Eye-Catchers

Peter Campbell

  • Survey of London: Vol. XLII. Southern Kensington: Kensington to Earls Court
    Athlone, 502 pp, £55.00, May 1986, ISBN 0 485 48242 8
  • Follies: A National Trust Guide by Gwyn Headley and Wim Meulenkamp
    Cape, 564 pp, £15.00, June 1986, ISBN 0 224 02105 2
  • The Botanists by David Elliston Allen
    St Paul’s Bibliographies, 232 pp, £15.00, May 1986, ISBN 0 906795 36 2
  • British Art since 1900 by Frances Spalding
    Thames and Hudson, 252 pp, £10.50, April 1986, ISBN 0 500 23457 4
  • Paintings from Books: Art and Literature in Britain, 1760-1900 by Richard Altick
    Ohio State, 527 pp, £55.00, March 1986, ISBN 0 8142 0380 9
  • History of the British Pig by John Wiseman
    Duckworth, 118 pp, £12.95, May 1986, ISBN 0 7156 1987 X

The earliest buildings in the 42nd volume of the Survey of London are late 17th and early 18th-century houses in Kensington Square. The market gardens and nurseries which surrounded this urban housing disappeared rather slowly, as land to the south of Kensington High Street was developed. The modest scale of the brick houses of Kensington Square, the neat brick and stucco of Edwardes Square (1811-25) and the Italian-villa-like elevations of Launceton Place (1840-3) gave way to cliffs of Italianate stucco (like Cornwall Gardens, late 1860s) and the red-and-yellow-brick mansion blocks of the 1880s and 1890s. These now dominate: this is Victorian London.

Among the more remarkable buildings are the department stores (Derry and Toms and Barkers) and the houses in Harrington and Collingham Gardens by George and Peto. The façades of the latter development suggest that the constituent buildings were, like those in the Flemish street front it resembles, ‘erected in casual but emulous sequence by individuals’. In fact, it was a speculation. Some of the houses stood empty for years, but W.S. Gilbert was true to his promise that he would move there in October 1883 ‘in whatever condition the premises may be’. One party of casual passers-by, seeing workmen and open doors, took a look inside and were surprised to find Gilbert in residence. Contemporary photographs show dark, elaborate interiors in which dramatist and architect (Harold Peto took 7 Collingham Gardens himself) lived like merchant princes. (Gilbert hung hams in the hall fireplace.) House plans did not change very much, but mansion flats brought new demands; among the most interesting of the many excellent drawings are those showing the hydraulic lift in Abingdon Mansions.

Contemporary photographs of the Underground stations at Earls Court, South Kensington and Gloucester Road show buildings that are still quite recognisable today; pictures of the ‘Cromwell curve’, with John Fowler’s concrete bridge of 1867-9, are evidence of the scale of engineering work now masked by later building and softened by vegetation. The railways have proved adequate. Reading the plans of the St Mary Abbots Hospital, on the other hand, shows how modern welfare has been packed piecemeal onto a site which once announced benevolence more symmetrically. The chapel of 1875 was demolished in 1974; the geriatric wards, psychiatric department and boiler-house are in post-war blocks; mortuary, operating theatre and pathology department were added in the Twenties and Thirties. Despite change, most patients are still housed in wards built in the 19th century. In the history of the hospital and workhouse, social concerns, clinical practice and demographic change can be illustrated architecturally.

The same is true of the department stores. The Board of Derry and Toms and Barkers consulted a Chicago firm about the floor plans of their new buildings in the late Twenties, when American stores layout was showing the way to new retailing methods. The Derry and Toms roof garden was in an English tradition, however – such conceits had been common since the Edwardian years. The two-and-a-half-inch layer of soil is watered from artesian wells under the building.

Immensely detailed and scholarly, surprising and sometimes amusing, the Survey of London is more readable than most popularisations of architectural history – many of which must depend on it for their information.

England’s smallest police station (a plinth in Trafalgar Square), its first Greek Revival building (James Stuart’s Doric temple of 1758 at Hagley Park) and Temple Bar (in its present situation in a Hertfordshire wood) are all follies by Headley’s and Meulencamp’s definition. The first, like many of their eye-catchers and shams, is not quite what it seems; the second was a plaything, although also a try-out for the big architecture of the next generation; the third is merely foolish through displacement. It is clear that an account of follies can extend beyond building fever, castles one wall thick, and unsteady towers commemorating eccentric squires.

Headley and Meulenkamp have cast their net wide in ‘some thinly-follied areas’ to allow ‘visitors or locals the enjoyment of fishing something out’. This reflects their own pleasure in the chase: in exploring, for example, the tower raised by Edward Bull (who later built Borley rectory) – ‘the most frightening building we have ever been half-way up’ – or in penetrating the dank underground works at Witley Park, which culminate in a small underwater ballroom with a glazed dome – a people tank for the fish in the pond above.

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