The romance of dereliction

By The Curious Scribbler

Derelict buildings are invariably poignant, but particularly so when they retain the traces of domestic life, a palimpsest of their past occupants.

When I first moved to Wales and explored my neighbourhood I happened upon an isolated farm, Pengraig Draw up a stony track near the coast.  At some time,  years before, the entire end of the farmhouse had collapsed outwards, and there it stood, like a dolls house open to the elements.  The upstairs bedroom was still furnished with bed, chest of drawers and a old chaise longue, but the collapsed stairs and dangerously sloping floor prevented access.   The scene was reminiscent of  wartime bomb damage in the immediacy with which the the disaster must have occurred. It remain in this condition for many years, the furniture weathered by the rain.  Only quite recently was the old house rescued and renovated.  The end wall is now rebuilt and it is a tidy holiday letting property with a conservatory extension, and even a hot tub in the garden.  The romance of dereliction is but a memory.

Pengraig Draw, now a lavishly renewed holiday cottage

Pengraig Draw, now a lavishly renewed holiday cottage.  The end wall in this view lay collapsed for many years in the 1980s. http://www.aberystwythholidaycottages.co.uk/pengraig-draw-farmhouse/

A far more celebrated ruin is that of Thomas Johnes’ Hafod,  which was eventually dynamited by the Forestry Commission in 1957.  In fairness to the apparent vandalism of destroying an architectural gem,  it was, by this time in a sadly neglected state.  The last owner to live there, master builder and timber merchant W.G. Tarrant had died suddenly on Aberystwyth railway station in 1942 and  subsequent owners, also timber merchants did not live there, but stripped out everything of value for salvage sale.  There are bits and pieces of Hafod in houses and cottages all around the neighbourhood, purchased or scavenged in the last days of the house.

It is evocative then, to see photographs taken in 1957 by Edwin Smith, shortly before, or during,  the destruction of the house,  which are in the RIBA collections. The large and never-occupied Italianate wing built in the late 1840s by Anthony Salvin for the then owner Henry de Hoghton, is already a pile of rubble.

Edwin Smith / RIBA Collections

Hafod, viewed from the southeast, partially demolished in 1957.  The Italianate wing is already destroyed.                                                                       Photo: Edwin Smith / RIBA Collections

Edwin Smith / RIBA Collections

Hafod, the facade of the house built by Thomas Baldwin of Bath for Thomas Johnes  in 1788. Edwin Smith / RIBA Collections

Most poignant of all is a view of the interior showing the ravages of pre-demolition  salvage. A handsome fireplace has been prised from the chimney breast, the Georgian door and door frame have been ripped out, some wooden shutters are propped across the doorway.  Yet above the former fireplace still hangs a large  oil painting of a landscape in a lavish gilt frame. The huge rip in the canvas explains its insignificance at this time. Though it would be romantic to think otherwise, the picture almost certainly was not a piece of Johnes’s property, more probably it was one of the fixtures belonging to the last serious owner, T.J. Waddingham who died age 98 in 1938.   But one still shudders to see it, not decently tidied away before the final destruction was commenced, but hanging on the wall as a reproach for all the misfortune which befell the house.

In the derelict Hafod mansion Edwin Smith / RIBA Collections

In the derelict Hafod mansion, a damaged oil painting still hangs on the wall in 1957               Photo Edwin Smith / RIBA Collections

 

Also in the collection are pictures of the architectural splendours now lost, including a detail of the domed roof the ante room to the side of the Octagon library, now ruptured  to the sky.

A view through the roof of the octagon library. Edwin Smith / RIBA Collections

Hafod.  A view through the roof of the ante room adjoining octagon library.                                                                    Photo:       Edwin Smith / RIBA Collections

Edwin Smith / RIBA Collections

Hafod. The garden terrace had been long neglected by 1957                                            Photo:Edwin Smith / RIBA Collections

 

The decaying steps leading from the former lawn, the broken windows and rubble of plaster on the floor are perhaps the best evidence that by 1957 Hafod was indeed very far gone.  Today the rubble is overgrown by trees.  Only the cellar remains, with a crust of broken wine bottles scattered below the wine racks, and a slew of rubble blocking the cellar steps.  A few years ago it was briefly possible to walk along these damp subterranean corridors, but the only inhabitants are bats and the makeshift entrance is barred by a sturdy gate to prevent risk to unwary explorers.

In the Hafod cellars 2006

In the Hafod cellars 2006

In the case of Pengraig Draw, the past has been totally obliterated by modernity.  At Hafod it remains hauntingly present.

 

 

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New Tricks in an Old Pembrokeshire Garden

by The Curious Scribbler

Last September I visited an intriguing garden at Treffgarne Hall, near Wolf’s Castle. Here stands a large plain two-storey country house built in 1824 and virtually unaltered by its subsequent owners.  It stands on the Landsker line: the division between Norman and Welsh Pembrokeshire, on a windswept hilltop.

 

The south frontage of Treffgarne Hall, unchanged since 1824

The south frontage of Treffgarne Hall, unchanged since 1824

The south facing house looks right out to distant refinery stacks at the coast at Milford Haven 16 miles away.  By the 1960s its fortunes were shabby, with rotten floors and an overgrown garden.  The land, the farm, the outbuildings were serially sold off, until just the house and four acres remained, an unsuccessful country hotel.  This was bought in 2003 by Martin and Jackie Batty and a transformation began.

