Sunday, 23 December 2012

2012: A Year in the Life of a Buildings Historian

The Somerset Vicarage Pre-Victorian Addition

Well, what a year 2012 has been! Jubilees and Olympics aside,  it really hasn't stopped and my work has taken me all over the country researching the history of buildings, predominantly to support planning applications for listed buildings, but also for the owners to simply understand their historic home better. I have also been giving talks on house histories, architecture as well as “How To Read Your Church”, to various groups around the country.

1700 Map of Aylesford by Abraham Walter
Buildings I have been privileged to uncover in 2012 include: An early 18th century farmhouse in Hertfordshire with links to King James I; a late 18th century mill house in Buckinghamshire with tragic tales of bankruptcy and disaster, but with a history that stretched back to the 9th century and an 18th century farmhouse near Tewkesbury in Gloucestershire. A project that particularly stood out was a beautiful vicarage in Somerset, ostensibly a Victorian structure with earlier, surviving evidence that went back as far as the 14th century.  

I also uncovered the story of a house in Aylesford in Kent, built in 1709 and owned by barge-builders in its time. The intriguing part was the cellar, that proved to be a good deal older than 1709 and helped us understand its relationship with the ancient pub next door.

Other projects included two elegant townhouses in London; assessing the historic interior of a red-brick “Pont-Street-Dutch” house in Chelsea and piecing together the story of one of John Nash’s elegant Grade I houses in Regent’s Park.

Booth's Poverty Map of London circa 1890 Showing Regent's Park 

One of my favourite archives to visit is the East Sussex Record Office in Lewes and this year, I found myself visiting ESRO to research a 17th century longhouse on the Sussex Downs that had been occupied by one family of tenant farmers for over 250 years. Despite staff shortages, they couldn't have been more accommodating, helping me to pull out nearly 400 years of recorded history in the form of photographs and drawings, maps, plans, leases and deeds for me to piece together. 

One of the last projects this year was for a hotel in London which led to researching not only the story of the building and the business but also its links to the Age of Steam and the famous people, politicians, writers, philanthropists and actresses who have passed through its brass-dressed revolving doors in its 150 year history.

So what of 2013? Well, it will be my fourth year exhibiting at the Listed Property Show at Olympia (16th/17th February). I will also be giving a talk there on the Saturday, 16th February. This year the show is bigger than ever with the event sponsored by The Daily Telegraph and English Heritage. Click this link for details:Listed Property Show 2013

But the big news of 2013 is that I will be holding my house history workshops at two of England’s most elegant and historic country house hotels, namely Cliveden in Berkshire and Ickworth in Suffolk, starting in March and continuing throughout the year. So, if you want to unlock the history of your house for yourself but don’t know where to start, details about the day are on my website!

Cliveden Housex

2012 was a great year … looking forward to seeing how next year unfolds. Thanks for reading my blog and may I wish you all a very Happy 2013!

Sunday, 11 November 2012

“Simple, Beautiful and Dignified”

Manchester's Cenotaph (photo by Andy Marshall)
Earlier this year, I was commissioned to research the Cenotaph in St Peter’s Square in Manchester. This memorial and others around the country serve to commemorate those from all over the British Empire and then the Commonwealth and the Allies, who lost their lives in both World Wars and subsequent conflicts. The design of the Cenotaph in Manchester is a virtual copy on one that stands in the middle of Whitehall in London. It was designed by one of Britain’s most celebrated architects, Sir Edwin Lutyens. While my research brief was to investigate the structural aspects of Manchester’s cenotaph I had to go back and look at the original London version to acquire the full picture. While I may have been asked to investigate the physical structure, through the research it was impossible to ignore the human story of how these memorials came about.

Sir Edwin Lutyens
Sir Alfred Mond

In the summer of 1919 the Prime Minister, Lloyd George, gave Lutyens two weeks to design a temporary memorial, to serve as a “saluting base” for the Peace Day Parade in London on 19 July. Lutyens was already working with the Imperial War Graves Commission designing Allied war cemeteries in France. However, the impetus for Lloyd George to commission Lutyens was his own visit to France in 1919, where the Arc de Triomphe and the temporarily constructed catafalque had “envisaged our need for a point of homage to stand as a symbol of remembrance worthy of the reverent salute of an Empire mourning its million dead.”

