Wednesday, 23 April 2014

Bingeing on Burges

William Burges must have been the least affordable of Victorian architects. The complexity of his designs, the scope of his ambition, the size of his workforce and his fondness for rare and precious materials swallowed up stupendous sums of client money. There were many wealthy Victorian captains of industry and it’s significant that Burges was employed by the wealthiest of them all – the 3rd. Marquess of Bute. Every ton of coal that came to the surface of the South Wales coalfield, every Taff Vale Railway coal train that wound its way out of the valleys en route for the coast and every scoop that was loaded on to the waiting ships in the ports of Cardiff and Barry contributed to the Bute fortune.

Bute was a complicated personality – an intellectual and aesthete, a scholar and philanthropist and a man of devout faith and piety. His vast business interests seem to have made minimal demands on his time leaving him free to indulge his passions for architecture, scholastic research and good works. We must assume that the contrast between the world of exotic ornamentation that he and Burges created and the dark and dangerous world inhabited by the tens of thousands who toiled mightily on his behalf is not something that troubled him – it may never have crossed his mind. A further contradiction for Burges lay in the fact that all his fabulous work was paid for with the proceeds of the dehumanising industrial activity that his heroes, Pugin and Ruskin, deplored and despised. But, either by accident or design, Bute and Burges left behind a creation that continues to intrigue and fascinate and genuinely lifts the spirits by virtue of its visual and spatial splendour, extraordinary extravagance and the occasional somersault into the realms of poetry. 

Burges was an enemy of moderation and a master of excess with a sharp eye for the absurd and an absence of sentimentality. He displayed little, if any of the egotism, vanity and self-importance of many of his professional colleagues and his instincts were collaborative with a dedicated team of expert craft workers without whose skills his designs could never have been realised. Widely travelled and well read, he made detailed studies of the buildings he saw across France, Italy, Sicily and Turkey. In private life he was a sociable bachelor with a taste for alcohol and opium and a large circle of friends among the Pre-Raphaelites. The suffocating odour of Victorian piety was escaped by means of regular visits to the Judge and Jury Club with its rowdy recreations of notorious criminal trials. Another relief from engagement with the higher faculties was a trip to Jemmy Shaw’s public house for an evening of ratting. Inherited wealth meant that he could choose the commissions that engaged his interest and suited him best. 

The world of Victorian architects was divided into warring factions locked in endless disputation as to who was most securely placed on the side of righteousness. On the great divide between those who looked to Ruskin for ideological purity and those who accepted the realities of technological advances (Paxton, Owen Jones, Digby Wyatt, Henry Cole) Burges was firmly on the side of Ruskin and a more than willing, active participant in the debate. He stood up for the principles of the Gothic Revival and condemned the excesses of Modern Gothic. As his colleagues gradually defected to the Old English and Queen Anne Revival styles in the late 1870s, Burges was scornful – nothing offended his sensibilities more than a sash window. 

Wandering around Cardiff Castle is to take a trip through the embalmed remains of a High Victorian dream. It was a dream made possible by unlimited resources with ambitions to match, the services of an inspired architect and colourist and an unshakeable conviction that it was an expression of the highest moral purpose. Each room is a standalone fantasy – there is little sense of continuity other than a shared intensity. Behind the moral purpose was an enormous exercise in indulgence on the part of both architect and client. For Burges it was an opportunity to devise decorative schemes without limit in either complexity or resources. Bute’s vast wealth could support anything that came from Burges’s imagination. Inspiration was drawn from a bewildering variety of sources – Gothic, Romanesque, Byzantine, medievalism, orientalism, the ancient world, old and new testament, heraldic devices, lives of the saints, the occult, Chaucer, Aesop’s Fables, and the closely observed natural world. Playful vignettes from the natural world were artfully deployed throughout to counter any excess of sobriety. 