The walled garden on the hilltop had been embellished by the former owners to contain a hard tennis court in the farthest third, which looks sadly decrepit today.  The rest was, in 2003 a blank canvas of weeds.  But when I passed through the stone garden doorway west of the house I seemed to step into a Chelsea show garden. I found an immaculate formal space of slate paving, parallel rills and four symmetrically planted paulownias, flanked by huge oak pergolas trailed with Clematis armandii.  The design was created with advice from the Julian and Isabel Bannerman,  the designers who used to garden Hanham Court near Bristol.

Within the old walled kitchen garden is a remarkable formal garden

Within the old walled kitchen garden is a remarkable formal garden

It feels highly improbable to step from rural Pembrokeshire into such a space.  Martin Batty described how it reflects his enthusiasm for exotic and tender plants.   His plantings in 2003 included tender South African Proteas, Leucodendron argenteum (the silver tree) , Mexican cactus and giant echiums.  The first  few years were encouraging, but many were lost in the severe winters of 2009 and 2010.  The Echiums have come back from seed, and many other of his barely frost-hardy plants have flourished.  We saw many Southern hemisphere plants,  Bailey’s Purple Wattle from Australia, which flowers here in February, the Rice paper plant Tetrapanax papyrifer, and the frothy foliage of Melianthus major.

he Rice Paper Plant Tetrapanax papyrifer

The Rice Paper Plant Tetrapanax papyrifer

A curiousity was the weird saw-like leaves of Pseudopanax ferox. The lower leaves of this columnar plant are hard and rigid, higher up the plant they will grow soft and untoothed.  Apparently this heterophylly evolved to protect the leaves from the attentions of the now extinct Moas of New Zealand.

Pseudopanax ferox

Pseudopanax ferox

There were other unfamiliar plants: the blue dangling bells of Iochroma grandiflora from Peru, the floppy green fans of leaves of Iris confusa ‘ Martin Rix’ and a Muehlenbeckia (maidenhair vine)  not scrabbling uncontrolled through native trees as we saw it on Herm Island two years ago, but disciplined into a neat tight green mound. There was even a Norfolk Island Pine, Araucaria heterophylla – more familiar in Canary Island and Florida tourist developments.  I wonder how it will fare when it rears its head above the protective wall.

Iochroma grandiflora

Iochroma grandiflora

The rest of the garden is less startling, with lawns and borders, a broad terrace on the south side of the house, and a nice array of low-growing foliage plants in a gravel garden outside the walled garden. However the Battys have enlivened these grounds with some interesting uses of wood.  There is an inviting summerhouse, and what appear to be a pair of elaborate Palladian ashlar gateposts on the drive.

A quiet drive through conventional gateposts? Hardly:

A quiet drive through conventional gateposts? Hardly:

Closer inspection shows them to be carved of timber.  Panels are inscribed as mileposts:  Doncaster 350 miles;  Japan 4000 miles, which reflect the origins of the owners.  Pausing between these posts one reads the enigmatic inscription THE RUINS OF TIME BUILD MANSIONS IN ETERNITY.

timber gateposts. Doncaster 350 miles, Japan 5000miles

Treffgarne Timber gateposts. Doncaster 350 miles, Japan 5000miles

There is also a totem pole, a stack of four animals carved out of the trunk of a former beech tree and erected as a focal point west of the house.  Another, multi-trunked dead beech has been carved in situ in the likeness of a four headed dragon.

Carved in situ, a multi-trunked dead beech

Carved in situ, a multi-trunked dead beech

Here nature has embellished the chiselled scaly necks with bracket fungus and elegant frills of turkey tail fungus.  This colonisation is also the harbinger of the sculpture’s destruction.  But for a few years before the inevitable collapse, art and nature are most harmoniously combined.  Gardeners go to so much trouble for such fleeting returns.

The bracket fungus Pseudotrametes gibbosa favours beech trees

The bracket fungus Pseudotrametes gibbosa favours beech trees

Turkey tail. Coriolus versicolor

Turkey tail. (Coriolus versicolor)is now properly known as Trametes vesicolor and apparently the source of a potent anti tumour drug.

P1100119

The garden is open on certain days under the National Garden Scheme.   See the Yellow book and the free regional pamphlets which will soon appear.

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Ransome’s Artificial Stone at The Old College, Aberystwth

by The Curious Scribbler

The professional geologists who joined Dr Tim Palmer for his tour of the building materials of the Old College last month were to be seen, pondering, with hand-lenses, on the grand stair which leads off from the entrance lobby on the landward side of the Old College.  What, they debated, was the strangely uniform textured stone of which the cylindrical pillars are constructed?  In a sedimentary rock geologists look for traces of fossils, (there were none),  for bedding,  which represents the layers in which the sediment was laid down, for variations in grain size of the rock.  Part way up the stairs a pillar seemed to contain two largish clasts: lumps of material apparently contained within the stone, but insufficiently different from the matrix to resemble anything familiar to their experience.   We knew, because it had been found in the archive, that Seddon used Ransome’s Artificial Stone in the building, but for which parts, the records did not reveal.

A prolonged online search through Building News,  a weekly trade journal of the 19th century, has provided and illustrated the answer.  In the issue for 14 April 1871 a short article  reported that JP Seddon was to address the Institute of Architects the following Monday on the subject of the Old College and other buildings he had created in or near Aberystwyth  ( Abermad and Victoria Terrace spring to mind).

The Principal Staircase of the University College at Aberystwyth. Building News April 14 1871

The Principal Staircase of the University College at Aberystwyth. Building News April 14 1871

The grand staircase is shown and the accompanying article reads ” The plan of the staircase, as may be sufficiently seen from our view of it, is complex. The first flight leading from the main corridor, which is curved, is a straight one.  Then from the landing a few circular steps wind round each supporting column of the vaulting, and thence another straight flight on each side leads to the corridor on the first floor.  The shafts of the columns are all of Ransome’s patent stone, and the capitals and vaulting are of Bath stone”.  It was these shafts, and the eight-faced plinths beneath them, over which the geologists had been pondering.

