Wednesday, 5 August 2015

Heavenly stairs


Perhaps the most extraordinary stairs I've walked up are those leading to the Chapter House in Wells Cathedral. First, they are very old, built in the years 1265 to 1280, and show the wear of centuries of footsteps. Second, they do not fork apart to two doorways, but rather flow together through the space. For the Chapter House, take the right-hand flight; straight ahead is the route to Vicars' Close.



Finally, their destination is pretty breathtaking. Completed in 1306, the Chapter House is an octagonal room lined with seats, each watched over by carved faces.



They would be attention-grabbing in any other context, but here the vaulted ceiling is truly the star. 


 







Wednesday, 29 July 2015

150 feet above Whitehall

 
 
The Banqueting House is currently hidden behind scaffolding, thanks to restoration works - but what's happening behind the hoardings? I got the chance to find out on a scaffold tour which saw me climb to the level of the building's rooftop. 


Built in 1619-1622 by Inigo Jones, the Banqueting House was a Palladian addition to the Palace of Whitehall - and almost the only part of the palace to survive a devastating fire in 1698. As a result, the royal court moved to St James; the building became a chapel and then a military museum, before reverting to use for state occasions; and today it is surrounded not by royal residences but by government buildings. 


Being four centuries old, the building needs careful treatment, and at the moment its roof and facades are undergoing conservation. The stone is being carefully cleaned and spots of damage repaired; leadwork is being replaced. Given that much of the work is being done very close to the House's most famous (and flammable) feature, its Rubens ceiling, careful rules against 'hot work' are in place to minimise fire risks. 


Much of the work is done off-site, with pieces shaped before being brought up the scaffolding and fitted into place. That means there's plenty of activity at ground level. 


 
Climbing up nine levels of scaffolding may be disconcerting, but it allows you to get close to details usually only seen from a distance. 


Further down, scaffolding once more stands on the spot where the execution scaffold for Charles I was erected. It is therefore possible to stand on the spot of his beheading and look across to its commemoration on the clock opposite: a black spot marking 2pm, the time of his death. 



I visited on an event for members of Historic Royal Palaces



Sunday, 26 July 2015

Postman's Park (21): Thomas Simpson at Highgate Ponds

 
In January 1885, Highgate Ponds had frozen over, making them appear perfect for skating. At 5pm on a Sunday evening, twilight may have been hovering but there were still about 200 people skating on the second pond. So far, it conjures up a picture from an old-fashioned biscuit tin lid: young ladies in ankle-length skirts decorously gliding across the ice, escorted by young men in formal hats. However, since it ended with a memorial plaque, we can guess what happened next...

The ice cracked, and a large portion gave way, plunging some people into the freezing-cold water. While tragedy was not averted, many lives were certainly served by others' rescue efforts. Above all, Thomas Simpson rescued several people. He wasn't an ice skater himself, but a farm labourer of about fifty whose employer Mr Ward rented the pond fields. He got into the water to bring one young man out - a difficult and exhausting rescue. However, when Simpson stooped down to rescue yet another stranded skater, the ice he was standing on gave way; this, combined with the cold and physical strain he had already undergone, meant that he was soon sinking. Although he was pulled from the water, he died very soon afterwards.

The inquest jury reached a verdict of accidental death. They also made two recommendations: first, that 'the Royal Humane Society should be respectfully requested to consider the subject with a view to establishing their life-saving apparatus and drags'; and second, that 'some authorized person should be stationed at the ponds, when ice was on the water, to protect the public from danger.'

Simpson's memorial reads:

THOMAS SIMPSON DIED OF EXHAUSTION AFTER SAVING MANY LIVES FROM THE BREAKING ICE AT HIGHGATE PONDS, JAN 25 1885.

Engraving: LIFE archive, 'An Idyll on the Ice', 1900



Wednesday, 22 July 2015

Ghost signs (117): Observatory Street, Oxford

 
Here's a fragment of a painted sign, peeping shyly out from behind a lamp post.


The words 'Park End' are clearly decipherable, but the text above is more mysterious. Two letters or numbers and an ampersand, but which are they, and what do they mean?



Sunday, 19 July 2015

Postman's Park (20): fireman George Lee


Modern tabloids have some terrible headlines, but it would be wrong to assume that the print media of the nineteenth century were necessarily more sensitive. One newspaper reported the fire which killed George Lee and another under the title 'FIRE AND LOSS OF LIFE, EXCITING SCENE IN CLERKENWELL'.

However, the events of that July evening in 1876 were certainly dramatic. John Smith, a hatter in St John Street, was in his shop at eight in the evening when he noticed that smoke was coming from the back room. Before he had chance to warn the lodgers upstairs, the fire had cut off access to them and they were trapped.

