Author Archives: Dave Walker

Horse locomotion: at the Hippodrome

Among the many William Luker illustrations to Loftie’s Kensington: Picturesque and Historical  is this one. At this size it just looks like a mound or hill with a small crowd of people and a few horses. But click on the image and look at it in a larger form.

 

 

This is the Hippodrome, and this is one of the few illustrations which gives a sense of the hill and what it must have been like to see it from ground level. (This is the hill on the summit of which St John’s Church now stands.)

Some of you will have heard of it before. Its story has been told before in many places, but for the benefit of those who are unfamiliar with Kensington’s famous race course, today I’ll give you a brief version of the tale.

It’s gone now,of course, utterly vanished, but here is where it was:

 

 

This is the Davies map of London from 1841, the first to show the main rail lines into central London. The area north of Notting Hill Gate / Uxbridge Road is barely developed and you can see just south of the railway line the two farms Portobello Farm (just off Portobello Lane) and Notting Barn Farm.

 

 

Given the Hippodrome’s brief life span, we’re lucky it made it onto the map. Counter’s Creek flows freely to the west of the Hippodrome grounds and the area known as the Potteries nestles against them. Just the sort of area for setting up a sporting enterprise.The area was part of the Ladbroke Estate and in 1836 it was optimistically leased by a Mr John Whyte foe a period of 21 years.

 

 

On paper perhaps it looked like a decent proposition. Plenty of space – it was laid out for flat racing and steeple chasing, and the area was expanded to accommodate different distances. There was room for stabling horses and carriages and as you can see below it was fine for a young man to drive a young lady there in his new carriage and pair.

 

 

Room for plenty of enthusiastic spectators too.  Saying it was in Bayswater added a certain cachet to the name. So close to London you see. No need to go to Epsom.

 

There were one or two legal issues. A right of way went through the grounds, which the Vestry has ordered Whyte to keep open. This allowed an uncouth crowd of locals and other malcontents to gain free access. Eventually the course was altered so as not to obstruct the pathway.

On the plan below you can see that the entrance path stretched all the way to what is now Pembridge Road.

 

 

Barbara Denny, in her book on Notting Hill records that the path became known as Cut-Throat Lane because of the many instances of robbery committed along it.  (although we must remember that street robbery was not uncommon in the outer parts of London . The area known as the Five Fields in Knightsbridge was notorious for violent crime too.

We have a series of prints depicting the racing at the Hippodrome.

 

 

This shows the high fence that was erected around the ground, (to exclude, in the word of my constant companion the Survey of London “the rude and licentious populace” of the neighbourhood,) The smoking kiln in the background reminds us how close the Potteries area was.

 

 

Some chaotic jumping, and below a fallen horse.

 

 

Unfortunately the going was never too good because of the clay soil.

Below a rider is unseated at the Brook.

 

 

You will have noticed that the horses are depicted with all their legs outstretched in what is known as a “flying gallop”. This was a convention of horse pictures which can be seen in ancient pictures of horses in motion and in the work of the 18th century painter of horses and other animals, George Stubbs. Slow motion moving pictures were not available in the days of the Hippodrome, so while it’s easy for us to say things like “horses just don’t do that”, it wasn’t actually obvious to the naked eye.

The first person to prove otherwise was the pioneering photographer Eadweard Muybridge who devised a method of taking a number of pictures in rapid succession which captured the actuality of horse locomotion.

 

 

Below is a jump.

 

 

His work also gave rise to an early form of motion pictures, the zoopraxiscope, which could project these images in rapid succession creating the illusion of movement. An early form of stop  motion filming. Kingston Museum has a special collection of Muybridge material including an actual zoopraxiscope.

Even Luker, who was certainly around when Muybridge’s Animal Locomotion was published keeps this convention up in this close up of his illustration. The crowd of spectators looks carefree. By Luker’s day the Hippodrome was a picturesque memory.

 

 

 

 

After 13 race meetings the Hippodrome was wound up. A new proprietor took over but the final race took place in June 1841. The developers moved in and Notting Hill as we know it today came into existence. But that memory of the Hipodrome remains as an example of how in early and mid -19th century times, Londoners had an urge for outdoor entertainments which only grew as the century progressed.

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William Luker – a walk in the Gardens

The artist William Luker Jr devoted quite a few pictures to Kensington Gardens as his contribution to W J Loftie’s Kensington: Picturesque and Historical. Miss Charlotte Green, from this post, did not of course exist in the strictest sense of the word, but nevertheless for today’s purposes we know she travelled abroad, never married, but brought a child back to live in Kensington with her in the 1880s. Miss Miranda Green had a darker complexion than her mother but this was never remarked upon in Kensington. Mrs Green, as she was known, was now wealthy enough for people to ignore any questions about Miranda’s father. It must be said however that as Miranda grew up she seemed to prefer her own company and often walked alone through the familiar places her mother had shown her.

 

 

She and her mother may have lived in Sheffield Terrace, near to Mr Luker’s house so they may have seen some of his work in progress.