Ransome’s Artificial Stone was quite a new product at the time the Old College ( then The Castle Hotel) was being constructed to the design of architect JP Seddon in 1865. It is described in an account of a meeting of the British Association of Science and Art in 1862.  At this meeting Professor Ansted MA, FRS, read a paper on artificial stones describing terracotta, cements and siliceous stone, and the properties and disadvantages of each.  Mr Ransome  was present to stage a demonstration of his technique.

According to the account, sand, limestone or clay was mixed into a paste with liquid sodium silicate, which had been obtained by digesting flints in alkaline solution in an industrial pressure cooker.  The paste could be pressed into a mould and then dipped into a solution of calcium chloride.  Within a few minutes the pasty mass had hardened to stone and could be passed around the room.  Large blocks weighing as much as two tons could be made by this method,  and the material could already be seen in use in new facades of the Metropolitan railway in London.

Ransome’s patent stone was also used for making moulded shaped stones such as gravestones and grindstones for sharpening knives.  It fell from use towards the end of the 19th century and Ransome’s son moved to America and became better known for concrete based materials and a patent horizontal rotary mixer.

Returning to the Old College, it seems there are other likely items of Ransome’s Artificial Stone, such as the distinctive stone fireplace hoods at either end of the Seddon room.  Again lacking in any obvious geological structures, these uniform textured stones interlock with one another and were moulded rather that tooled by a stonemason into their complementary shapes.  Utilizing different colours of sand in the mix allowed the production of alternate dark and light shades in the fireplace arch. The ornamental columns on either side are of real stone, Lizard serpentine, from Cornwall.

Fireplace hood, believed to be of Ransome's artificial stone, in the Seddon Room

Fireplace hood, believed to be of Ransome’s Artificial Stone, in the Seddon Room

The odd looking clasts noted by the geologists inspecting stones in the staircase are now understandable, being  consistent with their origin as distinct lumps within an imperfectly mixed  paste rather than formed by  a process of natural deposition.

The last word in this blog should go to the The Building News of April 14 1871, at which time the newly formed University College was soon to open in their recently acquired and unfinished building.

” We trust that the Committee will resolve upon finishing the work in the same spirit as that in which it was begun, and not spoil it by injudicious economy; for having purchased it for so much less than it cost, as they have done, a certain moral responsibility is attached to the bargain.”

I am not sure that “moral reponsibility” is a useful phrase to use in the current lottery bid to restore and revive this innovative building,  but the intervening years have certainly seen underfunding, and the definitely injudicious application of thick layers of paint to some of the Ransome’s stone columns.

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Jesse Rust mosaics in Aberystwyth

by The Curious Scribbler

Last week I attended a Cadw Open Day at the Old College, where Dr Tim Palmer gave a lecture on the the building stones of which this Grade I Listed building is made.  The Old College has  suffered various set backs in its life:  the bankruptcy of its first owner, a devastating fire in the Chemistry department, the reconstruction of its south and middle sections, and the slow ravages of the erosive salt-laden winds.  We learned how new phases and different architects brought in different materials, so that the Old College now boasts at least nine different sources of stone.

Historically the most interesting work is that of J.P. Seddon, designer of the building destined to become Thomas Savin’s grand railway terminus hotel.  He used Cefn sandstone from Ruabon for the walling and  Box Ground stone from Bath for the carved window dressings and details.  Keen to achieve a vibrant range of colours he used Hanham Blue from Bristol for the exterior pillars which flank windows on the seaward side, and ornamental marbles from Devon and Cornwall for interior pillars in the Dining Room and Bar ( now the Seddon Room). The intricate gothic main staircase proves to be made largely of a long forgotten composite: Ransome’s Artificial Stone, which betrays its man -made origins only by its remarkably uniform texture.  Externally, when completing the upper storey of the building to the University College’s more parsimonious requirements, Seddon used dark concrete blocks, interspersed with diagonal bands of pale Dundry stone.

The rather austere central block by Ferguson uses a different stone, Grinshill sandstone from near Shrewsbury, while 20th century restorations brought in a sandstone from Durham, which is weathering as severely as the Bath stone which it replaced.

When rebuilding the southern wing of the College  as the Science Wing in 1887, Seddon commissioned his former pupil C.F.A.Voysey to design the distinctive triptych mosaic which still adorns the curved end of the building, looming over the crazy golf and the castle.  It depicts pure science being respectfully presented with the fruits of applied science ( a train and a ship) by two acolytes.  Seddon recorded in 1898  that some months after the mosaic was installed, the college authorities objected to  Voysey’s religious symbolism in the central panel, which ‘suggested a conflict between science and dogma’. Seddon was obliged to alter the finished mosaic, such that Science now sits on an unadorned wall.

The tryptych on the South wing Copyright Dr Tom Holt, UA

The tryptych on the South Wing, Old College Aberystwyth
Copyright Dr Tom Holt, Aberystwyth Univeristy

But the actual manufacturer of the mosaic is not generally known.  Tim Palmer drew our attention to another of J.P. Seddon’s commissions in Aberystwyth, the restoration of the ancient church of St Padarn, in Llanbadarn Fawr in 1878.  Visitors  “in the know” can peel back the red carpet in the crossing to reveal the extensive mosaic floor, in which geometric designs of tiny 1/2 inch tesserae frame regularly placed encaustic tiles depicting saints and angels.  Adjoining the red marble steps to the chancel, the mosaics take more fluid naturalistic designs of leaves and flowers.

