Victorian dragons

15 03 2013
1. Kirkgate market hall, Leeds, 1901-04.

1. Kirkgate market hall, Leeds, 1901-04.

Leeds’s Kirkgate market hall is one the best surviving Victorian retail buildings. Opened in 1904, it still retains much of its original decoration, including the numerous cast-iron wyverns (two-legged dragons) on the ground floor (1) that are in fact brackets that support the gallery level above. These outsized monsters are a curious legacy of the Victorian fascination with the grotesque and a reminder of a vanished way of thinking about the value of the decorative in civic buildings. But what do these particular wyverns mean? Surely not mere whimsy, ornament for ornament’s sake? After all, this was a public building, built with hard-earned public money. Why did Leeds’s civic authorities deem it necessary to include wyverns in the people’s market hall?

2. Halifax market hall, 1896.

2. Halifax market hall, 1896.

In fact, these wyvern motifs were specified by the architects of the market hall (John and Joseph Leeming) in their original competition drawings for the project and developed from similar ones they used in an earlier market hall in Halifax (2; 1896). In the late nineteenth century, dragons and their wyvern cousins were both common heraldic motifs in Britain and were also associated with industry; in 1845 the Midland Railway adopted a wyvern as the crest in their unofficial coat of arms, believing it to be the symbol of the ancient kingdom of Mercia, or the Midlands as it effectively was in the Victorian era; the company incorporated cast–iron wyverns into luggage rack supports, bracket signals, and the spandrels at Hellifield railway station (31880).

3. Hellifield railway station, 1880.

3. Hellifield railway station, 1880.

Despite their appropriation by the Midland Railway, wyverns and dragons were generally perceived in the Victorian period as a menacing symbol associated with the devil; it was John Ruskin, in Fors Clavigera – a series of letters, published in the 1870s, addressed to British workmen – who drew on the sinister associations of dragons when he directly equated them with what he regarded as the hellish consequences of rampant industrialisation. Significantly, Ruskin was prompted to make such an association after he discovered the motif of a cast–iron dragon/serpent on a metal bench (4) whilst walking in the picturesque Lune Valley in Lancashire; he reacted in horror to what he perceived as a satanic emblem fouling one of the loveliest beauty spots in the English countryside.

4. Bench in Valley Gardens, Harrogate, c.1880s.

4. Bench in Valley Gardens, Harrogate, c.1880s.

5. Cast-iron bracket from the sixth edition of Macfarlane's catalogue, 1882.

5. Cast-iron bracket from the sixth edition of Macfarlane’s catalogue, 1882.

Despite Ruskin’s chagrin, cast–iron dragons and wyverns were a common motif in both Victorian street furniture and seaside architecture, as seen in many designs included in Walter Macfarlane’s catalogues in the 1880s (5), which were probably inspired by their earlier adoption by the Midland Railway. In contrast to Ruskin’s emphasis on their sinister implications, cast–iron dragons were often associated with the “exotic” cultures of the Far East, particularly in seaside architecture (6); the wyverns adopted by the Midland Railway and the architects of Leeds’s market hall, however, were more likely viewed as symbols of protection, industrial power, or as denoting ancient indigenous mythic pasts.

6. Wyvern bracket in the shelters on Ryde pier, 1880s.

6. Wyvern bracket in the shelters on Ryde pier, 1880s.

Moreover, the significance of the wyverns in Leeds’s market hall (1) is heightened by their repetitive use – an inherent characteristic of cast–iron reproduction. Here, repetition lends both added emphasis to the sense of civic power articulated in this building and also a direct visual sign of the material abundance that the new market hall promised to the city’s citizens. Thus, the lavish ornamentation of market halls like Leeds’s not only symbolised the promise of abundance, but also enacted it in its spaces by creating a more abundant supply, lower prices, and higher quality in meat and poultry.





Walking the girdle (part 1)

4 12 2012
1. The nine-mile walk around inner Manchester and Salford (shown in green)

1. Nine-mile walk around inner Manchester and Salford (shown in green)

2. 1844 map of Manchester and Salford included in Engels's 'The Condition of the Working Class in England'

2. 1844 map of Manchester and Salford included in Engels’s ‘The Condition of the Working Class in England’

In 1844, Engels described industrial Manchester as being planned as a series of concentric circles: an inner commercial core surrounded by a ‘girdle’ of working-class quarters about a mile wide beyond which were the middle-class residential districts (2). In this way, Engels argued, wealthier people from the outer areas might come in and out of the city on its roads ‘without ever seeing that they are in the midst of the grimy misery that lurks to the right and to the left.’ This ‘hypocritical plan’, as Engels called it, has persisted to this day, with the majority of the city’s thoroughfares being like spokes of a giant wheel, enabling easy travelling in and out of the city. And just as in Engels’s day, the further out from the city centre one travels, the more salubrious the surroundings become, today Mancunians reach all the way out to Alderley Edge in rural Cheshire, with its vast gated mansions: home of the footballers and their wives.