 

 

 

They may have known why the artist included a broken ladder in this pictures of the Round Pond frozen at the height of winter, and why the ladder seems to have offered a way out of, or into, the picture. Miranda and her mother walked by the pond all year round.

 

 

Sometimes just strolling by,

Other times looking closer.

As a child she learned all the secret places of the park.

 

 

(We’ve seen  another artist’s view of this spot. )

As she grew older and walked out on her own she favoured other secluded places.

 

 

She liked to stand in the shadows away from view, but when she became a young woman she walked more boldly.

 

 

Sometimes she imagined the Gardens as they were in the 18th century.


 

The past seemed to offer an exotic destination, if a way could be found to reach it.

 

 

 

Perhaps through Mr Luker, Miranda met a sympathetic companion.

 


 

He may have been another artist, or an academic, or a writer. The two of them walked through the Gardens often.

 

 

Stopping at some of the unusual sights that could be found.

 

 

Allowing the Gardens to fill their imaginations.

 

 

 

She imagined that one day she would take her own daughter through a small side entrance.

 

Out of the Gardens, or out of the picture altogether.

This post is dedicated to my friend Camilla , who liked the last outing of the Green family.

 

Postscripts

This post should have been published already, but I’ve been busy with the London History Festival which finishes tonight. I thought it would be a good idea to get a post in before December. Pretty soon Christmas will be on us and there will be the usual short posts for the week before Christmas.

The main off-topic item for this post is naturally the death of Stan Lee. For most of my life, he was only really well known in the world of comics, as the man behind Marvel. “Super heroes with super problems” as the slogan went.  Stan (we were always on first name terms with him when I was a teenager) brought a new element of realism to the unrealistic notion of super heroes, and his key creations, Spiderman, Thor, the Hulk, the Fantastic Four, Dr Strange, Iron Man have now become embedded in popular culture. Marvel overtook DC in the  multiverse of comics (and I still look down on DC characters like Superman and the Flash,with a grudging respect for Batman and a few others.) In his later years he worked to bring the Marvel Universe to the movies, and now his name is familiar to a much wider group of people (not least because of his many cameo appearances). But I want to remember him for the exciting new worlds of storytelling he and his team brought into my childhood and adolescence. So, even though it’s already familiar from the many obituaries: “Excelsior!”

Death has taken this opportunity to add another name to his tally. Nicholas Roeg, director of Performance, Don’t look now, the Man who fell to Earth, Bad Timing, Insignificance and many other unconventional films which I have enjoyed over the years. He was one of the UK’s true auteurs and we should be grateful for his life and work. Obituary writers have also mentioned his film Eureka as an unacknowledged classic, but I would also mention one more, Cold heaven (1991) which I have a fondness for (another of one the films which featured his third wife, the iconic Theresa Russell). Roeg, of course lived in Kensington for part of his life so we can count him as a local man.

Isabel and I have been discussing future blog posts, and she has more ideas than I do. But you’ll probably have to wait until next year for those. In the meantime I have no idea what I’m doing next week.


One large building in South Kensingon

Loyal readers know that we’ve spent a lot of time looking around the streets near South Kensington Station,in Pelham Street and Thurloe Street, even in the station itself, almost as much time as we’ve spent in the vicinity of Gloucester Road Station. It’s almost the deepest part of London for me, chronologically speaking.

(Although the deepest layers of all are Crystal Palace, Clapham South and the Wandsworth Road, places associated with my uncle who was a chef -right at the bottom of the memory pit are the dinosaurs of Crystal Palace, but more of them later.)

I thought I was more or less finished with this pleasant but not particularly beautiful space but then these three pictures turned up and started me on another small journey.

 

 

I think the photographer John Rogers was just looking at Melton Court, the block of flats which curves around the corner of Onslow Square and Old Brompton Road, with its curved parade of commercial outlets on the ground floor, facing South Kensington Station. In the 1970s, the area between the two had a number of raised grassy areas, some like the one above with useful benches for idle sitting around. Or you could just sit on the grass.

 

 

 

Surrounded by traffic, it was not the most salubrious spot in the world, but on a sunny day it was probably okay, spacious  even, especially if you were travelling past by bus, or crossing the road to get the tube  Of course traffic was lighter in the 70s so you could often just amble across the road.

 

 

 

And there always seem to have been plenty of places to stop and have a leisurely meal.

 

 

Here by the bus stop, Bistro Vino has been replaced by a modern version, a branch of Carluccio’s.At this end you can see the entrance for motor vehicles, with the route into the underground car park just visible.

At the other end a Post Office

 

 

Here is a centre front view, from an estate agents brochure.

 

 

From the same source, an aerial view shows the overall shape, and the size of the space at the back.

 

 

I’ve never seen the back in reality, (and the gates tend to be locked most of the time theses days) but John went round the whole building. In these pictures , the back looks like a perfectly respectable front entrance with a drive and ornamental trees.

