Sunday, 2 December 2018

Arrested decay: Ally Pally theatre

Alexandra Palace's East Court is newly reopened, with an exhibition, coffee bar ... and theatre. 

Through the huge glass atrium is a very special space, reopened for performances after eighty years - but not restored. Instead, it has been put in a state of 'arrested decay' and this fantastic decision means it retains a unique atmosphere. 

The theatre first opened in 1875, but it wasn't the best design - its architect John Johnson had more experience of concert halls, and basically sized one up to accommodate a theatre audience of 3,000. The auditorium may have been unsatisfactory, but the stage machinery was state-of-the-art. By the end of the century, films were also being shown here.

During the First World War, Ally Pally held interned foreign nationals and the theatre became a chapel, although films were also shown. Further work was carried out for its reopening in the 1920s. It enjoyed a golden period under the management of Archie Pitt, husband of Gracie Fields. She trialled many of her productions here before taking the on national tours or West End theatres. By the 1930s, it was out of use and the BBC took it over as a props store. The 1980s fire at Alexandra Palace was the last straw, and the theatre became derelict.

A great deal of care went into keeping the decaying splendour of the theatre intact while also making it a safe, usable space for its users. The lath and plaster ceiling with its decorative mouldings (added in the 1920s) was stabilised, so it won't be falling on the audience's heads - but no more than that was done. Holes and exposed areas have been left unchanged. 

The floorboards were carefully lifted so the crumbling supports could be replaced, then laid back in their original positions. During the work, detritus which had made its way under the floor was retrieved and the best finds - including some fantastic old lightbulbs - are now on display in the East Court. 

Paintwork has also been preserved in its distressed condition. Loose detritus was carefully brushed off, then the panels were sealed with a clear coating.

Retractable modern seating and flexible staging will allow the theatre to be used for all sorts of performances - and have addressed some of the original theatre's flaws, for example by improving sightlines. Forthcoming performances are already proving popular, and it's wonderful to know that this theatre has a new lease of life - without losing any of its older charms. 

Thursday, 29 November 2018

Ghost signs (136): you wait fifteen years...

There's a ghost sign practically at the end of my road, and it has been obscured by a hoarding all the time I've lived here. They did change the hoarding once, but waited until I was on holiday to do it. Now, at last, it's been removed - who knows for how long? I first saw it after dark. 

Happily, it was still exposed the following morning! Here, in all its glory (except for the lost strip on the left) is a painted advertisement for Lipton's Tea, 'the finest the world produces'. The date of the sign is unknown, but the slogan was certainly being used by Lipton's between 1901 and 1935

Sunday, 4 November 2018

Greenwich Town Hall

Greenwich no longer has a town hall: when the borough was merged with neighbouring Woolwich, the new authority took the latter's town hall as its base. However, Greenwich used to have one - and it's still standing, but now known as Meridian House. The building was admired by Pevsner and is deservedly  Grade II listed

The tall, geometric design with its distinctive clock was built in 1939: a late example of Art Deco before World War II intervened. The architects, Culpin and Son, were heavily influenced by Hilversum Town Hall, built in 1930 by Dutch modernist architect Willem Marinus Dudok. 

Hilversum Town Hall 

The partnership of Culpin and Bowers had been known for its public housing projects. When it was dissolved in 1935,  E G Culpin formed the new firm with his son Clifford. Culpin senior was an advocate of the garden city movement and a Labour councillor (later Chairman of London County Council). He and Clifford had just completed Poplar Town Hall the year before. Clifford took the leading role on the Greenwich project. 

The brick is only cladding: the building is reinforced concrete. The glass near the top of the tower reminds us that it was intended as an observation deck with river views. Sadly, the public have not been allowed up there for some years. 

Happily, another feature remains accessible. The mosaic in the side entrance was created by Carter and Co, tilemakers in Poole, Dorset whose subsidiary Carter Stabler and Adams became Poole Pottery. Meanwhile, Carter and Co made both ornamental and functional tiles - including many of those lining London Underground, as well as the LCC and GLC's blue plaques. 

Carter and Co tiling, Poole Arms, Poole

The identity of the mosaic artist is not certain, but was probably David Evans who had worked with the Culpins on other projects including Poplar Town Hall. The work is a jaunty combination of the maritime - a ship and telescope - and celestial zodiac symbols.

While no longer used by the council, much of the building is occupied by Greenwich School of Management and it remains a striking landmark. (The situation of its large public hall, Borough Hall, appears more uncertain as recent occupiers Greenwich Dance left earlier this year.) 

