Hackneyed?

On my short exploration of the parts of England that I don’t usually reach I eventually arrived at Hackney, and Sutton House.  Now Hackney is not just a place-name, without the capitalisation it is defined here as

Middle English: probably from Hackney in East London, where horses were pastured. The term originally denoted an ordinary riding horse (as opposed to a war horse or draught horse), especially one available for hire: hence hackney carriage or coach, and the archaic verb hackney meaning ‘use (a horse) for ordinary riding’, later ‘make commonplace by overuse’ (see hackneyed).

As a Tudor mansion standing in modern London’s East End, there is nothing commonplace about Sutton House, but it has certainly seen a lot of varied use over its lifetime, as evidenced by the varying decor as you pass through the Tudor kitchen and onto rooms decorated in Jacobean and Georgian Styles.

Head below street level and on one side of the property you’ll find a cellar with medieval foundations, and on the other an Edwardian chapel.  Lift trapdoors in the floor to see original beams, slide moving panels to reveal a patterned wall decoration whose design anticipated the panelling that now conceals it.  Some of the most informative staff I’ve encountered in a National Trust property are keen that you should miss nothing (including London’s oldest loo!).

The house was originally built for Henry VIII’s Secretary of State, Ralph Sadleir, (known to fans of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall as Rafe Sadler) in 1535 at a time when the majority of buildings had the familiar Tudor timber construction of a frame of beams with the spaces between filled with wattle and daub.   Sadler’s choice of a different material marked this out as a grander building; one that was referred to as “the bryk place”, though a decade later he upgraded again and moved to an estate in Hertfordshire where on his death he was claimed to be “the richest commoner in England”.  I wonder what he would have made of some of the later inhabitants of his brick mansion.

Though bequeathed to the National Trust in 1938, the house’s location in one of London’s less than leafy suburbs left them unsure as to its viability, and so over the years it was rented out, abandoned, considered for conversion into apartments, and occupied by squatters.  This last fact produces another surprise for in the loft space you come upon a graffiti’d room that represents this period; as valid a historical record as any other.

One of the ways in which the Trust run’s Sutton House in an area where fewer history buffs are likely to visit is to use the property for community events and exhibitions, often in the former scrubland to the side of the property now restored as The Breakers Yard.  When I was there though the Trust were creating controversy with an installation of their own.   A number of Trust properties around the country hosted LGBTQ events and exhibits and a building as fluid as Sutton House played host to a series of beautiful photographs by Sarah Moore of black trans activist Munroe Bergdorf.  Perhaps Sadler would have been less surprised by this; he lived in a period when every female role on the stages of London’s theatres would have been played by a man.

Plenty of surprises then, and far from hackneyed.

Daniel Lobb’s The Grange (1998)
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From Liverpool to Liverpool Street

The juxtaposition was unintended when I shot these images, but having written about the problems of a scheme to transform the Liverpool skyline with shiny skyscrapers, I have a set of images that I captured outside Liverpool Street Station in London… of shiny skyscrapers.

There was one in particular that I came to shoot; the others just happened to be in the vicinity, and it would have been rude not to include them.

Leading the way for this brave new world of glass and steel was the Lloyds Building.  Designed by Lord Rogers, it took inspiration from France’s Pompidou Centre by placing utilities and services on the outside of the building, but upped the ante by doing it with a greater degree of style and panache.  This is more than a glass box; it is a structure with texture; curves and spirals to contrast with hard edges, and at its heart, an 18th century committee room, designed by Robert Adam and brought here from the building’s predecessor piece by painstaking piece.  What’s more the structure even has a role in Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy where it is now on the planet Xandar!

The Lloyds Building is neighboured by the Willis Building, a place that doesn’t have the same impact, but at least in its concentric arcs provides a nice surface for interesting reflections.

Soon they’ll be joined by The Scalpel, (surely the market in sharp and pointy has already been cornered by The Shard?) and of course we’re in the same vicinity as The Cheesegrater, and The Walkie-Talkie!  (Does it take as many consultants to name these buildings as to draw up the blueprints?).

What’s interesting is that there’s nothing so new about this.  The Victorians were at it with glass and steel a century earlier than Richard Rogers, as can be seen from the roof of Liverpool Street Station, and right next to Lloyds in Leadenhall Market, a space so enchanting that they ran the 2012 Olympic marathon through it!

But enough digression.  When I first came to this part of London a dozen years or so ago the race for the skies was not going at such a pace, but there was one rather curious shape making it’s presence felt.  Similar in some ways to Barcelona’s Torre Agbar,  but more graceful and far less sexual.  Here the glass has more purpose, the reflections created on these gentle curves producing something far more abstract and interesting than the flat planes of those that surround it.   30 St Mary Axe is the work of another architectural Lord; Norman Foster.  Both it’s silhouette, and the swirling patterns that culminate at its apex give it a far more organic and friendly aspect than the rigid forms nearby, and that organic nature continues in this structure’s nickname.  Welcome to The Gherkin.

A Dying Breed?

There have been a couple of recent reports in the media that resonated with me due to a set of pictures I took on my recent travels in Liverpool.