On a very cold but sparkling day in November, I decided to walk Manchester and Salford’s inner ‘girdle’, as a kind of alternative way of apprehending the topography of both cities – a counter to the frustration of generally only knowing the city as a series of linear routes in and out (1). The areas through which this walk passed – Salford, Hulme, Ardwick, Ancoats – were all just outside Manchester’s city centre and, although most of the housing was relatively new, still very much had the character Engels first observed in 1844 – that is, ‘unmixed working-people’s quarters’.

3. Cast-iron columns bases at Plymouth Grove

3. Cast-iron column bases at Plymouth Grove

4. Bricked-up factory in Ardwick

4. Bricked-up factory in Ardwick

5. Textile warehouse on Hyde Road, Ardwick

5. Textile warehouse on Hyde Road, Ardwick

So, after taking my usual linear bus ride from the suburbs to the University, instead of heading to my office I walked eastwards towards Ardwick, in a counterclockwise direction, passing the half-redeveloped Plymouth Grove pub with its late-nineteenth century ornamental cast-iron columns by the Glasgow founder Walter Macfarlane, now rusted into rich golden hues (3). Heading westwards, Ardwick is a surprise, an old industrial area that’s still working, with textile factories still hanging on despite the tumbledown bricked-up brick buildings (4), one of which still bears the imprint of its several generations of owners, its signs overlaid as if deliberately preserving the building’s history (5). Continuing west, a great railway viaduct thickens towards Piccadilly, its enormous brick arches a sign of how Manchester’s Victorian railway (unlike London’s) ploughed its way directly through the inner city, straddling the working-class housing with apparent disdain (6).

6. Railway viaduct in Ardwick

6. Railway viaduct in Ardwick

7. Former synagogue on Pollard Street

7. All Souls church on Every Street

8. Abandoned tower block in Ancoats

8. Abandoned tower block in Ancoats

Across the thundering Ashton road, one enters the Medlock river valley, a green oasis in Manchester’s monolithic red-brick cityscape, and a reminder that, like many other cities, Manchester’s fortunes were originally bound up with its rivers. Onwards through the edges of Beswick, a sleepy suburb in the Medlock valley, crowned on the Ancoats side by an abandoned church on Every Street – its fantastic array of turrets challenging the utilitarian brick buildings around it (7). Entering Ancoats past the Bank of England pub and over the Ashton canal, one suddenly emerges into another world – a contested landscape of waste ground, ruined factories, angular post-modernist tower blocks, and 1970s working-class housing. As one resident told me, Ancoats is now a battleground: some of the residents have been forced out, their properties compulsorilly purchased and demolished to make way for gentrification that hasn’t yet happened. Here, older 1960s tower blocks stand in limbo, condemned for demolition but subsquently purchased for £1 each by the developers Urban Splash in the property boom of the late-1990s. Now too expensive to either demolish or redevelop, these tower blocks remain as petrified ruins (8).

9. The early 19th-century mills of old Ancoats

9. The early 19th-century mills of old Ancoats

10. Textile warehouse on Thompson Street, north of Ancoats

10. Textile warehouse on Thompson Street, north of Ancoats

11. New Co-op headquarters building in central Manchester

11. New Co-op headquarters building in central Manchester

Over the Rochdale canal is old Ancoats, created at the end of the 18th century as the world’s first industrial suburb, and still characterised by its enormous, utilitarian brick mills and warehouses that summon up images of the industrial revolution, with its din and smoke (9). Yet, today, this part of Ancoats is silent and spotless: a closed world of private apartments, offices and deluxe recording studios. With its tightly-packed grid-like streets, cobbled for over two hundred years, Ancoats here is less contested, more fully embracing of a new kind of exclusivity that’s so characteristic of former industrial quarters in many other British cities. Out of Ancoats across the busy Oldham Road, one enters a desolate former industrial area, the factories and warehouses given over to end-of-the-line textiles (10), with the futuristic shapes of the city’s new generation of skyscrapers rising up beyond (11). With the towers of Strangeways high-security prison looming in the distance, I head towards the half-way point around the girdle (part 2 to follow).





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





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.





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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