Mosaic floor by Jesse Rust, St Padarn's Church, Llanbadarn

Mosaic floor by Jesse Rust, St Padarn’s Church, Llanbadarn

An encaustic tile depicting an angel, wet in mosaic floor

Encaustic picture tiles depicting a saint offering his crown, set in mosaic floor, St Padarn’s Church

The church records held at the Ceredigion Archive  show that these mosaics were the work of Jesse Rust of Battersea, who used recycled glass and ceramic pigments to create a rainbow range of tiles and tesserae.  The actual designs were assembled in the workshop, with the upper face stabilised on glued paper, which was stripped away to reveal the picture once the sections were stuck in place on the church floor.

Tim Palmer drew our attention to the strong likelihood that Voysey’s mosaic on the Old College was also manufactured by Jesse Rust of Battersea.  Juxtaposing the colourful image of Science  with the design sample held by the Victoria and Albert Museum, showed a very good correspondence with the palette of colours his firm offered.

Jesse Rust samples in V &A set beside CFA Voysey's triptych

Jesse Rust samples in V &A ( left) set beside CFA Voysey’s triptych, Aberystwyth

A bit of reading around the topic shows the prominence of Rust’s elaborately decorative mosaics in the late 19th to early 20th century.    There is a  Listed Grade II astrological mosaic by Jesse Rust at the foot of the Marble staircase in the Hotel Russell, (built 1898) in Russell Square, London, and another  at the old London, Edinburgh and Glasgow Insurance Company offices at 194 Euston Road.

The Mosaic by Jesse Rust at the foot of the marble staircase in the Hotel Russell

The Mosaic by Jesse Rust at the foot of the Pyrenean marble staircase in the Hotel Russell

There is a very colourful floor, with flowers, animals and bees,  recently restored in the foyer of Battersea Old Town Hall and a  World War I memorial floor in John Nash’s circular church All Souls, Langham Place.

Other Jesse Rust work was more functional and by the early 20th century his glass tiles were particularly favoured for lavatories.  Fine examples survive in the painstakingly restored  Sanitary Court at Peckham Rye station. http://www.benedictolooney.co.uk/peckham-rye-station-north-wing-sanitary-courts/

The Sanitary Court, Peckham Rye Station

The Sanitary Court, Peckham Rye Station

A report in the Times 16 June 1904 shows that he provided the floors for its 150 bathrooms and lavatories, and the floor-to-ceiling tiling in the refrigeration rooms in the Savoy Hotel.

Prior to the rebuilding of the Old College Science wing in 1887 there are a number of instances of Seddon and Rust working together.  In 1875 Rust supplied J.P. Seddon with mosaics for a new Victorian Gothic church at Ayot St Peter, Hertfordshire which he designed in contrasting shades of red, blue and white brick.  Jesse Rust supplied a particularly jolly mosaic font in the interior, and even a blue mosaic clock face on the church tower.

Ayot St Peter, Hertfordshire, designed by JP Seddon

Ayot St Peter, Hertfordshire, designed by JP Seddon

Clock face mosaic by Jesse Rust, at Ayot St Peter

Clock face mosaic by Jesse Rust, at Ayot St Peter

The Llanbadarn Church floor dates from 1878.   Seddon also did work designing stained glass for Rust, and he designed the front facade of his Battersea premises.

Many of Rust’s functional mosaic floors have probably been cleared away and replaced, for with the passage of time individual tesserae become detached and come away with the sweepings, leaving flaws in the design and dirt traps in the floor.  Llanbadarn Church needs substantial grants to return the mosaic to its former glory, and then dispense with the protective carpet.   But it is pleasing to believe that the Old College building  boasts  probably the most westerly Jesse Rust mosaic. Further research may even reveal the invoice in the University archives.

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Mariamne’s Urn – Chained to the wall by the disabled toilet.

by The Curious Scribbler

I chanced recently upon on Mariamne’s Urn at its latest location in the National Library of Wales.  It stands in a passage adjoining the door to the disabled toilet, secured by substantial metal chains through its amphora handles, but devoid of any labelling whatever to explain its signifiicance.

It is a large white marble funerary urn standing upon a square plinth.  Two hundred years ago it graced Mariamne Johnes’ private pensile garden on an outcrop above the Ystwyth at Hafod.  This garden was, according to Thomas Johnes’ correspondence,  created for Mariamne by his friend the Scottish agriculturalist Dr Robert Anderson in 1796, when his daughter would have been aged just twelve.  In  a letter of some hyperbole he then wrote to Sir James Edward Smith “The pensile gardens of Semiramis will be a farce to it, and it will equally surprise you as it has done me. I am very well satisfied with my Gardener, and trust everything will go on well.” 

The young Mariamne showed a precocious enthusiasm for botany and corresponded with leading botanist Sir James Edward Smith.  Her private garden became a showcase for shrubs and alpine plants, although there must have been periods during her adolescent illnesses when she could scarcely have visited it herself.   She died, aged 27 in 1811. The urn, a work by celebrated sculptor Thomas Banks, is generally believed to have been created in 1802.  Banks had made other sculptures for Thomas Johnes: Thetis dipping the infant Achilles into the Styx, busts of Jane and Mariamne, a fireplace for the mansion.  He was  at Hafod as Johnes’ guest  in September 1803, when Johnes recorded that he was now disabled in one arm by a paralytic stroke. On the face of the urn is a bas relief depicting a limp maiden mourning beside the body of an equally limp and rather more dishevelled small bird, dead on a small pedestal.

