: Neil Philip’s blog Adventures in the Print Trade (a treasure house of art appreciation and history); novelist Joe Treasure’s reflections on literature and current events (with a transatlantic perspective that’s especially valuable in these interesting times); and Peter Ashley’s blog Unmitigated England, his series of revealing sideways glances at ‘a country lost and a country found’. All these bloggers are published authors who also do other things (lots of other things in some cases), and this shows, in the quality of their writing and the richness of what they say.

† I plan some book reviews and some retrospective posts this anniversary month, then back to the usual stuff, but perhaps at a rate nearer to one post per week than the twice-weekly postings I’ve managed in the past.

Monday, July 3, 2017

From Blackpool to Cowes



Up-tiddly-up-up

I don’t know when I first became aware of the photographs produced by Aerofilms Limited. Looking back to the 1960s and 1970s, it just seemed that every aerial photograph of a British subject reproduced in a book – a book about architecture or archaeology or scenery or whatever – was credited to the company. Gradually I realised how many they must have taken, and that they stood in a proud tradition. It was a tradition founded by the pioneers of aerial archaeology, the men (they were usually men in those days) who realised that you could see so much from an aircraft (lumps, bumps, crop marks, scorch marks, visual patterns and clues) that could tell you about the archaeology of a place, even about what was underground and could hardly be guessed at from the surface. People like O. G. S. Crawford*, pioneer of field archaeology and aerial archaeology; and Major George Allen, pilot and aerial photographer who thought nothing of taking his hands of the controls of his aeroplane to lean out and take photographs – and then leaning back in and changing the plate in his camera, while still flying ‘hands free’. And later on, people like the writer Ian Nairn, whose experience as a pilot helped turn him into an architectural critic because he wanted to tell people what he could see of buildings when he looked down on them from the sky.

For almost 100 years, aerial photography has been showing us our buildings and landscapes from revealing angles, and Aerofilms played a major part in this work. Three men in the photograph above are Aerofilms pilots and photographers in a De Havilland D9.B in 1919, the year the company was founded: clearly they have enough manpower to leave the pilot in control of the plane while someone else does the camera work.†

The other day I was reminded of all this when looking at something on the BBC website: a fascinating video celebration of Aerofilms’ work. Their early photographers went up in open-topped biplanes and leaned over the side of the cockpit to take images of whatever they could see when the weather was clear – town and country, industry and pastoral, buildings and other aircraft, everything from a cathedral to washing blowing on the line (a good flying day was also a good drying day).

Places and buildings depicted in the video include Blackpool, Windsor Castle, Highclere Castle, Chatsworth, Glasgow, Doncaster, Stoke (with its bottle kilns), Swindon (the GWR works looming large), Bracknell (before it was a new town), Romford (when it was still a market town), Coventry (before the bombing, but with clearances for new development already taking place), and St Paul's Cathedral. There are glimpses of sporting events such as cricket matches, Ascot, Wimbledon, the FA Cup final, and Cowes Week. The Aerofilms aircraft flies over plywood battleships, housing developments, and prefabs. We can see the ghosts of old field boundaries caught between streets of new houses. And the history of aviation, so germane to this project, is there with shots of biplanes, an autogyro, and the aftermath of the Aerofilms plane crashing into a lake.

The Aerofilms archive, which is being conserved and digitised by English Heritage and the Royal Commissions on the Ancient and Historical Monuments for Scotland and Wales, is still a priceless resource. Here’s to those magnificent men.












Click the rectangle to play the video 

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*I often wondered what those initials stood for. Osbert Guy Stanhope, it turns out. His life (the life of his mind, especially) is carefully excavated and movingly evoked in Kitty Hauser’s outstanding book Bloody Old Britain: O. G. S. Crawford and the Archaeology of Modern Life (Granta, 2008).
†For more on Aerofilms, see James Crawford et al,  Aerofilms: A History of Britain from Above (English Heritage, 2014).
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The photograph at the top of this post is from the Aerofilms archive. The collection can be accessed via the Historic England website, here.