 

 

Melton Court was built in 1935, which makes it an art deco building I suppose. Oddly, this links it for me with another block of flats built in 1938, Hightrees House in Clapham, where my aunt and uncle lived in the 1960s. Of course, I had no idea what art deco was back then. I would have related London buildings like these to TV shows. In this case Man in a Suitcase, starring Richard Bradford  as the ex-CIA man McGill. It had several Kensington and Chelsea locations. There’s a block in Gloucester Road which has the same kind of vibe for me. According to the Survey of London, the original plans called for a cinema to be incorporated on the site but this never happened.

 

 

You can see buildings like it all over London.

Of course recognizing it a 30s building you wonder what was there before. This detail from an OS map gives a clue.

 

 

 

In the left hand corner, as you can see, a garden. A garden in front of Onslow Crescent.

The address still exists. Melton Court, Onslow Crescent. But Onslow Crescent was once an actual crescent, as in the picture below.

 

 

The destruction of the garden had already begun in this picture, as the lady in the big hat could probably see. Below it has progressed further.

 

 

 

Just a couple of trees surviving. The buildings on the right are of course still with us.

The original of the picture below is tiny.

 

 

But it shows the layout of the new open space and the boards behind which Melton Court will be built. See how clear the view is of the towers of the Natural History Museum, the Imperial Institute and the V&A.

The picture below shows tow buildings on the Old Brompton Road approach, the two on the right which can still be seen today beyond which is the other end of Onslow Crescent and between those, the Wills and Segar nursery, which was at 16a Onslow Crescent.

 

 

That was December 1934. By early 1935 the nursery had also been demolished.

 

 

It was one of the last of the Brompton area’s once numerous nurseries and market gardens.

 

Postscript

Back to Clapham now to a picture I must have taken when I was 11 or 12. One of those dinosaurs that live in the lowest levels of my London memory.

 

Megalosaurus, one of literature’s first dinosaurs. (Mentioned in the opening paragraph of Bleak House). Although I wrote Hyleosaurus on the back of the photograph (taken with a Kodak Instamatic, if you remember such things.) but that’s another one altogether. This pictures dates from a period after the refurbishment of the dinosaurs in the 1950s but before the ones in the 1970s and early 2000s. At this time the undergrowth was threatening to overwhelm the stone creatures. Thta’s when they look the most atmospheric. I remember being taken down there without any warning of what I was to see and being quite amazed, which is why the dinosaurs still sit at the bottom of my London memory. As they always will.


Halloween story – the photocopier

I have a friend called Dave who works in a library in west London, and is sometimes involved with archives. He’s about my age so naturally some people get us confused. He knows a woman named Blanka who works at the something or other institute somewhere in London.She seemed to think we were the same person. We’re not. For one thing he doesn’t write a blog. But he does like my blog and he was very taken with the posts about the Gloucester Road / Cromwell Road area I did a while back. He remembered walking down Ashburn Mews once or twice. I told him that someone else I know had walked down the same road just after the buildings were demolished, leaving just the paving along the route of the street. I also had some pictures of the cleared site. When he saw them he made me take him on a pilgrimage to the place where Ashburn Mews used to be. It’s just an apartment block now, not really evocative in itself so we soon ran out of things to say about this “ghost street” as he called it.

 

 

 

This took us onto ghost stories. I knew that he attended the gatherings at Trankel’s bookshop near the Barbican and that once a year they dressed up in period costume and told ghost stories. This year a guy called Andy told a story about his grandmother who saw fairies. (Andy saw them too apparently) Blanka had a curious and fantastic tale about a portal under an office block in Holborn which took a party of people to a cold desert full of decaying ships. That sounds good I said. The trouble is, I think she believes it. In fact, I think she was one of the people in it. We agreed that Blanka was a pretty strange woman and debated the chances of her telling the truth. (Low, but not impossible). I asked him what story he told and he said it was more of an anecdote really and didn’t rise to the level of a supernatural tale. We had reached a pub in one of the streets off Gloucester Road and found a quiet corner so he told me the story, apologetically.

 

[ The entrance as it was]

[The exit, some years later]

He began by saying that this all happened in the 90s when we had the internet but weren’t quite sure what it was for. People who worked in offices had email and scanners, and phones were getting smaller every year as if poised in preparation for the great leap forward to smartphones when they could start getting bigger again. He remembered going to a meeting about what was thought at the time to be a controversial topic, moving a collection from the branch where it had always been to somewhere not far away. The minutes of the meeting were printed out on red paper to make photocopies harder. Yes, he said that was weird but it was not the weirdest photocopier story he had.

 

 

It seemed they had this big colour photocopier in the reference section, quite an expensive model which produced very good copies. Dave had used it to make copies of some pastel sketches which he then put on display without anyone noticing they were copies. Someone went so far as to steal a couple of them. Imagine the art dealer’s face when the person tried to sell them. Old Man Trankler himself came in on one occasion with his daughter Nicola. They copied an entire book, including some intriguing illustrations which Dave thought was pretty barbarous behaviour for an antiquarian book dealer. Later he wondered if this had anything to do with what happened subsequently.

