Wednesday, 7 December 2011

No Need to Fear Unesco's Threats. It's Time to Celebrate.

From the Tower of London Across to The Shard
Image ©Ellen Leslie

The world heritage cultural organisation Unesco is threatening to downgrade the Tower of London in the World Heritage Site rankings and put it on the Heritage in Danger List because of the negative visual  impact that the Shard is having on its panorama. The 1,020ft-high Shard, a 66-storey office block next to London Bridge on the south side of the Thames, will be the tallest building in Europe when it is finished.
Apparently such downgrading will affect tourism and put London in a bad light. Something the Department for Culture Media and Sport are keen to avoid – particularly in 2012 when the decision is likely to be made – as it will be at the same time as the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations and, of course, the Olympics. I think the DCMS should have a little more faith in their own capital city.
Earlier this year I spent a day at the Tower and one of my abiding memories (which I photographed) was the view from the Tower over to the South Bank, where the Shard is being built. My first reaction then, which I still hold firmly today, is that the juxtaposition of these two sites shows what a living breathing, vibrant and vital city London is, was and always will be. 1000 years of history in one panorama. Now, that is something to be proud of!
London is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world. It doesn’t take a Unesco ranking to determine the footfall here. London is also home to 8 million people, a city of now, that is constantly changing to meet the needs of its citizens – which it has done so for 2000 years. Now, I’m not advocating that any new construction is valid. If modern day developers had their way, the Tower of London site would be a valuable piece of real estate … but London and its planners, should not be afraid of the new rubbing shoulders with the old.
The fact that the city isn’t preserved like a precious family heirloom, with nothing changing, shows that London has a job to do. It has a life to live. It has purpose. Unlike some cities that live on glories past and seem to deny the present, London celebrates both.

Monday, 31 October 2011

Taking My Kew

Kew Palace

This weekend, I had the fantastic opportunity to go on a photographic course at Kew Palace, in Richmond. It was run by Historic Royal Palaces and led by photographer Emily Harris. I love taking pictures of architecture, as I hope my Facebook and Flickr pages show, but I was useless at photographing indoors and this course was specifically for learning how to capture historic interiors with a digital SLR camera. We were a select group of 7 and had the small but perfectly formed “Palace” to ourselves as the place is officially closed to the public in the autumn and winter months.

Kew Palace is one of HRP’s more recent restorations. I had the privilege of visiting it half way through the restoration/conservation back in 2006, so it was a pleasure to see the place in a more finished state. Not that it is has been completely returned to resemble a royal residence. While some rooms have been painstakingly decorated and furnished to show how the house may have looked in about 1808, there are whole rooms untouched, with bare floorboards and unfinished walls. These allow you to see how the walls were constructed, layer by layer and give a fleeting look at the earlier, 17th century fabric of the building behind.

Kew Palace has its origins in the 16th century, with a Tudor undercroft as testament. It used to be called The Dutch House as it is constructed in the unmistakeable Dutch style and inside is laid out over 3 floors with the undercroft below and servants living quarters in the attic.

The exterior structure we see today was built in the 17th century, the home of a wealthy merchant and was then converted to be a home for King George III his wife Queen Charlotte and 10 of their 15 children. Spending my day there, I learned that the house was mainly for the children and the Queen. George lived in an extension to the house, long since demolished. This was because George III was the unfortunate monarch who suffered from the disease “Porphyria” which manifested itself mainly in apparent raving madness.

But in his moments of sanity George and his wife were a devoted loving couple, who enjoyed the relative simplicity and small scale living at Kew with their children. Not that it was much fun for 3 of their daughters who lived there; liking its remoteness and their lack of a social life to being in a nunnery!

When one’s abiding passions are historic buildings and photography there isn’t much about an historic interiors photography day at Kew that I could fault. In fact there wasn’t. As a result, I like to think I can now take a mean interior shot and that this’ll translate in the research I prepare for my clients. But above all, my abiding memory will be having such privileged access for a whole day in one of Historic Royal Palace’s most beautiful and remarkable buildings.

