Thursday, August 24, 2017

Coalbrookdale, Shropshire


 Showing your wares

In my previous post I focused on the former Severn Warehouse at Ironbridge, an industrial building that was built with an eye to appearances, a deliberate eye-catcher. This time, a rather plainer industrial building not far from the one in the previous post, but one with one particularly eye-catching feature, something that is perhaps more effective as advertising than the Gothic structure of the old Severn Warehouse.

My photograph above shows the building housing the Museum of Iron, which the Resident Wise Woman and I had decided to visit. It’s a fascinating museum, giving us plenty of background on iron and inorworking in general, on the various generations of the Darby family and the great John ‘Iron Mad’ Wilkinson in particular, and on the products of the industry in Coalbrookdale, from fire grates to firearms. All this is housed in a brick-walled warehouse building, put up by the the Coalbrookdale Company some time in the first half of the 19th century. The striking clock tower bears the date 1843, but this is said to be a later addition to an already existing building. Some sources say that the warehouse was first built in 1792, but it’s not shown on a map of 1805. 1838 is the likely year of construction.

Part of the structure is appropriately of iron – there are iron columns inside holding up the floors, but there’s also much wood in evidence: this is not one of those fireproof buildings that many textile mill owners, mindful of sparks igniting wool or cotton, liked to put up. Iron is also in evidence on the outside. The white-painted window lintels and sills are cast iron and the window frames are metal. So too is the clock tower, an elaborately decorative addition to an otherwise utilitarian building. It’s an effective piece of publicity for what you could do with metal in a decorative way, and a signal, perhaps, that as the Victorian era got up steam, manufacturers in Ironbridge and Coalbrookdale would increasingly be asked to produce highly decorative items – kitchen ranges, stoves, tables and chairs, not to mention garden railings and post boxes. There is a lot of this sort of stuff inside the museum. The clock tower is, you might say, exhibit number one.

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.

- - - - -

*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.


- - - - -

*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.