Thursday, 29 July 2010
For a few weeks between July and September hundreds of Chalkhill Blue butterflies can be observed on the south-facing slopes of the chalk and limestone hills of southern England. They feed exlusively on horseshoe vetch, a yellow flowering plant, that must have been growing undisturbed for around fifty years at least. Therefore long standing ungrazed meadows, abandoned quarries, path edges, and wasteland are the best areas to see those butteflies. This one was spotted along the Pilgims' Way near Dorking.
Wednesday, 28 July 2010
In the former German Democratic Republic and other people's democracies, it was relatively common to find large works of art on the façades of public buildings and in the streets. Political propaganda was often an integral part of these works.
This was less the case at the Juri-Gagarin-Schule (Yuri Gagarin School) in Sangerhausen, a mining town southeast of the Harz Mountains. There, local artist Wilhelm Schmied produced in 1970 a colourfur mural depicting man's ambition to conquer the skies and space. Needless to say the bright colours, typical of the time, appealed to generations of kids, including my girlfriend who was a pupil at that school.
Unfortunately the school has been closed for years and some of the ceramic tiles have been falling down. The right part of the mural has suffered most. The fall of Icarus occupies most of the wall but the eye is attracted by the bright and burning rays of the sun and by the decorated kites and the colourful hot air balloon that rises successfully towards the skies.
On the left part of the mural a cosmonaut floats in space, with the moon and satellites in the background. Obviously this couldn't be Gagarin since the Russian astronaut didn't step out of the Vostock 1 cockpit. Interestingly the letters 'CCCP' don't appear on the helmet. Below the cosmonaut some kind of supersonic plane is flying at incredible speeds, leaving a vapour trail across the whole mural.
The school, whose name was changed to Friedrich-Schiller-Gymnasium in the 1990s, is due to be demolished soon. Sadly it looks as if the mural will be crushed with it. It would have been easy to rescue the tiles and display them elsewhere. I can certainly think of a few buildings in Sangerhausen that would benefit from having them on their façade, starting with the local museum!
Born in Dresden in 1910, Wilhelm Schmied first trained as a furniture painter and lacquerware artist before studying painting in the 1930s. He then moved to Sangerhausen, where he opened a studio. By the 1950s his work started to be recognized and in 1959 he became president of the Halle section of the East German Graphic Artists' Association. Later he joined the East German Academy of the Arts. His 1962 painting Mansfelder Land was particularly well received by the critics and the public and one year later he was commissioned to decorate the ticket hall at the train station of Sangerhausen. There he created a large mosaic depicting the people and mining industry of the area (that will be for another post). The scenery and the communities of the area remained his main source of inspiration, the Juri-Gagarin-Schule mural being an exception. In 1976 his painting Rappodetalsperre, which represented the reservoir of Rappode and the surrounding Harz landscape, was selected for the Palace of the Republic in Berlin. Schmied died in 1984.
Tuesday, 27 July 2010
Last spring, with about twenty minutes before catching our train, we headed towards the woods north of Cowden station in Kent to take some more pictures of bluebells. As we thought the undergrowth was carpeted with blue flowers. What we certainly didn't expect to discover was this little cottage almost completely isolated from the rest of the world. At first sight the shape looked intriguing but after a few seconds we realized this was just about half of a typical late medieval timber-framed Wealden hall house. What had happened to the other half?
There are two conflicting pieces of information about what happened to Hole Cottage. According to the webpages of the Falconhurst estate and the Landmark Trust, who manages the building, the other half was pulled down in 1833 but no reason for this is given. A fire, a lack of maintenance or the fall of a tree -after all the roof was damaged during the Great Storm of 1987- could be the most likely explanations. However English Heritage's notice about this Grade II listed building indicates it was destroyed by enemy action. That I suppose means during the Second World War and would have been caused by a bomb. If that were the case, it would have been very unlucky as there was hardly anything of strategic importance in the area that could have warranted a raid by the Luftwaffe.
