Monday, 21 December 2015

Glasgow: House for an Art Lover

The house for an Art Lover

There is a wonderful story behind the House for an Art Lover in Bellahouston Park. In 1902 Charles Rennie Mackintosh and his wife Margaret Macdonald entered a design competition run by a German design magazine to design a house suitable for someone who was an art lover. 43 entries were received but no first prize was awarded. The Mackintoshes were disqualified on the grounds that they had not submitted the full required set of drawings, but they did win a special prize for "pronounced personal quality, novel and austere form and the uniform configuration of interior and exterior".

Then 80 years later a Consulting Engineer named Graham Roxburgh who was responsible for restoring Mackintosh interiors in nearby Craigie Hall, had the idea to finally build the House for an Art Lover. Work began in 1989 and the House opened to the public in 1996, after delays caused by the recession. Purists stress that it is an interpretation of Mackintosh's design as it includes a café which was of course not part of the original design and the top storey does not contain the rooms specified in the original design.To my mind, it is probably best seen after other Mackintosh work in Glasgow, when it becomes clear that it epitomises most of what is best of Mackintosh's art.

You enter through the gift shop in the bottom right corner of the facade and then go upstairs to an exhibition which sets the scene by describing the story of how the House was built. A free audio guide gives a detailed account of each room. A recurrent feature is the research that the numerous craftsmen and women had to do to turn the designs and images into a completed building.

The first room is the Oval Room with classic tall Mackintosh chairs and an absolutely exquisite glass lampshade. Fitted seats either side of the window create a space for people to chat.

Next door is the astonishing Music Room. You enter from a dark hallway into a a room filled with light from the tall windows and pale decorative. This a normal feature of Mackintosh's houses and is remarkably effective. The windows are separated by tall, tapering posts and the excellent free audio guide explains that these are symbolic trees - they have stylised green leaves at the top. Outside is a large terrace. 

The fireplace is a tremendous ensemble. I thought that the piano setting at the other end was less pleasing.

From the Music Room you emerge into the dark hall again to explore its decorative charms, notably the beautiful stained glass panels set into the party wall and the silver panels on the two main columns which hold up a gallery.

The Hall leads into the Dining Room, always dark in Mackintosh's houses. We read somewhere that this was to show off the brilliant white shirts of the male diners and and the brightly coloured tops of their female companions. This may have been the effect, but it is hard to believe that Mackintosh would have had such a trivial objective.

We admired the delicate hanging lights. The gesso panels just below the ceiling are delightful ...

... as is the rose wall surrounding the fireplace.

Off the hall, in a lobby leading to a private area, I spotted another superb piece of stained glass in door.

And climbing the stairs to the gallery brought this staggering light fitting into view, with delicate painted glass in the window behind it.

Around the back of the House is the Elephant for Glasgow sculpture by Kenny Hunter. It was cast in part from recycled, redundant or scrap parts of locomotives, sourced in India and South Africa, that were originally built in Glasgow. It is seen as a symbol of Glasgow's historic role as a "workshop of the world". I rather liked it.

Completing the anti-clockwise tour of the outside you reach what I now see is the main entrance, featuring the portico which once belonged to Ibrox Hill House, a mansion demolished in 1914 which stood on the site now occupied by House for an Art Lover.

Conditions: very wet and cloudy for the most part.

Distance: it is a mile so from Ibrox metro station, past the famous football stadium.

Rating: five stars. An absolute gem.

Sunday, 20 December 2015

Glasgow: Mackintosh church, Art Scool and Willow Tea Rooms

The Mackintosh church

We are in Glasgow for a mini break with the principal aim of seeing as much of Charles Rennie Mackintosh's work as possible. We decided to start at the Mackintosh church at Queen's Cross, taking the metro to Cowcaddens and walking about a mile up Maryhill Road. The church was built for the Free Church of Scotland and the design brief required a simple design. It was completed in 1899 and became redundant in 1976. Soon after it became the headquarters of the Charles Rennie Mackintosh Society.

The exterior is quite squat and lumpy and has the unusual feature of a corner tower which becomes narrower as it goes up. It was apparently based on a Medieval church in Somerset  and on Norman Shaw's Holy Trinity, Latimer Road. The irregularly placed windows are typical of Mackintosh.

Although looking rather austere from the outside, there are still some delightful flower motifs of the kind that Mackintosh incorporated in all his designs. This is a close up of the area above the main entrance (on the right of the exterior).

The interior seems fairly plain at first and is dominated by the wonderful "blue heart" window at the east end and by the barrel vault with its steel cross-beams.

Here is a close up of the window showing the unusual tracery and the variegated shades of blue as well as the stylised flowers beloved of Makintosh.