Image of Hilversum Town Hall: Roundtheworld, shared under a Creative Commons licence

Sunday, 21 October 2018

Hawksmoor, Wolfe, and Fuller's Earth: St Alfege Church crypt

St Alfege Church is a Greenwich landmark, standing in its centre since the eighteenth century when it replaced its collapsed predecessor. It was designed by Nicholas Hawksmoor and funded as one of the Fifty New Churches - of which only a dozen were built.

However, one of the most interesting parts of the church goes almost unseen - the crypt below. (Although not entirely below ground - a trick to raise the main body of the church and make it seem more imposing.) It is currently only open for tours on special occasions, although there are plans to make it accessible in future. 

A narrow staircase leads from an external door into the crypt, where bodies were interred in family vaults until 1859. They included John Julius Angerstein, a prominent businessman and underwriter, chairman of Lloyd's in the 1790s, and art collector whose paintings became the core of the National Gallery's collection. He is controversial today since the extent of his involvement in the slave trade is contested. 

Another vault is slightly cryptically occupied by 'Martyr's'. This is the name of a local family rather than a description of the occupants.

The most famous occupant was General James Wolfe, celebrated for victory over the French at Quebec in 1759. He was fatally wounded in the battle, and this 'martyrdom' made him the most celebrated military hero of his period. However, he had already made a name for himself through improving weapons skills and tactics and achieved his position as major-general aged just 32. He had fought at Culloden in 1746, where he allegedly refused to shoot a wounded Jacobite despite orders to do so. 

When interments ceased, the vaults were filled with Fuller's earth, an absorbent clay - just visible through a grille at the front of each vault.

Not all the vaults held wealthy families: there is also a church vault. In total, the crypt held over a thousand bodies. Below its floor are even more, burials from the earlier church building including the composer Thomas Tallis. 

Sunday, 30 September 2018

Cabot Cafe, College Green

In the heart of Bristol is a fish and chip shop - not that exciting, until you look up above the modern shopfront. On the upper floors of the facade, beautiful details of the original Cabot Cafe remain.
It was built in 1904 by James LaTrobe and Thomas Weston, architects whose other Art Nouveau buildings in Bristol included a primary school. By 1921, their Whiteladies Picture House cinema showed clear Art Deco influence. The Cabot Cafe was commissioned by Walter Hughes, a local estate agent who had experience of property development on the Green: he had been responsible for building the Royal Hotel forty years earlier.

The colourful tiled mosaic catches the eye first. It was the work of Catherine Hughes, the client's daughter. She took the design from the 1891 binding of A House of Pomegranates - surely a daring choice less than a decade after the prosecution and disgrace of its author Oscar Wilde.

Less bright, but equally beautiful, are the copper panels to either side. These continue the pomegranate theme and are pure Art Nouveau. Other details, by contrast, are more baroque (a mixture of styles characteristic of LaTrobe and Weston's work).

Cabot Cafe suffered damage in the Second World War. We are fortunate, then, that this intriguing facade nevertheless survived to delight us today.

Monday, 17 September 2018

Dinosaurs up close!

Crystal Palace is home to the fantastic, much-loved dinosaur park - or more accurately, prehistoric animal park, since it has more than dinosaurs. Its most famous residents are on an island, usually firmly off-limits to the public.

However, the Friends of Crystal Palace Dinosaurs offered a very special opportunity to cross a temporary bridge onto the island during its Dinosaur Days. Our guide was Anthony Lewis, creator of a fantastic 'Lost Valley of London' video about the dinosaurs. Close up, they are full of usually-unseen details. 

There was even an opportunity to look inside one of the dinosaurs. These models are hollow, with a brick framework. Their creator Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins carefully developed scale models based upon the latest research, then made a full-size version of clay with wooden supports. This was used to create a mould, from which cement sections were cast. For the larger dinosaurs such as the iguanadons, a brickwork structure was built around a metal frame, then given shape with iron hoops and tiles. Finally, mortar was used to attach the cement cast sections and to add details. Lead teeth were fastened into the dinosaurs' gums with pins, and the whole model was painted.

Not all of those details are happy ones. The Grade-I listed dinosaurs require ongoing conservation, suffering as they do from exposure to the elements (and, sadly, sometimes deliberate vandalism). 

Fancy making the trip? Opportunities are rare at the moment, because a bridge has to be temporarily (and expensively) constructed each time. However, the Friends are crowdfunding for a permanent bridge: if the money can be raised, then we will all have more chances to walk among dinosaurs!

Monday, 3 September 2018

Boxing Academy

Dingle's Fairground Heritage Centre is full of eye-catching fairground art, as well as actual working rides. Among its many striking pieces is one which tells all sorts of stories: a set of panels from the elaborately-painted Billy Wood's Boxing Show. 

