Wednesday, 24 March 2010

The Literary 'Ghost Door' of Tooting

I do like a good 'ghost' door, and this one engraved with the name 'Norfolk House' in Tooting is a bit of a peach. I assume that in it's day it might well have been a corner shop entrance but although it's quite an 'in your face' sort of doorway, that in itself wasn't the reason that I found it intriguing.
It's actually more to do with the figures on the top of the pillars - or more correctly I suppose the faces. Quite often these faces are those of fairly anonymous classical ladies or fierce-looking blokes with beards or even a cherub or two. Whatever they are they though they do seem to be taken from a set of stock characters or archetypes and not specifically intended to depict any specific and identifiable individual

I've a feeling that these two are slightly out of the ordinary though and that there's a good chance that they depict a couple of well-known characters. The one on the left looks European, has a shaggy moustache and a very strange hat, whilst the one on the right is clean shaven with short curly or wavy hair and looks very much like a Nubian as depicted in old Egyptian paintings. 

To my eye they look like a pretty good representation of Robinson Crusoe and Friday and I would suggest that the exotic foliage around their heads represents the lush jungle of their island home. It also looks as though the Crusoe figure has been modelled on the classic depiction of him in some of the Victorian editions, like this one taken from the Wiki entry  .

I think this is looking pretty plausible, so running with it for a while I was wondering if there might be an obvious link  between Robinson Crusoe and the name of the building 'Norfolk House'.

Well after copious amounts of dedicated research (hem, hem...) I'm happy to report that there is a link, but it's not all that obvious. Crusoe, it seems, was an unlucky mariner from the very start and after running away from home and boarding a ship from Hull managed to get as far as Cromer off of the Norfolk coast before sinking! He then walked to Yarmouth where he found some aid and assistance and wondered whether the fates were trying to tell him something... Very tenuous then, but luckily not the only one as it turns out.

The other link is to do with the name 'Robinson Crusoe' itself, which when you think about it is quite an odd name. The book itself explains its background father being a foreigner of Bremen...settled first at Hull. He got a good estate by merchandise, and leaving off his trade, lived afterwards at York, from whence he had married my mother, whose relations were named Robinson, a very good family in that country, and from whom I was called Robinson Kreutznaer; but, by that usual corruption of words in England, we are now called - nay we call ourselves and write our name - Crusoe; and so my companions always called me.
This is quite a bit of background colour in order to come up with such an unusual name - why not stick to something like Jack Jones or something? - but it looks as though the author Daniel Defoe may have picked the name up already before he even wrote the book. Defoe enjoyed and wrote about the town of King's Lynn in Norfolk, and as noted on the Literary Norfolk website  'In his A Tour Through the Whole Island of  Great Britain Daniel Defoe was hugely impressed by King's Lynn preferring it, in many ways, to both Norwich and Yarmouth.'  What Defoe might also have noticed would be the graves and gravestones in St Nichols' Chapel, Kings Lynn which happen to contain the earthly remains of several individuals by the name of Robinson Cruso!

Even if there's no real solid link between the figures of Crusoe and Friday (who incidentally, survived to appear in the sequel only to die half way through with three arrows in his chest) and the county of Norfolk, it was still very intriguing to spot what seemed to be a literary reference in a spot of doorway ornamentation. 'Norfolk House' is more than likely a bit of a red-herring - it could just  be that the owner enjoyed a good read!

Wednesday, 17 March 2010

Walkie Round The (Covent) Garden

I have a basic assumption that anything interesting in Central London has probably been photographed numerous times and posted on loads of blogs, but despite that  but I still can't help taking the camera along if there's any chance that I might find myself in a new (for me) area. So a few weeks ago a trip up to town to take in some of the Chinese New Year celebrations turned into an impromptu Faded London session as a couple of interesting items caught my eye.

Almost the first thing that stood out was this Ghost Sign just down Oxford Street and easily visible when you emerge from Tottenham Court Road tube.
 It's been revealed by the knocking down of the adjacent building and I'm pretty sure that it's been the topic of posts on various other blogs and websites. I'm also sure that lots of research has been completed to find out  a bit more about Veglio's but, never afraid of being behind the times, I've had a quick go myself to see if I could get an idea of the type of eatery it was. 

One of the few direct references I could find was in  Samuel Butler - A Memoir by Henry Festing Jones. When recalling a friend of Butler's called Thomas Ballard - a decent but unworldly painter who walked the pavements with his pockets full of apples whilst reading books and weaving in and out of other pedestrians with his uncanny ability to avoid collisions - Veglio's gets a passing mention.
"I remember Ballard quite well. I have seen him with a model at Veglio's restaurant, which used to be on the Euston Road, not far from his studio. If, after a day's work, he thought that his model had not had enough to eat lately, he would bring her with him to supper. Appearances might be against him - he did not care."
Ballard was tall, thin with a straggling beard and moustache. He also had poor teeth with several of the front ones missing but although he continually underpriced his work, and was constantly broke as a result, he had a reputation for generosity and of being more than happy to give a needy soul the very shirt off of his back. And posibly of not having a huge amount of luck with the ladies...