Some of the photographs I took from the day will be posted on the Historic Buildings Research Facebook page and on my Flickr page too.

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

Recording the New: The Architectural Photography of Bedford Lemere & Co. 1870-1930

The Victoria & Albert Museum Entrance Under Construction in 1908 (Sir Aston Webb)

Copyright RIBA Library Collection

If you find yourself in London between now and the end of the month I recommend a visit to the Victoria and Albert Museum for the last days of an exhibition co-curated by the Royal Institute of British Architecture (RIBA) and English Heritage, showing the work of the architectural photography firm Bedford Lemere & Co.

In my work I am always pleased if the photographs of Bedford Lemere come up on my search radar. The amount of information I can extract from one image is invaluable, whether it’s comparing changes in the external appearance of the building with the structure today or seeing how the house was decorated or furnished over 100 years ago.

43 Harrington Gardens circa 1897
Copyright NMR English Heritage

At the company’s height it only employed a maximum of four photographers but photographed the work of many leading architects of the Victorian and Edwardian period. Bedford Lemere‘s sharp definition greatly appealed to their clients – architects, contractors and building owners – who above all wished to obtain an almost documentary record of the work they had carried out or commissioned.

Photographer, Bedford Lemere established his commercial photography business in the 1860s and he, his son Harry and the company became famous for their architectural images. The firm continued into the 1940s and English Heritage and the RIBA now own a huge collection of their work numbering over 8,000 images originally photographed on 12” x 10” plates.

The external images stand out from contemporaries because apparently Bedford Lemere worked to a set formula that involved photographing buildings first thing in the morning with the crisp early light and with very few people around. The clarity and detail achieved was remarkable and sometimes it is possible to think that it was taken only yesterday. It is only the lack of cars or satellite dishes or the absence of modern furnishing that tells you otherwise.

Midland Grand Hotel 1890s

Copyright NMR English Heritage

Monday, 12 September 2011

How Old Is My House?

When people want to find out the history of their house the two most popular lines of enquiry are; who lived there and how old is it? But before you can start to discover the occupants of a house, the date of construction is fundamental to understanding its past.

opyright Ellen Leslie
Finding out the age of a building can take you down many paths. The most obvious clue is if there is a date on the building. But don’t let that fool you. Last year I researched a house with 1566 displayed prominently above the front door. But in fact, that date marked the year the house had been extended. The building’s origins went back to 1450.

When working out the date of construction, start by looking at the building itself. What is the style? Does it ooze Victorian Gothic or display Georgian symmetrical restraint? How big are the windows? The smaller the panes of glass the chances are the building is earlier rather than later. I also strongly recommend the book “Period House Fixtures & Fittings 1300-1900” by Linda Hall (published by Countryside Books). It is a fantastic reference source for dating architectural features inside and out!  But the features themselves don’t tell the whole story. A building can be altered adapted many times over the centuries.

So to continue your search, you should also speak to the local history society who would know more than anyone in the area how long the building has been standing. A local historian may have also written about the street or area in which you live.

When I am researching buildings I always combine a site inspection with documentary evidence to support what I have seen. If you have a hunch that your building is late 19th  or early 20th century, go and have a look at the census returns that are available through your local archive. These could tell you not only if the building existed at all at the ten year intervals between 1841 and 1911 but also if it was occupied or even under construction. Local archives also hold collections of photographs that may include your house, narrowing down the possible date even more.

You can check other general records like poor rate books or parish records for reference to your house or street. However, one of the most useful tools for determining the age of your house has to be maps. Maps prior to 1800 can involve a little artistic licence, but they are good indicators and certainly from the beginning of the 19th century with the influence of the Ordnance Survey, maps of many styles and types can work as a guide to locating and confirming, if not the year, a narrower time frame in which your house was built.
Of course, if your house is obviously older than 1800; if the timber frame and king post in the roof suggests 16th or even 15th century then it is possible that manorial records can shed some light on its origins. 