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Abingdon, Berkshire*


Entirely satisfactory

Looking for something else in my file of photographs, I came across a couple I took years ago of the Old Anchor pub in Abingon. They reminded me that I must go back and take better pictures, but meanwhile I can’t resist sharing them. The building may have a 17th-century heart (there is some timber-framed construction around the back) hidden by this 19th-century red-brick front. The carved lettering, carefully filled in with black paint, stands out beautifully from the brickwork. It probably dates to 1884, when the pub’s licence was first taken out. The lettering of the pub name is a sans serif (or ‘grotesque’) form with plenty of clarity. Apart from the very short middle stroke to the E it’s unremarkable but very effective.
The italic letters making up the words ‘Morland’s’ and ‘Entire’ on either side are much more distinctive. Looking closely one can see the bevelled cut made into the stone and the delicate way in which the transition between the thick main strokes and the very thin strokes and serifs in handled. Looking on my shelves, I see that this lettering was noticed by designer and writer on letterforms Alan Bartram – he illustrates it in his book The English Lettering Tradition from 1700 to the Present Day. He points out that the source of these italics is in the traditional English letter,§ giving the characters their rich forms and ‘generous curves’. Bartram adds that contemporary ‘modern’ printing type may have influenced the strong contrast between thick and thin strokes.

Then there’s the wording: ‘Morland’s Entire’. When I saw that, I wondered if it was referring to a specific type of beer, or an indication that only this particular brewery’s beer was served here. Wrong. A friend sent me to Chamber’s Dictionary, which gives ‘Entire, noun. Porter or stout as delivered from the brewery.’ I’m not sure you could get that here now, but it seems that they still have Morland’s beer in the bar. They also play Aunt Sally† in the garden. English pubs are full of surprises.

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* It’s in Oxfordshire nowadays, but I persist in using the old English counties and boundaries, for reasons I’ve gone into before, namely my sentimental liking for the old counties, my interest in their history, and the fact that they are also used in reference books such as Pevsner’s Buildings of England series.

§ Which he characterises as a ‘seriffed, varied-weight (stressed) letter’ with ‘a rich full shape, a vertical stress, and a fairly sharp gradation from thick to thin strokes’.

† A game in which sticks or battens are thrown at a wooden figure, traditionally a model of an old woman. The website of the Abingdon and District Aunt Sally Association (‘You know it’s good when you hear the wood’) is here.

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Artillery Row, London


Call the nymphs and the fauns from the woods

Terracotta panels stretch across English buildings of the late-19th century like a riotous procession of ornament slowly drowning in sunset. The sunset of the gods. And sometimes it is gods, or creatures who live with the gods of classical mythology, alongside the more usual architectural decorations, the strapwork, foliage, and sunflowers that also appear with profusion in this kind of ornament. A lot of this sort of stuff is here, running along the walls of Westminster Palace Gardens in London’s Victoria, to delight the eye and puzzle the mind.

My details show a representative sample: naked nymphs and/or goddesses, including a reclining one with a sickle (perhaps a corn or harvest goddess like Ceres), small childlike figures with hirsute legs (fauns?), one attempting to grab at a passing bird. More birds, some of which merge into the scrolls and strap work that weave in and out of the background. It was towards the end of the day when I last passed, and the roseate burnt clay panels were glowing.  
So that afternoon the panels were beautifully effective, as they have been on such afternoons since 1899, when the block was completed to designs by C J Chirney Pawley. The finishing touch is the ceramic lettering above the entrance, just visible here, using a very clear letterform but with the odd concession to the style of the period, such as the little flourish on the A. The decoration is a winning mix, then, of urban and rural. I’m glad that nymphs and fauns sport a few yards from the bustle and traffic of Victoria Street.

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There are more images on Victorian Web, here.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Balham, London


Spreading it around

The stations on the Morden extension of London’s Northern Line were designed by Charles Holden. They were the architect’s first job for the Underground (he later went on to design more stations, including textbook examples of station modernism, such as Arnos Grove on the Piccadilly Line). Balham’s station, which opened in 1926, has two ground-level buildings, both on corners at the same road junction, both clad in white Portland stone, and both displaying the Underground roundel prominently.

The central roundel, clearly visible in my picture, is in the glass of the large window that lights the double-height ticket hall by day and sends light out on to the street at might. What I’d not noticed until I looked closely when taking the picture was the design of the pair of columns that divide the window in three. These are very plain and square except at the top, where something charming happens. Instead of a capital at the head of the column there’s a three-dimensional stone version of the roundel, with a sphere instead of a disc. This ‘3D roundel’ appears on the other Holden stations on the Morden extension too.
No doubt Frank Pick, the Underground director* who commissioned Holden to design the station, appreciated this detail. Pick was the man who masterminded the design of the Underground, making the look of the network consistent – not just the stations, but all the publicity, the signage, the schematic map† of the lines, and so on. Pick made sure that the roundel was used widely – in stations and on platforms, trains, posters, advertisements… This subtle addition to the collection of roundels must have pleased him. 

