Thursday, 20 October 2016

Through the Victorian Looking Glass

Linley Sambourne, cartoonist for Punch, made 18 Stafford Terrace his family home in 1875. It stayed in the family, barely changed, well into the twentieth century. It has been open to the public since 1980, run first by the Victorian Society and now by the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea. 

The Aesthetic interiors are a microcosm of so many things we associate with Victorian homes: ornaments everywhere, occasional tables, fancy lampshades, stained glass, William Morris papers, crowded mantlepieces. It is also lined with some of the thousands of photos taken by Sambourne, including many used as models for his cartoons. And there are lots of mirrors...

Monday, 17 October 2016

Holland House: a strange centenary

2016 is an unusual centenary year for a building, because 1916 was the middle of the First World War. However, as the name suggests, Holland House in the City of London was built by a Dutch company, Wm. H.Müller and Co; the Netherlands were neutral.

Wartime austerity and material shortages don't seem to have caused too many problems, as the building has some lovely details. Outside, a black granite ship by Joseph Mendes da Costa reflects the company's main business of shipping - although they were also involved in other fields such as steel and mining. 

Turn the corner to the front of the building, and it offers an extraordinary vertical composition. That is deliberate: the street was narrow, so this was the view most visitors got. Today, however, the opposite side of the road has been opened up to form part of the Gherkin's piazza, so you can get a clearer view front-on. The glazed terracotta bricks of the facade were hand-made in Delft, designed to protect against smog and fire, and transported to London on the company's own ships

The architect was Dutch: Hendrik Petrus Berlage. A leading practitioner in the Netherlands, this is his only London work and one of the first steel-framed buildings in Europe. It is no coincidence that he had visited the United States in 1911, where he was influenced by the steel-framed buildings he saw there. 

However, in 1919 he stopped working with Müller and Co. The interior was not quite complete so a Belgian, Henri van de Velde, was responsible for the mahogany panelling (with wood from one of the company's ships) and furniture. 

The stained glass windows and lanterns are the work of Bart Van Der Leck. He also designed the gorgeous mosaics which line the lobbies on each floor.

In the basement, the lower part of the mosaics is a glorious marine blue, recalling the sea which was so central to the occupants' activities.

The site is somewhat awkwardly shaped: there's another building, Renown House, in the corner because its owners wouldn't sell to Müller. Berlage addressed some of the resulting issues with a central lightwell which brings daylight into the building. 

Müller have long since ceased to occupy the building. Subsequent occupants have removed many of the original features, but a 2007 restoration of what remains has helped to highlight how very special Holland House is. 

Monday, 10 October 2016

Country house telephones

Although today, we visit stately homes for their historical interest, they were once eager to be technologically up-to-date. Their wealthy owners could afford new innovations such as the telephone, and these have left their traces on many properties - in kitchens and estate offices as well as 'above stairs'. 

The country house enjoyed a golden age at the same time that the telephone network was developing. In 1876, Alexander Graham Bell patented the telephone. That same year, Tivadar Puskas came up with the idea of a telephone exchange. W H Preece, Engineer-in-Chief of the Post Office, brought the first pair of telephones to Britain in July 1877; the first long-distance calls in the country came the following year, when Bell himself demonstrated the telephone to Queen Victoria at Osborne House. The Telephone Company Ltd was formed, with the first trial of commercial long-distance calls taking place on 1 November 1878; the company launched with fewer than ten subscribers. By the end of 1879, it had 200. However, the telephone was still something used primarily for business, with exchanges only in major cities. 

At the end of 1880, the judgment in Attorney-General v Edison Telephone Company of London Ltd saw telephones placed under Post Office control, on the basis they were a form of telegraphy. The Post Office nonetheless licensed other companies for some years, as well as opening further exchanges by converting telegraph exchanges. A national network was developing, and 1884 saw the opening of public call offices where members of the public could make telephone calls. These soon evolved into telephone boxes. Perhaps an even more significant marker of the increasing use of telephones for personal calls was the introduction of cheaper calls outside business hours in 1903.

Thus the telephone quickly took a key role in modern communications. That is symbolised rather nicely by two 1890s putti having a telephone conversation outside the former Astor Estate office at 2 Temple Place!

Country estates were often significant businesses in their own right, so having telephones made sense. Thus there is a telephone in the estate office at Petworth, complete with instructions. 'To call exchange place receiver to ear and listen. Give name of exchange & no. required. Replace telephone when finished. Report faults to Post Office.' (That last instruction may tell us something about the reliability of the system.) Another factor was that  these monied households could afford the subscriptions and call costs - and had similarly affluent associates, friends and relatives to receive the calls.

These households were also large enough to benefit from internal telephone systems. They offered a more discreet and efficient alternative to servants' bells: thus Petworth's connected to the kitchen quarters, with lines labelled by room name.

