Sunday, 13 May 2018

Ghost signs (133): just Dubonnet

Things have been quiet here for a few weeks, mostly thanks to my being on holiday. And of course, no holiday would be complete without a holiday ghost sign photo!

Presumably, the instructions to this signwriter were to paint 'Dubonnet'. He did literally that. There are no flourishes, no slogans, not even a quirky misspelling. Just 'Dubonnet' in big, bold letters. Well, it certainly gets the message across!

The sign is in Saint Coulomb, halfway along the road between Cancale and Saint Malo, Brittany. The small town also boasts another bit of old signage, rather more satisfying, on a pleasingly idiosyncratic building. This is the post office - or 'Post, Telegraph and Telephone' office, as it was in 1930. 

Sunday, 1 April 2018

Hackney Round Chapel, Acousticons, and second chances

The Round Chapel in Hackney has an impressive exterior, but opportunities to see the interior are limited. I managed it a few years ago during Open House London - but then somehow lost the photographs! Happily, a second chance came when I attended a concert here.

The chapel is misnamed since, behind its rounded front, it extends straight back to make a horseshoe shape. (Admittedly, 'the horseshoe chapel' might have been a more confusing nickname.) The building opened in 1871 to accommodate a fast-growing congregation. They attended the non-conformist United Reformed Church which had been based at the nearby Old Gravel Pit Chapel since 1804, but now needed more room - not to mention that their first home had become structurally unsound, and its lease was coming to an end. Both the local population and the congregation had expanded rapidly in recent decades, prompting the building of a new chapel in a new suburb, Clapton Park. 

The Round Chapel's architect was Henry Fuller, who also designed other non-conformist buildings in the area. Perry and Co won the £10,000 tender to build it, although the final cost was more than double that. The money did pay for a fine building, with its attractively tiled and grated floors and soaring spaces.

The cast iron columns were rather controversial, associated more with railway stations and (gasp) music halls than places of worship. These are rather light and elegant, however, with their graceful lattices supporting a capacious gallery which runs around three sides.

The tiled corridor running around the outside of the auditorium allowed the large numbers attending to move around the building more quickly.

At the back of the chapel are several rows of pews, with doors at the ends. These were presumably intended to damp down background sound, for these seats were fitted with an Acousticon.

Several instruction plaques and one set of control buttons still survive. The Church Acousticon was a hearing aid system which could be installed in a place of worship for the use of its deaf congregants. An Ardente amplifier was wired in, and earpieces were then plugged into sockets at the seats. 

An advertisement from 1933 makes it clear that these devices were heavily promoted to non-conformist congregations, and offered on a free trial basis to them. The publicity claimed that it had been installed in over 4,000 churches including Wesley's Chapel. The remainder of the 4,000 would not all have been in Britain: the company was American, with General Acoustics their British agents. The aggressive marketing continued in the chapel itself: the instruction plaque concludes with the information that 'For hearing general Conversation, small portable sets, invisible when in use, can be obtained.' In the same period, Acousticon were also advertising to cinemas, warning them that without the devices they would lose their deaf customers thanks to 'Talkies'. Not only would the system pay for itself, but it could be obtained on 'hire maintenance terms' as well as outright purchase.

However, by the time the system was installed, the chapel's best days were already over. Its congregation declined throughout the twentieth century, and finally left it in the 1980s. In 1991, Hackney Historic Buildings Trust took over the chapel, which was substantially restored. It is now enjoying a new life as an events venue, a role to which it is very well-suited.

Friday, 23 March 2018

Tunnel Visions: Array

Beech Street tunnel is generally a rather uninspiring and polluted space, taking pedestrians and vehicles underneath the Barbican complex. Unless you're using the bus stop, you're unlikely to want to linger. However, for a couple of days, people were queuing to get in! 

On 17 and 18 March, the tunnel was closed to traffic and became the venue for a sound and light installation, Tunnel Visions: Array. Sheltered from the snow falling outside - if not from the freezing temperatures - the audience experienced a half-hour show. Contemporary classical piece Karawane, by Esa-Pekka Salonen, played as banks of projectors played a digital artwork across the tunnel ceiling and walls. 

For the length of the performance, the space was 'animated' by art as the organisers intended. Unfortunately, it's not an effect which can survive the return of traffic; but for a few hours, the tunnel was truly transformed.

Saturday, 17 March 2018

Acme Electric Co (Finsbury)

An exposed shop sign on Great Eastern Street, Shoreditch reads 'Acme Electric Co (Finsbury) Ltd'. It looks like a momentary exposure, while work is carried out, but similar photos were taken over a year ago so work must be progressing slowly. 

There is very little information online about this company, but they were the distributors for Ajax calculators and transistor radios, and a 1970 copy of Billboard's International Tape Directory lists them under audio tape 'playback equipment manufacturers and importers'. The company had been dissolved in 1968, but was incorporated again at the beginning of that year. It is unclear how long this second incarnation lasted, but it is now dissolved. 

Like the shop, electric calculators and cassette recorders have largely disappeared from our everyday lives - but this sign offers, for now, a little reminder of that not-so-distant technological past. 