Lutyens Original Rough Design of The Cenotaph (Image: Imperial War Museum)

Lutyen’s simple and unfussy design (an empty coffin on a high column surmounted by a laurel wreath) was constructed of timber and plaster, being only temporary. But the public grasped the appropriateness of the monument and on that day the base of the monument was covered in flowers brought by the mourning general public. For weeks after, there were queues of people waiting to place wreaths there. It became obvious that a permanent memorial had to be constructed.

Mourners in July 1919

The ensuing months saw Lutyens and his “ally” in Government Sir Alfred Mond (later 1st Lord Melchett) the First Commissioner of Works, struggle to reign in the demands of the Cabinet to create a grander and more elaborate war memorial. In a memo to the Cabinet in July 1920 Sir Alfred wrote: “Sir Edwin Lutyens’ authority on a point like this can surely not be in question. His is the genius which has created this monument which has been universally acclaimed. It is quite simple beautiful and dignified and his whole reputation is naturally involved in the final result …”

On 11th November 1920, in Whitehall, King George V unveiled the permanent Portland stone memorial replacing the one made of timber and plaster. Lutyens had caught the right tone with his understated, yet proud design. The permanent Cenotaph in Whitehall weighed 120 tons and stood 35 ft high. It was constructed by Messrs Holland, Hannen and Cubitts Limited and cost £10,000 to construct.

Lutyens called the memorial a “Cenotaph”, from the Greek that broadly translates as an “empty tomb”, there to honour those buried elsewhere. In addition to the laurel wreath on the top of the Cenotaph, there are two more on each end and on each side three flagstaffs. The sculptor Derwent Wood designed the wreaths. The inscription “The Glorious Dead” was chosen by Lutyens; rejecting other more effusive and even mawkish suggestions. The design was so popular that 55 similar structures were erected in Britain, including the one in St Peter’s Square in Manchester. This latter one has the figure of a soldier lying on top of the memorial.

Lutyens didn’t take a penny in payment for what was arguably one of his most important works. Benefited by his insight, we have a focal point of few words and embellishments that at the same time says and demonstrates everything we would want to express to “The Glorious Dead”.

Thursday, 13 September 2012

If Walls Could ...Meow!

Mummified Cats Found in the Stagg Inn, Hastings

Yesterday I met someone who, as we discussed various aspects of historic buildings,recalled how their parents had found the mummified body of a cat in the wall of their 18th century home. It reminded me that I had written an article about this phenomenon for Country Life Online earlier this year and thought it ought to be given a fresh airing here on "Building Storeys". 

As recently as the early 20th century homeowners were warding off witches and evil spirits by placing shoes, and even dead cats in the walls, which can surprise owners carrying out renovations
As a buildings historian, I work with conservation architects and specialist builders who are repairing the UK's historic houses from manor houses to cottages, from the medieval period to Victorian. I see all the different building techniques and materials used over the centuries, whether cob, wattle and daub, stone, or brick. There are so many different types of building but they all have something in common; they were the homes of ordinary people who were subject to the same trials of life as each other. 

In the days before science and technology, and burglar alarms brought a degree of security and certainty, our ancestors had to rely on more natural methods. In the medieval centuries, right up to the early part of the 20th century making their homes safe for their families meant not just keeping robbers and murderers out but also the powers of witches and other supernatural forces. This was done by drawing protective symbols on rafters, beams and window sills or even placing objects within the walls of their home, particularly shoes or animals.
When working with old buildings, it is not uncommon to come across a mummified cat or a child's shoes in the walls, over door lintels, under roof rafters, between the chimney stack and the wall and under the floor boards. These were the lengths people went to to influence the intangible; warding off evil spirits, witches' curses and disease, or more positively, encouraging fertility.
Because cats were so readily associated with witches, it would be perfectly normal to take a cat (usually already dead) and place it in a location that was vulnerable to witches entering the house. It was widely considered that witches could fly, so a witch could get in not just through the door or window but down the chimney too. Cats were also known to sense ghosts and other supernatural beings more readily than humans, which is why it was believed, their presence in the walls of the house helped ward off such malevolent forces.
Shoes under floorboard (Copyright Ibis Roofing Ltd)

The Museum at Northampton, historically the centre of shoe manufacturing in England, has an Index of Concealed Shoes, which registers all footwear discovered within historic houses, not just in the UK but across the world. There are about 1500 items logged and half of them are children's shoes and then women's shoes are more common that men's. The shoes also tend to be well-worn. If not now, shoes once used to retain the foot shape of the wearer and maybe, therefore their spirit.

