Utopian ruins: Fountain Gardens, Paisley

19 03 2012

Fountain Gardens, Paisley in March 2012

Paisley is a satellite town of Glasgow that has all the characteristics of post-industrial grimness: soot-blackened buildings, ruins of its once-thriving textile industry, and a grand Victorian High Street now in sad decline, with boarded-up shops the most recent reminder of its precarious fortunes. I headed out there on a train from Glasgow Central on a bright March morning; fifteen minutes later in Paisley, rain-sodden clouds had gathered, whipped up by a ferocious westerly.

The fountain when it was built in 1868

I had come to see the town’s Fountain Gardens, a philanthropic gift to the citizens of Paisley in 1868 by a local resident, Thomas Coats, made wealthy by the manufacturing industries that had seen the town grow rapidly in the mid-19th century. Coats had purchased the gardens from their private owners and then remodelled them as a civic space: ‘where the toil-worn mechanic may breath the fresh air’ or more refined citizens be reminded of the ‘public gardens of continental countries’. Such an ‘interchange of civilities’ between classes would enhance social harmony in the town, guided by the example of Coats himself in his munificent act of generosity.

Upper part of the fountain, March 2012

This kind of private philanthropy was common in Victorian towns and cities, particularly where industrialisation had perhaps led to feelings of guilt among the wealthy manufacturing elite about the often appalling social conditions of their workers. In Fountain Gardens, Coats wanted to create a new form of civility – a reconciliation of worker and master – symbolised by the central feature of the gardens, the fountains themselves. As described in a lavish publication celebrating the opening of the Gardens, the fountain was an exceptional example of ornamental cast-iron manufacture, made by the Sun Foundry (George Smith & Co) in Glasgow and unlike any other example produced before or since.

The opening of Fountain Gardens, as depicted in 1868

Described as ‘Franco Italian’ in character, the fountain was 30-ft high with a 12-ft basin on the ground supporting four further basins, divided into sections by four heavy buttresses and a series of ‘bold and well-defined’ curves. As described in The Builder, the wealth of ornament was extravagant and included, from bottom to top, a circular border cast in imitation of huge blocks of rock thrown together, inside which sit four life-size representations of walruses; in the basin above are cherubs holding crocodiles; those above are encrusted with crystals, floriated capitals, sea-horses, bulrushes, and dolphins and, at the top, a group of herons surmounted by a cluster of aquatic plants.

One of the four life-size cast-iron walruses (minus tusks) in March 2012

Such extravagant decoration was viewed as ‘creditable to the taste and liberality of Mr Coats and the artistic skill of its constructors’. In addition to the gardens functioning as the ‘lungs’ of the town, the ornaments of the fountain would provide both a lesson in artistic taste and also a utopian representation of nature and industry reconciled, mirroring the social reconciliation that was anticipated in the Gardens themselves. Those who attended the opening of the Gardens on 26 May 1868 seemed to confirm this. The whole town rested for the day, held together in common ‘by one strong swelling impulse to do something in the way of expressing a great common feeling’. All political and personal differences were put aside and the townsfolk acted ‘harmoniously’, joining a procession through the town that culminated in the opening of the Gardens and the turning on of the fountain waters.

Rust-streaked cherub holding a crocodile, March 2012

Today, of course, the rusting fountain stands in melancholy isolation in the Gardens – now little more than a large patch of grass surrounded by bleak 1960s apartment blocks. The cast-iron walrus tusks have all been removed, as have the shells and small animals that once clung to the surrounding imitation rocks; the cherubs and crocodiles are streaked with rust; and the waters long since turned off. Like so much Victorian cast iron, this fountain is now a ruin; yet one that nevertheless reminds us, by force of its melancholy present-day situation, of its once potent utopian symbolism, expressed in 1868 by a long-time resident and notable local poetess:

‘When the daily task is done,
‘Neath the shady arbour rest
With the friend thou lovest best
Husband, father, rest thee now,
Wipe the toil-stains from your brow;
Come, with wife and children dear,
Peaceful beauty greets thee here
Here enjoy the leisure hour;
And may rock, and fount, and flower
With deep love thy soul embue
For the beautiful and the true’





The afterlife of objects: the Coalbrookdale gates

9 02 2012

1. The Coalbrookdale gates at the International Exhibition in 1862

When the Coalbrookdale Company exhibited a lavish set of ornamental cast-iron gates at the International Exhibition in London in 1862, they were building on a well-established reputation for ‘artistic’ castings. Celebrated by the Illustrated London News as ‘pure and rich in character’ (1), these gates were probably created as a gift for Queen Victoria to guard her rural residence at Sandringham; evidenced in their combining of highly naturalistic motifs – flowers and leaves – and the Prince of Wales’s feathers braided in a wreath of laurels over the centre of the gates. The eminent Victorian sculptor, John Bell, designed the figures standing atop the pillars as well as some of the other Coalbrookdale exhibits shown behind the gates – a statue of Oliver Cromwell and an ornamental umbrella stand.