A wheeled fire-escape machine was brought to the premises. Such fire ladders were originally provided by the Society for the Protection of Life from Fire, but were now under the responsibility of the Metropolitan Fire Brigade. They could reach up to 60 feet high and had a canvas chute so that people being rescued did not have to descend the ladder rungs. Each ladder was kept locally in a watchbox, accompanied by a fireman who kept watch at night and was responsible for operating the machine if it was needed. The firemen's life was not easy: they lived at the fire station and worked for low wages. Most were ex-seamen as Eyre Massey Shaw, head of the Brigade, valued their training and discipline. One of his advertisements for firemen read:
Candidates for appointment must be seamen; they should be under the age of 25, must measure not less that 37 inches round the chest, and are generally preferred at least 5 feet 5 inches in height. They must be men of general intelligence, and able to read and write; and they have to produce certificates of birth and testimonials as to character, service etc. Each man has to prove his strength by raising a fire escape single handed with the tackle reversed. 
After they have been measured, had their strength tested and been approved by the chief officer as stout, strong, healthy looking, intelligent and in all other respects apparently eligible, they are sent for medical examination before the surgeon, who, according to his judgement, either rejects or passes them, in either case giving a certificate.
Two such firemen - one the man responsible for the machine - climbed the fire-escape to the second floor of the St John Street shop and brought one man down. They then rescued a badly-burned woman, but the flames were now threatening the escape itself. A third woman was brought out of the building to the escape, but it was now on fire and its 'chocks' gave way. As a result, it broke into two and the woman, the two fireman and another volunteer fell to the ground. One of the firemen, George Lee, was holding the woman in his arms.

The woman who fell with the escape and her children, aged 17 and 15, were taken to hospital. The charred remains of another woman were found later in the building. The two firemen were also in need of hospital treatment; George Lee would die of his injuries about two weeks later. He had suffered severe burns which were the cause of 'lockjaw'. Lee was buried at Abney Park Cemetery, at a funeral attended by police, firemen and thousands of members of the public. At his inquest Massey Shaw, chief of the Fire Brigade, described his conduct as 'the greatest act of bravery ever shown by a fireman'. His courage is recorded (not entirely accurately) on the Watts Memorial:

GEORGE LEE, FIREMAN, AT A FIRE IN CLERKENWELL CARRIED AN UNCONSCIOUS GIRL TO THE ESCAPE FALLING SIX TIMES AND DIED OF HIS INJURIES JULY 26 1876.



Friday, 17 July 2015

Kindness of strangers

Still visible on New Bond Street is this simple but effective vintage technology - although it does depend upon helpful passers-by!




Tuesday, 14 July 2015

Modernism, inside and out


 
The Isokon building in Hampstead is one of London's finest Modernist buildings - and a gallery in its former garage allows us to explore the interiors too. 


Molly and Jack Pritchard wanted to create an experiment in minimalist contemporary living, and in 1934 they and architect Wells Coates did just that. Isokon was the first block built of reinforced concrete, and the first to have deck access to its flats. The Pritchards lived in its penthouse; among the other residents were ex-Bauhaus members Walter Gropius, Marcel Breuer, and Lazslo Moholy-Nagy; sculptor Henry Moore - and Agatha Christie. Her six years in Isokon may have been useful to her writing: fellow residents included a number of Soviet spies, and she completed her own spy novel N or M while living there.


Jack Pritchard worked for Venesta, a supplier of plywood. Originally they had focused upon products such as tea chests, but he founded the Isokon company to use the material in furniture. The flats were furnished with Modernist pieces made by Isokon - some of which can be seen in the gallery. Christie described their famous Long Chair as "that funny chair here which looks so peculiar and is really very comfortable.” Each flat had a tiny kitchenette, since there was originally a large communal kitchen to provide meals; when residents failed to make much use of the service, it was converted into a restaurant (the Isobar). Its chef Philip Harben would go on to be the first celebrity TV chef. 

The building declined after World War Two, but was restored in 2003. The gallery celebrates its history, with a mass of information, images and items bringing to life the story of one couple's vision and the masterpiece that resulted.  


For more information about the Isokon Gallery, click here. Admission is free.


Sunday, 12 July 2015

Postman's Park (19): G F Watts on display

When I originally wrote the Postman's Park series, the gallery devoted to its creator GF Watts was closed for refurbishment. An exhibition of his work at Guildhall Art Gallery was provoking mixed reactions:

While I've been considering Watts as creator of the memorial in Postman's Park, he was of course best known as an artist. The Watts Gallery is currently closed for refurbishment, so its collection is on tour: see the exhibition G F Watts: Victorian Visionary at the Guildhall Art Gallery until late April [2009].

I've not seen the exhibition yet - but there's a splendidly vitriolic review in The Times (click here - now unfortunately behind a paywall). For example,
Everything that matters in art, every precious grace, every delicate touch and independent thought, every subtle nuance and lyrical turn, every brighter colour and every genuinely deep thought ...missed him out or avoided him.