It is also thought that the very shape of a shoe serves as a "spirit trap". This comes from the 14th century when John Schorn, the Rector of North Marston in Buckinghamshire, is reputed to have cast the devil into a boot, thus trapping him. Shoes could also be a symbol of fertility. Shoes found under the floorboards of bedrooms could indicate this.
Historic houses - what's lurking in your walls?
(copyright Ibis Roofing Ltd)
The discovery of mummified cats (or "Dried Cats" as they are officially known), is less common than shoes. In addition to protecting against witchcraft, it is possible they are also placed within the walls of houses to scare away vermin in those concealed areas. Trying to keep a perspective on all this, it is also possible that cats found beneath floor boards had, in reality, gone there to die and had never been discovered by their owners.
When carrying out repairs in old buildings, be careful to look around windows, doors, under roof rafters and behind old chimneys. The Northampton Index receives about one find a month, but curators there, think that hundreds of finds every year are simply thrown out. 

Tuesday, 5 June 2012

Buckingham Palace - Finding Its Own Style and Place in History

Buckingham Palace Celebrating

The Diamond Jubilee and particularly the concert performed in front of Buckingham Palace last night, has brought to mind the story behind this famous building. While it has a very recognisable façade, in comparison to other royal palaces it lacks the opulence and uniqueness such royal buildings usually display; it resembles a simple, staid town hall (albeit a large one) rather than a Queen's palace. But it hasn't always looked the way it does today. It has evolved through many guises since its earliest beginnings in the 1600s. 

The site that is Buckingham Palace gardens today began as a royal Mulberry plantation in the early 17th century. King James I had Mulberry trees planted for the farming of silkworms. It would appear there was a building adjoining and there followed a line of occupiers until the late 17th century when John Sheffield (later the Duke of Buckingham) demolished the old building to make way for a new modern construction. Buckingham House was completed in 1710.

Buckingham House 1710

The royal family had retained their interest in the land where the Mulberry trees were planted and in the 1760s this gave George III leverage to buy next door (i.e. Buckingham House) and give his wife, Queen Charlotte a private home for her and their many children. Not surprisingly, it became known as The Queen’s House. Not that the building was immediately to the new owners’ liking. At the cost of £73,000 it was remodelled by Sir William Chambers.

It was during the reign of Queen Charlotte’s eldest son, George IV that most of the work was done to Buckingham House. As it has been his childhood home, he was greatly attached to the building and wanted to make it his official home. He commissioned his favourite architect (and official architect to the “Office of Woods and Forests”) John Nash to transform this private house into a palace. Nash’s design was basically Buckingham House on steroids! The central block was extended on the west side (facing the gardens) and the north and south wings were rebuilt. The wings also created a forecourt with a triumphal arch in the centre (where the Victoria Memorial is today).

Nash's Buckingham Palace 1837
Despite Nash’s favouritism by George IV (he had remodelled the Royal Pavilion in Brighton and transformed the centre of London with the construction of Carlton Terrace, Regent’s Street and Regent’s Park) he had not been a very popular architect with the Government. In addition, the rebuilding of Buckingham House into a palace had run to nearly half a million pounds (The King kept changing his mind on the design and build). The Duke of Wellington, who was Prime Minister at the time, had Nash fired. The building was finally completed, with further extensive alterations by architect, Edmund Blore. But the building was only completed after George IV’s death in the 1830s. His successor and brother William IV had no interest to move in. Only when his niece, Victoria, came to the throne in 1837 did the palace appear to have a future. However, as if often the case with a Nash building (beautiful on the large scale but lacking in the rigour of detail) Queen Victoria found the chimneys and ventilation woefully inadequate and there was very little accommodation for her growing family and for visitors. Blore resolved these shortcomings, which included adding an attic floor and a new east wing.

Buckingham Palace Pre-1913 Facelift

The next big change was when Queen Victoria’s son, Edward VII commissioned the palace to be updated in the early 1900s. The most profound alteration was the new façade on the east wing – which is the front that we all know today.  He also had the Victoria Memorial built (the staging for the Diamond Jubilee concert) and the triumphal arch was moved to its new and current location at Marble Arch at the top of Hyde Park. The Mall was widened and at the far end,  Edward VII devised Admiralty Arch to be built, in honour of his mother. All this rebuilding was undertaken by Sir Aston Webb, an establishment figure, well-known for his public buildings since he set up in practice in the 1880s and former President of the RIBA and Gold Medal winner. He may not have been one of the most flamboyant or notorious of architects, but he could be relied on to carry out the King’s wishes appropriately and on budget!