All of which suggests that Veglio's Italian restaurant might be acceptable for the impoverished Middle Classes but probably wasn't a landmark London eatery. The Baedeker's Guide had it marked down as 'moderate' which seems about right.

 Just off Leicester Square I caught sight of some surviving tile-work that's been hemmed in, chipped about, partially covered and truncated. It's still very attractive though, even if it's major role these days is to provide an anchor for a burglar alarm.
I think most people would agree that life is made all the more interesting by a healthy dollop of whimsy now and then. Not too in your face either, just whimsical enough to catch the eye, pull in the punter and then leave them with a large, metaphorical question mark hanging over their head before the slow realisation sinks in that they've been had. Which this plaque does in spades. It's situated high up above a shop on the approaches to Leicester Square so that even on maximum zoom from the other side of the street the Faded London Box-Brownie was unable to capture it with anything other than a blurred, arm-shaken effort.
My best effort at transcription is as follows:
This plaque has been placed at the high water mark of one of the worst floods of the En'kymhirian  times. Incredibly after two years at sea on their rafts of asphalt the Tehapchapi, the great road builders of Extrellita [the initial 'K' is not usually written] nearly foundered here at the end. But that first rezhen as the waters receded, the sky cleared, revealing a sign. No new heavens at all, but, for just that one night the stars from the other side of the world and so they called the place New Extrellita the name now given to this realm of Arctic Islands
The big clue is at the bottom of the plaque which records the website and from having a look around on there it looks as though The Great Dageroo Flood is only one of a number of plaques sited around the world recording the history of a culture and civilization whose existence touches our own at various points. Basically it seems to be a fantasy and story-telling based site. So it's organised whimsy on a world-wide scale.

Cricket and Fish & Chips - what could be more evocative of England? I was really surprised to see this around the side of Leicester Square tube station, but it's such a prominent and highly visible part of the building fabric that I'd imagine that the locals are quite blasé about it.

Apparently the station was built in 1906 without the offices above, but it wasn't long before they were added and Wisden moved in. John Wisden himself was long-gone having died in 1884,  but he had a long association with the area having been in business with Fred Lillywhite, a partner who was later to be a competitor and who still has a famous store named after him. They set up "...a tabbaconist cum sporting goods depot off the Haymarket in London, subsequently relocated in Leicester Square"  (Silent Revolutions by Gideon Haigh) but whereas Lillywhites eventually survived as a sporting goods store, Wisden was the winner when it came to the publishing side of things.  
What used to be the doorway and steps up to the offices is now a small shop. Burgers, kebabs, falafals and pizzas may not be quite as English as Fish & Chips though.

I headed off toward Covent Garden down Long Acre and here on the corner of Mercer Street was intrigued to see this sign which looks in suspiciously good condition! The businesses have gone but I wonder if the owners have decided it was better to keep the signage in good condition rather than let it flake off?
 Slightly further along I was very taken with these two regal ladies sitting above the entrances to Langley House. The style of ornamentation is described as 'Flemmish Rennaisance' on a Listing Appraisal and from that it seems that a significant section of land in the area is owned by the Mercers Company, as this extract (and the name Mercer Street!) suggests
Elmfield, to the north of Long Acre, was not bought by Henry VIII, but remained in the possession of the Mercers' Company. In 1614 the Mercers granted a 30 years' lease of it to Thomas, Earl of Exeter, who in the following year sold his lease to Sir William Slingsby. The street called Long Acre was laid out at about this time by Slingsby and the Earl of Bedford, the line of the street following approximately the line of the common boundary of their properties. Thenceforth the term Long Acre was frequently applied to the ground on both sides of the street, and in 1650 when the Mercers' ground was surveyed it was referred to as "Elme Close alias Long Acre," and a certain Captain Disher tried to prove that it was part of the property purchased by Henry VIII. From: 'Long Acre', Survey of London: volume 20: St Martin-in-the-Fields, pt III: Trafalgar Square & Neighbourhood (1940), pp. 125-127.
The Worshipful Company of Mercers were basically an association of Merchants dealing mainly with the luxury end of the market and their website has a description of a mysterious figure known as The Mercer's Maiden!
 The Mercers’ Maiden is the symbol and coat of arms of the Company. She first appears on a seal in 1425. Her precise origins are unknown, and there is no written evidence as to why she was chosen as the Company’s emblem.She is often depicted wearing the fashions of any given period because she was not formally granted as a coat of arms until 1911. Over many centuries she has graced letterheads, legal documents, furnishings, and property of the Company. Maiden ‘property marks’, usually crafted out of stone, often adorned the exterior walls of buildings belonging to the Company, and are still common sights in London
So the hunt is on! These two maidens looks as though they could well have triggered a future posting about Mercer Maidens found around the city.