The older your house the more alterations and additions it would have undergone. I recently researched a building with structural elements surviving from the 15th century, but with extensions and alterations in every century, right up to the 21st. It can be a complicated process but documentary evidence can shed light on these changes.

If your house is listed, check the date in the listing description. A word of warning though; these descriptions are merely a guide and cannot be seen as 100 per cent reliable. Two listed buildings I recently researched were woefully wrong. In one case it was wrong by nearly 200 years! You could also check the title deeds of your house. However, unless you manage to locate the early version, modern day Land Registry records rarely go back further than 50 years.

The method of dating, like all other research into the history of a building, always requires a mixture of examining the bricks and mortar (or wattle and daub) and documentary evidence. One supports the other; and if you combine all these methods and sources, you should be successful in finding out how old your house is.

This article by Ellen Leslie first appeared on 19 Aug 2011 as part of the Projectbook Blog Series.

Wednesday, 10 August 2011

Lavender Hill Mob Rule

The history of south London may stretch back to pre-Roman times, but it was during the Victorian period that London, and significantly the city south of the Thames, expanded, with the development of the railways and the unprecedented building boom. Today this part of town can be architecturally defined by rows of terraced houses constructed in soft yellow London stock or warm red brick dating from the 1860s to the 1910s.  South London has its more “choice” areas, but what saves it, in my opinion, is the stylish and well-built Victorian architecture.

An important area south of the river is Clapham Junction. This is the busiest railway station in the UK. It is also surrounded by 19th and early 20th century developments that consequently grew up around this strategic location. Clunking great railway stations may not be your idea of beauty, but I have to admit I love our industrial built heritage.

The station is on one corner of a cross roads linking the bustling Lavender Hill and St John’s Hill with St John’s and Falcon Roads. These streets are full of shops, pubs and restaurants interspersed with residential flats and houses and virtually all the buildings are Victorian.

So I watched the news on Monday evening through my fingers, seeing this area under attack from the looters and arsonists. At the time I prayed that the Debenhams department store – otherwise known as the Arding and Hobbs building (built by James Gibson in 1910) would not be torched. It is an iconic building in the area and one that ironically replaced an earlier building that had burned down. My prayers were heard but I forgot to also ask for the range of buildings across the road to be saved from the mob on Lavender Hill.

"Arding & Hobbs" Lavender Hill

242-272 Lavender Hill

242-272 Lavender Hill is a striking range of mainly of 4 storey Victorian Gothic buildings that scale the incline of Lavender Hill. There is a similar range reflected on nearby St John’s Road. The first and second floors unusually are three windows across. Most pleasing on the first floor are the decorative stone tympana above the glazing. Look above the modern shop fronts and you can see their beauty.

I hope 270 Lavender Hill, the building that was set alight can be returned to some semblance of former glory. I know we have the skills and craftsmen in this country to do so. Whether the money is there to do so is another matter.

But as a final thought, I find it ironic that these buildings stood through two world wars, IRA bombs and urban wear and tear relatively unscathed …. until this week.

Friday, 17 June 2011

A Flaming Red Herring!

I have just finished researching an 18th century house on the river Thames, near Richmond. The house has a long and fascinating history that I hope to write about in more detail one day in Building Storeys. But right now, the story of this elegant double-fronted riverside house is for the owners’ eyes only.  However, there was one aspect of the house which I feel I can share with you.

Set in the centre of the wall, above the front door, is an intriguing fire plaque. These plaques were displayed outside houses as evidence that the building was insured in the event of a fire. Fire brigades would only come to the aid of insured houses; so if you didn’t display a plaque, you could say you were toast, or even that your goose was cooked! The fire brigade would leave your building to burn and you’d feel gutted!