The boxing show was a familiar attraction in British funfairs until the 1970s. Members of the public would be promised a pound if they could win three rounds with one of the professional boxers who took on all-comers. Few of them succeeded! Of course, some fights were easier for the professionals than others: Danny Corns recollects how, when Billy Wood's would visit Ilston Fair, 'Half a dozen booth fighters who toured with the show would stand in a line on the booth platform where the showman would introduce them one by one... [After pub closing-time] the inebriated challenger, arms flailing like a windmill, only managed to hit fresh air. The fair boxer usually took it easy on him. The challenger soon became exhausted and struggled to get off his stool for the next round.'  A number of pre-war boxers began their careers in these shows, and the incredible demands of the fairground must have provided a good grounding for the gruelling schedules endured by many of those professional boxers. 

Billy Wood was the son of a boxing show operator and grandson of a bare-knuckle fighter. Born in Scotland in 1903, he first appeared in his father's fairground show aged nine, but his career really begin in 1919. He later described a day at the 1919 Durham Miners' Gala which began at 7am, ended at 1am, and involved fighting 18 miners (15 were knocked out). 

Wood's boxing show began in 1922, when he was just 19. Since the panel shows a 1931 fight, it may have been repainted soon after his move from Scotland to England in 1929. Wood fought in the fairgrounds during the summer and in boxing venues during winter. The fight between him and 'Kid Shepherd' depicted on his booth was one of the latter. It is an intriguing choice: it is not obvious that this match was particularly significant. It may, though, have been a career highlight for Wood, not least because it was his second win in two days. Following a drawn match just a fortnight earlier, he won this rematch with a knock-out. Incredibly, the day before the rematch with Sheppard in Leith, he had fought in Hackney - and also won. Yet those efforts were perhaps overshadowed by his win against Johnny McMillan three months later, since it made him featherweight champion of Scotland. When his boxing career ended, he dedicated himself full-time to the show which last appeared at the Nottingham Goose Fair in 1971. (By then, changes in culture, safety regulations, and British Boxing Board of Control rules which prevented professionals fighting in the fairgrounds, had all contributed to the booths' decline.) His sons then gave it to the National Fairground Trust, and it is a highlight of their collection on display at the Heritage Centre. 

However, the story of his opponent Arnold 'Kid' Sheppard is a rather tragic one. Born in Cardiff Docks in 1908 to a Barbadian father and British mother, he had worked as a miner in the Rhondda Valley before he fought Billy Wood twice in 1929, in Leith. He was knocked out in the first match but a fortnight later, they fought again and drew on points. These were just two of around 300 bouts in a career stretching from 1926 to 1939: an average of over 20 fights a year, meaning that he often went into the ring still injured from a previous match. He was a 'journeyman', who prided himself on lasting the distance in most fights even though he 'often fought hurt and on very short notice.' Nonetheless, he won 95 of the fights and drew 38. There is some information online about Sheppard's bleak retirement (thankfully, it seems that his life and career are now being researched). He joined the merchant navy in World War II; but in later life he suffered blindness and dementia as a result of his boxing injuries, and he died in Claybury Asylum, Essex in 1979. 

One reason for Sheppard's punishing fight schedule may have been that the opportunity to fight for a Lonsdale title belt, and thus enjoy a more lucrative career, was closed to him. Black boxers had been an integral part of the fairground and professional fighting scenes since the nineteenth century, but from 1911 to 1948, 'non-white' boxers were formally barred from Lonsdale championship titles. 

The other match was a more obviously notable one: Canadian fighter Larry Gains, the 'Toronto Terror', had beaten Phil Scott to win the British Empire Heavyweight Title in 1931 - but the British Boxing Board of Control refused to recognise him as champion because of the colour bar. (PJ Moss, writing in the Daily Mirror, suggested that fans viewed Gains as champion: 'When a champion is beaten under championship conditions the public generally regard the winner as taking over the mantle of the defeated one.') Scott had won his previous three fights for the title; Gains would hold it (or not) in another three fights before losing to Len Harvey in 1934. The bar on black boxers also prevented him from becoming World Champion (giving him the title for his autobiography, The Impossible Dream), though he did twice win the title of Coloured Heavyweight Champion of the World. He went on to be a physical training instructor in the British Army during World War II. After the war, he lived in and around London and did a series of low-paid jobs, having lost much of his money through gambling. Meanwhile, Scott didn't fight again but became a boxing instructor for the Egyptian police. 

Knowing a little of the background to these images leaves us with many questions. Why do both illustrations show fights between a black man and a white man? How were they read by fair-goers, and how did Wood intend them? Promotional cards for Wood's boxing academy featured an image of the booth on one side; the other included the slogan 'clean British sport', firmly encompassing these black men within both Britishness and sporting virtues. Was this simply a reflection of their established place in fairground boxing, or a more deliberate comment on the racism elsewhere in the sport?

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