At the west end there is another stained glass window with more minimal stained glass.

There are also two galleries and scattered throughout the church, on the pulpit, on the capitals of the columns holding up the galleries, on doors and woodwork there are delightful floral details. They are quite unobtrusive and one wonders if Macintosh almost smuggled them in when the church.

We headed back down the hill and headed towards Renfrew St. Here is Mackintosh's most famous building, the Glasgow School of Art. It was built in two phases between 1896-99 and 1907-09. A serious fire in 2014 caused serious damage including the destruction of Mackintosh's famous library.

Approaching the building uphill from the east, it can be seen that about half it is swathed in scaffolding. The large windows light a series of studios and looking at the east end it is striking how one half is completely blank, while the other has a variety of windows, mouldings and a turreted staircase. This was a clear example of exterior design rigorously following internal function, and was quite controversial at the time.

This is a view of the front of the building with its famous entrance.

I have seen many pictures of the School of Art entrance, but what I hadn't previously spotted was the amount of ornamental ironwork, including fence posts and even a street lamp. The fence posts seem to be sprouting a clump of tulips.

From the School of Art it is only a short hop to Sauchiehall Street and the Willow Tea Rooms. This was converted from a warehouse in 1903 to designs by Mackintosh and his wife Margaret Macdonald. The client, Catherine (Kate) Cranston had four such enterprises in the city which provided places for people, especially women, to meet without the temptation of the demon drink. Mackintosh was involved in the design of all of these, but only the Willow Tea Room remains. Over time it was incorporated into a department store and became its tea room. It was refurbished in the 1980s.

The ground floor is now the gift shop, but the first floor houses one of two tea rooms. It is pale coloured with ladder-back chairs and geometrical and flower motifs.

The real glory of the Willow Tea Rooms however is the Room Deluxe on the second floor. This smallish square room is surrounded on three sides by an extraordinary frieze of purple glass in a elaborate leadwork design.

The chairs are more elaborate than downstairs and the window has exquisite stylised tulips, which are gold on the inside and silver outside (see the exterior photo above).

On the top floor is the former Billiard Room. This houses a small exhibition and has an original fireplace. But the best bit is the high window with this series of brilliant blue glass panels.

Conditions: rainy and cloudy.

Distance: no more than 3 miles.

Rating: five stars.

Monday, 14 December 2015

London: Mayfair


I picked this walk around Mayfair from the excellent London's Hidden Walks (vol 1) by Stephen Millar; it starts from Piccadilly Circus. Naturally, my first picture was of Eros, but how many people know that it commemorates the 7th Earl of Shaftesbury, the great Victorian philanthropist. Eros was the son of Aphrodite and god of love in Greek mythology, so what is the link? The sculptor intended the statue to represent Anteros (Eros's twin brother, god of unrequited love - it's no clearer why this was thought appropriate), but others have claimed it represents the Angel of Christian Charity. Nowadays, no-one seems too worried by any of this.

Just along Piccadilly there is St James's church by Wren, strangely not mentioned in the walk description. A mouthwatering food market was in full swing.

Further along on the left is The Albany, an 18th century house which was converted in 1802 into bachelor apartments. Edward Heath lived there.

Set back from the road in a similar way is Burlington House, home of the Royal Academy of Arts. In the courtyard is the well-named Tree by Ai Weiwei (part of his exhibition which has just closed). Ai’s trees are made from parts of dead trees from the mountains of southern China. They are curiously affecting.

On the other side of the road is Fortnum & Mason whose famous clock dates only from 1964. When the clock strikes the hour the figures of Mr Fortnum and Mr Mason emerge from the two boxes.

Now for Burlington Arcade, also not mentioned in the walk description, opened in 1819.

A right turn brings you into Albemarle St where 45-6 is an influential modernist building of 1957 by the Hungarian architect, Ernö Goldfinger. I can't say I like it. Perhaps this is why Goldfinger's name was borrowed by Ian Fleming for one of his Bond villains.

Also in Albemarle St is the Royal Arcade of 1879. It and the Burlington Arcade are certainly as impressive as the Paris arcades we saw on a walk there in 2010.

The route now meanders through Dover St, Hay Hill and Curzon St, passing through the charming Shepherd Market to return to Curzon St and head left up Chesterfield Gardens. Many places highlighted in the description are where famous people lived or died. I can't usually summon much enthusiasm for this, but I was struck by 4 Chesterfield St which had accommodated both Beau Brummel and Sir Anthony Eden.

The route continues to the lifeless Berkeley Square and then into Mount Street, which is home to a number of impressive red brick and terracotta buildings.

The pretty Mount Street Gardens leads to the Church of the Immaculate Conception, a catholic church of 1849 with an elaborate altar by AWN Pugin.