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* He was Joint Assistant Managing Director when Balham station opened, and still had several promotions ahead of him. Even when a senior director he maintained the interest in design and publicity that he had always had.

† Or diagram, as its creator Harry Beck insisted it should be called. The famous diagram first appeared in 1931.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Moreton-in-Marsh, Gloucestershire


A symphony of semicircles

John Piper once wrote an essay called ‘The Gratuitous Semicircle’,¶ in which he noticed the use of half-round or Diocletian windows in English buildings – especially buildings in a kind of ‘country Palladian’ style. I’m reminded of this whenever I go through Moreton-in-Marsh. Stopping there a couple of weeks ago for a brief evening promenade,* the Resident Wise Woman and I once more admired this building full of semi-circles as it caught the evening sun.

It was built as a house in the mid-18th century. It’s topped with a pair of very swanky curved gables and a balustraded parapet. Below is a profusion of the kinds of windows§ that were fashionable then. First, the three-part Venetian windows, which provincial builders of this period like to use for effect, sometimes one in the middle of a frontage, sometimes more,† here on either side of the doorway. Second, the half-round Diocletian windows, which fit well under gables but here are deployed right along the upper floor, not because they fit the space especially well, perhaps just because of the way they look, echoing gracefully the curves of the Venetian windows and the old cart door on the right.

Add that to a grand if narrow doorway with pediment and fanlight, raise the whole thing on a high plinth, add a couple of wings with more semicircular windows and you have a big building with a sense that its creator had the elements of the Palladian style at his fingertips, together with a free and easy attitude towards how to lay them out. Nature, in the form of warm, low, early summer sunshine on glowing limestone, does the rest.

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Architectural Review, October 1943

* This post is another of my retrospective pieces, inspired by a visit to Moreton before my recent injury rendered my leg useless, for even such brief strolls, for the moment.

§ Clicking on the photograph to enlarge it makes these clearer.

† There's a good example of the profuse use of Venetian windows here.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

South Newington, Oxfordshire


Adding value

When visiting a place with a specific architectural goal in mind, I usually take the time to have a walk around and see what other buildings I can find nearby. You never know what gems can be hiding in quiet corners, and such discoveries can give my visits added value. So when I stopped in South Newington to look at the wonderful wall paintings in the church, I strolled* around the village and found, among other things, a tiny converted Primitive Methodist chapel (too hemmed in by cars to take a photograph worth sharing) and this building, which is the village hall.

A pleasant bit of North Oxfordshire vernacular architecture, built of the local butterscotch-coloured stone, set in its own grounds: it must be an asset for the village. But it has not always been the village hall. What we’re also looking at here is an early Quaker meeting house, built in the 17th century, set in its own burial ground. There’s even a datestone, to confirm the construction in 1692. It’s not much changed on the outside, except for the 1920s addition of the porch (and perhaps the side extension). Quakers met here until the 19th century. The structure is labelled ‘Friends Meeting House’ on a map of 1875, although by then it was leased to the Methodists, with the Quakers said to be still using it occasionally. It became the village hall in 1925 – a case of architectural added value if ever there was one.
Datestone: The date 1692 is just discernible in the bottom line of the inscription.

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* I wrote this post a few days ago. Shortly afterwards I injured a leg, so strolling will be minimal for a while. Blogging, however will continue: I intend to use the mishap as an opportunity to post some previously visited buildings that I have been meaning to share with you.

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Great Brington, Northamptonshire


Hub

In the town where I live (population roughly 6,000) the Post Office has closed and we now have a Post Office counter in the town’s branch of the Co-op. The Co-op staff do very well in the small space allocated to this in my view important function, and they open longer hours than the Post Office did, but it’s still not the same.

