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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The Old College once more

by The Curious Scribbler

In November I wrote about the Old College, Aberystwyth, and an early photograph showing the construction of the main hotel entrance on King Street in 1864.  Now further researches in the archive of the Clarkes of Llandaff  by Mike Statham have brought a further early picture to light, and this one, I think, may be less well known.

Old College under construction.  Copyright  William Michael Clarke

Old College under construction 1864-5. Copyright William Michael Clarke

The view is from the shore and shows the sea wall still under construction and topped by builders’ sheds.  Wooden scaffolds cover the entire facade, and the progress of the build seems to have been from south to north.  Immediately beside the old Nash dwelling  Castle House, (just visible at the right of this picture) we see the oval front of Seddon’s large seaward facing bar, which is now known as the Seddon Room.  Above it on the first floor, and approached, by gentlemen only, up a separate stair, were the smoking room which overlooked Laura Place and the billiard room overlooking the sea.  In this picture, the billiard room construction looks almost compete, its roof pierced by three small dormers, and topped by a glazed rectangular ceiling light looking very much like a huge wardian case.  These details are true to Savin and Seddon’s original ambitious design for the hotel. The Billiard room was 48 feet by 24 feet and was to accommodate three full sized billiard tables and many spectators.

Further north the build looks confusing.  Two gables have been competed in line with Seddon’s original plans, but the third, taller gable appears partly constructed, and the distinctive ornamental hexagonal chimney beside it seems not yet to have been built.  There seems instead to be a hole in the roof where it will later stand.

To the north end, the first floor of the building has only reached the tops of its gothic arched windows, and so it seems to have remained for many years.  It was incomplete at the time of the bankruptcy of the hotel and remained so during the first phase of Seddon’s alterations to the building for  College use.

The fire in the Chemistry lab, on 9 July 1885 which extended to gut the whole of the north wing, is recorded in a photograph after the disaster. The grand billiard room roof is gone, as are the three gables of roof adjoining it.  On the left we see that the build at the north end has still, after 20 years, not progressed above the first floor, and remains a shell, just as it appeared in 1865.

Old College after the fire of 1885

Old College after the fire of 1885. Reproduced in The Old College, by Elgan Philip Davies, Gomer, 2011

The repairs and rebuilding of the College after the fire were directed by Seddon but saw many economies and alterations in the roofscape. In 1894 a different architect Charles J Ferguson, with far less gothic leanings, was employed by the college, and was responsible for the much plainer central block, and for the solid and very slightly Queen Anne-style Alexandra Hall at the far end of the promenade.  The resulting apppearance of the Old College in the early 20th century is seen below, in an illustration in one of the many volumes of Photographic Albums of Aberystwyth and District which were produced annually by The Cambrian News, to meet tourist demand.

Old College in early 20th century.  Cambrian News Album 60 Photographs of Aberystwyth

Old College in early 20th century. Cambrian News Album 60 Photographs of Aberystwyth & District

 

 

 

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Building the Old College

by The Curious Scribbler

An old photograph showing the building of The Castle Hotel, now the Old College, Aberystwyth, recently came to my attention.

The Old College Aberystwyth 1864

The Old College Aberystwyth 1864                      Copyright William Michael Clarke

MichaeI Statham, an indefatigable quester among archives, found it in the archive held by William Michael Clarke a civil engineer and the fifth generation descendent of the Llandaff mason who worked on Thomas Savin’s short-lived Castle Hotel at Aberystwyth.

I am told that Edward Clarke mason/sculptor was active 1835 to 1878.  He was followed in the business by William Clarke (active 1871 – 1915 mason/sculptor)  then Thomas Guy Clarke (active c1900 – 1942 quantity surveyor and designer) then another William Clarke (builder) and now William Michael Clarke (civil engineer) who is the last in line – the firm will cease to exist when he retires.The archive also contains photos dating from Edward Clarke’s time  of  Llandaff cathedral and of Ettington Park, Warwickshire.   Clarke worked with Llandaff architect John Pritchard on both, and J.P.  Seddon was, at the time Prichard’s partner.
I find that the Aberystwyth photo is already well known, an identical copy existing in Aberystwyth University Archive and reproduced in a recent pamphlet Yr Hen Goleg/The Old College by Elgan Philip Davies (Gomer 2011).  In it Davies writes that the haste with which the building was being constructed, by 500 men directed by the architect J.P. Seddon, meant that form of the port cochere or carriage porch  was the result of builder’s initiative as there were no plans available when they commenced work.  J.R. Webster, in his book Old College Aberystwyth (University of Wales Press 1995) however states that the unusual  triangular footprint of the porch was adapted by Seddon, whose initial plan was to more or less reproduce the four square porch he had built at Ettington Park.  In either case, Clarke and Seddon had common experience of the Ettington build,and there was doubtless scope for creativity by Edward Clarke. The existence of this old photo in his archive perhaps reflects the pride which all took in this ornate entrance.

Close scrutiny of the picture reveals the precarious nature of the timber scaffolding of the day and the presence of at least three gentlemen whose clothing depicts their higher status.  It is pleasing to guess that the two top hatted gentlemen on the upper and lower platforms might have been J.P. Seddon the architect and Thomas Savin the entrepreneur who bankrolled the hotel.  But there is another figure, a decidedly dandified young man in pale trousers and waistcoat, balancing on a single pole to the right hand side of the picture.  Who I wonder was he?

Could this be Thmas Salvin?

Could this be Thomas Savin?

Could this be Edward Clarke?

Could this be J.P. Seddon?

And who is this elegant young man?

And who is this elegant young man?

The Castle Hotel opened for business in June 1865 still unfinished, and closed a year later due to insolvency.  It was then acquired for £10,000 in 1867 to house the University College of Wales.  Today it is somewhat forlorn, the University staff occupants have largely fled, relocated to the main campus on the hill and ambitious proposals are being discussed for its future refurbishment and use.  But its massive ornate bulk is one of the defining features of the town and for many, a symbol of the pioneering beginning of University education in Wales.

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