Be­fore con­crete

Mar­cus Bin­ney ap­plauds a new book of pho­to­graphs of metropoli­tan and ru­ral Eng­land be­tween 1870 and 1930

Country Life Every Week - - Books -

Tti­tle Lost Eng­land sug­gests a trea­sury of lost won­ders of english ar­chi­tec­ture recorded in deeply etched early black-and-white pho­to­graphs. here, how­ever, it means some­thing com­pletely dif­fer­ent. Rather in the way we now use (re­plac­ing to mean ‘Be­fore Com­mon era’, we might call the view of pre-1930 eng­land pre­sented in this sump­tu­ous 560-page tome BME— Be­fore the Mod­ernist era.

The build­ings il­lus­trated are al­most all still with us, but they of­fer no glimpse of pi­o­neer­ing Mod­ernism or the con­crete eye­sores that have placed such a blot on our high streets and city squares. In­stead, they range from Thaxted’s me­dieval guild­hall and Abra­ham Darby’s Iron Bridge in Shrop­shire to Pre­ston’s im­pos­ing Gre­cian art gallery and the Liver­pool Liver Build­ing. Many have been hand­somely re­stored and are well cared for.

Lost Eng­land: 1870–1930, which forms a se­quel to Philip Davies’s best-sell­ing Lost Lon­don: 1870– 1945, com­prises an ab­sorb­ing pic­ture gallery of al­most ev­ery mon­u­men­tal build­ing type that graces eng­land’s towns and ci­ties: town halls and mu­se­ums, law courts and li­braries, uni­ver­si­ties and hos­pi­tals, opera houses and theatres. The pub­lic build­ings of the north­ern ci­ties rank high

‘Some of the churches de­mand an ar­chi­tec­tural pil­grim­age’

among the splen­dours and many can be vis­ited to some de­gree.

Showy Vic­to­rian and ed­war­dian com­mer­cial premises in a rich mix of ma­te­ri­als and colours also fig­ure strongly, lively ex­am­ples in­clud­ing Alexan­dra house in Le­ices­ter and the frothy Vene­tian Al­bert Build­ings in the City of Lon­don. Also no­table are the in­ten­tion­ally mighty premises of dozens of pros­per­ous in­sur­ance com­pa­nies, such as the ter­ra­cot­taen­crusted Star Life build­ing in Manch­ester and the spiky Gothic Scot­tish Prov­i­dent In­sti­tu­tion in Birm­ing­ham.

Town halls form an as­tound­ing group. Leeds, by Cuth­bert Bro­drick, is as richly columned and pi­lastered as Cas­tle howard, Birm­ing­ham has a Corinthian tem­ple to ri­val La Madeleine in Paris, Wake­field is an ex­hil­a­rat­ing Art nou­veau mas­ter­piece and the Guild­hall in hull by Sir ed­win Cooper is grand enough to stand in new Delhi. Gone, alas, is Ge­orge Gil­bert Scott’s Pre­ston, whose clock tower ran St Stephen’s Tower a close sec­ond—de­mol­ished fol­low­ing fire dam­age.

By con­trast, Lu­ton has a gleam­ing Port­land stone town hall of 1936, which re­placed the 1847 one burnt down after the Mayor failed to in­vite a sin­gle ex-ser­vice­man to dinner at the Peace Cel­e­bra­tions in 1919.

Although the main fo­cus is on ci­ties, the book in­cludes many evo- cative pho­to­graphs of county and mar­ket towns, mar­ket crosses and spas and a rich gallery of me­dieval, Tu­dor and Vic­to­rian tim­ber­framed houses and inns.

Some of the churches de­mand an ar­chi­tec­tural pil­grim­age. holy Trin­ity in hull is the largest parish church in eng­land and Bos­ton’s Stump is so named be­cause it was built—in the early 1500s—with the tallest parish church tower in the land.

Who took all these won­der­ful im­ages? Sur­pris­ingly, we are not told, although a num­ber are cred­ited in the ac­knowl­edge­ments to Fran­cis Frith. This was the age of large-for­mat plate-glass pho­tog­ra­phy, at which Coun­try Life of course ex­celled. The medium achieved a range of sharp detail in both fore­ground and dis­tance never since equalled, but here the skies, by con­trast, are rather blank.

The ef­fect on some pho­to­graphs is rather dead­en­ing and, given that early pho­tog­ra­phers of­ten coaxed out skies through care­ful print­ing, it raises the ques­tion as to whether the orig­i­nal pho­tog­ra­phers’ prints (far, far the best) were used or whether new prints were made from the old, mainly glass, neg­a­tives, or mod­ern copy neg­a­tives used.

There is much fas­ci­nat­ing ma­te­rial here about ar­chi­tec­ture, but it would have been nice to have had a bit more on the pho­tog­ra­phy.

Vic­to­ria pier, Black­pool, was opened in 1893 at a cost of £50,000

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