In the end it’s an overwhelming experience – simply too much to take in when every surface is animated with repeating patterns or pictorial symbols. Ceilings are inlaid with precious metals, fragmented mirrors or painted with decorative schemes of almost terrifying complexity. The ceiling of the Arab Room is a disorientating, frenzied cascade of intoxicating Islamic arabesques. The chimneypiece in the Library is a riot of ornamentation – carved figures, each representing an ancient language (Greek, Assyrian, Hebrew, Egyptian, and Celtic), are surrounded by decorative panels and friezes including fir cones at the top and birds in the middle. Another chimneypiece in the Winter Smoking Room is a tour-de-force with a frieze of colourful carved figures representing the pleasures of medieval courtly life in miniature – archery, hunting with dogs, decorous courtship and a blazing fire in the company of faithful canines. The Winter Smoking Room is dedicated to representations of the passage of time – the painted ceiling displays the signs of the zodiac. Days of the week, hours of the day and the four seasons appear elsewhere. The painted and gilded ceiling of Bute’s bedroom is inlaid with bevelled mirrors to reflect the inscribed Greek lettering when seen from the bed. The letters spell out the name John and refer to John the Baptist (whose sculpture is elsewhere in the room) and the 3rd. Marquess himself. This infinite repetition was designed as an affirmation of faith. Perhaps the most famous detail is the gilded crocodile that rests on the handrail on the grand staircase – an emblem of incongruity that exemplifies Burges’s most redeeming feature and brings the dazzled and befuddled spectator back to earth with a sigh of relief. 

The great source-book on Burges, “William Burges and the High Victorian Dream” by the impeccable J. Mordaunt Crook has been liberally consulted.

Monday, 14 April 2014

Airships Dirigibles Blimps Zeppelins

Airship technology is another of those doomed innovations with a glowing future that stubbornly fails to materialise. Immensely popular between the wars when no vision of the future was complete without airships in command of the skies. The airship had proved itself as a leisurely form of international travel although a distressing tendency to premature landfalls or self-immolation rapidly undermined public confidence. In times of conflict it was only effective as an agent of death and destruction in the unlikely event that your opponents lacked a more agile and speedy defence capacity. So the great dream of fleets of floating hotels silently crossing the oceans died a death. The rapid advance of jet engine technology was the final blow as the aviation industry increasingly became addicted to speed. 

But for a few decades the airship wobbled along on the fringe of viability and enthusiasts continued to develop ever more extravagant plans, quick to capture the public imagination but wildly impractical. Heroic visualisations of gargantuan machines graced the covers of many a magazine with an engineering obsessed readership of impressionable adolescents. For postcard publishers even an embarrassingly incompetent drawing of an airship could be grafted on to refresh a stale and outdated image. As late as 1944 the Goodyear Aircraft Corporation was waxing lyrical about the prospects of the “coming superliner of the skies” and posing the question, “Is this the Luxury Liner of the Future?”

Friday, 4 April 2014

Postcard of the Day No. 65, M & OLRR Station, Marcellus NY

This is the postcard where nobody wanted to be left out – travellers and employees alike made certain that their likenesses would be recorded for posterity. The workers swarmed over the one and only locomotive (a Baldwin-built 2-4-0) with studied nonchalance. The Marcellus and Otisco Lake Railroad was a short branch line that connected with the New York Central at Martisco (an invented conflation of Marcellus and Otisco), a few miles to the north. Passenger services commenced in 1905 but lasted less than a decade, being abandoned in 1914. Freight service continued until final closure in 1959. Marcellus was, and remains a small town of exceptionally neat and tidy appearance in rural New York state, south west of the city of Syracuse. It gave its name to the Marcellus Formation, an extensive range of shale and the largest source of natural gas in the US. Massive amounts of gas are being extracted by fracking although, happily for the residents of Marcellus, most of it takes place far away in Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia. Below are two more cards of transport curiosities with proud operators posed in attendance. A streetcar in San Antonio TX and an electric-powered US Mail Car in Sacramento CA. 

Monday, 31 March 2014

Cherry Blossom Time

In Japan the weather service issues daily bulletins on the northwards advance of the Cherry Blossom Front from island to island and city to city, and we mark the occasion with these postcards. For many Japanese the Cherry Blossom Front has a talismanic significance not only for the splendour and brevity of display but also for the metaphoric value as a reminder of the transience of physical beauty and human existence. The suburban street scene above is especially atmospheric, a silent tramcar rolls through a tunnel of cherry blossom while a furtive human presence is half concealed in the shadows. 