 

The RObin Urn by Thomas Banks, in a corridor in the National Library of Wales

The Robin Urn by Thomas Banks, in a corridor in the National Library of Wales

On the plinth is a three verse poem by Samuel Rogers, – I have transcribed the verses with original capitalisation, from the plinth itself.

An Epitaph on a Robin Redbreast

Tread lightly here, for here tis said
When piping Winds are hush’d around
A small Note wakes from Underground
Where now his tiny Bones are laid

No more in lone and leafless Groves
With ruffled Wing and faded Breast
His friendless homeless Spirit roves;
Gone to the World where birds are blest

Where never Cat glides o’er the Green
Nor Schoolboys giant Form is seen
But Love and Joy and smiling  Spring
Inspire their little Souls to sing.

It has been customary to imagine that this sentimental outpouring was dedicated to a particular pet robin, and Mariamne’s attachment to it.  This has been claimed in Elisabeth Inglis Jones’ book Peacocks in Paradise.  But on reflection, and in the light of a perusal of the other, now seldom-read works of this once well-known poet and arbiter of taste, I believe it to be  a more generic sentimental verse.  Samuel Rogers’ first long poem in two parts, The Pleasure of Memory published in 1792, shows a sentimental  preoccupation with the romantically remembered past,  the village green and a lonely robin. I quote few couplets:

Twighlight’s soft dews steal o’er the village green
With magic tints to harmonise the scene

Or strewed with crumbs yon root inwoven seat
To lure the redbreast from his lone retreat..

…Childhood’s lov’d group revisits every scene
The tangled wood walk and the tufted green.

Certainly there are few gardens less likely than Mariamne’s remote crag to be troubled by  either schoolboys or cats!

Is this Mariamne, mourning a robin?

Is this really Mariamne, mourning her pet  robin?

Rogers has not enjoyed lasting fame as a poet, but he was a major force in the literary social life of London in the early nineteenth century.  He published and republished his poems in many editions between 1792 and 1834, with engravings of pictures  by Thomas Stothard and by W.M.Turner.  He was clearly very proud of his early works, for both The Pleasure of Memory, and The  Epitaph on a Robin Redbreast appear in editions from 1810 to 1834.  In both these editions a footnote to the Epitaph states “Inscribed on an urn in the flower garden at Hafod”.   I suggest that Rogers did not visit Hafod, and was unaware of the distinction between Mrs Johnes’ publicly acclaimed flower garden, and Mariamne’s private garden.  However Elisabeth Inglis Jones, writing in 1950, evidently recollected the urn in Mariamne’s garden, where she described it as  “overgrown with moss and ivy, almost lost among encroaching trees and bushes, it was still standing where [Banks] placed it one morning that September of 1803, nearly a century and a half later”.

In the 20th century the fortunes of Hafod were in serious decline, culminating in the demolition of the house, with dynamite in 1958.  The urn was purchased at auction by a relative of Jane Johnes, Major Herbert Lloyd Johnes of Dolaucothi and given into the care of the National Library.   It was sited in 1948 as a garden ornament in the  beautifully maintained rockery garden on the slope adjoining the caretaker’s cottage, marking the point where the footpath down to Llanbadarn and Caergog Terrace leaves the library drive.   I am indebted to Dr Stephen Briggs for a copy of a photo of it in this location, in 1976.

The urn in the garden of the national Library of Wales, c. 1976. Courtesy of Dr Stephen Briggs

The urn in the garden of the National Library of Wales, c. 1976. Courtesy of Dr Stephen Briggs.

A valuable piece, fears were expressed about the risk of theft or vandalism, and in the 1980s the urn was moved indoors, to a prestigious location on the first floor outside the Council Chamber.  That is where I first saw it.   But times change, and about 15 years ago it was moved into an atrium area of the extended library book-stacks. Here it  was  accessible only to library staff and was lost to general view.   Perhaps its significance also became lost to common memory.   Now shackled in the very antithesis of romantic chains, the urn, and an equally unattributed but rather attractive tapering marble plinth  are tucked away, like fugitives, within recesses beyond a subterranean doorway.  Only disabled members of the public and those seeking baby-changing facilities are likely to encounter it on a visit, and  they will receive no clue as to its significance.

The urn in the National Library of Wales 2016

Mariamne’s  urn is now in a corridor leading to the disabled toilets  in the National Library of Wales (2016)

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The Gothic Arcade at Hafod

by the Curious Scribbler

The Hafod Trust has recently completed the restoration of the Gothic Arcade, a three arched eyecatcher which frames the view where Thomas Johnes’ Chain Bridge spans the narrow gorge  on the upper Ystwyth.

The Gothic arcade, Hafod, under restoration

The Gothic arcade, Hafod, under restoration

The arcade was something of a puzzle, being represented on the ground by the remnants of four basal pillars, only one of which reached high enough to show the first springer stone of the former arch.  For almost a decade it has been enrobed in blue plastic awaiting a decision on its conservation.  A earlier attempt at stabilising the stone pillars with lime mortar had failed to prevent further deterioration.  The ruin was listed among the built features of Hafod, with Ancient Monument status, so Cadw  had to authorise any changes to be made.

In 2010 The Gothic arcade pillars were conserved under blue plastic.

In 2010 The Gothic arcade pillars were conserved under blue plastic.

There is tantalisingly little evidence as to exactly what the Gothic Arcade looked like, or when it was built.  It was awarded this name by John Piper, in 1939, who was there to photograph the architectural remains of Hafod as part of a tour of threatened buildings, and who also sketched and painted in the grounds. There are three versions of this artwork, “Looking down the Ystwyth Gorge, Hafod”  which show it as a three arched rather spindly structure, on the edge of the gorge, but no aspect of his picture is precisely representational.