 

 

Hardly anyone remembers Amy K these days. She was an actress/singer who was in the single season supernatural drama Heaven is Wide. I can’t even remember what channel it was on. Amy also had a moderately successful single singing with Dr Hoffmann, another group nobody remembers. Weapons of Love? Velocity Girl? The video featured, I don’t know, something supernatural. Killers, angels, refugees. One of those probably.

 

 

And there was a scandal. Amy was believed to have slept with some chat show host, a married man, whose wife kicked off big time in the tabloids out for Amy’s blood. Metaphorically speaking.So at the height of this minor furore, Amy K was sitting in Dave’s reference library, listlessly flicking through old bound copies of Vogue and Harper’s and L’Officiel, and occasionally wrestling the volume onto the photocopier to take a copy of some 70s fashion item. That’s a tricky business with tight binding and heavy volumes. So it wasn’t untoward for Dave to help her, and engage in some light chat.

 

 

We got side tracked here by a discussion of whether Amy K was more famous than Alex Cox, who Dave had also spoken to in the library. I naturally stood up for the pre-eminence of the director of Death and the Compass. Dave acquiesced, and said that, in addition, Mr Cox was a very pleasant man to talk to, while it had to be admitted that Amy was sometimes a bit vague, as if she was recovering from a hard night creating scandal.

The odd thing about all this was that this was the zenith of the scandal and Amy K was being chased all over London. One day, a pair of photographers came into the library to look for her. They apparently failed to spot her in her usual seat near the photocopier, opposite where Dave sat. He looked over at her and she smiled back. He kept a straight face and They went away. On another occasion another guy had caught her in the street and followed her inside. Once again, he failed to spot her, even when she picked up a book and photocopied a couple of pages from it.

 

 

The same guy came back the next day and asked Dave straight out had he ever seen Amy K. This presented Dave with a mild professional dilemma. Should he give a customer a piece of information he knew, or should he protect another customer’s privacy? Well, Data Protection was paramount in this case, Dave said, and the fact that Amy was attractive and friendly had nothing to do with it.

Then the guy asked another question. Is there something here which might interfere with a camera? I took some pictures just outside and none of them worked. He had one of those new-fangled digital cameras so it was not as though there could be anything wrong with the film.

 

 

The next day when Amy arrived a whole throng of photographers had gathered outside but the porters, who also knew Amy it seemed, wouldn’t let them in. Amy fixed Dave with another smile. Was there a back way out of the building? There was of course, a particularly obscure route through the basement which came out in a street behind the building. When the two of them emerged, Amy asked if there was a quiet pub nearby where they could hide out. There was, a couple of streets away, and they spent an hour or so there with Amy chatting about Vixen and the general unreliability of people in the music industry.

Dave was very pleased with himself, but thought that the library was too well known now for Amy to hole up there again, and he was right. He did receive a DVD of Vixen in the post, with some extras that never made it to the version that was eventually released, but apart from that he never heard from Amy again.

 

 

 

The punch line, if there is one, is that one morning a week or so later he came in early and found that the photocopier had spewed out dozens of copies apparently of its own volition. There was paper scattered all over the floor. Among all the second and third copies that had never appeared were pictures that couldn’t have come from the copier, including several of Amy, sitting in the library, or running down the street. And one of her sitting in the pub with Dave.

 

The fault on the photocopier never re-occurred But a few months later, a highly strung member of staff punched the touch screen, which had to be replaced at considerable cost. The photocopier was never the same afterwards and was replaced with a model which was newer, but never gave such high quality copies

So was that a ghost story? Call it a Fortean anecdote I said. I took out the pictures of Ashburn Mews and its mutation into a temporary car park out of my bag and we turned back to the subject of vanished streets, forgotten places and buildings that never were.

.

 

Postscript

I was once told I had a doppelganger, who sold newspapers and magazines at Baron’s Court Station. I never went to look for myself. I didn’t want to tempt fate. Neither of the Daves in this week’s post are me, but in some alternate world maybe..

I usually say at Halloween that normal service will be resumed next week. But this week I’ll just apologise to those who don’t like having the real and the imaginary mixed up. Anyone who recognizes themselves or someone they know in this post must surely be mistaken as of course a resemblance to any real person would be entirely coincidental.

 

 


Mr William Luker Jr, Coadjutor

W J Loftie’s 1888 book Kensington: Picturesque and Historical is an unprepossessing volume. But inside, there are, as the title page states “upwards of three hundred illustrations (some in colour)” in the book (you’d think someone knew the exact number) and as you flick through it you can see that barely a page goes by without at least one picture on it, all of them by William Luker Junior, but many of them are quite small, almost cramped on the page. I can see why I’ve never paid too much attention to it. But, and there is a big but here, the library also has in its collection the original sketches for the book, tied up in three portfolios, and these are all rather bigger than the printed versions and these show that Luker was a rather better artist than I had thought, and much quirkier. He deserves to be taken as seriously as other book illustrators I have featured on the blog such as Herbert Railton (whose sketches by contrast are often improved by being turned into engravings on the printed page) and Yoshio Markino (who also worked with Loftie on “The Colour of London”).