Tuesday, 25 March 2014

Some BBC book designs

A small but choice selection of vintage BBC cover designs preceded by a typically irreverent visual pun from the 1970s drawn by the wonderful Peter Brookes for the Sunday Times Magazine in which the broadcaster is re-imagined as a boxed detergent. The BBC talks pamphlets are the work of wood-cut masters, Eric Ravilious (1934) and Blair Hughes-Stanton (1951). Britain’s finest Modernist graphic designer, E McKnight Kauffer at his most dynamic designed the covers of the first two BBC handbooks from 1928 and 1929. The 1952 cover was designed by the illustrator, Cecil Keeling

Sunday, 23 March 2014

Industrial Grime in the Sunshine State

The British consumer is a compliant creature, always ready to pay up for the latest techno-gadgetry or dutifully embark on long-haul holiday flights to exotic destinations. Florida is one such popular choice - about one million UK citizens visit the state every year of whom two-thirds arrive in Orlando, the theme park capital of the world. For most the purpose of the trip is to haul the family around Walt Disney World, SeaWorld Orlando, Universal Studios Florida, the Orlando Odditorium – Ripley’s Believe It or Not followed by a shopping spree at the Florida Mall and a day at the beach if time permits. The visit will pass in a blur of hyper-consumption and fast food outlets. The rationale is to protect the family from any stigma that might attach to the less advantaged for whom such a trip would be unaffordable. An average visitor will discover nothing about Florida’s social or physical topography unless they have the misfortune to be a victim of crime or to fall foul of the law. 

This would not be my choice but if I was compelled by circumstances (such as a lucky raffle win with no cash alternative) to travel to Florida I would explore the industrial Florida to be seen in these postcards. Other than agribusiness the principal industries are electronics, food processing and chemicals. I’m confident I could quickly locate the least salubrious industrial suburbs and if I can’t be found there I shall be in Polk Street in Tampa observing the mile-long freight trains that nose their way through the traffic in the downtown district, as seen on YouTube. At the end of Polk Street it’s a left turn for the Tampa Museum of Art but I might just go to Clearwater for more of the same. The day’s soundtrack will be Ry Cooder’s Going to Tampa from the Election Special album. 

Friday, 21 March 2014

Boardwalk Dominion

The profusion of written signage in the urban landscape is routinely denounced by commentators on the built environment. I’m not so convinced – perhaps it’s a result of a degenerate sensibility formed in the decade of Pop Art but the way that buildings, people and advertising signage jostle together seems endlessly fascinating to me. The defenders of a pristine and unsullied cityscape may have a point where architectural excellence is concerned although for many years the Duomo in Milan was wrapped in advertising for Alitalia without any lasting damage (other than to Alitalia which had to be rescued from bankruptcy in 2013). But in those locations where architectural heritage is in short supply, inventive signage can often be an enhancement. What I enjoy is what results when undiluted commercial vulgarity saturates the environment to the point where visual coherence is fragmented and lost in a centrifuge of conflicting messages while the daily commonplace of urban life continues in a bizarre counterpoint. The best place to see this happening is the United States although I suspect that India runs it a close second. 

Atlantic City seems to be one of those places where capitalism and criminality engage in an eternal courtship ritual. The frontier between the two constantly shifts and blurs while the gambling industry makes enormous profits for some and creates enormous headaches for law enforcement and guardians of civic values. Like most seaside resorts the city must cope with persistent urban decay while changes in public taste threaten to entice visitors elsewhere. Louis Malle’s eponymous movie of 1980 painted a melancholy picture of a city in terminal decline. Casino gambling and business and political conventions have kept the place afloat since then but competition from rival cities leaves no room for complacency. The latest engine of regeneration is the association with the Prohibition-era HBO drama series, Boardwalk Empire, that has inspired more than a few nostalgia-led period attractions, re-packaging the past for contemporary consumption. 

Some of these postcards pre-date the era of Prohibition when organized crime became embedded in the city while those that include advertising for brands of beer can be dated after 1933. Advertising signage is omnipresent, even on the beach there’s no escape. The pleasures of a seaside vacation shown here are relatively innocent – a leisurely promenade in a rolling chair, decorous dancing in modesty-preserving costumes, diving elks and dance marathons at the Million Dollar Pier or just taking the bracing sea air with hats firmly in place. Every space for advertising has been seized and colonised, most notably by Sherwin-Williams whose gigantic upturned tin of paint is about to overwhelm the unwary occupants of the rolling chairs that trundle past on the Boardwalk. Visual impudence on a grand scale. Cover the Earth is no idle threat.