Whatever caused the other half to disappear, this fortunate discovery was an excellent way to end our day out.
Monday, 26 July 2010
Of the many peculiar churches and chapels found across the island of Rügen in the Baltic Sea, the white chapel of Vitt is one of the simplest and most touching.
Overlooking a pretty hamlet nestled in a small ravine by the sea, it was only built in the early nineteenth century. Vitt was too small and the fishermen who lived there too poor to have a church of their own. However the need to have a place of worship arose when Ludwig Gotthard Kosegarten revived the century-old tradition of sermons on the shore. During the pre-Christian era, tradesmen from the continent on their short visits to Rügen to buy herrings travelled with priests, who preached to the pagan population next to where the boats landed. The habit survived well into the sixteenth century, even if the tradesmen visited the island less and less as the Baltic's herring stocks shrank.
A poet and Lutherian priest, Kosegarten was appointed pastor of Altenkirchen, on Rügen, in 1792 after receiving his doctorate in theology. His dislike of cities was only matched by a deep love of nature, which he celebrated in his poems and sermons. Faithful to his belief that natural beauty was proof of God's immanence and to emulate Jesus, Kosegarten began preaching to the communities of fishermen outside. Soon his summer outdoor services, which were later published as Uferpredigten (Sermons at the Shore), became extremely popular. People travelled from across the island and even from the continent to listen to this enthusiastic pastor. Yet the weather could be capricious and sometimes they would have to retreat into a cottage. As attendance increased, Kosegarten decided by 1806 to build a chapel close to the sea at Vitt. The Romanticist painter Caspar David Friedrich, who corresponded with Kosegarten, is said to have submitted a drawing with an ovel chapel. Yet Kosegarten chose an octagonal plan, easier and cheaper to build. This plan may have been designed by Prussian architect Karl Friedrich Schinkel. Construction of the chapel was delayed because of the occupation of Rügen by the armies of Napoléon. It was finally completed in 1816 but didn't receive any furniture for some time. Originally the chapel had a shingled roof, which was replaced by a thatched rood after the First World War. More recently a small room was built by the entrance but this addition blocked the view towards the sea. In 1990 the artist Gabriele Mucchi painted a seascape on the chapel's wall. A small compensation for the lost view.
Kosegarten didn't benefit much from the chapel he built. From 1816 he spent more and more time in Greifswald, where he taught history and theology at the university. He died there in 1818.
On the day I visited the area the shutters had been removed to be either repainted or replaced. The marks left by the hinges are clearly visible on the white walls.
Sunday, 25 July 2010
Friday, 23 July 2010
I was moving some books around to try to get some more space on the shelves when I started flipping through the pages of La casa verde (The Green House), the complex but compelling and in the end highly rewarding novel written by Mario Vargas Llosa in 1965. Immediately the interwoven stories set in the Amazonian jungle and the northern Peruvian town of Piura over several decades came back to my mind. The title refers to the brothel built and managed by don Anselmo on the outskirts of Piura. The establishment prospers until the news spread through town that Antonia, whom Anselmo had abducted and kept in the tower of the Green House, died while giving birth to his daughter. An angry crowd led by padre García then burns the brothel to the ground. Yet years later the Green House is rebuilt by Chunga, the daughter of Antonia and Anselmo.
The story of the brothel is only one of the three main stories (each includes several sub-stories) in a novel in which Vargas Llosa skillfully creates with non-chronological double narratives within chapters and even paragraphs a puzzle for the reader. Yet each story is linked ultimately to the others and complements and enriches them. Progressively all the pieces fall into place, leaving the reader with a sense of deep satisfaction.
Needless to say, one would imagine the Green House of the novel to be much more luxurious than the house above, in the small Cuban city of Sancti Spiritus. Still the fading pastel-like colours of this façade are very appealing.
Thursday, 22 July 2010
The title of today's post does not refer to the potentially explosive political situation in the country but to that meteorological phenomenon upon which the agriculture of the Indian subcontinent and southeast Asia depends: the monsoon.