Loftie, in his leisurely introduction, thanks everybody but Luker, but at the end he seems to remember his illustrator and the contribution he made. He calls him “my coadjutor“, an obscure word which can mean just assistant but is usually associated with the church as in the phrase “coadjutor bishop” ( a deputy with the right of succession). The word suits him. For my purposes he has succeeded to Loftie’s position as the author of a picturesque story about Kensington, told in images not words.

 

 

 

Isabel’s post last week included a Luker illustration which started me on a scanning journey which covered slightly more than a hundred images. So as you can imagine I will get more than one post out of Mr Luker and I can already envisage many different themes. In this post I’ll just run through a few of Luker’s preoccupations. In this view of tennis courts behind St Mary Abbot’s Church, Luker has found an unusual angle, looking down at the players, which emphasizes the remarkable height of the spire. He likes using the black margin, usually broken, and he likes to play with it – note the gap just above the spire. He also crosses the margin as you can see with the foliage. The illustrations are almost pushing at the text and vice versa.

The other quality that please me about Luker’s work is that it makes the familiar scenes of Kensington seem unfamiliar. That tennis court could be in any cathedral city on a tranquil afternoon in the 19th century. This view gives a similar impression.

 

 

It concentrates on the family group gathered in a green space, on a Sunday morning with Holy Trinity Church and the Brompton Oratory looming in the background in a city which is definitely London but also some imaginary city of large churches and open spaces. Like Markino, Luker loves the human figures, and although the pictures are in monochrome tones he has a sense of different seasons. This looks like a summer picture to me. I’m not so sure with this one.

 

 

Two women walk arm in arm along a wide street beside the railings at the border of a park. You imagine them sharing confidences as they stroll along. Compare it with this one ,which comes from this post. The bare branches could indicate autumn.

Below, a spacious view of a more familiar feature of Kensington. (Or, strictly speaking near Kensington). Probably in summer.

 

 

The next picture is definitely winter.

 

 

Kensington High Street looking east, or any snowbound street scene. Is that policeman supervising the man with the shovel, or merely indulging the universal tendency to watch someone at work?

Here is another  view of the same street.

 

 

The time honoured art of window shopping. The bored girl stares into space waiting for her mother to finish so that they can proceed to the park. Her hoop and stick is ready for action. They were once as common as scooters are today, and like scooters, were used by older children as well. Or perhaps the girl is looking at another technological phenomenon.

 

 

 

A double bicycle, piloted by a Chaplinesque rider. it looks harder work than two individual bikes.

The big letters at the margin are not random, as I half-thought at one stage until realising the obvious. They are the first letters of a paragraph. The text intrudes into the images.

The picture below reminds me of one of Markino’s night time interiors.

 

 

High Street Kensington Station, with travellers on their way home. the long shadows fascinate me and the whiff of steam in the air, although I think steam trains on the Underground had been abandoned by the 1880s.

Both Loftie and Luker were Kensington residents, and lived in Stafford Terrace. They were presumably both acquainted with one of their neighbours, seen at work below.

 

 

Our good friend Edward Linley-Sambourne, artist and photographer at work in his home studio. (The margin line looks as if it was about to fall and the unconcerned artist is only saved by the easel.)

Loftie wrote other books about London subjects and Luker illustrated some of them, and books by other writers. I’ve been trying to find some of them which appear on the Library catalogue, without much success as yet. (some of those entries have come from very old versions of the catalogue. It’s sometimes like walking into a 19th century library down there.)

Mr Luker Senior was also an artist and painter of country scenes and animals, and also atmospheric pictures of the Middle East, another favourite subject for Victorian painters, like David Roberts and Edward Lear. (not to mention Richard Dadd). Luker Junior was born in 1867 and lived till 1957 so he certainly survived long enough to see some changes in Kensington.

He outlived this building.

 

 

The gothic folly  known as Abbey which once stood where I now sit writing this (as I have pointed out before – see this post)

The gothic imagination also informs this view of a ruined tower which was once part of Campden House. You can see a photograph of it in another post.

 

 

Finally, another image which echoes one by Markino.  Thistle Grove. Markino’s version is here. His version looks north I think, while this one by Luker looks south.

 

 

 

But both of them catch the mysterious quality of the narrow passage between the Fulham Road and the Old Brompton Road which I have walked down many times, and the lonliness of a nigh time walk between the lamps.

 

This week’s post has been a sample of Luker’s work showing a few images that appealed to me. I’ll come back to him again though in the near future.

 


Alfred Waterhouse, the affable artist, and the Natural History Museum

This week’s post is the work of my friend and colleague Isabel Hernandez for whom this has been a labour of love. I can only thank her for her hard work in giving us another epic post, and me a week or so off.

