Friday, 31 August 2012

Stories in stones

Guenroc, a village in Brittany, is defined by stone. First, there's the white quartz which probably gave it its name (gwen is Breton for white, roc'h for rock). It stands in an outcrop on the edge of the village; a place of worship since Celtic times, it is now topped with a statue representing Jesus. 

The second stone is granite, ubiquitous in Brittany. Here as elsewhere, the hard grey stone has been used to build the more prosperous homes. They are settled around the fifteenth-century church, focal point of the village; fairs and markets were once held alongside it. 

Finally, there is sandstone. When local merchants made their fortunes in the cloth trade, one way of displaying their wealth was by having a carved chimney. This fashion depended upon the local availability of a hard  sandstone, significantly easier to carve than the granite otherwise used. Half a dozen of these 300-year-old chimneys survive, reminding those who visit this quiet village of a livelier period in its history. 

Wednesday, 29 August 2012

Ghost signs (77): a pale spectre

I've passed this building opposite Waterloo Station many times, but it was something about the light one afternoon which drew my eye to the faint writing on its Exton Street walls. Unfortunately, the letters are almost impossible to make out; 'RISING AGE' is more decipherable than the rest. In fact, lots of playing with contrast and saturation suggests that the text ran continuously along the side and angle of the building, with the bottom line reading 'OF THE AGE'. If anybody can offer further suggestions, they will be gratefully received!

Sunday, 26 August 2012

Seaside Sunday: three centuries of light

Sébastien Le Prestre, marquis de Vauban, was France's great military architect of the seventeenth century. He spent much of his time protecting the Breton coastline from English invasion. Cap Frehel already had a small lighthouse, but Vauban also saw the possibility of the site for warning of approaching attacks. Following his instructions, the royal engineer responsible for St Malo built this tower. It was one of a number of combined watchtowers and lighthouses Vauban installed on the Breton coast and at Le Stiff on the island of Ouessant. Coal was kept on its ground floor, the first floor provided accommodation for the keeper (and troops in time of war), and the light burned at the top of the tower.

The Frehel lighthouse was first lit in 1702, although initially it shone only in winter months. From 1717, a tax on ships using the local ports paid for it to be lit all year round. At this stage, it was still an open fire of coal and wood, and the lighthouse-keeper's job was an unpleasant one. The fire could use 150 kilos of coal in a night, and had to be maintained in all weathers, with the dangers that involved, while morning brought further tasks of cleaning and removing ashes. It must have been a relief for the keeper as well as a boon for ships when an oil lantern with 60 reflectors was put in place in 1774.

Only in 1847 was this tower was replaced by a taller lighthouse with greater reach. It remained in place, and outlasted its replacement which was destroyed by retreating German forces in 1944. The elderly building was then brought out of retirement as a temporary replacement until 1950.

Friday, 24 August 2012

British Byzantine: Westminster Cathedral

The nineteenth century was a time of expansion for London cathedrals. The Anglican church of St Saviour's was upgraded to Southwark Cathedral; Catholic counterpart St George's was completed in 1848 and given cathedral status in 1852. 

Over the river, construction of Westminster Cathedral began in 1895. It slightly overran the century, opening in 1903 and confusing tourists looking for the Abbey ever since! However, it deserves a visit in its own right for while it may not have the long history of Westminster Abbey, there is plenty of interest to be found here. Eric Gill's stations of the cross are well-known, but there is much more decorative detail to be discovered. 

Externally, the most eye-catching feature of the building is its stripiness. Red brick is decorated with bands of white running horizontally, vertically and in curves. As for the structure and internal decoration, they are neo-Byzantine. Domes, mosaics and over 100 different marbles are all present, although the narthex (full-width outer porch) typical of Byzantine churches is not. That does mean that with the main doors open, there is a view from the exterior directly to the high altar. 

One of the cathedral's inspirations is visible in a mosaic of Constantinople (Istanbul), which has the great Byzantine church of Hagia Sophia at the centre. Westminster's architect, John Francis Bentley, didn't actually see it, though. He made a tour of Byzantine-inspired churches in southern Italy but his own health and an outbreak of cholera in Istanbul prevented him travelling to Hagia Sophia itself.  

The architect John Francis Bentley died in 1902, before the cathedral opened. The interior decoration was largely incomplete, and Bentley had left very few designs. As a result, the mosaics added at various stages since the building's completion (usually as money allowed) are in a range of styles. They reflect not only changing tastes but also the wishes of benefactors.  