In the case of the house by the river, this plaque is of a portcullis and the Prince of Wales feathers. Research revealed that it was the symbol of The London Fire Office, an insurance company that covered thousands of homes in and around London from the late 18th century to the beginning of the 20th century. I also found that in 1906 the company was bought by Sun Alliance and that information about individual policies can be found at The Guildhall Library, in the City of London. I was convinced that one quick trip up there could open up a whole new line of research  and information about the house. However, a researcher's hunch then told me otherwise.

When researching the history of a building it is very easy to get carried away and take everything at face value. You want something to be true so much that you forget about the ever-present likelihood of a red herring. For instance; that date displayed on the front of the house … is that really the date of construction or merely when they refurbished the building? Those neo-gothic windows – do they really date to 1815 or are they later reproductions?  Is that 17th century panelling original to the room or recycled from somewhere else?  That fire plaque – was it always with the house?

In the case of the house by the river, just before I set off for the City of London, I double checked all the photographs and drawings I had found of the house dating back to the 18th century. To my disappointment, no plaque was visible in the images until the late 1970s. Although a genuine plaque it had not originated with the building. 

But that doesn't mean the London Fire Office plaque doesn’t have its own significance and place in history. Does the original house still exist and more to the point, was the fire insurance ever needed? I'll save that for my next visit Guildhall visit and come back and tell you.

Saturday, 16 April 2011

Memories Taking Their Toll?

I was visiting my granny the other day. She’s 89 and lives in sheltered accommodation in deepest, leafiest Sussex. A fellow “in-mate” and my granny’s great friend, Dolores, dropped by when I was there. She is a very elegant lady well into her 90s who had just returned from a trip to London with her daughter and son-in-law. She seemed upset and after a little pressing by my granny, she revealed she had been effectively told that she was losing her marbles by her daughter’s husband and as a result she was starting to doubt herself as well. Dolores may be 94 in the shade but losing her mental faculties was something no one was expecting.

On her trip to London they had driven over the Thames via Chelsea Bridge. It simply connects the Battersea Power Station area of south London and the elegant grounds of the 17th century Royal Hospital, where the Chelsea Flower Show is held every year.

It would appear that when in the car Dolores had recalled how, when she was a little girl, there used to be domed houses or kiosks on either end of the bridge. Chelsea Bridge sports nothing like this. It is a very simple suspension bridge with the only structure looking anything like a kiosk being a shabby greasy spoon trailer on the south end of the bridge.  In short, Dolores’ son-in-law had snorted at what he thought was her fading memory and that she was getting confused with the little wooden toll huts on Albert Bridge further along the river. Nothing more was said. Dolores was sure she was right but spent the rest of the day quietly wondering if she had been confused and those little houses had never been there.

I felt so sorry for her and thought that at least I might be able to put her worried mind at rest. It didn’t take long. When I returned home I rifled through my library of architecture and books on London's history and very quickly found the answer.

The current, simple suspension design of Chelsea Bridge was created in 1934 by LCC architects G Topham Forrest and E  P Wheeler and completed in 1937. But before that, the old Chelsea Bridge or Victoria Bridge as it was known when it was opened in 1858 was a very different beast. Designed by civil engineer Thomas Page (1803-1877), it was a toll bridge and on either side of the bridge were beautiful domed toll booths. There was nothing wrong with Dolores’ memory!

I took great satisfaction sending a picture to my granny for her to pass on to her friend. I just wish I had been there when she showed her son-in-law.

Sunday, 13 March 2011

Census Working Over Time

Victorian Family Scene (BBC History)

On 27th March this year, the UK has another census. It has brought me to think about the role past census returns play in my line of work. Although the 1911 census has been technically available to view for the last two years, census returns usually take 100 years to be made available to the general public. They tell us not only who lived in a particular house on census night, but their ages, what their occupations were, where were they born, some even state what disabilities an individual had. When you are researching your family tree, such information is extremely useful and eye-opening. But if the census is primarily to record the people, how on earth could it help someone research a building?