How refreshing then, to find small villages where the Post Office still functions. Here’s the Post Office in Great Brington, which seems to be going strong, the archetypal village Post Office with stone walls under, thatched roof, and tiny shop window – presumably it was once a cottage but no matter, its central location is the most important thing. Post Offices are local hubs, places where people meet, talk, exchange news, read notices, and network, and this function is nearly as important as the posting of letters and parcels, and the doing of the many other small financial and administrative tasks that Post Offices still perform, even in their somewhat diminished modern form. Perhaps the fact that a bench has generously been provided on the pavement outside reflects this role of the Post Office as a local centre.
Clearly this Post Office has been doing the business for decades. I found a 1922 photograph of it online, with its Post Office sign up and another sign telling customers that the services on offer then included ‘money orders, savings bank, parcel post, telegraph, insurance and annuity business’. That sign has gone, but the worn wooden Post Office sign, also visible in the 1922 photograph, is still there, faded but just about legible. It’s not exactly essential – the letter box (a George VI era wall box) and red sign above the door tell us where we are. But it is pleasing that it’s still here to remind us of the office’s long history.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Guiting Power, Gloucestershire


Brewery plaques (1): The best in the west

People like to know what they’re getting. Most of us read the menus posted near the doors of restaurants. And a lot of us want to know what kind of beer a pub serves, especially if it’s a tied house. One way of making this clear is with a plaque showing the company’s symbol and name, a simple and appealing graphic device that can be just as effective as writing the brewery’s name in big letters across the front of the pub. Several breweries adopted ceramic plaques that could be mounted on the outside walls of pubs, somewhere near eye-level, and which became instantly recognisable.

One particularly effective design is the stylised castle used by the Cheltenham Original Brewery, later Cheltenham and Hereford Breweries, later still West Country Breweries. The name changes came after mergers, and all the companies used these plaques with the castle and the slogan ‘The best in the west’. Plaques from the last incarnation, West Country Ales (see the image below), are still quite common. They were used between 1958 and about 1967, by which time the company had been taken over by Whitbread. But I’ve seen one ‘Cheltenham and Hereford Ales’ plaque, on the former Foxhill Inn in the Cotswolds, on the B4068 near Guiting Power. This plaque, shown in my photograph above, must date to some time between 1947 and 1958, when this name was current. The building no longer functions as a pub, but the plaque is a bit of its history that has been preserved.

These attractive plaques were produced by Royal Doulton of Lambeth in London, whose architectural ceramics I’ve featured several times on this blog. Barley and hops trail around the border of the plaque and the castle or tower design is instantly recognisable. It’s a clear design, easy to spot, and, although the colours vary a bit, the tower usually stands out from a deep blue sky. In Gloucestershire there are still so many of the of the West Country Ales plaques around that we take them rather for granted. But more than a passing glance reveals that the design is a class act.
West Country Ales plaque, Gloucester

Saturday, June 3, 2017

Avoncroft, Worcestershire


Taking its toll

Thinking about the bridge house at Cookham in the previous post reminded me not only of the numerous toll houses I’ve seen by the sides of main roads up and down England but also, specifically, of one at the Avoncroft Museum. This little building was rescued in around 1985 and was resited at the museum, where it has a pleasant leafy site. It was originally built in 1822 at Little Malvern, Worcestershire, for the collection of tolls by the Upton upon Severn Turnpike Trust. Back in the 19th century, anyone wanting to travel along this particular stretch of road in a landau had to fork out sixpence in the old money, but if you brought only your horse, the charge was ‘a penny-ha’penny’, or 1.5 of the old pence.

The house takes the usual polygonal form of these turnpike houses, and although it’s quite a plain brick building, it has the fancy Gothic glazing that was fashionable in the early-19th century. It no longer stands by a roadside, but the people at Avoncroft have put up a gate outside, to give an impression of the original set-up, with passersby stopping at the gate to pay their money before being allowed to pass through on to the turnpike road.
The joy of places like Avoncroft is that they restore the insides of their buildings, and visitors can go inside to look at the spartan but charming interior: a living room and scullery downstairs and two bedrooms above. The ground floor has quarry tiles, an iron range for cooking and heating, and very basic pine furniture. Upstairs there is an iron bedstead, a wooden child’s cradle, and a chest of drawers. Under the bed is the necessary chamber pot. The house had an earth closet in the garden, and when the building moved to Avoncroft, that came too. The life of another era? Maybe, but I remember in the 1960s that my grandparents got by with the same sanitary arrangements in their remote Lincolnshire cottage. Places like Avoncroft remind us that the remote past is not as remote as it seems.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Cookham, Berkshire...and Buckinghamshire


Where is it?