 The next two items are nowhere near as glamorous but they are still of interest in their own way. A while back I had a posting devoted to what I called 'wall braces' but this seemed to spark a vigorous debate on an American architectural site, the outcome of which was that as they did not push things apart as braces do, but pull them together, the correct term should be 'bearing plates'

I won't make that mistake again, so here are a couple of nice hand-made bearing plates!
And Finally, back in Long Acre the signage for another Carriage Manufactory , this time fading away gently in very low-vis yellow paint.
 That was pretty much it for my quick tour. I enjoyed the Wisden sign, decided that I hadn't missed much by not dining at Veglio's, was intrigued by the Dageroo Flood and then found out something new about the Mercer Maidens. Definitely worth taking the camera for. Chinese New Year was fun as well....

Thursday, 11 March 2010

Up The Garden Path (and what you might find there...)

I was out and about in Longley Road, Tooting this lunchtime when I noticed a couple of interesting garden paths. Now I know that's the sort of opening line that if used at a party would ensure you'd have a nice quiet evening all by yourself but it did raise the question in my mind as to the status of the humble path, not something I'd really spent much time on before (and I can't think why...)
It seems to me that most architectural detail tends to relate to the building itself but the path to the front door is often caught between two worlds. It is sometimes called upon to act as a sort of 'proto-hall' and throw its hat in with the building whilst at other times it remains resolutely part of the garden and the natural world and adapts itself fully to that particular role. Think of the differences between the extravagant mosaic or tiled path compared to the gravel drive - the former is basically saying that you're already inside (despite the lack of walls or roof) whilst the latter with its crunching not only reminds you of a beach at low tide - emphasising your sense of 'out-sideness' - but also serves as a warning of your approach. You are very much in the garden world when you walk on gravel.
Of course there's always the middle way that most of us end up with, namely of a bit of concrete, a few slabs from B&Q or a ribbon of tarmac but that seems so fully utilitarian as to be almost devoid of any imaginative spark or interest. Not that a gravel path is much better but it does at least have a sense of life about it somehow as it gets moved about into various banks and drifts, grinds satisfyingly underfoot and can even find itself being picked up and thrown around by small children, giving it a sort of kinetic quality all-round.
The examples that I found down a single road seem mostly to have been created to a specific formula and method, with a tile 'carpet' being laid into a concrete base. Most of the others haven't survived and have either been covered over or torn up, but these ones struggle on showing how difficult it is to maintain that highly desirable 'house coming out to greet you' look over any length of time. Tiles fade, crack, lift in frosts, succumb to subsidence, face an unequal struggle with mould and weeds and generally start to look a bit tatty. Of course that's when Faded London likes them best but really you'd have to admit that their glory days are pretty much behind them at that point. 

I don't think it helps that the fine old family houses they serve are now divided up into flats although it could be a double-edged sword. Would a single owner have lifted them in the 70s and put down something more modern, like the neighbours? Or could it be that having an absentee landlord means that they are willing to leave the paths there for as long as possible, even if they're not going to maintain them?
The most successful survivors seem to be the paths based on solid blocks of colour - mini-mosaics that retain the layout and the depth of colour - but the most interesting are those that use tiles with patterns or designs on them. You know there's no chance of finding replacements for those tiles that have given up the ghost and been rubbed bare and once these paths get past a certain point you know it'll only be a matter of time before they're gone for good
So although I'm willing to accept that they may not be the most exciting of objects I do have to admit to finding them quite appealing and more than worthy enough for a brief acknowledgement and a salute before any final appointment with a pick-axe and a small skip.

Tuesday, 2 March 2010

Ancient Lights

I'd first noticed this curious sign on the side of a pub in Wimbledon but on a recent walk around the Covent Garden area - and with a bit of poking about in some of the side alleys - I found another example. They obviously serve some legal point and the fact that the signage is so bold certainly makes them stick out, so it was on to Google for a bit of research...

The origins for these signs can be found in English Common Law and the legal right to access light. Of course Wikipedia seems to have the most 'illuminating' (boom, boom!) definition on the web which tells you all you ever needed or wanted to know, but that's not much fun for me just to point you there so I'm going to summarise it anyway...  
On the side of The Rose & Crown, Wimbledon
There doesn't seem to have been any specific right for a building to access light before about 1832 and presumably as glass windows were a thing for the wealthy and often subject to tax, it wouldn't have been much of an issue before then anyway. On the contrary, in fact, bricking-in windows seems to have been the norm rather than fighting for natural light. It was The Prescription Act (1832) which introduced Ancient Lights and basically said that if someone had been enjoying light through a window for a minimum of 20 years then they could effectively block any attempt to build in front of it if the new building diminished the amount of light they received and caused them a nuisance.

One interesting section of the Act said that the owner could enlarge the window, but the enlarged section itself would also have to remain unblocked for 20 years before it attained the same Ancient Light rights. In the meantime the neighbours could erect a screen to block off light to the enlarged section but not the existing Ancient Lights portion in order to prevent granting of the new rights!
Alley in the vicinity of Leicester Square

Needless to say defining exactly how much light can be obscured before your Ancient Light has been shaded to the point of being a nuisance seems to be a point of much debate and discussion!

The American Legal System took a more pragmatic approach, which might explain the proliferation of towering skyscrapers on Manhattan

The doctrine of ancient lights has not been adopted in the United States since it would greatly hinder commercial and residential growth and the expansion of towns and cities. - West's Encyclopedia of American Law