The skies darken as Express 52 Chiang Mai - Bangkok, after crossing the Khun Tan mountain range, enters a plain of paddy fields near Lampang in northern Thailand on a mid-July afternoon. On that occasion the wind didn't blow the clouds in our direction and we avoided the daily torrential downpour.
Wednesday, 21 July 2010
A gust of wind and suddenly the church of San Miguel de Lillo emerges from the fog that enveloped Mount Naranco, a small range of hills just to the northwest of Oviedo, the capital of Asturias in northern Spain.
The church was built a few hundred metres uphill from the Santa María del Naranco palace by Ramiro I, who reigned over Asturias between 842 and 850. Only one-third is still standing but what a jewel of pre-Romanesque art it is! The three square apses and part of the central nave and aisles collapsed around the thirteenth century certainly because of ground subsidence. Originally barrel vaults covered the entire church. The one above the central nave extended over most of its length, but for the aisle a more complex design was chosen. Each of the five portions of the aisles was covered by an independent vault and each vault was perpendicular to the closest one. Additionally the second and fourth ones stood on higher walls, giving the impression the church had two transverse naves. At a time when churches had in general a flat wooden roof, this was certainly very impressive. Additionally the narrowness of the nave and aisles gives a feeling of verticality, which contrasts with churches built previously across the Iberian peninsula.
The lattice windows with all their decorated elements are also remarkable.
The interior of what is left of San Miguel de Lillo is as richly decorated as the exterior is striking (sorry, no photo allowed). On the door jambs and the square bases and capitals of the pillars that separate the nave from the aisles are human figures, including an acrobat and a lion tamer. Sculpted floral and geometric patterns can also be found around the church. On the walls some fragments of painting, including one with the earliest representation of human figures in pre-Romanesque Iberian art, have survived until now... but maybe not for much longer.
In spite of its importance, San Miguel de Lillo has been badly neglected and is deteriorating rapidly. Humidity in particular is causing much damage to the wall paintings and the sculptures. The famous painted figure of a musician was lost recently. In early 2009 academics and several associations warned that if nothing was done, not only all these treasures could be lost but the church could even collapse. After several months of campaigning, teams of experts from Madrid came to assess the situation and it was decided to carry out a complete restoration of the church to preserve it for future generations.
Tuesday, 20 July 2010
When the train passes through Balcombe station on its way towards the Sussex coast, I know it's time to stop whatever I'm doing if I don't want to lose the scenic highlight of the journey: the view over the Ouse Valley and the Sussex Weald as the train crosses the impressive viaduct built by the London & Brighton Railway. Apart from a few cottages and Ardingly College towards the east, all one can see are fields and woods. In season the rhododendrons at Borde Hill add a tiny touch of colour to the otherwise green countryside.
Yet to appreciate the size of the viaduct -449.6 m long and up to 29.3 m high- and realize what a feat of engineering it is, one has to see it from a distance and then walk until one can stand beneath it. The Ouse Valley or Balcombe Viaduct was built between 1839 and 1841 to a design by John Urpeth Rastrick. David Mocatta, the railway's architect, designed the balustrade and the two groups of four Italianate pavilions erected at each end of the viaduct. More than eleven million bricks are said to have been used in its construction. They were brought from Holland by boat to Newhaven and then by barges. The River Ouse may be a small stream today but back then it had been made navigable as far as Balcombe. Eventually the Ouse Navigation, which had been completed in 1812, was killed by the very railway it helped to build.
Like most viaducts and bridges of the Victorian era, it testifies to the confidence of railway companies and their belief they could domesticate any obstacle that stood on the way of progress. The London & Brighton Railway disappeared but its most visible construction is still carrying more than hundred trains a day.
The Ouse Valley Viaduct was restored in the mid-1990s at a cost of £6.5 million.
Monday, 19 July 2010
With temperatures soaring in parts of the UK, a freshly made fruit shake seems to be the perfect drink. For quality and value, those prepared at the stalls of the street market in the former Lao capital Luang Prabang can hardly be beaten. Just a bit far from London right now...