In the event, it seems that the Queen snubbed the offer of the gates for her Sandringham estate – the story being that, on seeing the gates at the Exhibition, she took offence at the nearby statue of Cromwell and, by association, decided that all the Coalbrookdale Company’s products might be tainted with republican sympathies. After the Exhibition, the gates and the Cromwell statue went back to Coalbrookdale and languished there in a warehouse for many decades.

2. Warrington's heraldic motifs incorporated into the gates

3. The gates with Macfarlane's new lamps, installed in 1895

Yet, both objects had an afterlife. In 1893, Frederick Monks, a wealthy iron founder from Warrington, discovered the gates at Coalbrookdale and offered them as a gift to his home town. They were re-erected at the entrance to Warrington’s town hall, the royal regalia replaced with the heraldic motifs of the town (2). At the same time, the Glasgow iron founder, Walter Macfarlane, erected many ornamental lamps in the town, including two flanking the gates, as well as a new railing extending around the park surrounding the town hall (3). With a great deal of civic ceremony, the gates were opened on 28 June 1895 – the date of Warrington’s most important annual festival, Walking Day, when garlanded children paraded around the town in a visual spectacle of civic boosterism (4). The gates quickly became a source of local pride, the product of an act of personal philanthropy that provided an aesthetic and decorative reference point in a disheartening urban landscape. They also proved to be a spur for similar acts of public giving and Monks himself bought the Cromwell statue for Warrington in 1899, with another local bigwig, Sir Peter Walker, donating a lavish ornamental cast-iron fountain, made by Macfarlane and installed in the park beyond the gates (5).

4. The opening of the gates on Walking Day, 28 June 1895

5. Ornamental cast-iron fountain installed in the park behind the gates in 1899

Yet, the story doesn’t end there. For, in March 1942, all these cast-iron objects were at the centre of a fierce debate when the War Government required that many towns and cities remove their cast-iron fittings to be reconstituted as munitions. It seems that the citizens of Warrington willingly gave up the ornamental fountain to be melted down but resisted attempts to do the same to its railings and gates. Residents objected to the brutal assault on their private property and the mess that was often left behind. While many of the town’s gates were being made into guns, the Coalbrookdale examples survived, perhaps because they now represented the town as a whole, rather than any one individual; and they continue to do so today, providing a vision of luxurious abundance in an otherwise rather nondescript post-industrial townscape (6).

6. The Coalbrookdale gates today





Orientalism-on-sea: Brighton’s birdcage bandstand

12 08 2011

1. Brighton's birdcage bandstand from the King's Road

Brighton’s ‘birdcage’ bandstand (1), one of the finest surviving Victorian bandstands, was constructed in 1884 as part of a wider scheme of improvement for the town’s western seafront. The original structure (2) included toilets and changing rooms on the ground floor, accessible from the seafront, and a bandstand or shelter above linked to the King’s Road by a bridge. The entire structure was designed by Brighton Council’s surveyor, Philip Lockwood, who was also responsible for many other iron structures on the town’s seafront, including several shelters and the Madeira terrace and lift on the eastern esplanade. All of these structures, including the bandstand, were manufactured by the Phoenix Foundry in nearby Lewes, and their name can be seen on almost all of Brighton’s ironwork, from the Palace Pier to the railings and lamps that line the seafront.

The extravagant design of the bandstand has been compared to ‘oriental’ buildings such as the Alcazar in Seville or the Alhambra in Granada. Like much seaside architecture of the late-Victorian period, its ‘cake-icing’ decoration (3) reflected its seaside context, where visitors escaped the drudgery of everyday life into a more exotic, exciting and enchanted world. The overtly ‘oriental’ style of the decoration of this bandstand evoked distant lands where pleasure reigned, albeit now presented to the many rather than the few. This direct association with pleasure has given this kind of ironwork a frivolous identity, dismissed by architectural historians as a subject unworthy of serious study.