You emerge from the gardens into South Audley Street and the Grosvenor Chapel build in 1730 for the Grosvenor Estate, which continues to own much of the land in this area

South Audley Street leads into Grosvenor Square, the second largest in London after Trafalgar Square. It is dominated by the American embassy on the west side. There is a nice statue of Franklin D Roosevelt on the north side

You leave the square from the north east corner and walk up Duke St to find the delightful Brown Hart Gardens. They were laid out in 1903 above an electricity sub-station, but closed from the mid 1980s to 2007. The decking reminded me of the High Line linear park in New York.

Opposite is the Ukranian Catholic Cathedral of the Holy Family in Exile. It was designed by Alfred Waterhouse and was previously a Congregational church.

The walk continues back to Piccadilly Circus, but I left it here.

Conditions: pretty grey.

Distance: About 2.5 miles.

Rating: three stars. Interesting enough, but no real stand-out sights. I did not find myself in sympathy with Mayfair's aura of wealth and privililege.

Sunday, 22 November 2015


Rochester Castle

I have been meaning to visit Rochester since I read the sad tale of its loss of city status. It had been a  city since 1211, but ceased to officially be one because of an administrative oversight. The former Rochester-upon-Medway City Council neglected to appoint ceremonial Charter Trustees when Medway became a unitary authority in 1998. Unfamiliar with the archaic rules governing city status, they did not realize that Charter Trustees would be needed to protect the city's status. Consequently Rochester was removed from the Lord Chancellor's official list of UK cities. There does not seem to be a route back.

I started my walk at the railway station and turned right into quiet upper part of the High St. Crossing Station Hill, you enter the more characterful and livelier part and soon pass a section of town wall on the right and a handsome half-timbered house on the left.

A little further along on the right is La Providence. This was originally founded in the City of London in 1718 as a hospital for Huguenot refugees and later relocated to Hackney. It was further relocated in 1959 when this pleasant square of early Victorian houses was acquired and refitted as sheltered accommodation for elderly people of Huguenot descent. It is perhaps slightly surprising that such people can still be readily identified.

Next is a more conventional almshouse, Watts's Charity, the Poor Travellers House, endowed by the will of Richard Watts in 1579 to provide a night's lodging for six poor travellers. It apparently continued in this role until the Second World War.

Then the narrow street suddenly opens out on the left hand side to offer a great view of the Norman cathedral, begun in 1080 on the site of a Saxon cathedral dating from 604. It claims to be the second oldest in the country (I think Durham is the oldest).

Continuing along the High S, you come to the old Corn Exchange, with its large clock. Unfortunately, it is currently concealed behind scaffolding.

Continuing along the High St towards the river Medway, you come to the imposing Guildhall of 1687 - it too was hidden behind scaffolding. Turning left at the, you approach the keep of the Norman castle. This is the tallest one in the country (113 feet high) and was started in 1127.

Circling round the perimeter of the keep (you can visit, but I did not have time today), you come out in front of the cathedral, with its magnificent facade and dramatic silhouette.

Inside, the nave has classic Norman round arches with geometrical patterns above them.

In the choir there is a lovely fragment of a medieval wall painting.

As you emerge from the west door, there is a great view across to the Castle, indicating how large the surrounding walls were (this is the photo at the head of this post. Turning left and left again into St Margaret's St, there is a view of the 15th century Prior's gate, the most compelte of the three gates to the cathedral close.

I walked along St Margaret's St in search of some of Rochester's lesser-known sights, its fine almshouses. On the right, is this imposing building of 1724, once a workhouse (a relatively early example) and school, and now part of King's School.

At the top of the hill, a delightful terrace of three houses had beautiful art nouveau floral decorations above the windows.

Further on I came upon this splendid fortification, Fort Clarence. It was built between 1808 and 1812 to defend Rochester from land attack or river landing and originally stretched from Maidstone Rd to the River Medway. Some parts of the structure were demolished in the 1930s and again in the 1960s. It is now apartments.

Now along Borstal Road and left into Priestfields to reach Foord's Almshouses of 1927, by the architect E Guy Dawber. This is an impressive, large group in a very traditional style for the date.

At the end of Priestfields, I turned left into Maidstone Rd, now heading back towards the town centre, and found Watts' Almshouses of 1858 on the left. This is a long and ornate terrace, set back from the road, with an extrordinary building in the centre. The invaluable Images of England website descibes it as "a good example of vigorous, studiedly detailed, mid-Victorian C17 domestic revival architecture".

It remained only to plod back to the station.

Conditions: a really nice, bright day.

Distance: about 6 miles.

Rating: five stars.