Friday, 16 July 2010
I am normally not too keen on Baroque cherubs and fluffy clouds but there is something attractive about some tombs and headstones from the second half of the eighteenth century. Many of them are rich in allegorical representations, with skulls and skeletons plus the aforementioned cherubs and clouds. Some include objects, tools or even animal the deceased would have been familiar with. Finally a few depict the circumstances of one's death.
The headstone in Thursley churchyard may not show the same degree of craftsmanship as some funerary monuments from that period but the graphic representation of a murder and the dramatic story narrated below make it captivating:
A generous but unfortunate Sailor
Who was barbarously murdered on Hindhead
On Sept. 24th 1786
By three Villains
After he had liberally treated them
And promised his further assistance
On the Road to Portsmouth
The crime caught the attention of the public at the time and it appeared all the more horrendous because the sailor was never identified. He was last seen at the Red Lion Inn in Thursley drinking with three men he met there. Then they headed together towards Portsmouth but upon reaching Hindhead, they robbed and nearly decapitated him, dumping his body in the Devil's Punch Bowl. Were the murderers seen in the act or were they spotted later with his belongings? In an case they were arrested, confessed to their crime, and sentenced to death at the Kingston Lent Assizes. Their bodies were covered in tar and hung in chains on a gibbet by the side of the road near the highest point at Hindhead.
The headstone commemorating this unfortunate unknown sailor was paid for by public subscription.
Thursday, 15 July 2010
A combination of Neo-Baroque and Jugendstil
Dresden may be known above all for its Baroque monuments, such as the Zwinger, the Hofkirche, or the recently-rebuilt Frauenkirche, but many different architectural styles can be appreciated when walking along the streets and avenues of the Saxon capital. The late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, a transitional period between Historicism and Jugendstil (as Art Nouveau is known in Germany), are well represented especially in the Neustadt, Striesen, Strehlen, Blasewitz and Radeberger Vorstadt districts.
Even if some architects sought to build 'pure' Jugendstil buildings, that wasn't always achieved. The international or at least pan-European dimension of Art Nouveau conflicted with regional identities and loyalties which remained a major force, even in a post-1870 unified Germany. In architecture the different historicist styles embraced during the nineteenth century, which looked at a frequently idealized past to reinforce the individuality of each German state, didn't give way easily to emerging new tendencies. Given these tensions, it is hardly surprising that in several German cities some buildings combine Neo-Gothic or, like in Dresden, Neo-Baroque outlines with Jugendstil decoration, as the Walderseeschlößchen at Stresemannplatz 3 illustrates.
The Walderseeschlößchen, or Little Waldersee Castle (originally the square it faces was called Walderseeplatz, after Field Marshal Alfred von Waldersee. The name was changed after 1945), was built in 1906-1907 for Carl August Eichler, the director of a construction company. Certainly designed by Paul Colditz, who then rented a flat on the first floor, it clearly shows that Neo-Baroque was still popular even if by 1905 Jugendstil was at its peak in Dresden. However what really catches the eye is the stucco decoration on the façade, and this is obviously Jugendstil. The wavy lines and the floral ornaments that rise from the portal upward to embrace a female figure above the top window contrast sharply with the Mansard roof.
Wednesday, 14 July 2010
Built above a wooded valley, the tiny village of Fenioux, in the department of Charente-Maritime, has two attractions: the richly carved doorway of its Romanesque church, and its lanterne des morts or lantern of the dead.
Over the years many stories have been told about these intriguing lanterns of the dead found in the Limousin, Poitou and Saintonge regions. Yet the truth is we know very little about these freestanding towers with apertures for a lantern fire at the top, of which only forty-eight survive (there is even some debate about whether all can be considered as lanterns of the dead). Depending on the width of the tower, access to the lantern was either by a very narrow spiral staircase like in Fenioux, a ladder, or notches on the wall. In some cases the lantern was simply hoisted by means of rope and pulley.
