Machen on Architecture

In 1987, The Prince of Wales famously excoriated the shortsighted city planners and developers who rebuilt London after the Second World War. “You have to give this much to the Luftwaffe” he said. “When it knocked down our buildings, it didn’t replace them with anything more offensive than rubble. We did that.”

Decades earlier the weird-fiction writer and sometime Londoner Arthur Machen expressed similar sentiments. In the Spring 2019 issue of Faunus, R.B. Russell quotes a letter by Machen to Montgomery Evans around the end of the War. Machen writes:

And that brings me to the confession that I don’t curse the Germans very fiercely for their London destruction so far as the new buildings are concerned. It is we who destroyed London & wrecked the Strand, pulled down the Adelphi, abolished Clifford’s Inn (pre-Great Fire), built flats where Clements Inn once stood with green lawns. You can remember the old Café Royal: it wasn’t Germans who ruined it. And as for the Wren churches in the City: it was with great difficulty that the Bishop of London was restrained from pulling many of them down & selling the sites 20 years ago.

A Portrait of Charles Dickens Returns Home


Last November I wrote about the rediscovery of an 1843 portrait of Charles Dickens by Margaret Gillies. The poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote that it depicted “the dust and mud of humanity about him, notwithstanding those eagle eyes.” The much deteriorated portrait was sold as junk at a market in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa in 2017, subsequently identified and restored by British art dealers Philip Mould and Company, and unveiled at The Dickens Museum in the author’s former home, 48 Doughty Street, London.

The museum launched a fundraising campaign to purchase the portrait from Philip Mould and Company for £180,000. Today the Dickens Museum announced that it has acquired the painting:

The Gillies portrait will go on display from 24th October 2019 and will be a highlight of the festive season. The portrait will become a regular part of the Museum’s programme of displays, though it will require times away from display to preserve the quality of the 176-year-old watercolour.

Read more about the acquisition at here.

A Roman Galley on the Thames


When County Hall was under construction on the south bank of the Thames in 1910, the wreck of an ancient ship was found by workers, buried in the silt. It was built of Roman design from English oak in the third century, when London was still the Roman colony of Londinium.

A romantic theory at the time held that the vessel was a warship sunk during the battle between Allectus and Constantius in the year A.D. 296, but it may have been a ferryboat.

Whatever happened to the ship?

It was removed from the river in one piece using a giant wooden crane. The London Museum acquired the wreck and displayed it until the 1930s. Presumably it is still owned by the Museum of London (as successor to the  London Museum). According to Richard Hingley’s book Londonium it is now in storage. Another source claims it “did not survive intact. Some timbers of the ship are now preserved at the Shipwreck Heritage Centre, Hastings, and at the Museum of London.”

At Dennis Severs House

Dennis Severs at his desk; photo: Dennis Severs’ House

I never had the chance to meet Dennis Severs but he was a man after my own heart. The architectural historian Gavin Stamp described him as “one of those Americans in England who seemed to have arrived from nowhere, to have no past, no roots and who, so irritatingly, could not be placed socially.” I often suspect that my own London friends regard me similarly during the part of the year that I live there. Stamp wrote, “I first encountered him in the late 60s as the exotic friend of a Cambridge friend; he was then running horse-drawn open carriage tours around Hyde Park and the West End…and seemed, even for me then, a little too starry-eyed about the charm of Victorian England.”

In 1979 Severs bought a Georgian terraced house at number 18 Folgate Street in Spitalfields, East London. Built around 1724 during the reign of King George I it was an exquisite but neglected property. The East End in those days was a slum. Stamp called it a “run-down, but mysterious, inner suburb.” Instead of updating the house, Severs lived without electricity or twentieth century technology. He would later recall,

With a candle, a chamber pot and a bedroll, I began sleeping in each of the house’s 10 rooms so that I might arouse my intuition in the quest for each room’s soul.

Then, having neared it, I worked inside out from there to create what turned out to be a collection of atmospheres: moods that harbour the light and the spirit of various ages in Time.

Severs created a fictional history for the house. It centered around the fictional Jervis family. They were prosperous Huguenot (French Protestant immigrant) silk weavers whose fortunes waxed and waned during the course of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Severs filled the house with period furniture and artifacts and devised complicated tableaux in each room. He opened the house to paying guests: his audience.

The tour that Severs conducted, beginning in the cellar and ending in the garret, reveals an elusive narrative. The museum’s present-day hosts explain:

The game is that you interrupt a family of Huguenot silk weavers named Jervis who, though they can still sometimes be heard, seem always to be just out of sight. As you journey off into a silent search through the ten rooms, each lit by fire and candlelight, you receive a number of stimulations to your senses.