Webb's East Wing Facade  Under Construction - 1913

Just like his great uncle, George IV, Edward VII didn’t live long enough to see his vision for Buckingham Palace completed. He died in 1910, the Victoria Memorial was dedicated in 1911, Admiralty Arch completed in 1912 and the Portland Stone east wing façade of Buckingham Palace in 1913.

The only other significant changes since then were not planned. Buckingham Palace was bombed no less than seven times during World War II. The private chapel on the south side was completely destroyed then but today is the location of the Queen’s Gallery.

Buckingham Palace is more important historically than architecturally, however that safe civic building style created by Webb, gives a timelessness that serves as the perfect backdrop. It doesn’t overshadow the events going on in and around it. It has been the perfect stage for marking key events in Great Britain’s 20th and 21st century history, from the Armistice in 1919, to today’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations.

Wednesday, 18 April 2012

Samuel Hieronymus Grimm - No Fairy Tale!

When I am researching a house which would have been of some repute and substance and also would have existed in the late 18th  century, I always check to see if it had been drawn by the Swiss artist Samuel Hieronymus Grimm. He was a fantastically detailed and accurate topographical artist who captured scenes and buildings with satisfying clarity. He started his career drawing alpine scenes in his native country and after working his way through France, settled in England in 1768. His greatest patron was Dr Richard Kaye, a clergyman whose career saw him rise from country parson to Dean of Lincoln. Dr Kaye amassed over two and a half thousand drawings by Grimm, the bulk of which he bequeathed to the British Museum. In the course of my work I have had two assignments where Grimm has captured the building in question. The first was Leyden House and neighbouring buildings along the Thames Bank at Mortlake, drawn in 1778. Today close to the end of today’s Oxford/Cambridge Boat Race.  See below.

Above and Below: Thames Bank, Mortlake in 1778

The second location was Hammonds Place in Burgess Hill in West Sussex.  Grimm had drawn over 900 images of Sussex in total (commissioned by Sir William Burrell in the 1780s). They were exhibited in 1797 and Hammonds Place was later included in a compendium of drawings of English manor houses, dated 1846 entitled Studies of ancient domestic architecture, principally selected from original drawings in the collection of the late Sir William Burrell, with some brief observations on the application of ancient architecture to the pictorial composition of modern edifices” .

It was obviously considered appropriate at some point to make alterations to the images. The first image is the most revealing, showing the original barn at Hammonds Farm. However the image that was eventually published in 1846 (altered by an unknown hand) shows the building in isolation with neighbouring buildings camouflaged by trees and neater lines giving the house a less lived-in appearance.

In addition to the panoramic views, Grimm had also drawn details of some of the buildings. In the case of Hammonds Place, the front door of this predominantly Elizabethan manor house. This was made all the more pleasurable when you see that the said door is still there, if a little weather-worn, 200 years later!

 If you are interested to know more, Grimm’s drawings are available to view through the British Museum, the British Library and the V&A Drawings Collection.

Friday, 9 March 2012

Orangery Origins and Today

The Orangery at Longleat

The other day I went for an initial site visit to a new assignment; to uncover the history of a fine country house in the West Country.  It was at least eighteenth century but with a substantial Victorian addition on the front. 

The owners had recently had what I will call in general terms a glazed room attached to the rear elevation. It was a stylish construction; a combination of timber, brick and glass in a square formation and a hipped partially-glazed roof.  Given the low-ceilings and dark rooms of the rear of the eighteenth century part of the building it was much a much-needed and appropriate addition to the whole house. However, I was struck by the fact that it was referred to it as an “Orangery”. The designation of rooms and their names can change over time and this has certainly happened with this part of a house. 

These days a glazed construction on a house could be an Orangery, a Conservatory, a Garden Room or a Sun Room. Having said that, I suppose an Orangery can be one purely through its use. If you grow oranges and other similar citrus fruit, then wherever they are growing is an orangery and the style of housing is irrelevant. However, speaking architecturally and historically, we can be a little more specific.