It appears they were built between the twelfth and thirteenth centuries but the absence of documents about their construction or inscriptions on their walls makes it difficult to be more precise. Their rather simple architecture, with very few sculpted elements, doesn't help either.
Their exact purpose is also uncertain. Since they stood in cemeteries it is often assumed their light represented a spiritual protection for the dead as well as for the living who ventured into what was considered a dangerous place, especially at night. Some researchers argued they guided pilgrims. However their light was certainly too dim and intermittent for them have played such a role.
The origin of the shape is equally subject to debate. According to one hypothesis developed in the nineteenth century, it was influenced by the memories of the light that burnt on the tomb of Saladin and of the minarets the crusaders saw in the Holy Land. To support this, some point to the crescent-like shape of the damaged ball on the south side of the pyramidal top of the Fenioux lantern (on the right on the picture). Yet this seems to be the result of imagination than rigorous scientific study.
Finally the eleven columns forming the main pillar and the thirteen little columns circling the lantern at Fenioux have given rise to many fanciful theories based on numerology.
Whatever the purpose of those lanterns of the dead and their origins, they are fascinating monuments that are well worth a detour.
Tuesday, 13 July 2010
When Henry Drummond, who had purchased Albury Park in 1819, decided to remodel the manor house and expand the park around the house in 1842, the old village, which stood along the Tillingbourne stream, simply had to go. Only the old parish church of St Peter and St Paul was left standing. Commoners were relocated half a mile to the west in a hamlet then known as Weston Street, where new houses were built for them. All are different and the result is rather pleasant as illustrated by the group above. To the left is Weston Dene, built c. 1860. Next is a former row of shops. The building is actually divided into three houses. The one on the left started as a haberdasher's, before becoming a doctor's surgery and later a chemist's. As the village forge was located just in front, the central one is known as Farriers Cottage. Finally the house on the right used to be the post office. Barely visible on the right is the old school, which now houses the Village Hall.
What really catches the visitors' attention are the tall chimneys that rise above several buildings.
It is believed these were designed by Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin, who worked on several projects for Henry Drummond. In 1839 he redecorated the transept of the old parish church and transformed it into the mortuary chapel for the Drummond family. One year later he began working with William McIntosh Brooks on the Catholic Apostolic Church built on the edge of Albury Park for the Irvingite sect, of which Drummond was a staunch supporter. Finally between 1846 and 1852 he was given the task of rebuilding the manor house.
Monday, 12 July 2010
Just a few miles west of Guildford is one of Surrey's oldest and smallest churches. Measuring hardly more than 43 ft by 18ft, St Bartholomew's in the small hamlet of Wanborough is a lucky survivor. The original Saxon church, built shortly before the Norman conquest, was rebuilt in the thirteenth century by the Cistercian monks of Waverley Abbey, to whom the Manor of Wanborough had been sold c. 1130. Another of their legacy is the Great Barn nearby. By the second half of the seventeenth century the church was falling into disrepair and it became necessary to rebuild the west wall after the bell tower collapsed or was demolished because of its poor state. Brick rather than the original stone rubble and flint was used to carry out the work. Shortly afterwards, c. 1674, the Birkbecks, a Quaker family, who was farming the land for Lord Onslow and had little use for the church, transformed it into an ordinary farm building. For nearly two centuries its only religious use was as a mortuary chapel, whenever necessary.
The fortune of St Bartholomew's improved when it was decided to close Puttenham church for repairs and to celebrate mass at Wanborough instead. Thus Henry Woodyer was asked to restore it and the church re-opened on 14th June 1861.
Saturday, 10 July 2010
Seventy years ago today the Battle of Britain began. Fortunately nowadays it is only commercial aircrafts that score the skies above Holy Trinity in Roehampton. Its 230 ft high spire built of Corsham stone rises proudly above Putney Heath. The church was built in 1896-98 to a design by G H Fellowes Prynne.