Wednesday, 22 August 2012

Ghost signs (76): Paraffin Oil Lamps in Rochester Row

Forgetting to renew my passport turned out to have its advantages! While I was wandering around Victoria in the gap between applying for a new one and collecting it, I came across this ghost sign in Rochester Row. 

Unfortunately, the top row of text is too faded for me to decipher it. The text below says:

Monday, 20 August 2012

London's ugliest example of facadism?

There's an ongoing debate about the practice of facadism, which considers the value of leaving an historic facade in place while the building behind is torn away. As a result, the facade is arguably nothing more than decoration, shorn of its original significance: "a cute toy designed to make a skyscraper more palatable". If done clumsily, it can also look incongruous in its modern surroundings (for me, the Lloyds Building falls into that category). 

On the other hand, at least part of a building survives where it might otherwise have disappeared forever. Done well, the contrast between old and new can have its own appeal (here's an interesting French example). And as Matt Edgar points out, some buildings were essentially false facades to begin with: grand frontages often hid simple buildings in cheaper materials. 

However, even the fiercest defenders of the practice would surely gulp at the sight of this effort on the corner of Artillery Lane and Gun Street, Spitalfields. The former facade is left orphaned from the rest of the built environment, large metal pins carefully holding it at arm's length from the new building. Its windows are not only blank and empty, but out of kilter with those added behind. If those responsible had spray-painted 'we only left this because they made us' across one wall and 'we hate old buildings' on the other, the message would hardly be less subtle. 

I really hope that this is London's worst example. If you do know of any other contenders, share them in the comments.  

Sunday, 19 August 2012

Heritage and a Horlicks repeat

Heritage Open Days on 6-9 September will allow us to get into buildings all over England (except London, whose Open House event is two weeks later). Scotland and Wales have similar events extending over every weekend in September. 

For those of us in the capital, some of the Heritage Open Day sites are much closer than you might expect (57 are within the M25). IanVisits has an excellent list of highlights in the south-east, including the Horlicks factory. As a taster for their tour (pre-booking required), here's a look back at my visit in 2010. 

No night starvation in Slough

Slough, west of London, isn't really thought of as a heritage hotspot. Its reputation was hardly helped by the Betjeman poem which begins, 'Come friendly bombs and fall on Slough!' However, the Heritage Open Days this weekend highlight places worth seeing in this maligned town, not least the Horlicks factory which opened to the public for the first time today. I was lucky enough to join one of the tours.

Horlicks has something of an Anglo-American heritage, although its biggest market today is India. The drink was first produced in the USA by two English brothers, William and James Horlick, in 1873. By the 1890s James had established an office in London, and the Slough factory was opened in 1908.

Initially the drink was targeted at infants (it's no longer recommended as a baby food), but by the early twentieth century it had found a new market. Compact, nutritious, and made using only water rather than hot milk, it was popular with arctic and antarctic explorers. However, its 1930s advertising campaign really shaped perceptions of the drink: promising to stave off 'night starvation', it firmly associated Horlicks with a good night's sleep.

The company boardroom dates from that same period, and has wonderful Art Deco features. My very favourite was the fireplace with inbuilt clock and calendar (the numbers for day and month, on glass, are stored in a box just behind the display). The ceiling is pretty stylish too.

The furniture was made by Robert Thompson, famous for including a mouse on every piece. The chairs also bear other decoration including the Horlicks arms - appropriately enough, they include a cow and a sheaf of grain.

Both boardroom and archives are treasure troves of old products and packaging, as well as photographs and other memorabilia. Among the most evocative were the staff magazines.

Wednesday, 15 August 2012

Carved in stone

Poor Ralph of Shrewsbury. As Bishop of Bath and Wells in the fourteenth century, he did some good work. In particular, he built Vicars' Close to house the men of Wells Cathedral choir (thus keeping them away from the worldly temptations offered by lodgings in town). Having provided accommodation and a communal hall, he then gave land to provide an income.  

It seems only fair, then, that he should be remembered within the cathedral. Sure enough, he has a rather fine tomb with alabaster effigy - but it hasn't received the respect it perhaps deserved. Instead, every inch of it is carved with graffiti- even the dogs at his feet have failed as guards. Most legible names and dates are from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, but the process began in the sixteenth century when the effigy, once railed and in front of the high altar, was placed unprotected in its current location. Since it is alongside the choir, one suspects that choristers - for whom he showed such concern in life - may have been among those responsible. 

Monday, 13 August 2012

Visit Rio 2016 now!