The Natural History Museum in South Kensington has to be one of the most attractive buildings in London, arguably the most aesthetically beautiful. When asked if I have a favourite, this is it. The museum’s distinctive terracotta facade and wonderful collection of decorative animals dotted around the building’s heights is impressive. The expansive central hall as you walk in through the arch front entrance resembles a religious sanctum – the building in fact is a Romanesque-like cathedral commissioned to house the expansive collection of flora and fauna specimens that began with Sir Hans Sloane in the 18th century.

But, as with most grand schemes, the inception, design and subsequent building was not a smooth sailing affair. It would be twenty years, give or take a few, before the building you see today came into being. And I for one am very pleased it did. I have visited many times and admit to being biased in my view. I have a love for natural history. I still enjoy looking at all the detail of the building, not as an architect, but as someone who can only appreciate its aesthetic appeal as an ordinary onlooker. The Victorians were big on grandeur. I think Alfred Waterhouse managed to infuse it with a little artistry too.

 

 

If you want to distinguish Alfred Waterhouse from his contemporaries then look no further than his red brick, terracotta creations: The Manchester Town Hall, the Prudential Assurance building in London’s Holborn, Eaton Hall in Cheshire and many, many more commissions. Many still stand, but a few have been demolished over the years. Even his own home in reading, Foxhill House, was a distinctive red. He was a man known for his professionalism and his reliability and amassed quite a fortune. One who would take on small projects and was not intimidated by large ones either. Proof of that is in the rescue of a building that almost never came to be: London’s Natural History Museum.

 

(Alfred Waterhouse courtesy the RIBA)

Alfred Waterhouse came from a strict Quaker background. His parents belonged to the Society of Friends and his education at Grove House School, Tottenham is where he met many of his future clients, sons of influential Quaker families. He showed a very early aptitude for drawing and was mainly self-taught. Although his passion was for painting – many of his watercolours were regularly exhibited at the Royal Academy later in life – it was not considered a suitable profession, and so architecture became his focus.

He was by nature a practical and meticulous professional and soon established himself as a man who was able to design a workable building and knew exactly how to cater to his clients, right down to the smallest of commissions. His amicability with committees and his willingness to modify his designs made him the perfect candidate for the creation of the Natural History Museum. Below you will see examples of his drawings.

 

 

The Natural History Museum first opened to the public in April 1881 after many years of planning and design changes. The growing collections, originally housed in the Natural History Departments of the British Museum in Bloomsbury, desperately needed a new, more suitable home. And so it was Sir Richard Owen, the natural scientist and curator of the existing collection, who convinced the Board of Trustees to find the adequate space needed to house this vast treasure. It was eventually decided that a new site and purpose built building was needed. A competition was set up, and the architect and engineer, Captain Francis Fowke, who designed the 1862 Exhibition building (Ironically on the site of the present NHM building) produced the winner. Although his previous creation was at one time considered a possible building to house the Natural History collections, it was eventually decided, after much debate, that it wasn’t suitable after all. So the whole edifice was pulled down and the site purchased in June 1863 by the government. How the museum eventually came to fruition is nothing short of a colossal feat with so many ideas vying for the helm.

 

(The 1862 Great Exhibition building as it was before being demolished)

Captain Fowke’s original design was considered a handsome winning entry, but was by no means everybody’s favourite. When he died unexpectedly in 1865 the government was at a loss as to what to do. In the end it was decided that rather than the commission going to the runner up, Robert Kerr – who was not happy –  Fowke’s design would be kept and a new architect appointed. That man was the promising, but relatively unknown, 36-year-old, Alfred Waterhouse. Although Fowke’s design was the original blueprint for the museum, Waterhouse’s artistic flare was imbued over most of it.

 

 

A photograph showing the cavernous main hall of the NHM before it was occupied by the main exhibits that were to greet the many visitors throughout the decades. Without the displays the space is overwhelming. It is hard to imagine now with all the visitors in attendance just how quiet such a place can be, despite its size.

 

 

(Central Hall, 1882. Courtesy of the NHM)

The drawing below shows detail of the first floor windows; an elaborate portion of the building, including the archways at the end of the galleries.

“The format of the window was inspired by those of Fowke’s museum design of 1864, but Waterhouse changed the detailing from Fowke’s Italian Renaissance into Romanesque.”

(Alfred Waterhouse and The Natural History Museum – Mark Girouard)

 

 

You may recognise the front of the building here. A half plan, detail elevation of the principal entrance showing some of the ornamentation above the arches.

 

 

 

Below are some of the wondrous creatures you will see dotted around the museum. Gargoyles and guardians of a large menagerie.

 

 

The Central Hall again C. 1924, this time displaying a number of cases showing a collection of hummingbirds and four elephants, the largest being named George, as he was dubbed by the journalists of the day.