2. The complete structure showing the toilets below and bandstand above

3. View from inside the bandstand

4. Detail of the bandstand decoration

Yet, Victorian seaside resorts were operating in a cut-throat world of competition for a rapidly exanding but class-divided populations of holidaymakers. Resorts like Brighton developed distinct identities that were fiercely protected by local governments and residents alike. The design of seemingly trivial structures like bandstands came under the sway of powerful notions of place-making, class identity, and visual decorum. Thus, the inclusion of dolphins in the spandrels of the bandstand (4) is no mere decorative whimsy; on the contrary, dolphins were part of Brighton’s civic arms and a long-standing emblem of the town. In this and many other iron structures in Brighton, dolphins reinforce the visual identity of the town that distinguished the town from its many competitors on the south coast. In addition, in relation to the bandstand, nearby wealthy residents in Bedford Square initially voiced objections to the new structure, which they felt would spoil the view of the sea and possibly encourage the congregation of disreputable crowds of lower-class holidaymakers. No doubt the inclusion of toilets in the structure fuelled these anxieties. Lockwood’s design reflects the delicate sensibilities of these socially-superior onlookers – the toilets are invisible from Bedford Square and only accessible from the seafront esplanade below, while the elaborate decoration of the bandstand contributes aesthetic appeal to the sea view rather than detracting from it.

5. Underground lavatories, design no. 61 in the catalogue of the Sun Foundry, Glasgow, c.1890

This sensitivity to social context in the design of the Brighton bandstand is reflected more widely in designs for public toilets in the Victorian period. In an extraordinary series of examples illustrated in an 1890 catalogue of the Sun Foundry in Glasgow, the range of designs for public toilets (over 60) are explicitly related to their intended social contexts. In one example illustrated above (5), the functional part of the lavatory is completely concealed underground and is topped by an ornamental fountain and railings which also act as a ventilator for the toilets. The elaborate disguise of the toilet part of this structure is similar in conception to the Brighton bandstand/toilets; as the accompanying text makes clear, like its Brighton counterpart, this particular example is designed ‘for situations where the erection of ordinary Closets or Urinals might be regarded as detrimental to the amenity of the neighbourhood’.





A Victorian collaboration: two London lamps

29 07 2011

1. Lamp in Southwark Street, London, The Builder, 1865

This extraordinary cast iron lamp, one of a pair unveiled in Southwark Street in London in January 1865, was designed by an architect, Charles Henry Driver for Joseph Bazalgette, the chief engineer of the Metropolitan Board of Works, and was manufactured by the ironfounder Walter Macfarlane, based in Glasgow. It was this collaboration that formed the focus of the illustration of the lamp provided in The Builder published a week before the lamp was unveiled (1). Although not specified in the text accompanying the image, the identity of one of these figures is revealed by this photograph below, which undoubtedly formed the basis for the engraving (2).

2. Photograph of the lamp and Walter Macfarlane

3. Detail of the figures around the lamp

In the photograph Walter Macfarlane himself stands in front of one of the lamps, erected in the grounds of his Glasgow foundry before being transported and re-erected in Southwark Street. The features of both lamp and Macfarlane in the engraving correspond almost exactly with the photograph, although reversed as one would expect with a printed image. However, more figures are introduced into the engraving (3), including the recognisable figure of Bazalgette behind Macfarlane, who has presumably brought his wife to admire the quality of the lamp. The figure on horseback on the right and the related female figure are probably Charles Driver and his wife, although his name isn’t mentioned in the accompanying text. Driver definitely did appear in another Builder illustration in 1868 (4), showing another Macfarlane-produced lamp that is explicitly stated in the text as designed by Driver – to the left of lamp, he appears, with his wife, opposite Bazalgette, although this time minus Macfarlane. Driver’s features are replicated in the 1865 image, including his riding crop, which appears in the 1868 image, despite the absence of an accompanying horse (5).

4. Another lamp depicted in The Builder, 1868

5. Detail of the figures around the lamp

Even without this close observation, it’s clear that the 1865 image shows both an architectural object and the key players in its coming-into-being – namely, patron, designer and manufacturer. Indeed the collaboration depicted is very like that which produced the image in the first place, that is between an artist and wood engraver, represented in the image itself as the two signed names at the bottom left and right of both prints (1 & 4) – W G Smith and Walmsley.





Civic space? The Barton arcade, Manchester

1 04 2011

1: Barton arcade from St Anne's Square

Walter Benjamin recognized in the first arcades of Paris – built at the turn of the 19th century – the beginnings of iron construction that would culminate in the Crystal Palace building of 1851. Yet, arcades also looked backwards as well as forwards: for Benjamin, they were also still rooted in the luxury culture of the 18th century, private worlds that effectively sealed out the social mixing on the street in an artificial environment – a ‘world in miniature’. The early arcades were commercial speculations, built by a single or joint property owners, with the shops lining the arcade leased to individual traders. They were usually narrow spaces, the architectural potential of the iron and glass roofs subordinated to the dictates of economy.

