Spiral coast

14 02 2015
Spiral near Charmouth, Dorset

Spiral near Charmouth, Dorset

Leaving the busy pub directly above the beach at Seatown, in south Dorset, I begin my 3-mile walk back along the coast to Charmouth. Just like the previous three days, the December sun in a cloudless, calm sky felt unseasonably warm; the shingle beach sloping steeply into the gently rolling waves at high tide. Behind, a low wall of  grey Eype clay cliffs visibly crumbled, leaving piles of debris at their bases. Approaching these unappealing mounds, and with keen eyes, you see them: the tell-tale spiral forms of ancient molluscs, the ammonites. Prize open some larger pieces of this mud and you find more, some in a miraculous state of preservation, others crumbling away before your eyes – lost forever.

Seatown shingle

Seatown shingle

Cliffs flanking Seatown beach

Eype clay cliffs flanking Seatown beach

This is the world of Dorset’s Jurassic Coast, where ancient sedimentary rock and mud, laid down when the dinosaurs ruled the earth, spews forth an endless multitude of fossils that have attracted relic-hunters for nearly two centuries. Now a World Heritage site and a mecca for school parties and tourists alike, the fossils on this part of the English coast are hardly news to palaeontologists, but they are still wondrous to those, like myself, who see them for the first time.

Ammonites found in the Eype clay cliffs flanking Seatown beach

Ammonites found in the Eype clay cliffs flanking Seatown beach

Pryrite ammonite found on the shoreline, Charmouth beach

Pryrite ammonite found on the shoreline at Charmouth

One initially feels as if the remains of these ancient creatures should yield themselves only with great reluctance; and the sight of many visitors with hammers and other hunting paraphernalia seems to the confirm this; yet, adjust your eyes to the details of the landscape at your feet (and away from the horizon of the sea) and they will appear: whether the pyrite examples that, in their miraculous state of preservation, give the strong impression of being fabricated objects; to the more elusive spirals that are encrusted in the harder stone, and which seem to be emerging from a subterranean world within.

Ammonites and other fossils embedded in Limestone found near Charmouth

Ammonites and other fossils embedded in Limestone found near Charmouth

Ammonite in Limestone found near Golden Gap

Ammonite in Limestone found near Golden Gap

The ammonites’ characteristic form – the spiral – is a primal shape, a geometric form that emerged from the basic needs of the soft-bodied animals that lived in these shells. Occupying the last and largest of the chain of spiralled chambers, the vulnerable mollusc would fill the channels with gas or fluid to enable its home to sink quickly in the event of a predatory attack.

Tiny Pyrite ammonite (5mm diameter) found on Charmouth beach

Tiny Pyrite ammonite (5mm diameter) found on Charmouth beach

Accidental votive offering near Golden Gap

Accidental votive offering near Golden Gap

Yet, there is no doubt that this most ancient of homes is also a potent image for the human imagination. As explored in Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space, shells demonstrate that ‘life begins less by reaching upward, than by turning upon itself.’ For Bachelard, the mollusc’s motto would be: ‘one must live to build one’s house, and not build one’s house to live in’. Such a concept of dwelling has profound implications for us: these spirals are not so much objects to be contemplated as invitations to dream: an ‘empty shell, like an empty nest, invites day-dreams of refuge’. Perhaps this is why ammonites were once believed to be the petrified remains of coiled snakes or, in India, concrete manifestations of the divine.

Paddington station: function & fantasy

21 09 2012

William Powell Frith, ‘The Railway Station’, 1862 (Royal Holloway, University of London)

Paddington station (1852-54) became an iconic symbol of the Victorian railway largely on account of its prominent place in William Powell Frith’s vast canvas The Railway Station (1862), which became one of the most popular paintings of its time when exhibited in 1862. Alongside Frith’s representation of a crowd of passengers waiting to board a train is Paddington’s train shed itself, elevated from an ugly product of industrialization to occupy centre stage in high art, filling almost the entire upper half of the canvas. The oblique viewpoint chosen by Frith, looking diagonally across the train shed, serves to open up the space of the station and to reveal its architectural detail – the painting still probably being the best record of Paddington’s appearance when newly built. Frith himself didn’t paint this part of the canvas, employing another artist, William Scott (1840-1903) – a specialist in architectural subjects – to painstakingly render Paddington’s iron-and-glass interior.

This division of labour gives the painting a curiously disjointed appearance, the mass of figures in the bottom half seemingly severed from the upper half by the hard line of Paddington’s longitudinal iron girders, which, due to the oblique perspective, seem to bisect the canvas. In addition, the repetitive ironwork of the train shed, in effect a mass of identical units, contrasts sharply with Frith’s careful composition of the crowd beneath it, which, although at first sight seem to be an undifferentiated mass, is nevertheless ordered in discrete compositional groups and balanced by a strong sense of order. Perhaps, in juxtaposing Paddington’s ironwork with the human drama of the crowd, Frith was attempting to humanize the station’s mass-produced ironwork and its association with mechanical uniformity and the railway’s brutal reordering of the natural rhythms of human life.

Wrought-iron arabesques in Paddington’s glazed end-screens.