It is the smell of food that first aligns your imagination with the faces around you in portraits. Then…Mr Jervis’ wig, is it not the very same one that hangs over the back of his chair? His meal is only half eaten; did he abandon it when he heard us arrive?

Visitors begin to do what they might if indeed they had travelled through a frame into a painting: use what they sense to piece together the scene they had missed. Thus (and this was Mr Severs’ intention) what you imagine…is his art.

The experience is enchanting and occasionally quite eerie. It is part theater, part art installation. The motto of the house is Aut Visum Aut Non!: “You either see it or you don’t.” But it is also someone’s home—not Mr Jervis, but Mr Severs—who is simultaneously present and absent.

Before he died in 1999, Severs lamented that he had “come to accept” what he had “refused to accept for so long: that the house is only ephemeral. That no one can put a preservation order on atmosphere.” Stamp concluded: “Certainly not now Dennis Severs has gone to join the Jervises.”

But recent history has unfolded differently than either man imagined. More than a decade later this strange museum/theater/gallery is still open to visitors. Under the curatorship of Severs’s friend David Milne it is a thriving cultural landmark.

The narrative at 18 Folgate Street is not about the reign of Queen Victoria, per se. As one wanders through the rooms, and through time, one spends more of the silent tour in the eighteenth than the nineteenth century. But one emerges—yes, starry-eyed—into the Victorian period. It does not begin there, but ends there. Dennis Severs’s House is one of those wonderful portals, of which London has many, through which a person can enter a lost world.

Dennis Severs House


Remembering Sir John Betjeman


Sir John Betjeman left a towering legacy as a poet and preservationist. He wrote about the touchstones of British life, both grand and homely. As an Anglican Christian, who credited his conversion in part to Arthur Machen’s novel The Secret Glory, he was particularly concerned with English cathedrals and parish churches. W.H. Auden described him as a man who was “at home with the provincial gaslit towns, the seaside lodgings, the bicycle, the harmonium.” Betjeman defended the branch line railways that fell to Beeching’s Axe in the 1960s. He was an advocate for Victorian architecture, which was deeply unpopular during most of the twentieth century. It is largely thanks to his campaigning that the magnificent St Pancras Station and Midland Grand Hotel were saved from demolition in the 1960s.

My favorite account of Betjeman comes from the Australian actor Barry Humphries. In The Telegraph, he writes:

John described himself not as a poet but as a ‘senior journalist’, and in his book-cluttered sitting-room, lined with green William Morris wallpaper and hung with pictures by Conder, Laura Knight and Max Beerbohm, he dispensed generous late-morning drinks, usually ‘bubbly’ in pewter tankards, to friends such as Osbert Lancaster, Philip Larkin, Kingsley Amis and, not seldom, an Anglican priest or two.

It was a heady company into which I, a callow colonial, had been agreeably plunged. After a few drinks, and in an exalted mood, we would all repair to Coleman’s chophouse, in Aldersgate Street, where the atmosphere and appointments were immutably pre-war, and remained so until the enlightened mid-1960s, when the entire eastern side of that old thoroughfare was razed and replaced by council houses in the Brutalist style, now woefully shabby.

At Coleman’s we would all tuck into roast beef and Brussels sprouts, and drink more champagne. John always insisted on paying, which was just as well. His Collected Poems was a bestseller, and his masterpiece, the poetic autobiography Summoned by Bells, was a huge popular success, in spite of a few sniffy and envious reviews.

John was fond of exclaiming, with great merriment and that high, exultant cackle that his friends remember with such heart-rending affection, ‘Thanks to the telly, I’m as rich as Croesus!’ The poacher’s pockets in his jacket bulged with books and round canisters of Player’s cigarettes, which he liked to smoke because the ‘art work’ on the tins hadn’t changed in 30 or more years.

Sir John Betjeman’s former home at 43 Cloth Fair, overlooking Great Saint Bart’s, is owned by the Landmark Trust, which rents it out to holidaymakers.

Modernity Encroaches on Dr Johnson’s House


In London it is not hard to find surreal juxtapositions of the old and new. One of the most striking, I think, is the view from the upstairs window in Dr Johnson’s House.

17 Gough Square can be found in the warren of alleyways between Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese and Fetter Lane. It is the only surviving London residence of the lexicographer Samuel Johnson (1709-1784). The perfectly restored eighteenth-century building has been open to the public as a museum since 1914.

Inside one can easily imagine oneself in the reign of King George II—until one looks out of the north windows. A massive glass and steel block of barristers’ offices at 5 New St Square fills the view. There is a moment of dislocation in time. One feels like a Georgian suddenly confronted with a temple to an alien god outside of his bedroom.