2: Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, Milan in The Builder, 25 April 1868

Yet, by the time the Barton arcade was constructed in Manchester in 1871 (1), everything had changed. In the second half of the 19th century, the rapidly-growing industrial cities of Britain embraced the arcade as an essential part of civic improvement. The precedent for this ‘public’ appropriation of the arcade was the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, opened in Milan in 1865 and influencing a British audience through the pages of The Builder (2). This monumental arcade was the result of international cooperation; it was financed by a British company, designed by an Italian architect and constructed by a French engineer. Consisting of two wide passages joining beneath an octagonal-based dome 106-ft high, this was an arcade on a colossal scale, richly decorated with frescoes and ornamental cast iron vaulting.

As a new civic space modelled on the Milan Galleria, Manchester’s Barton arcade exhibits its ‘public’ status through its decorative features. Wider than its earlier British counterparts and built on three-levels, the sense of light-filled space is dramatic on entering the arcade via a conventional stone-fronted building (3). The elaborate cresting within the barrel-vaulted glass roof, the lion heads cast onto the shop fronts (4), and the naturalistic foliage seen in the columns and panelling in the exterior of the arcade (5) all contribute to the newfound sense of iron being a material fit for symbolic treatment. Such symbolism was an essential element in Victorian civic architecture, especially in industrial cities like Manchester, whose urban identity was being reconstructed, through high-profile architectural projects, out of its former utilitarian image – a monotonous cityscape of chimneys, vast mills, factories and warehouses.

3: Interior of the Barton arcade, Manchester (1871)

4: Ornamental iron shopfront in the Barton arcade

5: Detail of ornamental cast iron in the exterior of the Barton arcade

The Barton example initiated an arcade craze in Manchester: Victoria buildings (1874) included a vast galleried arcade, as did the Exchange buildings (1876) and a new arcade was constructed in Deansgate in 1899. None of these other examples survive but they are nevertheless testament to the power of the arcade as a symbol of civic status in Britain in the late-19th century. Similar arcade complexes were also built in other cities around the country, including Cardiff, Birmingham, Newcastle, Glasgow and Leeds. Together, they represented the transformation of Benjamin’s exclusive ‘world in miniature’ to a democratised covered space in the city accessible to all. Yet, despite the best intentions of their progenitors, arcades were always subject to the dictates of supply and demand; they all served commercial functions and were never financed by public money. As a result, their presumed ‘public’ status was in reality subsumed to ruthless economic dictates. The arcades in Manchester quickly fell victim to this schizophrenic status: at best, they were viewed as too spacious to function as indoor ‘streets'; at worst, as wasteful follies built solely on the basis of speculation that failed to attract either shopkeepers or customers.





Temples of convenience: cast-iron fountains and urinals

10 03 2011

1: Water fountain, Clifton Downs, Bristol, 1866

From the mid-1850s onwards, temperance societies in Britain actively promoted the building of water fountains in public places as a potent aid in their mission against drink. In the second half of the nineteenth century many hundreds of fountains were installed in villages, towns and cities across the country. Some were constructed in stone or marble, but many more were provided for (at a lower cost) by the large iron foundries that dominated the industrial landscape of Glasgow, particularly George Smith & Co, and Walter Macfarlane. These companies produced their own designs which embraced the religious and moral language of the temperance societies. In almost identical examples found in Preston, Wallingford, and Bristol (1), Macfarlane’s design for a water fountain exploits the decorative potential of cast iron with a host of elevating aquatic motifs including: a heron standing upon leaves in the bowl of the fountain and repeated in the dome above (2); salamanders crawling on the pillars beneath the bowl (3); and Biblical and moral inscriptions above (4). Winged lions – symbols of civic pride – surmount the corners of the canopy, which in a larger example in Darwen (5), become part of a tour-de-force of naturalistic display, featuring arabesques of leaves and flowers infilled with birds supporting a dome of intertwined garlanded wreaths.

2: Heron, water fountain, Shirehampton, Bristol, 1886

3: Salamander, water fountain, Wallingford, Oxon, 1885

4: Fountain canopy, Clifton Downs, Bristol, 1866

5: Fountain canopy, Whitehall Park, Darwen, 1906

These associations of natural abundance, water, civic pride and religion were interweaving aspects of Britain’s sanitary revolution in the second half of the nineteenth century. Casting fountains in iron provided a ready means of asserting these values in visual form throughout the country at a cost far lower than the commission of individual designs for each location. They also promoted the work of specialist ornamental founders like Macfarlane and the reputation of cast iron as a material suitable for decorative treatment. Such designs could be selected from a series of examples illustrated in Macfarlane’s increasingly lavish catalogues, issued from 1855 onwards.