Saturday, 3 March 2018

Napoleon in York

Think of Napoleon, and what other word comes to mind? It might be France, Emperor, or Waterloo - maybe 'short' since the myth of his small stature has proved remarkably persistent - but it probably won't be 'snuff'. Yet that was exactly the association a York tobacconist expected their customers to make. 

The wooden statue of Napoleon is now in the Merchant Adventurers' Hall in York, but for a century and a half he stood outside the premises of Mr Clarke in Bridge Street. He had been brought over from France in 1822, along with two other Napoleons who went to Leeds and London; neither are thought to have survived. Apparently, they cost £50 each - equivalent to several thousand pounds today - and he is carved from oak. 

York's Napoleon had his own misadventures: during the Second World War, celebrating soldiers threw him in the River Ouse; and once, accidentally left out overnight, he was taken into police custody and had to be retrieved from the cells. In 1973, Napoleon moved to Judith Thorpe's shop in Lendal, York, where he was apparently particularly popular with French visitors. He stayed outside the shop until moving to the Hall in 1997. 

But still, why Napoleon? The answer is that he was known for taking snuff. However, if his valet is to be believed, that reputation was somewhat overblown: 
although he wasted a great quantity of it, he really used very little, as he took a pinch, held it to his nose simply to smell it, and let it fall immediately. It is true that the place where he had been was covered with it; but his handkerchiefs, irreproachable witnesses in such matters, were scarcely stained, and although they were white and of very fine linen, certainly bore no marks of a snuff-taker. Sometimes he simply passed his open snuff-box under his nose in order to breathe the odor of the tobacco it contained.
Nonetheless, it may have had a special resonance in York: one of the Yorkshire regiments, the Green Howards, hold a gold snuffbox given by Napoleon to Marechal Ney. The treasure, with its portrait of the Emperor on its lid, was seized from Ney's coach at Waterloo and became a prize exhibit in the regimental museum. Perhaps that helps explain why York kept its wooden figure long after London. 

As for that statue of Napoleon in London, I haven't yet found where it was displayed. If anybody has information about it, please share it in the comments. 

Thursday, 22 February 2018

Ghost signs (132): repainted

There's an ongoing debate about the preservation of ghost signs. Very few have any formal protection, but should they be cared for in other ways? In particular, is it good or bad to put them behind plastic, or even to repaint them altogether? 

The latter approach has been taken for a number of signs. Two Yorkshire examples are the Palace Hotel sign in Leeds, and the Bile Beans advertisement in York. 

The restoration of the Leeds sign has been carefully done. It is clearly brighter and sharper than would otherwise be the case, but it feels 'right'. While the Palace is still there, Melbourne Ales (a Leeds brewery) are gone - taken over by Tetley in 1960 - so this is a tangible link to Leeds' brewing past. 

The York sign proclaiming that Bile Beans keep you healthy, bright-eyed and slim is very popular locally. It even has its own mugs and shirts. However, it is also a restoration, and not the first, as York Stories and Ghost Signs have explored. The original sign was exposed in the 1960s, somewhat faded, when a hoarding was removed; in 1986, it was repainted by York Arts Forum at local people's request and the manufacturer Fison's expense (ironically, just as they were discontinuing the production of bile beans). In 2012, money was raised locally to pay for a second repainting; as a result, the sign is vivid and crisp - but hardly authentic. Reaction was mixed; there has even been a comma controversy

What we gain in clarity, we lose in authenticity. On the other hand, we do get a clearer sense of the original impact of these adverts. We may also have our assumptions challenged: the Leeds sign 'feels' more authentic because its colours look vintage. That's not so true of the bright yellow in York, which may nonetheless be more palatable to our tastes than the 'original ghastly ochre colour' the first restoration eschewed. It is a worthwhile reminder that just because its survivals tend to be faded and subtle, vintage wall advertising was not!

Should ghost signs be restored? It's a debate with no obvious answer. However, perhaps the last word on the restored Bile Beans sign should go to York Civic Trust director Peter Brown: 'It puts a smile on your face'.  

Friday, 2 February 2018

Any old iron...

The Old Wye Bridge, Chepstow, is an elegant structure which also offers fine views of the town's castle. It is also a rather impressive piece of engineering history: the largest surviving iron arch bridge from the early nineteenth century. Soon, suspension bridges would be preferred for longer crossings: fifteen years after the Old Wye Bridge opened in 1816, construction began on one of the most famous examples of the newer technology, the Clifton Suspension Bridge

However, when the bridge was opened, it was a very modern replacement for its predecessor.  Cast iron was a new construction material, quite a contrast to the previous wooden bridge with its a few stone piers. Responsibility for its maintenance had been shared by the two counties at either end, Monmouthshire and Gloucestershire, since 1576. Neither seems to have discharged that responsibility with great enthusiasm: the bridge suffered everything from benign neglect to deliberate destruction (the latter by Royalist forces during the Civil War). A replacement was already being suggested in 1768, but smaller, poorer Monmouthshire was unwilling to pay an equal contribution to Gloucestershire. The plans fell into abeyance until 1810. 