If you're in London, and feeling slightly let down in the gap between Olympics and Paralympics, don't forget that Brazil's Olympic House is still open. Since Rio is hosting the games in 2016, there are previews of the city, the stadium and the Olympics and Paralympics logos - but also exhibitions highlighting contemporary Brazilian art and design. 

It's all free, conveniently located in Somerset House and, as IanVisits has pointed out, has a shop which is already selling souvenirs for the forthcoming games. Altogether, enough Olympic spirit to tide you over until the Paralympics start at the end of the month!

Casa Brasil is open 8am - 7pm daily until 9 September; admission free. 

Sunday, 12 August 2012

White City Stadium

As the Olympics draws to a close and London catches its breath before the Paralympics, here's a little look at the 1908 Olympic stadium. By the time of this 1924 film (which also shows Franco-British Exhibition buildings of the same year), it was looking less than vibrant. Our guide in the film refers to it as 'the old stadium' - but it would find new uses a few years later which kept it alive.

The stadium, then the world's largest, had taken just ten months to build - Rome originally won the games but then suffered a volcanic eruption in 1906, so they moved to London. The venue was rather more multi-purpose than today's version as it included a cycling track and a swimming and diving pool. In fact, most Olympic events were held at this one site.

When the Games had gone, it continued to be used for training until it was taken over by the Greyhound Racing Association in 1926. They held not only greyhound races but also speedway here. Other sports also returned from time to time - it even served as QPR's ground for two periods in the 1930s and 1960s. In the 1970s, it added yet another role as a concert venue.

Among the stars of its greyhound track was Mick The Miller, perhaps the most famous greyhound of all. In his three-year career he won nineteen races in a row; won the Greyhound Derby twice; and later became a film star. You can still see him today - stuffed after his death in 1939, he is on display at the Natural History Museum in Tring. He is also preserved on Pathe newsreel, looking spectacularly unimpressed by the silverware he won; in 2011, a statue was unveiled in his birthplace of Killeigh, Ireland.

Despite the stars, canine and human, who had played here, the White City Stadium was demolished in 1984. Following the demolition, BBC Radio built their headquarters on the site.

Image: the stadium during the 1908 Olympics, from the Fourth Olympiad 1908 London Official Report, from Wikipedia.

Thursday, 9 August 2012

Ghost signs (75): Whitby

Famous for its Dracula connections, Whitby carries many other traces of the past. Its retailers have left not only ceramic tiles, but also ghost signs. Indeed, the former Wellington Rooms has both: tiled signs at street level and an advertisement for Arthur Sawdon above. 

Compared to the musical and house agency services offered by George Thompson, Sawdon's carpets and beddings seem relatively mundane. However, the London Gazette of 1955 tells a more complicated story: notice was given of the dissolution of a partnership between Sawdon and one Arthur Coates Corner, which had been 'carrying on business as Auctioneers Estate Agents and Furnishers'. Sawdon was retiring, but Coates would carry on business under the same name. Thus Thompson's business seems to have continued, evolving from pianos to carpets, over several generations of ownership. 

Although there appears to have been a merger, turning the White Horse Hotel into the White Horse & Griffin, they have proudly kept the original signs. Not only is good stabling promised on the facade; inside the archway, the hotel ensures its guests that it is fully licensed with Smoke & Club Rooms. As well as reminding us of the days when horse transport was the norm, these signs also tell us a great deal about the class of clientele to which the hotel catered. 

It's hard to go far in Whitby without seeing reminders of the jet industry. The number of manufacturers has shrunk enormously since the Victorian heyday: Thomas Bryan's wholesale premises are now a shoe shop. 

Finally, this sign for Kirbys presumably marks its former premises as there are no further clues to what goods or services were offered. 

Tuesday, 7 August 2012

London's tiniest Olympic art exhibition?

On Millennium Bridge, Ben Wilson has transformed chewing gum into the canvas for his miniature artworks. Among the ugly spots of discarded gum, some have been transformed into colourful images almost unnoticed under the feet of passing tourists. 

One of the images is dated 26 July 2012 - just in time for the Olympics, although they are not a theme in the work. Instead, there are tiny images of people, fish, fantastical creatures, and names - Wilson will paint requests.

Another was painted two days earlier, an indication of the time it takes to produce these pavement images - about three hours each. 

Chewing gum isn't a very durable painting surface, so it first has to be heated with a blowtorch and coated with acryclic enamel. Then the tiny, intricate images can be painted, metamorphosing some of the more unpleasant litter on our streets into miniature pieces of art.