For a contrasting view of the exhibition, and of Watts, click here.

Image: G F Watts, Hope, from Wikimedia Commons.


Happily, the Watts Gallery in the village of Compton is now open again. It's well worth a visit, even if you are not a fan of the artist - and a short walk away is the village's extraordinary mortuary chapel, decorated by his wife Mary Watts.


Thursday, 9 July 2015

Brighter Rhodes in SE1

 
 
Among the joys of London are its myriad gardens and green spaces; one of the newest, and perhaps the most colourful, is tucked away near London Bridge Station and Guy's Hospital. The colour doesn't just come from the plants filling this tiny pocket park: it's also painted onto the walls of the Greenwood Theatre which provides its backdrop. 


This space in Weston Street is the work of fashion designer Zandra Rhodes, who devised it with garden designer Joe Swift. It has not only enlivened a rather blank brick building, but also brought an attractive space to sit, and an increase in biodiversity. 



Tuesday, 7 July 2015

Effigies and ambulances: the Museum of the Order of St John

The Museum of the Order of St John is one of London's hidden treasures, although it's hiding in plain sight! If you've walked around the Smithfield area, you probably noticed the old and intriguing St John's Gate. The museum entrance is just inside, and allows you to explore a millennium of history. 

Engraving of St John's Gate, Thomas Hosmer Shepherd, 1829-31

The story begins in 1080, when a hospital for pilgrims was established in Jerusalem; the order became officially recognised in 1113 and cared for anyone regardless of faith. However, it also took on a military role during the crusades, and its members became known as Knights Hospitallers. The Order would move countries several times before reaching Malta in the sixteenth century; it is strongly associated with the island, sharing the Maltese cross as a symbol. 

This is a very long London story, too. A priory had been established in Clerkenwell in the 1140s; when the Dissolution of the Monasteries came in 1540, Henry VIII was so impressed with the prior that he awarded him a pension. He never had to pay it, though - the prior died the day after handing over the keys, supposedly from a broken heart. His effigy is in the crypt of the Priory Church: it depicts an emaciated corpse, intended not as a portrait but as a memento mori.


The priory's Tudor gatehouse survived, taking on very different roles, and remained central to London life. Under Elizabeth I, it housed the Master of the Revels, who licensed plays: much of Shakespeare's work passed through here. After some time as a private residence, it got caught up in the printing industry then making its home in St John's Lane: a printing press first moved there in the 1680s. In the eighteenth century, it was a coffee house (run by none other than William Hogarth's father, who also offered Latin lessons) before becoming home to the leading periodical The Gentleman's Magazine - the title page bore a picture of the Gate. Samuel Johnson, who wrote and edited for the magazine, worked in a 'garrett' here; the magazine's founder, Edward Cave, was a friend of Benjamin Franklin and erected one of his lightning conductors on the building. The literary link continued when the Gate became a pub: Charles Dickens was among the customers at the Old Jerusalem Tavern. 

Seventeenth-century fireplace

Chapter Hall

In 1888, Queen Victoria granted a charter to the Order of St John - which is now non-denominational. They had bought back the Gate, and added new interiors including a Chapter Hall, as well as the museum. The Order's work as St John Ambulance, teaching first aid and providing ambulance services, is familiar to most of us. Coming full circle to its original purpose, it also runs an ophthalmic hospital in Jerusalem offering treatment to all regardless of faith.



The visit continues across the road, into another building rich with history: the Priory Church. 


The main church is sixteenth-century, although substantial rebuilding and restoration were needed after it was badly damaged by an incendiary bomb in World War II. 


The crypt, though, dates back to the eleventh century and is an extraordinarily cool, atmospheric space. It contains one rather incongruous effigy, that of the very Spanish Don Juan Ruiz de Vergara. Since his death in the late seventeenth century, it had been in Valladolid Cathedral until ending up in England a few centuries later. The line along the top of the figure's legs, where it was cut in half to be shipped to London, is still visible.


Alongside the church is a final hidden treat: the Cloister Garden, full of medicinal herbs. 



I visited the Museum for a Midsummer Night's Dream-themed afternoon tea, designed to showcase it as a venue for events - which it did beautifully. The Chapter Hall was ideal for Tudor dancing and drama, cake and champagne in the garden was a perfect summer treat, and Titania's fairies were everywhere. There was even a flower-bedecked donkey! Guided Walks in London has lots more lovely photographs of the event.



Practical information: 
The museum and church are open Monday-Saturday, 10am-5pm. Admission to the museum is free, but I'd highly recommend a guided tour for a suggested £5 donation. 
St John's Gate is in St John's Lane, EC1M 4DA - a  short walk from Farringdon station.