Saturday, April 21, 2012

Lost Victorian Britain by Gavin Stamp

I have just spent three nights at the Hotel Russell on Russell Square in Bloomsbury. It is a striking building by Charles Fitzroy Doll, clad in thé-au-lait terracotta and completed in 1898. Doll also worked on the Titanic, and it is said that his dining room on the ship was an almost exact copy of the one he designed for the Hotel Russell.

But there used to be an even more remarkable Charles Fitzroy Doll hotel on the east side of Russell Square. The Imperial Hotel. It opened in 1911 and was designed in a style Pevsner described as a "vicious mixture of Art Nouveau Gothic and Art Nouveau Tudor".

It lasted little more than 50 years, as it was demolished in 1966. Stamp tells us that its demise was partly due to a lack of bathrooms - though the restoration of St Pancras shows that can be overcome if there is a will - and to the Greater London Council's declaration that "the whole frame was so structurally unsound that there was no possibility of saving it if a preservation order had been placed on the building". However, he suspects that its loss had more to do with changing tastes in architecture than its structural condition.

The new Imperial is a notably grim building, but there are a few remnants of the original to be found if you know where to look. London Remembers tells us that the decoration from its Turkish baths can be seen:
Two groups of statues line the entrance to the underground car-park. There are six life-size, scantily clad allegorical women, two of them clutch books helpfully entitled "Literature" and "Chemistry"; one clutches a mask - indicating "Theatre" but the other three aren't telling. 
And there are ... 21 Tudor characters, each about 2 foot tall. The 5 bells, in decreasing size are embossed: United Kingdom MCMXII {1912}, India, Canada, Australia, South Africa. The bells and the galleon are on the casino facade.
I came across a second building from Lost Victorian Britain this morning in Ian Jack's Guardian column. He writes about the extraordinary Victorian philanthropist Angela Burdett-Coutts:
friend of Dickens and Disraeli, brazen proposer of marriage to the far older Duke of Wellington, and patron of dozens of good causes, including the charities that became the NSPCC and the RSPCA. Edward VII said that, after his mother, she was the most remarkable woman in England.
One cause she took up was providing the poor of Bethnal Green with better food by providing a covered market that traders could use without paying tolls. Jack continues:
Miss Burdett-Coutts never did things by halves. She spent £200,000 on a Gothic extravaganza that, on the evidence of old photographs, looks more like the college of an ancient university than a rendezvous for cabbage and cod. It had four-storey buildings arranged around a quadrangle, a galleried hall and a clock tower where bells rang out hymn tunes every quarter of an hour.
The market was not a success. It opened in 1869, but closed some time in the 1880s. That is according to Jack - the Wikipedia entry for Columbia Road market implies that it was open in some form long after that. The building survived until 1958, and the same entry says "the remains of railings can be seen in front of the Nursery School. Sivill House and the Dorset Estate replaced the Coutts buildings."

Lost Victorian Britain is full of photographs of extraordinary buildings like these, and not all of them in London. As well as the Imperial Institute in South Kensington, Stamp shows us Joseph Paxton's spectacular conservatory at Chatsworth (blown up with dynamite in 1920 by Paxton's own grandson), Preston Town Hall (demolished 1962) and Bayon's Manor in Lincolnshire (built for Tennyson's uncle and long derelict when it was dynamited in 1965).

Many of these losses, of course, were due to German bombing in Word War II - one of the most striking photographs in the book is of the ruins of St Faith's, Stoke Newington, after the church had been half-demolished by a flying bomb.

And many more were due to the blindness to the virtues of Victorian architecture that afflicted the powerful classes in the 1950s and 1960s. But we should not think that the problem ended there. The Church of England schemed to demolish George Gilbert Scott's Holy Trinity, Rugby, as recently as 1981.

We are brought up to think of ourselves as modern, open-minded and daring, and to laugh at the Victorians as stuffy and old-fashioned. Yet what strikes you about these photographs of lost Victorian (and Edwardian, though Stamp does not say so) buildings is how exotic, even fantastic, many of them are. Most modern architecture looks flat and uninspired by comparison.

If you doubt me, take a trip to Russell Square and compare the Hotel Russell with the modern Imperial.

1 comment:

wolfi said...

Thanks, Jonathan!
On my many trips to London (to buy books at Forbidden Planet) I've often stayed in Bloomsbury - though not at the Russell Hotel, too expensive for me, usually it was one of the cheaper places near/behind the British Museum.

I have fond memories of walking around and on to Oxford Circus etc - always marvelling at those old buildings.