6: Canopy inside the men's urinal in Mina Park, Bristol, 1886

7: Men's urinal in Mina Park, Bristol, 1886

Ornamental cast iron was also responsible for another piece of sanitary street furniture in the Victorian period: the urinal. Often located in urban parks in close proximity to water fountains, Victorian urinals (in both male and female versions) still survive in Bristol, Bath, Birmingham and London. Standing beneath the dome of the urinals in Mina Park, Bristol (6), one could be forgiven for imagining oneself to be in a strange wonderland, despite the overpowering stench and rusting surfaces. Manufactured by Macfarlane’s Glasgow rivals, George Smith & Co., these urinals adopt similar motifs to those of fountains, although with an emphasis on naturalistic flora rather than fauna (7). In one sense, this naturalism is suitable to the park environment in which the urinal is located; in another, it refers to the perceived elevating nature of sanitary improvement embodied in public urinals. To perform one’s necessity in this space is no mere vulgar bodily activity; it is, rather, an ennobled act, as much part of the natural as the ornament proclaims. As such it contrasts sharply with the more familiar toilet spaces in public places, characterised by their uniform white tiles and functionalist design, where the acceptability of the excreting body depends only upon its assimilation into a neutral environment devoid of symbolic meaning.





Great Victorian ways

25 02 2011

1: Joseph Paxton, perspective view of the Great Victorian Way, 1855

In July 1855, a Select Committee on Metropolitan Communications published its report on how best to improve London’s chronic traffic congestion. One of the proposals came from Joseph Paxton, celebrated designer of the Crystal Palace in 1851. Paxton’s plan comprised a vast iron and glass arcade, which would form an uninterrupted covered space of 10 miles around central London: the ‘Great Victorian Way’ (1). Unsurprisingly, given its projected cost of £11 million, the Committee decided not to adopt this scheme, despite Paxton’s high reputation, and would later choose a far less ambitious underground railway, which was built from 1859-63.

2: Wayfarer's arcade, Southport, 1896

Despite the failure of utopian projects like Paxton’s, the idea of a micro-city under glass and iron persisted in the second half of the 19th century. Although never realised on the kind of scale envisaged by Paxton, there were attempts to create sealed environments offering protection from both the elements and the chaos of the street, most notably in the countless shopping arcades that were built in Victorian towns and cities. One of these – the Wayfarer’s Arcade in Southport – was designed to integrate into an already existing network of covered walkways. Built in 1896 by the Scottish iron manufacturer Walter Macfarlane, this arcade extends the concept of the canopy beyond the street, creating a new enclosed space between two buildings fronting Lord Street (2).

3: Lord Street, Southport

In fact, Lord Street itself is unique in its scale in the Victorian period. For over half a mile, covered canopies project from the shops creating an almost continuous shelter for shoppers in the unpredictable seaside weather of north-west England (3). These canopies were not built by a central municipal authority (as would have been the case if Paxton’s proposal had been built), but by individual property owners responding to demand. One at a time, and presumably in competition with one another, each property owner acquired a canopy for their premises, employing a host of mainly Glasgow-based iron manufacturers to produce ornamental cast-iron columns and railings. So the castings of Walter Macfarlane sit next to those of J & A Law (4); those of McDowell, Steven & Co sit next to George Smith (5). Different-sized columns sit side by side in what amounts to an exhibition of the ironfounders technique. The result is a sense of unity in diversity, with each company vying with its competitors to produce the most elaborate designs to attract customers and heighten the esteem of the property owners. It is almost as if the resulting covered arcade is an accident, achieved piecemeal over the years by the principles of free competition.

4: Lord Street canopies, Southport

5: Lord Street canopies, Southport

If Southport’s Lord Street represents the part-realisation of utopian dreams in relation to iron and glass, other seaside resorts had similar ambitions. As early as 1874, Walter Macfarlane proposed building a mile-long iron colonnade under the cliffs in Brighton. This was never built, but its concept was revived 25 years later in the construction of Madeira Drive (6), a vast covered walkway that formed part of the wholesale re-sculpting of the cliffs to the east of the Palace Pier, which included terraced walkways and an elevator at the eastern end. All of this was the product of cast iron being produced and employed on an industrial scale for decorative purposes. The resulting colonnade was likened to a enormous grotto, hewn from the cliff and emblazoned with mythic subjects: Neptune, acanthus leaves, and water nymphs. This was iron remaking nature into a modern, progressive space but simultaneously adopting the image of an ancient and mythic past.

6: Madeira Drive, Brighton, 1888-95








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