 

(Central Hall with elephants and cases, 1924. Courtesy of the NHM)

The Illustrated London News showing George with a pygmy shrew. The biggest land mammal contrasting with the smallest. It is difficult for us now to appreciate just how fantastical these creatures were to the general public at the time. We have come a long way since then. With more and more scientific breakthroughs and our access to information being much more accessible now, we are perhaps less awed by such specimens. The world is a smaller place. The technological advances in the making of natural history documentaries, for example, is simply astounding. And seeing these creatures in their natural habitats, even if vicariously through the cameraman’s lens, is nothing short of extraordinary. We are very lucky. And yet we cannot simply dismiss the extraordinary work behind the scenes of these great museums. Education and awareness of the natural world is all the more important in an age when we almost seem so far removed from it we fail to understand our part in it.

 

 

Details of stairs, panels and columns all beautifully illustrated located at the north end of the large hall.

 

 

Thirty-six crates and three months of jigsaw puzzling later in May 1905, the cast of Diplodocus is put together, fondly known to many of us as Dippy. The original skeleton is in the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, USA. He is currently on tour around the UK, details of which are on the NHM website.

 

 (Diplodocus on display, 1905. Courtesy of the NHM)

 

More details showing the frieze and panels over the main entrance. A pair of binoculars to get a better look at these in the museum would be ideal. And with my eyesight, a magnifying glass too. The decoration of the east and west wings of the museum depict animals within the collection of both extinct and living species respectively. This was a feature Professor Richard Owen, superintendent of the natural history departments, and the man responsible for the commissioning of a new museum was keen on having on as a feature of the building.

 

 

The reptile gallery in 1889. Formidable looking crocodiles and other stuffed specimens in glass cabinets on display. Imagine seeing the open jaws of a crocodile for the first time, all be it a museum specimen and not a live one? I know my daughter would have been the first to want to touch those teeth once upon an age ago when her curiosity about such things was ripe.

 

(Reptile Gallery, 1889. Courtesy of the NHM)

 

The drawing below shows a complete bay on the side of the entrance hall, depicting plants, land, and marine mammals. Mark Girouard points out in his book that:

“The Natural History Museum was the first building in England, and possibly in the world, where the main facades were entirely faced with terracotta. It was also the first of a long series of such buildings designed by Waterhouse; his enthusiasm for terracotta was so great that it is all many people remember about him.”

Terracotta was relatively cheap too and resistant to the bane of all city buildings – acid. The spaces between the terracotta and the iron was filled with fine cement concrete, “so as to render the casing impervious to either fire or water.” The casing is what houses the ornaments.

 

 

The Shell Gallery in 1911 with an impressive model of a giant squid in the background. A creature Captain Nemo and the Nautilus are all too familiar with. Unfortunately, an incendiary bomb hit the gallery in 1940, damaging the roof and causing a fire. It was later converted into a lecture hall.

 

(Shell Gallery, 1911. Courtesy of the NHM)

 

Details showing the terracotta details of the arcade, gallery and windows in the Central Hall. Note the stone monkeys on the bottom right, used to enrich the main arches of the gallery.

 

 

A group of school children crowd around the flea case in 1927. The museum has ever been educational, and no less during World War 1 when they produced information regarding the danger of parasites such as fleas and ticks. Creatures that are still with us today, but less problematic in terms of what we now know about them. Knowledge and awareness goes a long way.

 

(Crowd around flea case, 1927. Courtesy of the NHM)

Having read about the feat it took to get the Natural History Museum built I am amazed it was completed at all. It is important to note that Alfred Waterhouse had to alter his original plans several times to try and mitigate the rising costs of the project and the opposing views of the various museum authorities. His frustration at times with this and the various contractors may well have been palpable. His idealistic, artistic vision was being curtailed by practicalities, bureaucracy and the differing aesthetic viewpoints of all those involved in the commission. Understandably, there are limits. He was not immune to criticism either. Macmillan Magazine in January 1872 ridiculed Waterhouse’s ‘period’ style. And some of Fowke’s supporters, namely George Cavendish and Lord Elcho, tried to get rid of Waterhouse’s ‘abomination’ as they called his design. It was even suggested that ‘the Board should in future use only architects over whom they could exercise more control’. Such was the opposition. But, despite all that, Waterhouse remained stoic and was allowed to build his masterpiece. I think you would have to be generally good-natured in order to succeed when things happen to thwart you. If one thing doesn’t work, you try something else. If somebody objects, you present an alternative. He was pragmatic enough to understand what was required and overall he succeeded. When the museum finally opened in in April 1881 the reception of Waterhouse’s building was on the whole favourable. His reputation, despite the setbacks, was not compromised.

 

A quote from the Building News 1876 based on the initial drawings by A Waterhouse:

“It may have provoked some hostile criticism from the Royal Engineers and amateurs – its ground floor space has been said to be not more than half that provided by Captain Fowke – but, whatever may be said, its plan is certainly one of the best we have seen for museum purposes, and its architecture, when finished, will disarm opponents.”

 

 

Fortunate then that he accepted the commission. It’s hard to imagine a different building in place of what we have now. Below is Alfred Waterhouse’s acceptance letter to the First Commissioner of Works stipulating some of his requirements.