Although the census has been with us in the UK since 1801, it is only widely available from 1841 and certainly 1851-1911, in ten year intervals, are the crucial years. If I am researching a building, I will find out not only who lived there, but how many were under one roof (did they live in cramped conditions, how were the rooms designated/configured?). The returns will also tell me what the building was used for (private home, boarding house, workshop?) which might help explain certain features still existing in the house (for instance hanging hooks, cellar access, ceiling heights, blocked up doorways and changes in the architrave). Changes in occupants can also indicate alterations to the building as the new owners refurbished and redecorated their “new” home. I always use changes in ownership to give me an indication of structural changes.

Census Return
If I am trying to confirm the year a building was built, I refer to the census. It can tell me if a building was occupied or not or whether it was still under construction. A good example of a past research assignment is a row of townhouses in Kensington. Other findings told me that the houses were completed in the early 1870s but the developers had had great difficulty selling the leases. As a result many of their construction craftsmen occupied the houses instead. The 1871 census confirmed this with carpenters, joiners, bricklayers and labourers recorded as resident in these grand, stuccoed houses, built for the gentry.

Victorian Builders (English Heritage NMR)
It can be quite frustrating sometimes if the return shows only the servants were in on the night of the census. I wish of course, that such information was available more frequently - 10 years is a huge gap when researching the evolution of a building. But archive records by  their nature are sporadic and incomplete. There's always been a degree of luck involved. There is no absolute rule about what information should be kept or not … but at lease I can rely on the census, every 10 years.

Tuesday, 11 January 2011

Dereliction of Duty

My speciality is British architecture, but that doesn’t mean that interest stops at the lapping shores of the English Channel. British architecture can be found all over the world.

I was recently on Malta. It was here that the British military was strategically posted for nearly 150 years. Britain acquired it from the French at the Treaty Paris in 1814. The British only left in 1979.

Located in the centre of Malta is the small town of Mtarfa, close to Rabat and Mdina. It was here in 1890 that the British military medical facilities were centralised.

The old military hospital at Mtarfa - now a secondary school
The main hospital building, commissioned in 1912, was officially opened on the 29th June 1920. However, it was in full use during World War I. The hospital treated the allied casualties from Gallipoli. During World War II, the Mtarfa Hospital and barracks were reorganized as the 90th General Hospital and developed to house about 1200 beds. At the ends of hostilities, the 90th General Hospital was disbanded and reformed on peacetime footing as the David Bruce Military Hospital.

The main building is now a secondary school but the Sisters House (where the nurses lived) and the Isolation Block – although listed and apparently protected by the Maltese authorities - are derelict and facing a gloomy future.

The Sisters House - Mtarfa

No protection from the elements
 I went around these buildings. They’re built from the ubiquitous maltese sandstone that makes the island and dominates the construction of the historic as well as modern buildings. One key feature of this stone is the rapid effects of wind erosion – so stone replacement is a common and easy method of maintaining the buildings.

The Isolation Block at Mtarfa
 However, the auxiliary hospital buildings at Mtarfa have bigger worries than a little wind erosion. Fundamentally there is nothing wrong with these buildings. They have been solidly and beautifully built and could be brought back to working use or become desirable residential properties. But the windows have gone as well as the roofs. Vandals have taken a torch to the isolation block and while modern developments are constructed around these buildings – nothing has been done to at least arrest the old buildings' decay.

Damage and Decay - Isolation Block - Mtarfa
 The redevelopment of the old barracks at Mtarfa shows that such conversions can be done successfully. These are now apartments for local people and are in a very good state of maintenance. See below:

Old Barracks at Mtarfa - converted into family homes
 Heritage and historic buildings are amongst the first to come off the Priority List during a recession. In addition, there are 65,000 newly constructed residences lying empty on Malta, so a demand for converting historic properties for a renewed purpose does not exist on the island. Before the recession came, the Mtarfa Planning Authority had ear-marked the buildings for redevelopment. We can only hope this does happen - before the buildings are beyond saving.

Isolation Block - Mtarfa