Tuesday 2 April 2013

Leeds curiosities

Leeds grew enormously in the nineteenth century, so it's no surprise that much of its architecture - civic, commercial and industrial - should be Victorian and Edwardian. The city is full of wonderful examples in a range of styles and materials. 

Part of the particular appeal of this period is the abundance of quirky features often found in its buildings. While the popular image of the Victorians and Edwardians is rather stiff-upper-lip, etiquette-bound and respectable, their buildings can show a rather different personality. My first choice is an example both of the pride so many took in their achievements, and of the way that first impressions can mislead. 

The Pearl Assurance building, opposite Leeds Town Hall, is topped with a statue of its founder. There was certainly no false modesty in putting his effigy directly opposite that grand monument to civic pride! Telephoto lenses, however, reveal that the company was as canny as it was cocky: just look at the facial features. 

Thornton & Co sneak into the very end of the period, since their building wasn't completed until 1918. (I admit it, I'm cheating a little here!) Their business as 'India Rubber Manufacturers' is redolent of the period (products included garments, rubber mats, air beds, industrial belts, and bottle seals), but the premises are notable for more than this inscription. They were built from state-of-the-art materials, including a steel frame and reinforced concrete, but what is really special is the cladding material. 'Burmantofts Marmo' was manufactured locally by the Leeds Fireclay Company, and was a matt-glazed faience designed to imitate marble. Produced from 1908, and designed to compete with Doulton Carraraware, it remained in production until the company closed in 1957. 

Finally, and back on Victorian ground, we have the extraordinary Time Ball Buildings. They were given their amazing facade by John Dyson, a watchmaker and clockmaker, in 1872. 

As the name suggests, it includes time balls which imitated their Greenwich counterpart by dropping at precisely 1pm each day. The time was communicated by telegraph from Greenwich to the railway station, and the information shared with clockmakers including Dyson.

One tedious aspect of having a shop which sells small, valuable items is that they are very attractive to thieves. Thus watches have to be taken out of the window at night and placed securely inside the shop; then the whole process has to be reversed each morning. However, if you are an imaginative person with a clockmaker's skills, you might come up with an alternative system - and that's just what Dyson did. He installed a mechanism which allowed the entire window display to be lowered to safely each night and then lifted back into place during opening hours.

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