A Lost Portrait of Dickens Rediscovered

Portrait of Charles John Huffman Dickens (1812-1870), wearing dark jacket and cravat, white waistcoat, his dark hair worn collar-length in long curls, by Margaret Gillies RWS, 1843; Photo: Philip Mould & Company

An 1843 portrait of Charles Dickens was rediscovered in South Africa after being lost for 174 years. At a market in Pietermaritzburg last year, “[a] man paid the equivalent of £27 for a cardboard tray containing a metal lobster, an old recorder, a brass plate and a small painting which was so covered with mould that the face could barely be made out,” writes Mark Brown in The Guardian.

The painting has been identified as a portrait of Dickens by Margaret Gillies, which was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1844. Gillies painted the novelist during the very weeks when he first began writing A Christmas Carol. The poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote that it depicted “the dust and mud of humanity about him, notwithstanding those eagle eyes.” Gillies had lost track of the painting by 1860. It seems to have been in the possession of a brother-in-law of her adopted daughter when he emigrated to South Africa in the 1860s.

The portrait is being unveiled today in London at The Dickens Museum where it will hopefully become part of the permanent collection. The museum is trying to raise funds to purchase it from the London art dealers Philip Mould and Company for £180,000. To support this effort, donate here.

Under London Bridge

I dined with my Livery company this week in London. The Worshipful Company of Glaziers and Painters of Glass occupies a hall on the Southwark side of London Bridge. It stands, in fact, on the site of an earlier bridge.

There have been three crossings at this location since the thirteenth century. “Old” London Bridge was built in 1209 during the reign of King Henry II. Like the Ponte Vecchio in Florence it was covered with buildings and shops. The Chapel of St Thomas on the Bridge marked the starting point of the popular pilgrimage route to the shrine of Thomas Becket at Canterbury Cathedral.

By the eighteenth century “Old” London Bridge was in a decrepit state, hence the nursery rhyme, “London Bridge is falling down.” In 1824 work began on “New” London Bridge. It was designed by the Scottish civil engineer Sir John Rennie, who had previously designed Waterloo Bridge and the East India Docks.

“New” London Bridge opened in 1831 during the reign of King William IV. It served the City throughout the Victorian period and the first half of the twentieth century. But the introduction of automotive traffic greatly reduced its lifespan. By the 1920s the foundations had begun to sink. “New” London Bridge was replaced in 1967. Bizarrely, it was sold to an American oil magnate, dismantled stone by stone, and transported to Arizona.

The southern foundation of Sir John Rennie’s London Bridge remains in situ and intact beneath Glazier’s Hall. A recent renovation opened it up for use. So we had our cocktail reception there, in an atmospheric space containing the late-Georgian brick arches and York stone floor of a lost London Bridge.

Endings and Beginnings at the Whitechapel Bell Foundry

The Whitechapel Bell Foundry in London closed in June of 2017 after 450 years in business. For the past 250 years the foundry has occupied premises at 32–34 Whitechapel Road. Big Ben was cast there. So was the Liberty Bell. Parts of the Grade II* listed building date back to 1670 when a coaching inn called The Artichoke stood at the site.

Now developers Raycliff intend to build a 100-room hotel on the property, absorbing the protected portions into a larger modernist complex. This would be a shame.

But the UK Historic Building Preservation Trust, an independent charity founded by The Prince of Wales, wants to buy the factory back. The Trust would run the site as a high-tech business, producing bells as it always has. According to the proposal:

In order to thrive as a working, forward-looking foundry, the Whitechapel Bell Foundry will diversify and update its bell casting techniques and materials while working to integrate the latest technology in 3D recording and output methods, acoustic recording and multispectral photography…

The Foundry will celebrate and share its prestigious history and the story of bell-making through educational exhibits and the creation of a nationwide archive of bells and their sounds. Apprenticeships and training programmes, together with school outreach activities, will be at the core of the new WBF.

Support the Trust and its work here.

1920s London in Color

Between 1924 and 1926 the British filmmaker Claude Friese-Greene made a series of short films known collectively as The Open Road. This project recorded a road trip across the length and breadth of Great Britain from Land’s End to John o’ Groats. It is noteworthy for the most extensive color photography of Britain up until that point.

Friese-Greene used a technology called Biocolour invented by his father. This process delivered a realistic color spectrum, but it was plagued by a flicker.

In 2006 the British Film Institute restored the film and corrected the flicker for a BBC broadcast entitled The Lost World of Friese-Greene.

Below is Friese-Greene’s footage of London from The Open Road.