It’s odd, said a Czech friend, how many English houses have their chimneys at the end. We were having this conversation in southern Bohemia, surrounded by houses with chimneys right in the middle of the building, where the warmth they generate helps to heat the whole of the house. I was showing him Cotswold pictures, and here every house seemed to have its chimneys at the end, in the gable. I explained that this was partly to do with history – many of these houses had started as timber-framed buildings, with a brick chimney built as a semi-independent structure, to best protect against fire damage. The layout survived the change to stone building.

Of course, end chimneys are not the invariable rule. Here’s a house of an unusual shape, with a chimney right in the centre of its octagonal plan. The building is a toll house, and such houses were often polygonal, so that the person inside could see traffic coming from different directions. With such a building it seems natural to put the chimney in the middle, both for convenience – keeping the fireplaces away from the walls, freeing them up for windows – and aesthetics.

When I saw this small brick tollhouse on the end of Cookham Bridge, I looked it up in Pevsner’s Berkshire volume. There was the entry for the bridge (1867, iron, by Pierce, Hutchinson and Co of Darlington, with quatrefoils on the parapet). So far, so good. But no entry for the tollhouse. Then it dawned on me. Here we are right on the border between Berks and Bucks – the river (it’s the Thames) marks the boundary. The tollhouse is in Buckinghamshire. It’s said to be early-19th century, so perhaps it’s older than the bridge. It still seems to be used as a house, and though the days of tolls for this particular crossing are long gone is still a shining example of usefulness and elegance.

Saturday, May 27, 2017

Longleat, Wiltshire


Illustrations of the month: Servants’ Hall

A good browse in a favourite secondhand bookshop the other day threw up a small surprise. I was attracted by a book cover bearing the title Before the Sunset Fades and an illustration of a group of people standing in front of a tent. The author’s name was The Marchioness of Bath. The fact that the purple colour of the cover had itself faded added poignancy to the effect: surely this was going to be a lament for the country house life that declined in the period between the two World Wars, written by one who could remember the days of glory?

Well, yes, in a way. This small work of 1951 is indeed about the life of the great house in its Edwardian and Georgian heyday, but most of the book is actually about the lives and duties of the servants. In its brief 32 pages, it tells us about the life of the kitchen, the stillroom, the butler’s pantry, and the rest of the below-stairs world. It recalls servants’ balls and shooting parties, the jobs of the coachman and the bothy boy and the ‘tiger’. It illustrates the servants’ hall and the housekeeper’s parlour.
Longleat: The housekeeper in her parlour
The illustrations are by Cecil Beaton. Beaton is best known as a photographer. He started in the 1920s and by the following decade was a key man on Vogue, having a long career in fashion and society photography and in the post-war period he was a bright old thing, still active and influencing a younger generation of photographers including David Bailey. He was also a notable stage designer.

Beaton was not a great draughtsman, but the illustrations he did for the Marchioness’s book are charming and do a good job at evoking a world unknown to most people. I like the rather stern-looking housekeeper in her parlour, in which a riot of Beatonian squiggles evokes the rather fussy patterned carpet and wallpaper, or the economy with which kitchen workers are caught at their task. The book and its illustrations also summon up forgotten rituals, such as the ceremonial removal of the joint of meat from the servants’ hall after everyone had taken their fill – a procession headed by the steward’s room footman, followed by the ‘upper servants’.

For an upper-class author to dwell on the work of her servants in this way was quite unusual in 1951, even if the overall tone is one of nostalgia – something, the author says, that was shared by the staff themselves – for the allegedly ‘good old days’. She only occasionally allows a note of regret that the servants’ lives weren’t better, noting for example how arduous was the work of the housemaids who were constantly carrying hot water jugs to bedrooms and moving heavy hip-baths around the place. But to write about this at all was unusual. It was decades before the National Trust began to devote the effort they do now to displaying below-stairs areas in country houses and explaining the lives of the staff in kitchen, pantry, and garden. It’s interesting to see the Marchioness and her illustrator doing this just six years after the end of the war.
Longleat: the kitchen

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Moreton-in-Marsh, Gloucestershire


The colours of memory

I’ve gone on before about the stick-on advertising signs that shopkeepers sometimes put on their windows, and how these stick-on signs sometimes stick around for many years. I was reminded of this the other night in Moreton-in-Marsh when I came across this particularly evocative example: a Kodak sign that is obviously quite old, though I don’t know how old.