Orangery origins can be found in France and Italy and they have been in England since the sixteenth century. However, it was the social and cultural influence of the Dutch during the reign of William III that brought this piece of garden history to wider popularity, albeit among the high strata of society. 

Royalty and the nobility at this time would have an Orangery constructed in the grounds of their country houses to grow precious tropical fruit coming from lands around the globe. These new fruits needed warmth to thrive and the buildings were constructed to provide the required environment. The most popular fruit was the orange and so, simply, this fruit gave the name. Fine examples of Orangeries are at Kenwood House in North London, Sir William's Chamber's Orangery at The Botanical Gardens at Kew and Vanbrugh's 1704 design at Kensington Palace. All these are open to the public.

The Crystal Palace

Early glass making technology meant producing large quantities of glass was difficult and expensive and not easy to use in construction to any great extent. Orangeries therefore tended to have stone-built parapet walls but with large vertical sliding sash windows to control temperature. They would also have a glass roof on timber rafters. In addition, orangeries were usually separate from the main house. So in reality a genuine orangery tends to be pre-nineteenth century, of this particular style and very much detached.

In the mid-nineteenth century, glass houses that were attached to the side of a house, and where plants of all kinds were cultivated, became popular, beyond the social boundaries of the aristocracy and landed classes. This popularity occurred thanks to the abolition of glass tax in 1845 and also improvements in technology that led to the production of sheet glass and larger-scale cast iron manufacture. Paxton's Crystal Palace, constructed for the 1851 Great Exhibition was a major influence on its popularity.

So what makes an Orangery today? It is probably the proportion of glass to other building materials and the partially glazed hipped roof and its more square form or maybe it is just a matter of taste...

A Modern Orangery ©Vale Garden Houses Ltd

Wednesday, 4 January 2012

Of Hearth and Home

Penshurst Place with Central Hearth

I have been thinking about which features of domestic buildings, certainly in England, have had the most impact, not simply on architecture but also on changing society and people’s lives. There are a few candidates; glass in windows, brick replacing timber-framing and cavity-wall insulation to name but three. But I think the prize has to go to the humble fireplace and chimney stack.

I have just completed the history of a timber-framed house in the Weald of Kent. Its origins date back to the late 14th century. It isn’t the oldest building I’ve researched, but very nearly! Despite 700 years of change and alteration, the early days of the building can be most clearly seen in its roof and specifically the blackened king post (now no longer in a supporting role). Despite the house’s three floors and collection of several small rooms within its walls today, this building was once one open hall.

Before fireplaces were introduced into domestic buildings, all living, eating and sleeping took place in the one space. Every person and domestic animal of the household lived around the central hearth. Maybe a mezzanine-type platform, known as a Solar, would have existed at one end of the room on which the master and mistress of the house slept, but everything else was communal on the ground floor and the space open to the roof. This explains the blackening of the 14th century timbers in the Wealden house. The smoke from the fire eventually escaped in various ways, through a hole in the roof or through the joints of unplastered tiles, under the eaves or through an open door or window.

An Early Hooded Fireplace
To find the origin of present day fireplaces we have to go back to Norman times, the 11th and 12th centuries. Their castles and other official strongholds tended to be of two or more storeys so having a fire in the central position was not practical. As a result they would put the fire in a shallow recess under an arch in the side wall of the chamber. The back of the recess sloped upwards and finished with a hole for the smoke to escape through the outside wall. Often there wasn’t a recess for the fire itself but a hood was constructed over the hearth. 

Returning to the 14th century Wealden house; despite the presence of a large and imposing stone fireplace on the ground floor and a substantial brick construction on the first floor dating to the 16th century, the stack and hearth are relative newcomers in the story of this house. In the 16th century this was a yeoman’s house, a farmer’s house. So not a place for nobility, but not for peasants either. It was the quintessential rural middle-class home. 

16th Century 1st Floor Brick Wealden Fireplace 
The chimney was built on what was the eastern exterior wall and of all the changes in the long life of this house, the introduction of a stack and fireplace can be considered the most important. With the introduction of fireplaces at the side of the building, floors and ceilings could be inserted and designated rooms created. With fireplaces in general, significantly it introduced the concept of “Privacy” in normal domestic life. No other architectural development has had such a profound influence on our domestic structures and on how we conduct our lives. 

I find this pleasingly ironic as today in the early 21st century we seem to be on a wave of knocking down and knocking through - creating more communal living space.