Throughout the twentieth century, the network expanded, technology improved and prices became more affordable - but it took time. Telephone calls remained expensive in the 1930s, when the Courtaulds built their home at Eltham Palace. They had a private internal telephone exchange, installed by Siemens; but guests had to make external calls from a payphone.  

Thursday, 6 October 2016

Shedding light on Lambeth

Turn your back on Lambeth Palace, and across the road towards Lambeth Bridge is a rather fine lamp post. There's no mystery about how and when it got here, because the base is decorated with the words The Vestry of the Parish of Lambeth and the date 1856

The Vestry of St Mary's had been responsible for the parish for three centuries. However, it was replaced by a secular Lambeth Vestry under the Metropolis Local Management Act 1855, so this lamp post appeared when the body was still brand-new. No wonder they wanted such prominent branding!

That same Act also created the Metropolitan Board of Works, which would employ Bazalgette to create London's sewerage system. Among its achievements was the building of Albert Embankment, alongside which the light now stands. That's not the only major change to its surroundings, though: the Lambeth Bridge was not opened until 1862. Proposals to build a bridge here had been made for some time, and continued despite the building of Westminster Bridge in 1750 - especially as that led to the closure of the horseferry which used to operate here. (It's still commemorated in the name of Horseferry Road, which runs from the north end of Lambeth Bridge.) However, the long-awaited bridge was already rusting badly in 1879, and by 1910 it had to be closed to traffic. Delayed by the First World War, a replacement bridge was agreed in 1924 and opened in 1932.

The typically 1930s lamps of the bridge are quite a contrast in style to their less starkly geometric, more ornate neighbour. As well as lettering, it features arms including a rather stout, blobby creature which is in fact a lamb. Yes, it's a pun on Lambeth. The palace below is self-explanatory, the scroll with the word HYDE less so. 

Today, the lamp is powered by electricity. However, it originally ran on gas provided by the London Gas Co whose works were a little way upriver near Vauxhall Bridge: notice the crossbars which allowed the lamplighter to secure his ladder. 

And as for who manufactured this cast-iron lamp? It's no surprise to find the name of the ubiquitous W Macfarlane of Glasgow. 

Tuesday, 27 September 2016

C a mistake?

Dulwich is full of historical details, but here are a couple of letter Cs which may give you pause.

The first is on the former Grammar School of the College of God's Gift. A smaller building than the name might suggest, it was established in 1842 to educate 60 poor boys. This was paid for by the charitable foundation established by the eminent actor (and contemporary of Shakespeare) Edward Alleyne - also responsible for the rather grander Dulwich College. The grammar school building was designed by Sir Charles Barry, who is rather better known for the Houses of Parliament

Since the Houses of Parliament and the remodelling of Trafalgar Square were both underway while the school was built, perhaps Barry didn't pay a great deal of attention to its execution. That might explain how a mistake went unnoticed in the lettering above the door: the capital C on 'College' and D of 'Dulwich' have been swapped and reversed!

Several decades later, North Dulwich Station was built by the London, Brighton and South Coast Railway, with bridge attached; the architect was Barry's son, Charles Barry Jnr. On the bridge are fine plaques commemorating this, and it appears the C/D confusion has happened again. Shouldn't that be '1866 AD'?

In fact, it shouldn't. This time, the letters are quite correct as they stand not for anno domini but for Alleyn's College (Dulwich College), who owned the land


Monday, 19 September 2016

Ghost signs (123): Light Capsules

The dilemma of ghost sign restoration is beautifully resolved in Light Capsules, a collaboration between designer and artist Craig Winslow and Sam Roberts of Ghostsigns. For a few hours, faded signs are brought back to vivid life - by projections, which allow the sign to be both restored and untouched. It's quite an experience to see. 

Light Capsules runs all week, over a number of different venues, from 6-8pm each evening. Wednesday's event is a little different, as signs from around the world will be projected onto a blank wall - accompanied by cocktails and live lettering demonstrations.

Part of the London Design Festival, Light Capsules also coincides with the launch of the Ghostsigns Tours App, available for iPhone and Android. It currently features a walking tour of Bankside, with Stoke Newington soon to be added.

Sunday, 18 September 2016

Electrical Moderne

Tucked behind a residential street in Woking is a small concrete building. It has an Art Deco look, not unattractive but not obviously exciting. 

However, the interior is a very different matter. Built in 1936, this very functional space created by Swedish firm ASEA is full of Moderne style. Indeed, at this period Southern had adopted Streamline Moderne as its house style - as can also be seen at nearby Woking Station.

We are in Southern Railway's electrical control room, built as part of their programme of electrification. It continued in use until the 1990s, its fabulous features intact. Even the floors are elegant, with green and black bands at the edges.

The wall panels combine a Deco colour scheme and stylish silver strips with track diagrams. Now that the railway was electrified, operators needed to ensure that the electrical supply was available when trains were running and switched off while work was being carried out. Lights indicated the status of the supply, bakelite switches allowed it to be controlled. 