The first related to a threatened withdrawal of the city’s UNESCO world heritage status.  The international organisation usually describes sites as at risk when they are in civil war zones, or in countries run by regimes that might actively destroy its heritage.  In Liverpool’s case, it is a proposed development that is feared will completely unbalance the cityscape, dwarfing the “Three Graces” beneath soaring towers inspired by the Shanghai waterfront.  Responding to criticisms, the development director responsible was quoted as saying

“Unesco status is a badge on the wall, but we cannot afford to fossilise our city.”

The second report was reviewing the impact of the decade since it became illegal to smoke in enclosed workspaces.  One of the charts described the decline in the number of British pubs in that period.  Thousands have closed, and I regularly see evidence of this on my travels.  I’m sure some photographer will soon produce an art book of monochrome prints detailing this decline, but for now here’s my contribution.  Five former hostelries whose day has certainly passed and all within the same route from the city centre out towards Bootle.

What interested me about these buildings is that despite their obvious decay, there was attention to detail in their original designs.  These were never great cathedrals, but to the working man they were important.  In fact their very existence strung out along the same route tells a story.  A story of dock workers thirsty from the hard physical labour of loading and unloading shipping needing a place to quench that thirst and share stories that belied the dangerous work they undertook.  With the move to container shipping many of those dangers have gone, but so have the jobs, which is why this stretch of road lies derelict along the canal and railside.  Social and economic factors rather than the smoking ban.  Some of the land has already been reclaimed for housing, but there is a huge opportunity for more.

My first pub is the Athol Vaults, which looks to this Sunderland native like a former Vaux Breweries pub.  Though the least ornate, even here there are mouldings on the woodwork.

There’s the Melrose Abbey, probably the most recent closure of the group.  Grimy now, but in its day that coloured brickwork would have been a nice touch.

Not to be confused with the Melrose Abbey, is the Melrose, whose imposing tower has a real touch of the Scottish Baronial style of architecture.  Decorated with intricate terracotta tiles that even the residents no longer notice, this has been converted into apartments.  One tenant spotted me taking pictures and invited me in, but if there was ever an equally grand interior all trace has been lost now.

My fourth casualty is The Knowsley, well-sited on a busy corner and with lots of decorative detail.  Referred to as “The Round House” for obvious reasons, it’s now a low-budget B&B.

Which brings me to my final victim.  The Royal.  Even its proximity to Bank Hall railway station hasn’t brought it customers and now it’s roof is crumbling away.  Another structure whose tower makes something of a statement.

It seems to me that this is an area ripe for the influx of the development money that is planned to destroy the character of the waterfront.  If only the developers took as much care as the designers of these humble watering holes.

Hope Street

It might seem a little greedy to have not one, but two cathedrals that are each architectural masterpieces in the same city, but Liverpool takes it further by siting them on the same street with just half a mile between them. Technically the Anglican building’s address is St James’ Mount, but head south on Hope Street from the Metropolitan Cathedral and you’ll find it.

You could be forgiven for thinking that the street must therefore owe its name to some religious aspiration, but in fact it predates the two buildings and derives from a merchant called William Hope.  In fact as the 19th century drew to a close Liverpool had no cathedral at all.  An act of parliament provided authorisation for one in 1885, but the plans were abandoned when the proposed site was found to be unsuitable.

As the 20th century began the idea was revived and a competition held for the design of what was to become the Cathedral Church of Christ in Liverpool; the Anglican cathedral.  The competition winner was Giles Gilbert Scott, a controversial choice since he was 22, had no prior experience and was a Roman Catholic.  (In fairness he was part of a design dynasty).

The Catholic cathedral had it’s own false starts; a Pugin design didn’t progress very far and was demolished in 1980. In 1930 Edwin Lutyens submitted his huge design, which would have been second in size only to St Peters in Rome (though with a larger dome).  World War II intervened and costs soared to until in 1958 with only the crypt complete, work was abandoned.  In a remarkable turnaround a design competition for this structure was held in 1959 and Frederick Gibberd’s cathedral was consecrated in 1967.  This is the unique building variously known as “Paddy’s Wigwam”, “The Mersey Funnel” and more accurately the Metropolitan Cathedral of Christ the King.

It’s modern, spacious and full of contemporary art.  A complete contrast to the Anglican building which had been growing steadily down the road but was still incomplete.  Queen Elizabeth dedicated Scott’s Gothic Revival over a decade later in 1978.

If I enjoyed the freshness of the Catholic building I was simply astonished by the Anglican.  It’s the longest cathedral in the world, possibly the largest Anglican cathedral (in competition with St John’s, New York), and one of the tallest too (if you exclude spires).  You might but that last fact down to the enormous tower, but to do so would be to overlook the height of the nave alone.  It soars.  It’s breathtaking.

It’s a quarter century since I was last in St Peters (I need to rectify that) so the impact of that church has long subsided.  For now I’ll just remain in awe of Liverpool’s Anglican option.  It’s neighbour might have had greater impact in a city where it stood alone, or had Pugin or Lutyens completed their efforts, but can it compete in the city of two cathedrals.  It doesn’t have a hope.  Despite the street name.