 

 

 

Here is an image taken from W.J Lofitie’s, Kensington Picturesque and Historical of a scene along Cromwell Road showing the newly built Natural History Museum in the background. It has something of a charming, Christmas card feel about it – certainly picturesque and historical.

 

 

 

Postcscript:

Phew! Well, that’s more than enough for this week’s blog.

I thought that a blog about the Natural History Museum would be a straightforward piece to write. After all, how difficult can talking about a series of photographs be? I have done it before. And yet the NHM has proved something of a conundrum for me, simply because it is so well known, and sometimes condensing something to only a few paragraphs doesn’t do it justice.

There are books that give a more detailed account of this remarkable museum which I recommend you read should you want a deeper knowledge of this institutions history and its origins. My less than scholarly approach has only provided glimpses.

Most of the images I’ve used are from our own Local Studies collection, unless otherwise indicated. I would like to thank the Natural History Museum Archives department, in particular Laura Brown, the NHM’s archivist and colleagues, for their wonderful help. They have a fantastic collection! You will find them and many more fascinating photographs in the book: Museum through a Lens – photographs from 1880 to 1950, which I highly recommend. It’s a great gift for anyone interested in pictorial history. And for a more detailed account of the museum’s building and history there is: The Natural History Museum at South Kensington by William Stearn and Alfred Waterhouse and The Natural History Museum by Mark Girouard. Both are well researched and good reference books. The Survey of London is also an invaluable source for building history. I have thumbed through Volume XXXVIII many times to make sure I didn’t go too far astray.

 


Backwaters 3

This is another of those posts about the quiet streets of the late 1960s and early 1970s featuring pictures taken by our roving photographer John Rogers. Some of these images are nearly fifty years old now, which certainly gives me pause, as I contemplate my own mortality. (Not to be morbid or anything.)

 

 

John has to be standing in the middle of the road here at the western end of Bomore Road with a view of one of the towers of the Silchester Estate in the background. All is quiet with barely a car on the street.

Here is a nice view of some varied brickwork.

 

 

And here, the corner of Avondale Park Road.

 

 

Note Lily’s Toy’s and Novelty Goods  (prop. A.  Bridges)  with its makeshift table of stuff outside. How much passing trade did they get, I wonder?

There is some life in Bomore Road though.

 

 

Can’t quite make them out? Allow me:

 

 

A couple of sisters happen by on their way home from school. How do I know they’re sisters? Well the fact is I’ve spoken to one of them. Her sister found out somehow that John had accidentally caught them on camera, and she came in to get a printout of the photo, which I did. for her. It was she who told me the anecdote which ended up in a post from the early days of the blog. This kind of thing has happened more often than you’d think.

 

 

So the theme of this post is not empty streets (which I am fond of), but passers by. Above, a woman with a perm, a Mark 1 Cortina (those rear lights) and Star Radio. (“The shop that buys anything” Anything? Really? I wonder if they sold everything too?) Norland Road, by the way.

A man pauses under the awning.

 

 

Is he thinking about BACON, or on his way for a haircut? I like the glasshouse structure you can just see on the left at the rear of the building.

 

 

Almost a crowd by backwater standards. The Stewart Arms has a slightly plain exterior. The van with the open door is in the process of dropping off some Mother’s Pride bread. And the woman is in a hurry, seemingly oblivious of John.

Something more elaborate  further east in Moscow Road.

 

 

 

A lone young man passes The Leinster. Is he about to swerve and go in? Or not?

 

 

Back west in Murchison Road, another girl is about to leave or enter her house. I’ve never met her. Or perhaps I have. Not everyone is interested in old photographs.

Even further off the main road was Munro Mews

 

 

Munro Mews was of those slightly run down streets which seem in retrospect to be mostly occupied by people doing things with motor vehicles, servicing them on an amateur or professional basis,

 

 

Gathering up old tyres, or just abandoning cars and vans.

The mews was more of an alley.

 

 

And this trio are the real stars of the show, weary but confident travellers almost certainly on their way home.

(And what about the pile of crated milk bottles by the wall at the back?)

 

 

It’s possible to read all sort of situations into the three girls. Are the two standing together best friends, with the other only tolerated, or more likely, is it an entirely random moment of walking down the street, all three living in the same street? Are two of them sisters?

So you know what I have to ask. Do you recognize anyone? Is one of them a friend of yours, or a relative? Or is one of them you? I’m no longer surprised by coincidence. I almost expect it now.

But even if all the people in these pictures remain unknown, these are still good photographs.

 

Postscript

It’s not really my place to pay tribute to John Cunliffe, the creator of Postman Pat, who died recently, but Pat Clifton (did you know his surname?) loomed large in our house at one point, on VHS videos, played incessantly, and in wool form brought to life by my late mother-in-law, Jean. The wool version of Pat still sits on the shelf of a wardrobe along with ancient bears and a blue hippo, but all that is left of the monstrous giant version of Jess the cat  is a head, somewhere in another cupboard. Alas, poor Jess. And thank you to John Cunliffe.

 

 


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