Caps were placed over switches when the supply was off, so that it couldn't be switched back on unthinkingly. 

The telephone exchange at the main desk brought information in and out. This original control desk has acquired some more modern paraphernalia: several generations of telephones can be seen here. 

The four uplighters running along the centre of the oval room are copper and cast iron. They don't just look lovely: combined with the curved ceiling, they ensure that light is even and there are no obscuring shadows. Those same curves also enhanced the acoustics of the room, so that one operator could easily hear the other even when they worked at opposite ends. (With a number of visitors and guides in the room, it was rather noisy!)

Outside the control room is another treat, albeit more functional than fancy. The corridors leading to the entrance are lined with the backs of those glamorous control boards, electro-mechanical switchgear on view. 

Of Southern's original five control rooms, Woking alone survives intact. It is now listed, so should be surprising visitors well into the future - and reminding us that it was not only the Victorians who invested so much care into the appearance of industrial spaces. 

Woking Electrical Control Room is open to the public on the annual Heritage Open Days. Thanks to IanVisits for highlighting it! 

There are more of my photos on Flickr

Wednesday, 14 September 2016

Open House inspiration

Spoiled for choice by the 750 buildings welcoming visitors on Saturday and Sunday for Open House London? I'm not about to attempt a definitive guide or authoritative list of what to see, but here are some of the visits I enjoyed in previous years, loosely themed. All are open this year and don't require pre-booking: be inspired!

Livery halls

Ever wondered what goes on behind the - often rather impressive - closed doors of the City livery companies? Some I've visited with the wonderful London Historians will be opening.  Try the original home of copyright enforcerment, Stationers' Hall with its charming, 'hidden' garden (open Sunday); or Drapers' Hall, built on the site of Thomas Cromwell's mansion after his execution in the 1540s. It has been rebuilt since, after the Great Fire and more recently in 1772; the opulent interiors are largely Victorian - and lit by elaborate chandeliers. (Open Sunday.)

A late eighteenth century building in the City of London has its origins in sixteenth-century Deptford. It's not a livery hall, but Trinity House is responsible for our lighthouses, safety of shipping, and the welfare of seafarers. Not only is this a fine period interior, restored in the 1950s after suffering bomb damage during the Second World War, but it also contains plenty of sea-related details including model ships and lighthouses. (Open Saturday.)

Social history

If you'd prefer to learn about everyday lives, then Open House certainly isn't just about grand buildings.

See the work of Roman London's cowboy builders - and some rather good ones - at the intriguing Billingsgate House and Baths (open both days). Learn how the Romans bathed; ponder whether this was a wealthy villa or a mansio (inn).

Definitely not for the wealthy, London's almshouses offered homes for the needy (albeit with conditions to be met and plenty of rules attached). There are lovely examples of such 17th-century philanthropy at Trinity Hospital, Greenwich's riverside almshouses (open Saturday), or the restored and repurposed chapel of Lewisham's Merchant Taylors' Almshouses (open both afternoons).
By contrast, the social housing on Poplar's Lansbury Estate represents the ideals of post-war Britain. It was one of the attractions at the 1951 Festival of Britain, whose presence is still felt around the estate. Its focal point is the eccentric 'practical folly' of a clocktower in Chrisp Street Market (open both days).

Beyond housing, get close to the history of the Jewish East End in Sandys Row Synagogue - the oldest surviving Ashkenazi synagogue in London and still active today. (Open Sunday.) Potentially more macabre is the Old Mortuary in Rotherhithe - but thanks to its newer role as home to the venerable Time and Talents association, it's a surprisingly welcoming place in which to learn about the grim history of bodies in the Thames. (Open both days.)

Perhaps more cultural than social, but physically a near-neighbour to the Old Mortuary, is the magical Sands Films (although its building - a former granary - and the contents of its Rotherhithe Picture Research Library also justify its place here). Sands Films are a production company, film studio, and especially a costumiers for film, theatre, opera and ballet - exploring their amazing workshops and racks of extraordinary costumes is a very special experience. Highly recommended, and open both days.

Unexpected views

Hidden beneath a main road and behind locked gates, the stunning colours and patterns of the Crystal Palace Subway come as a wonderful surprise. This year, the fantastical foot tunnel doesn't require pre-booking, so you can relive the experience of arriving at the Crystal Palace through this marvelous bit of hidden Victoriana. (Open both days.)

Rather less lovely, the Seager Distillery Tower does however offer unbeatable views across Deptford and far beyond. Tours run on Saturday and Sunday.

The 'star'

Some buildings are consistently popular, and usually for good reason. Expect to queue if you want to visit the Foreign and Commonwealth Office - but you'll forget your aching feet when you see its fantastic interior. Highlights are the Durbar Court and Locarno Suite, but there's eye-catching ornamentation everywhere. (Open Sunday.)

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