John Piper 1939.  Looking down the Upper Ystwyth Gorge. ( Private Collection)

John Piper 1939. Looking down the Ystwyth Gorge. ( Private Collection)

Exhaustive appeals have so far not revealed a single box brownie photograph of the structure, though many people are likely to have passed or picnicked there in the 1950s. Worse still, the accounts by visitors in Johnes’ time, even Cumberland in his An Attempt to Describe Hafod, failed to mention it.  The only possible exception is an unclear account by the Revd H.T. Payne, Archdeacon of Carmarthen, who in about 1815 alluded to a “rude arch of stone“.  But a literal reading of his description would place his arch on the opposite bank, or even identify it as the Rustic Alcove near the Peiran Cascade.

It remains uncertain whether this eye catcher was part of Thomas Johnes’s Picturesque design at all.  (Though we do know that he  built a rustic  arch commemorating George III over the approach road from Devil’s Bridge).  Until further evidence crops up it must be conceded that it could date from the ownership of The Duke of Newcastle, or even that of John Waddingham in the late 19th century, or his son, TJ Waddingham in the early 20th.

The restoration was led by the overall shape as indicated by Piper’s sketch, and the shape dictated by the remaining fragments. It was built with locally sourced, undressed stones by Abbey Masonry and Restoration, Llanelli.

The Gothic arcade, Hafod, almost complete

The Gothic arcade, Hafod, almost complete, May 2016

Piper composed his view from upstream of the Gothic Arcade.  He speculated, on the basis of the House’s history,  that its gothic style might be the work of John Nash.  The compilation below shows the restoration in the context of his drawing.

Gothic arcade 2 viewssm

The Gothic Arcade represents the penultimate item on the Hafod Trust’s current restoration objectives.  Still under development is the plan to put a flat timber span across the bridge abutments of Pont Newydd, the old carriage drive which crossed the Peiran just above the famous falls.

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Amazing Model Mushrooms

Various objets trouves accumulate on my kitchen windowsill, cheek by jowl with the hybrid Dendrobium orchids and some ceramic acorn squashes which I fashioned myself.  There is a piece of lava from Lanzarote, some crystals from the Cantabrians, an ammonite in polished section, and some choice beach pebbles from Tanybwlch.   And the latest addition to the medley are two exquisite  waxcap fungi, Hygrocybe persistens.

Hygrocybe persistens by Jason Lynton

Hygrocybe persistens by Jason Lynton

 

Odd you may think.  It has been mild this winter, but even so.. This little gleaming mushroom of sheep grazed pastures and and un-improved ancient lawns is a feature of balmy summer and autumn, not the rain-soaked pastures of today.   And the explanation is that these Hygrocybe were gathered, not in the field but by a discriminating shopper following the Totterdown Front Room Arts Trail in South Bristol  last year.  They reached west Wales in Christmas wrapping paper.

The artist Jason Lynton must be a man with an obsession, working quietly away to create perfect replicas of the entire canon of British fungi.  His home displayed cases of these amazing sculptures, and shelves of photographic reference books on his subjects.  He works in Sculpey polymer clay. I found this useful explanation in a tutorial on a site called The Bluebottle Tree.com

‘Polymer clay is a type of modelling clay that doesn’t dry in the air and instead is cured by baking in an oven, typically between 230°F (110°C) and 300°F (150°C).  Polymer clay is made from powdered polyvinyl chloride (PVC), plasticizer, binders, fillers, colors, and lubricants. When baked, the PVC particles soften and dissolve into the plasticizer, creating a solid fused mass of plastic. The longer you bake polymer clay, the more complete the fusion will be and the stronger the result.’ I find that Fimo is another brand of polymer clay, made in Germany by Staedtler and was the more familiar name for the product when my children were young.  Sculpey is the American equivalent.

So my extraordinarily realistic waxcaps are replicated in hard and resistant baked plastic! The texture is impossible to discern without touching, the details so authentic down to the delicate gills, the occasional split in the caps, even the crumbs of dark soil apparently clinging to the stem where they were lifted, as if it were yesterday, from the ground. I am told Jason Lynton has one of his fungi on public display, (possibly at Kew?) , but for the most part he is industriously working his way through the mushrooms of Britain, even perfecting the ways to reproduce the wet drops of  ‘milk’ exuded on the gills of the Milk Cap.  A quiet dedication which I find most admirable.

Hygrocybe persistens by Jason Lynton

Hygrocybe persistens by Jason Lynton

I can find posters and prints by Jason Lynton on the web, http://www.artflakes.com/en/shop/jason-lynton  but nothing about his fungi.  His business card gives an email: m331969@yahoo.com

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A visit to Dismaland

Mostly I write about Wales, but, so thrilled was I to have secured sought-after tickets for what has been described as the arts event of the season, Banksy’s pop up exhibition at Weston Super Mare,that I will stretch a point.  On 27 August I was hunched over my computer, poised for the 10am commencement of sale of timed tickets for the following week.  And at 10-02 am I secured my chance to visit.  In less than an hour all the tickets were sold out.  Four of us, ( and, at no cost, an under-two) were on our way.

Weston Super Mare looks out over the Bristol Channel towards distant Wales, over a huge beach of excellent sand, and jutting out into this beach is a rectangular enclosure, formerly The Tropicana, a lido with swimming pool, first developed in 1937.  Since 2000 this has been a derelict site, its future insecure.  Like many other British beach resorts ( Rhyl in North Wales also comes to mind) the hoards of holiday-makers of the mid 20th century have largely deserted it.  A paramedic told us that her clients largely fall into three categories, the denizens of care homes in the handsome Victorian stone-built seaside villas, the overdose-prone unemployed, and the drug dealers indulging in turf wars over their customers.  Weston has certainly seen better days.

