A Modernist castle
Boldly conceived by a leading shoe manufacturer and his wife in 1908, this house, recently restored, elicited much comment, as Oliver Gerrish explains Upmeads, Staffordshire The home of Alun Rogers and Michelle Brabbins
The boldly conceived Upmeads in Staffordshire elicited much comment when it was built in 1908, says Oliver Gerrish
Upmeads stands in the suburbs of stafford and has inspired strong feelings, both positive and negative, since it was built in 1908. It was created for a remarkable couple, Frederick and mabel Bostock, who were both members of the plymouth Brethren and shared a common ancestor, the Rev William Henry dorman, who played a major role in the formation of this evangelical group.
The Bostock family founded the celebrated Lotus shoe company of stafford in 1759 and continued to dominate the industrial, civic and cultural life of the county town. Frederick was interested in architecture and his wife (née dorman) had trained as an artist at the Birmingham school of art, the bastion of the arts-and-crafts movement. mabel’s brother, John, was a close friend of Frank Lloyd Wright.
according to family tradition, the new house was an attempt to upstage shawms, a nearby country house that had been designed by H. T. sandy for Frederick’s elder brother. It was completed in 1905 and described by pevsner as ‘a house in the Voysey style—original in essentials but not yet out of sympathy with the past’. To design Upmeads, the Bostocks turned to the arts-and-crafts architect edgar Wood, who was of Unitarian stock, a founder of the Northern artworkers Guild and a friend of Charles Rennie mackintosh.
It is not quite clear how they chose him, but family tradition states that he was recommended by Sandy after his own proposals for a house were rejected as being insufficiently bold. Whatever the case, in the long run, Mabel came both to dislike the architect and the home he created for her.
The name of the house is probably borrowed from a medieval story, The Well at the World’s
End, written in 1896 by William Morris, which refers to ‘the little hills of Upmeads’. This association presumably explains the castle-like air of the building, which is planned on a square footing and has bold massing reminiscent of Vanburgh. It’s also Wood’s most confident attempt at a flatroofed house, which began with 36, Mellalieu Street (1906) in Middleton, Manchester, and was then followed by Dalnyveed (1907) in Hertfordshire, a house often mistaken for Upmeads.
The whole is constructed of 2in Staffordshire brick, hard burnt and of broken purple and grey-red tones, with dressings of Bath stone (Fig 5). Incidentally, the bricks are not laid in a regular bond with headers and stretchers, as you would expect in a building of quality. Rather, they are all placed with the long side of the brick facing outwards laid as stretchers. The house was built by Espley & Sons of Stafford.
Upmeads is approached from a right angle at the end of a straight drive. The house emerges suddenly on the left from between two lodge-like buildings that formerly accommodated a garage and services. Originally, these were both of a single storey, the garage block having been heightened by another storey soon after completion to accommodate the chauffeur. The main front is imposing and restrained, with a central doorway. This bold and avant-garde façade was akin to the new work of Walter Gropius and Adolf Meyer for their industrial clients. A drawing of the entrance front of Upmeads was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1908.
Gouged out above it is a three-bay reverse bow (Fig 1), a feature that calls to mind the work of Wood’s contemporary Josef Hoffmann, in his work at the Palais Stoclet in Brussels. Surmounting the whole is a wide tower, which is visually connected to the lower level of the façade by a vertical band of stone that incorporates the front door and two windows.
Over the door is a carved motif suggestive of a portcullis with the date 1908 and, above this, is a boldly carved decorative panel incorporating Frederick’s and Mabel’s initials. Wood had visited Spain in 1908, which may have been an influence for his interest in geometric patterns.
Fig 1 above: The curved entrance bow. Above the door is a pattern like a portcullis and the date 1908. Carved in the stonework are the initials of the builders and a Spanishinspired pattern. Fig 2 right: A view towards the central hall, with its ottoman
Fig 3 above: The marble fireplace and panelling of the principal bedroom. Fig 4 left: One of the bedrooms preserves its original wallpaper, possibly to a design by Klimt