Old Sites With New Eyes

I have on occasions been rather disparaging about my home city of Sunderland, particularly in relation to its attempts at public art. (Remember Ambit anyone?)

University buildings

So when the North East Photographic Network mailed me about an event they were running as part of the BBC’s Get Creative project, I felt I should be open-minded enough to go along. The event was a photo walk, a guided stroll from the university in the town to the National Glass Centre led by photographic artist Nicola Maxwell, who, together with the other photographers on the walk, might change my perspective.

Nicola’s own current focus (apologies but some photo puns are inevitable) is on found objects, inspired, in the same was a my Venice project, by the work of Irving Penn, and so before we set off she offered her supply of rubber gloves to anyone who wanted to adopt a similar approach, together with a stern warning not to touch needles!  Nothing to make me think differently about the place yet then.

Before long a small group of us were scouring the area beside the minster in search of interesting subjects.  Doorways, shadows, weeds and more were scrutinised for compositional elements which is when Nicola shared one of her interesting observations and one that did challenge my preconceptions.  The presence of mosses and lichen is far more noticeable in Sunderland than in nearby Newcastle, demonstrating that the air here is cleaner than in the neighbouring city.  One of the suggestions she made was that we pay attention to how the colours of these specimens changed as we neared the coast where conditions were even more favourable.

Was I tempted by the vegetation theme?  I fired off some shots but none that really pleased me.

Perhaps I should opt for more familiar territory?  A few years back I photographed a different individual every day in a doomed attempt to improve my portraiture.  That was back in the day when I didn’t really know what I was doing.   Looking at these guys at the pub in celebratory mood I’m not sure how much has improved, though my post-processing is less dramatic!

Then there’s a new attempt at public art, whose shadow I found more interesting than it’s actual structure.What about focusing on something grungier?  There’s certainly plenty to choose from, my favourite being the patch of solidified mud that included a single glove, and as seen here, a fork!

Since I spend so much time in other cities focusing on the structural this could have been the thing to get my creative juices going.

Not today however.  Venturing to the Glass Centre had brought me within easy reach of my beloved coastline so naturally I ended my trip there when the others were finished.  This being the year when lighthouses are a recurring them in my blog I thought to incorporate a little vegetation in keeping with the beginning of the walk.

The reality was that I’m more attuned to the simple pleasures of moving water and reflective wet sand.  I’m easily pleased.

The Trees Above The Rabbit Hole

My recent visits to Manchester Cathedral and Hexham Abbey culminated in my waxing lyrical about the woodwork, whether intricately carved or beautifully painted. In Ripon Cathedral too, the wooden structures were the ones that generated the greatest fascination.

This isn’t entirely a coincidence. There are misericords again (over 30) and they were carved over a five-year period at the end of the 15th century by the Bromley family – the same carpenters responsible for the Manchester examples. Apparently there are more examples of their work in Beverley Minster, another great Yorkshire church but one that I’ve not visited (yet).

This got me thinking. In English, Italian and Croatian churches that I’ve explored the stonework has been a common source of fascination, but I don’t recall great woodwork on my overseas trips with the notable exception of the Bologna anatomical theatre. Beautiful frescoes and statuary yes, but not the woodwork.

There are a couple of possible reasons for this; either the furniture in those Italianate chiese was fairly nondescript, or I was so distracted by the artwork on the walls that I failed to notice it.  I suspect the latter; for why would the catholic church in their quest to utilise the greatest craftsmen (whether in tribute to their god or as demonstration of power) stop short of this art?

Flip that question around and you find yourself questioning why the woodwork would be so noticeable in an English church?  Well here you’re unlikely to be staring at frescoes and statuary.  The century following the creation of the Ripon misericords was the one in which Henry VIII sacked the monasteries of their wealth and brought Protestantism in place of Catholicism.  The Reformation movement across Northern Europe pointed to the Ten Commandments and instruction against the creation of graven images.  And so centuries of artworks were destroyed (or hidden away to be rediscovered centuries later like some of the Hexham panels).  Further destruction took place during the English Civil War when puritans took a dislike to much of the stained glass that decorated our churches too.

Whether the functional aspect of choir stalls led to them being overlooked, or the fact that misericords are hidden when the seat is folded down I don’t know, but without as much competition the woodwork has proved more robust through time.  Thank goodness for now we can all enjoy such curiosities as the man with three faces (a representation of the Holy Trinity perhaps?) or the mechanical hand which was operated by the organist to as a means of conducting the choir at the same time as playing.  Or how about the representation of two great empires on a single pew end where a Greek centaur accompanies a Persian war elephant?

Then there is the imagery of the misericords themselves; where gryphons, dragons, lions and whales appear as well as the bizarre headless figures from the Mappa Mundi, and my favourite of all a fox in a pulpit preaching to a cock and a goose or duck.

It’s believed that this imagery, and the narrow passages leading down to the crypt below had a profound effect on the son of a former canon in the cathedral.

The Charles Dodgson referred to on this record had a 20-year-old son when he was here.  A son also called Charles.

You might know him better by his pen name.

Lewis Carroll.