But for five weeks this August and September the lido has acquired a new purpose, as huge queues of visitors wait patiently to enter through the 1930’s facade of the entrance, which is remarkably architecturally similar to Aberyswyth’s neo-Georgian concrete block railway station of the same era.  Were both commissioned by the Great Western Railway?

By Chris Sampson (http://www.flickr.com/photos/lodekka/5646346212/) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Tropicana, Weston Super Mare in 2011 By Chris Sampson (http://www.flickr.com/photos/lodekka/5646346212/)

Gloomy-faced attendants in pink high visibility jackets marked DISMAL hector the new arrivals.  “What are you smiling for?  This is Dismaland.”  One stared out the baby and asked her ‘Have you been drinking?’

“Ya” she replied.

A stern gaze shifted to her mother.” She says she’s been drinking…” said Dismal.  And reluctantly she let us through.

This theme of gentle abuse generated a remarkable ambience of cheer among the visitors.  Inside there was the opportunity to buy a big black balloon labelled “I am an imbecile.  Many did.

Dismaland balloon vendor

Dismaland balloon vendor

The lido is now dominated by Cinderella’s Castle, shabbily constructed with a scaffolding frame, part derelict, a huge structure which, until recently, locals were hoodwinked into believing was a film set.  Nearby was a one of those plastic playground tree playhouses you used to find in Happy Eater car parks, its swings gone, and its doorways closed by breeze blocks.  Rafts of that pernicious weed, water hyacinth floated across the water.  An abandoned doll and and a trashed supermarket trolley lay in the moat.

Cinderella's castle, and a strangely squiffy Little Mermaid

Cinderella’s castle, and a strangely squiffy Little Mermaid

We queued to enter the dark interior, were photographed smiling happily, and then turned a corner in pitch darkness to find ourselves confronted by Cinderella’s fatal coach crash, illuminated only by the flashes from the paparazzi.  Two blue birds hover over her, untying her sash.  On exiting there was a purchase opportunity, our photograph, in a fine gift card mount, in which our images were cunningly superimposed on the scene as the first rubberneckers grinning idiotically at the disaster.

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Cinderella’s fatal prang

Advertising, business and politicians all take a punishing within these walls.  There was a tent devoted to political placards and slogans, on card, fabric, and beautiful silk screen printed headscarves, another to the sale of a range of anarchist and left wing literature.  On the flank of the castle a huge painted  billboard showing a smug David Cameron being peeled and scrumpled off the wall.  By the children’s sandpit with its aged plastic toys stood a Pocket Money Loans booth which always held a queue of adults eager to inspect the cleverly realistic  posters and offers within. The mini golf didn’t give your ball back, and was set in a landscape of crude oil and a Murco petrol pump.  The closer you looked, the more you saw.

More than 50 artists have contributed to this remarkable pastiche, and paintings, sculptures, and installations were to be found in a large ugly shed along one side.  Here death intermittently cavorted on a bumper car to the accompaniment of cheerful lights and music, and a Damien Hirst installation  held a beach ball, hovering on an upward air current over a bed of upturned knife blades.   I sometimes  rant against the pretentious interpretive paragraphs which many galleries make their artists provide beside their pictures.  Here were many art works, puzzling and thought provoking, offered with no explanation whatsoever.  The effect is far more fascinating as a result.

There was a potting shelf of real big brand ready meals boxes on each of which stood a plant pot in which a disc of the card taken from the box had been fitted to represent the soil layer. It seems all ready-meal photographers including a sprig of parsley or some other herb which you are unlikely to detect in the actual product.  The artist had painstakingly cut out, and folded upwards the token sprig on every piece of card, to give the impression of an array of eager plantlets. A thought-provoking take on the auricula theatre concept.

The sprigs on the packages of ready meals gain a life of their own..

The sprigs on the packages of ready meals gain a life of their own..

At the end of this hall was a huge table top tableau of a dystopian city scene, illuminated only be streetlights and the blue flashing lights of innumerable emergency vehicles.  Jimmy Cauty’s Aftermath Dislocation showed innumerable tiny figures, fire police and ambulance, engaged with every crisis.  I could have lingered for much longer had not the Dismal attendants harangued us to keep moving.  I have since googled him, and find that for £450- to £3000 I could own a tiny piece of similar mayhem, cleverly captioned and encased in an oversized, upturned jam jar.  Something unusual for Christmas perhaps?

Part of Jimmy Cauty's dystopian cityscape

Part of Jimmy Cauty’s dystopian cityscape

Emerging onto the light we found the carousel,  a proper traditional galloping horses ride which the youngest member of our party was keen to ride.  There was, however, as with everything at Dismaland, a twist.  One of the pretty horses hung from a hook,  and beneath it sat a blood speckled slaughterman with a big knife and a pile of cartons marked LASAGNE.  The horsemeat scandal had been pushed to the back of our minds.  Until now.

Carousel at Dismaland 1

Carousel at Dismaland 1

Carousel at Dismaland 2

Carousel at Dismaland 2

Migrants however is the present media topic, and here too there was a dark interpretation.  On a pool next to the carousel one could pay £1 to drive, by remote control, the rubber dinghies packed with migrants, or a gunboat, beneath the white cliffs of Dover.  Drowned bodies bobbed in the water, and the lights from the carousel reflected, like blood, on the dark water.

A Gunboat harries the huddled masses at Dismaland

A Gunboat harries the huddled masses at Dismaland

What did the youngest member find most remarkable about this attraction, a theme park “not suitable for children”?  The prize must go to one of a series of nightmare cakes with human teeth in the tent devoted to the Sleep of Reason.

