Saturday, 25 June 2016

Pembroke College, Cambridge: big clock tower, minor Wren, medieval scraps

Like most of the older Oxbridge colleges, Pembroke is a hotchpotch. It does contain the genuinely old, but the old (that is, medieval) is often interesting just because of its small scale. Unfortunately it can rarely compete with Victorian exuberance and egotism, making the original buildings look puny, and as if that wasn't enough, you often find with old colleges the Victorian extravaganza was followed by some modern enhancements that often decides to compete with either or both of the other two styles. In the case of Pembroke, the genuinely old quad, 14th century no less, remains (at least about one side of it) but it has been so tampered with that you need a guidebook to explain what is original and what has changed. If you try hard you can imagine a real medieval quad, but to be honest, you have to import your idea from seeing one of the very few original and still recognizable medieval Oxbridge quads, such as Merton College Oxford. Even the front to Trumpington Street (shown above) has the original scale, but later stone refacing and the addition of two oriel windows. The result is more Tudor than medieval. 

Typical of the Victorians is that they would seemingly change things for the sake of it. Pembroke is famous because it contains Wren’s first building, the college chapel. It’s not the world’s greatest building, nor the worst – an acceptable enough rectangular hall-church, with elegant wood panelling inside But the Victorians were not satisfied with that. They extended the chapel by one additional bay and then rebuilt much of the end wall a few feet to the east. The purpose of this was not to change the outside so much as to incorporate four enormous columns of marble to mark where the extension begins, thereby creating a kind of chancel. Vast expense, conspicuous ostentation, and not at all in keeping with the restrained classicism of the original building. Why did the architect (Sir G G Scott Junior) do it? It’s as if he was saying, I can change any building I like, right or wrong.  

Pevsner likes the quality of the carving on the west front of the chapel, but to be honest, it’s so high up on the street front that most people walking past will never notice if it’s good or not.
Most of the architectural history of Pembroke, like the other older colleges, is the switch from gothic to classical. It’s a bit like a parlour game, trying to spot a little bit of classicism, then pointing out inconsistencies, as in the case of “Hitcham’s Cloister”, a bit of infill joining the original quad with Wren’s chapel, which is classical inside, but which remains gothic on the outside. Nobody is going to notice this inconsistency, except Pevsner.

What all visitors will notice is the amazing clock tower on the library, by Waterhouse, which Pevsner wonderfully describes as “municipal”, imposing a feeling on all the surrounding space that this is a public square. Intimate it is not. The clock is big enough for the whole of Cambridge, not just for one small college.

The other part that I liked was that for once, the modern buildings did not impose themselves on the rest of the college; nor were they apologetic. This is Foundress Court, by Eric Parry, 1995-97. It’s a lovely understated half quad (just two sides) of student accommodation, that simply displays to good effect the lovely white stone of which it is build, with a simple but effective asymmetrical pattern of windows and recesses.

The other thing you notice is the lovely gardening. The stark lawns of the quads are contrasted by a couple of lavish herbaceous borders, and most impressive of all, some completely over-the-top planting to try to compete with some completely over-the-top Victorian building by Waterhouse (Pevsner calls it “fiercely assertive”, and you need something like a banana palm to complete with it).

The feature of Pembroke that is perhaps most noticeable to passers-by is a completely unrelated bit of connecting wall in Pembroke Street, an entrance screen that is not used as an entrance (doesn’t look as though it was ever used thus, and so has a minimal relationship with the rest of the college) but which is astonishingly eye-catching. It is, like so many of the features in Oxbridge that catch your eye, Victorian – actually just beyond Victorian, 1907 by W D Caröe. It’s a great gateway to nothing, but lovely to walk past. 

Saturday, 11 June 2016

The rise, fall, rise and rise again of Stamford

When you visit a town with a large number of old buildings, there are typically two questions you ask yourself about it:

1.      What made it grow? Where did the money come from to build these no doubt expensive constructions?
2.      Why did the town decline, or at least, why hasn’t there been more recent money around to knock down all the old buildings that can still be seen (which is what happens in most towns)?

Most towns will have experienced one or the other; some have been through both. When you visit a town (as opposed to a village) there is usually some reason for its growth.  The reason we go to visit some towns for their architecture is often because both the first and the second factors took place: Bruges is the classic example; a town that became fabulously wealthy because of the cloth trade, and then declined as Antwerp became more dominant. This doesn’t of course answer all the questions you might have about a town, but it’s a good start.

Today was a visit to Stamford, and in preparation I tried to answer the above two questions. Stamford is a very attractive town, with over 300 listed buildings. When were they built? As far as can be seen from the built environment today, they were built in two periods. During the medieval period, Stamford had several parish churches, and some at least of them were grand (one account states there were 14 parish churches in Stamford in 1400). Clearly the town was wealthy during this period. But much of what you can see today dates from the 17th and 18th centuries.  So why did the town decline, and why the number of buildings dating from a period after its presumed decline?

The explanation in the guidebooks for the decline is usually that the wool trade moved to East Anglia (in Pevsner it is baldly stated as “in the 15th-century, when the wool and cloth trade deserted Stamford for East Anglia”, without stating why). A possible reason for this is that the river Welland, on which Stamford was originally founded, and which was navigable up to Stamford, enabling trade across the North Sea, became silted up. So that explains the decline of the wool trade; but why did Stamford grow again? Reasons for this seem to be less clear. Possible explanations are:

-         The town’s situation on the Great North Road as a coaching inn location
-         The river Welland was made navigable again for a time (I haven’t found any authority for this statement)

The first of these sounds plausible. There are indeed several inns on the main N-S road through the town. This would also explain the town’s decline, since when the railways arrived Stamford showed little enthusiasm for having a station, which meant that the main N-S railway was routed through nearby Peterborough. But there are plenty of examples of coaching towns that grew moderately during the 18th century, but which are nowhere near as grand as Stamford – Benson in Oxfordshire is an example. In fact, Pevsner states the population of the town was just 4,000 in 1801, and only 9,000 in 1851 – this is not very spectacular growth. So I am at a loss to understand where these 300 listed buildings originated. As you can see from the photo at the top of this post, some church monuments are powerful indicators of wealth. Whoever paid for it (and it is ridiculously out of scale compared to the chapel in which it is placed) was demonstrating their money. 

As for the way the present-day authorities deal with this marvellous town, I was disappointed. Not one of the old churches seems to have been adapted for a civic purpose. One church, St Michael’s, has been converted to shops – but only using the ground floor space. The main part of the church remains disused. That seems a great waste. Browne’s Hospital, “one of the best medieval hospitals in England”, according to Pevsner, cannot be visited, although it has a chapel and dormitory that I would guess could be visited without disturbing the elderly residents who live in separate accommodation.

All in all, Stamford is an impressive town - and all the more impressive for a town that lost its biggest industry before around 1500.