Indeed, it may have been the reassuring effect of Frith’s painting that led to Paddington’s elevated status in the expanding pantheon of metropolitan termini. Barely commented on in the building press when first opened in 1854, The Building News, in an 1868 article on London’s terminal stations, thought that the arrangement of Paddington’s interior ‘gives it intricacy and picturesqueness, and conveys an idea of something approaching comfort.’ This acceptance of Paddington’s radical new aesthetic may have also been a product of the station’s having become, in the intervening years since its opening, an accepted part of everyday urban experience. Indeed, writing only a month after the station opened on 29 May 1854, The Leisure Hour already regarded it, along with London’s other new termini, ‘as much a matter-of-fact affair as a cup of tea’. Yet, in the same article it also pointed to an entirely different kind of perception of the station. Imagining ‘a respectable mandarin of Peking’ (still using pre-industrial methods of transport) suddenly being dropped down into Paddington’s interior, the newspaper wondered at the phantasmagoric effect it would have on him: ‘How he would stare at the flaming gas-lights, at the glittering roof, with its light cross-work of iron bamboo! How the sudden appearance of the monster engine, with its goggle eyes of fire, would bewilder the brains of the chinaman!’ If, for this first-time visitor, Paddington was ‘a dream conjured up by the fumes of opium’, even for the natives who had got used to it the foreigner’s experience was still a mirror of their own when they had first encountered the railways, which after all represented ‘a dream once, and that not very long ago’.

Cast-iron tracery on Paddington’s arched wrought-iron roof ribs.

Moreover, as The Leisure Hour went onto state, no matter how much a part of everyday experience, railway stations like Paddington still had the capacity to invoke a dream-like state if viewed in the right way. By breaking from the rush of travel and stopping to contemplate, one might notice ‘the pleasant sunlight shimmering softly through the arching roof … and the glistening rails winding onwards for miles, and converging to a point in the far perspective’. Just as in Frith’s painting the eye is led out from right to left across the canvas and out of the station to the limitless country beyond, so any onlooker in Paddington’s train shed, in the right frame of mind, might once again experience the original dream of the railway.

Looking down the central span of Paddington’s train shed in 2011.

The ring of Saturn

11 02 2011

Grandville's universe of iron, 1844

Grandville’s 1844 book Un autre monde (Another world) offered a fantastical take on Parisian life in the 1840s. Often cited as a prototype Surrealist, Grandville filled his alternative world with the products of the new industrial age but as imagined in a dream or nightmare: people become the objects they desire, machines become animated, the universe is filled with outlandish structures. The image above illustrates the adventures of a hobgoblin who is trying to find his way around outer space: ‘A bridge – its two ends could not be embraced as a single glance and its piers were resting on planets – led from one world to another by a causeway of wonderfully smooth asphalt. The three-hundred-thirty-three-thousandth pier rested on Saturn. There our goblin noticed that the ring around this planet was nothing other than a circular balcony on which the inhabitants of Saturn strolled in the evening to get a breath of fresh air.’

Walter Benjamin later reflected on this fantastical imagining of cast iron as a ‘wish image’, that is, something that appears from the unconscious of a society. Here, the utopian promise of iron construction is imagined to have been realised but not in the form that engineers might have supposed; rather, the image of iron bridging the planets draws on the new-found superabundance of iron (made possible by the industrialisation of production) and its tendency to invoke a sense of awe of its seemingly magical properties. In Grandville’s world, what was perceived as natural (the rings of Saturn) are now discovered to be a product of the industrial world. It is as if the sheer power of industrial materials like cast iron now remake the universe in their own image.

Lamp, Regent St, Cheltenham, 1880s

Shelter on Ryde pier, 1880s

It is in this context that the association of cast iron with the fantastical throughout the nineteenth century begins to make more sense. The recurring motif of the dragon – seen in the forms of street lamps in Cheltenham, in a shelter on the pier at Ryde, and the supporting brackets in the market halls in Halifax and Leeds – might be seen as an appropriate symbol to be cast in iron; after all, the foundry, where iron was cast, was indeed like a dragon, with its incessant flames of fire and connotations of unnatural power. Yet, because the cast-iron forms could be repeated endlessly and exactly, there is a sense in which the power of the dragon now lies in its potential to appear anywhere and in infinite numbers, in the same way that Grandville’s iron bridge assumes its monstrous proportions.

Kirkgate market hall, Leeds, 1904

Borough market, Halifax, 1896

It should come as no surprise, then, to discover Victorian architectural critics railing against ornamental cast iron. Mechanical reproduction of ornamental forms challenged the notion of an original, authored work of architecture. To the horror of architects and critics alike, the power of expression was seen to be shifting from the artist to the manufacturer. So, when an ornamental cast iron lamp was unveiled in Southwark St, London, in 1865, The Building News praised its decorative treatment but went on to say that:

‘The most objectionable circumstance connected with the structure is, however, the fact of the ornament being executed in cast iron…There is the prospect of seeing the same design erected without the slightest variation, some dozens of times, it may be, in various parts of London…Constant repetition, sooner of later, would make the highest work of art offensive; and it is to this that the use of cast iron naturally leads’

Lamp in Southwark Street, London, 1865


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