P1080890sAnd the scariest? That was undoubtedly the old lady attacked by seagulls, on a park bench.  Our young companion is too young to have read the recent accounts of herring gulls killing small dogs and a tortoise, but she did NOT wish to sit beside it. The dismal attendant looked on with admirable detachment.

Not a reassuring place to sit

Not a reassuring place to sit

Dismaland was thronged with people interacting with the artworks, watching the foul mouthed Punch and Judy by Julie Burchill, just sitting in the deckchairs admiring the vista of decay or pondering the posters.  It made an excellent day out.

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Street Art in Bristol, Upfest 2015

by The Curious Scribbler

The first street art I ever saw was in Iowa City in 1975.  On the blank end of a large flat faced-building I was confronted by a huge idealized version of the landscape through which we had travelled all day: endless plains of corn, ruler-straight roads, clapboard farmhouses and barns, and above it an enormous sky.  And in that painted sky sickle-winged nighthawks circled like giant swifts.  There was a joyous mimicry about this urban picture, for in real life, the evening sky was rent with the weird screams of real nighthawks hurtling  overhead.  In a bookshop in the same city  I found a book of photographs by Diane Arbus and bought it on the spot.  Everyone has heard of Diane Arbus since those days, but in both these discoveries Iowa City in the mid seventies delivered a first for me.

I was reminded of both themes when visiting Bedminster in south Bristol last week.  Much about the street scenes would make a Diane Arbus composition:  the distinctive style of its slightly scruffy inhabitants, the peeling stucco, the buddleia sprouting from gutters and chimney pots, the crushing dismalness of a high street devoted to a signage war between  the most downmarket of shops.

North Street Bedminster .  Despite the grim shopfronts some optimist has painted the street furniture cheerful colours like a toysshop

North Street Bedminster . Despite the grim shopfronts some optimist has painted the street furniture in  cheerful colours like a toyshop.

And yet there were thrills and surprises at every turn, for the Upfest Street Art Festival had co-ordinated the embellishment of Bedminster through the efforts of mural artists from Bristol, Britain, and all over the world.  Should the ambulanceman in the picture above spin upon his heel he would look up at a very different scene, of a glistening rain-drenched city street, dominated by an exotic blue-tinged oriental lady.P1080730webYou need to venture up side roads to find all the exhibits.  Here is a house embellished by one of the founding artists of Upfest, whose moniker is My Dog Sighs.  This peculiar stick man crops up several times on boards and buildings, and can also be purchased on art card at the Upfest Gallery, embellished with choice of apposite sayings I wish I’d said myself.

P1080733webOn the next side street was a red squirrel: sniffing at a hoard of paint spray can tops, the detritus of artworks such as this.  The composition is interrupted by the door and window of this small shop, and oddly decorated by the opportunistic buddleia sprouting out of the sill.

P1080735web P1080736webThe Steam Crane, a  pub by the roundabout, provided many more obstacles to a  smooth canvas, for it is  an Edwardian frontage of dressed stone, timberwork-and-brick, dormer windows and chimneys.  Hard to believe that such a dominating form could be camouflaged by a maritime harbour scene of 200 years ago, yet you have to stop and study to comprehend the picture.  Harder still to imagine the labour of correctly superimposing the picture on this complex shape, working close up, over a weekend, from a scaffold or cherry picker.

P1080726webThere are also bill boards and shop windows mingling with the with regular advertisements on the street.  The minions poster has perhaps attracted new and opinionated graffiti,  but then what do I know of the opinions of the artist ‘Angus’?P1080738web P1080737webNext up was the psychedelic mackaw taking flight on the flank of The Masonic public house.  It’s anyone’s guess whether the tattoo parlour with the Star Wars title is part of the exhibit – this kind of artwork abounds in Bristol.

P1080739webThere was a cluster of creativity in the vicinity of the Tobacco Factory further up the hill, and here came together  a most Arbus-esque scene, a commentary on health, both of the individual and of the planet.  Are we marching towards our doom?

P1080743webThe image of the tree, last oxygenator of the planet,  was crafted with glued-on moss for the foliage, while above, an oily hand by a different artist dripped realistically to the ground.P1080746web P1080745webNearby was a representation of our earth exploding from within, painted by the invisible hand  ‘Manu Invisible’  from Italy, and further down the road on an up and over garage door three harbingers of death wait on a park bench under the stars of the European Union.   A politically aware lot, around here..

P1080748web P1080765webThe mood though varies, with a more positive note struck by the the jigsaw piece of an eye, the urban fox and the head of a tiger.  Businesses offering a wall to paint often get a complementary theme; the independent bakery decorated with ‘The best thing since sliced bread’ and the butcher with an exhortation ( by Shaun the Sheep, another Bristol alumnus) to eat more beef!

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P1080756web P1080753web P1080751webP1080776webAs a final excursion we went off North Street to The Climbing Centre on Winterstoke Road. Two images adorn its side wall, but perhaps the most memorable is the girl in climbing gear( with her teddy bear), who dangles from the tower, cutting away with a box cutter the fixing wires for the commercial Vauxhall poster below.

P1080792webWe’ve got plenty of dilapidated buildings and ugly walls in Aberystwyth too, but apart from the long lived and now rather shabby mural on the end of of Y Lolfa’s building in Talybont, they have been put to precious little use.  In Bedminster the murals are only guaranteed a life of one or perhaps two years, for the next Upfest will re-paint these walls to make way for new works.

For a glimse of some of the previous images from Upfest 2013 visit http://www.seatbeltguitar.com/30-jaw-dropping-pieces-of-bristol-street-art

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