We’re back in the analogue era here, when most people took their films in to the local chemist to be developed and printed. Digital photography changed all this, of course, and it has been around for decades now – and was becoming popular when the new millennium got going. This Kodak sign goes further back than that, I think. The emphasis on colour and the use of the curve-sided box, like an old TV screen, have a rather 1970s feel. Those were the days, when many people still had black and white TVs, and when colour was something to shout about.

Having taken my digital photograph of this analogue sign and downloaded it on to the computer, I noticed another story that it has to tell. The yellow band of colour on the left is actually not part of the sign. Do you notice how it’s wider than the other bands, and that there’s no white line separating it from the band next door, as there is with the others? It looks as if, having got hold of a sign that wasn’t big enough to go right across the window, the shopkeeper retained part of a previous sign (maybe even a yellow Kodak one of a still earlier era) to fill the gap – and make the whole width of the window glow with Kodak colour.

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Links to other stick-on signs I’ve posted:

Procea bread and the Procea bakerman, in Bromyard and Cheltenham
Atlas bulbs and Wilkinson Sword gardening tools in Ludlow
Every Ready batteries in Uppingham
Tea in Winchcombe
Ariel motorcycles in Frome

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Balham, London


The colours of London

Walking around Balham with a friend and local resident the other week I was struck by the number of Victorian and Edwardian houses built of white bricks. I’m used to thinking of London as built in a mixture of red bricks and yellow London stock bricks – when I lived in London my own house was built of such a mixture. But in some streets in Balham there seem to be almost as many white bricks as reds and stocks. I knew about Suffolk whites, but the origin of the white bricks in London is varied – there are a number of places as well as Suffolk with clay containing the amount of lime that produces the white colour. In this house they’re combined with reds, to decorative and glowing effect.

I also admired the tiled paths in this part of London. This house has a path of terracotta- and buff-coloured tiles, producing an effect similar to the medieval encaustic tiles still occasionally found in old churches. Even worn, like these, they make a beautiful approach to the front door, which clearly has an impressive display of stained glass too. London can be a colourful place, if you stop and look.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Photographers’ Gallery, London


The street where you lived

There are still a few weeks for anyone within striking distance of London to see the current exhibition at the Photographers’ Gallery of the work of British photographer Roger Mayne (1929–2014). Mayne is remembered particularly for his images of street life – notably of young people – in London in the 1950s and 1960s. He is especially associated with this point in British history, when children still played in city streets, when local communities were tightly knit, and when the first generation to be known as teenagers were making their mark.

His most famous sequences of photographs was taken in West London’s Southam Street, which soon after he made the pictures was flattened to make way for Ernö Goldfinger’s Trellick Tower. The exhibition shows these images, as well as others taken in Leeds, and a group showing young workers in the Raleigh Cycle factory in Nottingham. Some of the images were used on the covers of Penguin and Pelican books, of which a selection are included too. One can see why Penguin chose Mayne's images: he nails his subjects decisively, time after time.
Roger Mayne, Park Hill Estate, Sheffield 
Photograph © Roger Mayne / Mary Evans Picture Library

Another group, which appeared in the magazine Architectural Design in September 1963, capture Sheffield’s Park Hill estate, which was designed in the early-1960s as a council estate in one huge building, by Jack Lynn and Ivor Smith, working in Sheffield Corporation’s City Architect’s department under J. L. Womersley. What’s striking about these images is the way they rewrite the rules of architectural photography. Instead of pristine buildings in a setting empty of human life, Mayne’s pictures have people everywhere – chatting on walkways, sauntering on pavements, playing outdoors. They’re refreshing and lively, in a way that so many photographs of new buildings are not.

The final part of the exhibition contains an installation, a whole exhibition in itself, called The British At Leisure. This was made for the Milan Triennale in 1964 and consists of 310 colour photographs projected on to screens, to the accompaniment of a specially written jazz score and the constant clacking and clunking of five Carousel slide projectors. Here are people playing every imaginable sport from cricket to cycling, people relaxing in parks and cafés, at the opera or art gallery, fishing, gardening, motoring, enjoying Christmas and November 5th, sunning themselves on the beach, sailing model boats, riding, showing dogs, and so on and on. It’s a kaleidoscope of British life in the early-1960s, and I was riveted.

This is a terrific exhibition of work by a man who insisted that photography is an art and who proved it in image after image, who portrayed a time in British history like no one else, and whose work endures for its ability, again and again, to capture decisive moments.

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The images are © Roger Mayne / Mary Evans Picture Library
The exhibition ends on 11 June.