That year, the bridge was dangerously decayed, and John Rennie was commissioned to produce designs. Their cost led to further delay, but matters were brought to a head in 1812 when a ship hit and partially demolished the bridge. Six people died in the accident. At last, a new bridge was agreed - designed and built by Hazeldine, Rastrick and Co (better known for their work on early railway steam engines). Their bridge cost far less than the abandoned Rennie design, but the saving was not at the expense of style. Its five cast-iron arches on stone pillars are now Grade-I listed. 

The bridge in 1820 (National Library of Wales)
Its later life has not been untroubled. Traffic has changed enormously in quantity, size and weight since it was built, and strengthening was required in 1889 and 1979. However, a few years later a new road bridge took most of the traffic, and the bridge stands serene once more. 

Friday, 26 January 2018

Devenport Mausoleum, Greenwich

Next to the National Maritime Museum, a modest building in a modest garden bears quiet witness to the former use of these grounds. It is the Devenport Mausoleum, in the grounds of the former Devenport Nurses' Home, now a hotel. Even earlier, though, these grounds were the cemetery of the Royal Hospital for Seamen across the road. 

In the century from 1749, 24,000 people (mostly men) were buried here, with funerals held on Tuesdays and Fridays. We can be sure of the start date because a plaque on the mausoleum marks the first burial on 5 July 1749, of Pensioner John Merriton. The mausoleum itself was built the following year and sits above burial vaults which extend far beyond the limits of the building above-ground. It was used to commemorate the officers buried here. 

Among those in the vaults are Sir Thomas Hardy (now best remembered for his presence at Admiral Nelson's death) and Nelson's servant Tom Allen. He is in the company of Admiral Lord Hood, who fought in the American War of Independence. The names of others appears in a carved list on the internal wall; it replaces original tablets damaged during the Second World War. 

The burials stopped in 1857, when the cemetery became full, and the land became a pleasure ground for boys at the Royal Hospital School. (The replacement burial ground is itself now a park, East Greenwich Pleasaunce.)  One of the school's headteachers has the only bust inside the mausoleum: presented to him on retirement, it was given to the school after his death. 

A number of graves were cleared in 1875 to make way for a wing of the museum. The nurses' home, and more clearances, followed in 1929. Only a few gravestones - and the mausoleum, restored by the University of Greenwich in 1999 - remain. 

Although the mausoleum is usually kept firmly locked, it is opened to the public for a few days a year: I visited during Open House Weekend. Those events offer the opportunity to explore one of the less obvious historical features of this World Heritage Site.

Sunday, 14 January 2018

Ghost signs (131): Venetian mosaics

There is limited scope for ghost signs on Venice's streets, simply because most streets are so narrow and their buildings are crammed in so tightly that highly-visible gable ends are uncommon. Some businesses responded creatively, by placing mosaic adverts on the pavements. 

My first, and very favourite, find was this wonderful travel agency mosaic complete with aeroplanes. SAIET were established in 1952 and still operate in the Veneto, offering freight shipping services by road, boat and air. 71G San Marco, at the outer corner of St Mark's Square, is now an art gallery. 

Another travel agency (now apparently gone) and American Express remind the pedestrian that they are in the tourist heart of the city, near St Mark's Square.

AmEx travellers' cheques cashed, food and entertainment were waiting nearby. The Martini night club seems to have disappeared. There is still a Taverna dei Dogi, although it may not be the same one.

Further north, in Cannaregio, the casino also seeks to tempt tourists to part company with their  holiday money. 

Ironically, the most restrained sign is advertising a mosaic-maker in Dorsoduro. However, their Grand Canal facade does a better job of showcasing their wares. Salviati himself was a lawyer, not a glassmaker, but he founded the company in 1859 alongside craftsman Lorenzo Radi and contributed a talent for marketing. (Their London showroom on Regent Street is now an Apple Store but still displays beautiful mosaics on its facade, too.)

I haven't been able to find much information about this form of pavement advertising. If anyone knows of its history, it would be wonderful to learn more!

Saturday, 6 January 2018

Ghost signs (130): Pickering and Mayell

In Birmingham's Jewellery Quarter is a building full of fantastic historical features, not least the ghost signs painted along its front and side facades. Pickering and Mayell Ltd was founded in 1913, not as a jeweller but rather to make the packaging in which other firms' jewellery was supplied. Twenty years ago, it merged with the Pickering Group and it still supplies its products to clients ranging from Argos to luxury brands. 

Their original premises began life in the early nineteenth century as a pair of homes. The style of the building, and features such as the doorframe, are continuing evidence of those beginnings. To its rear are purpose-built workshops.

The building is Grade II listed; and included in the listing text is its wonderful window panel bearing the company name and street number. 

Another distinctive feature is the cast-iron letterbox with its unusual semi-circular shape. This design is characteristic of the Jewellery Quarter, with a number of surviving examples to be found.

Inevitably, my favourite feature is the street sign! Not only the name, but also the cast iron  sign itself, are fantastic. The crescent heads on the cast-iron railings are another local style. 

Pickering and Mayell are no longer at these premises, however. They have moved into the building of the Talbot Group a little way down the road.

This building is a wonderful piece of the Jewellery Quarter's past. Let's hope it has a happy future.

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