MORPATHIA: No building is too lowly for some ornament

The Roman engineer and architect Vitruvius laid down three principles of construction: firmitas, utilitas, venustas — strength, utility and attractiveness.

Saturday, 8th June 2019, 10:00 am

Ornamentation is all those elements of a building not necessary to its function, but rather to improve its appearance in some way.

Some buildings or structures are so good that ornament isn’t needed. The Aylestone Packhorse Bridge is an example. It is not local, but spans the Grand Union Canal at Aylestone near Leicester. I took this photograph a few days ago when I revisited some of my old haunts.

It has no ornament at all. Its beauty arises from the simple elegance of the semi-circular arch, the strength of the buttresses and parapet, and the warm colour and texture of the brick.

At the other extreme, there are buildings where ornament is part of what they are about. Morpeth Town Hall has always been associated with government, and in earlier times with the administration of justice.

You don’t need exaggerated masonry joints, turrets or an architrave with a coronet and monogram for either purpose, and if you walk round the side, the Town Hall looks very ordinary.

But the front, where it faces onto what used to be the London to Edinburgh road, is in Vanbrugh’s English Baroque style.

Amongst other things, the baroque is about power. Modest as it is, the Town Hall is a statement of authority.

The monogram shows that that power was Lord Carlisle's, and the coronet that he was an Earl, but also the liege subject of the King.

The Thorp Estate is the name given, or that used to be given, to the residential area from Hood Street to Thorp Avenue.

The OS 25-inch map of 1897 shows that there were many houses on Kings Avenue, De Merley Road and Hood Street, and the latter had already got its name.

There was also sporadic development on Olympia Gardens, Fenwick Grove and Thorp Avenue, and it is clear that all three had been surveyed and the plots laid out.

By 1920, Northbourne Avenue was well advanced and Olympia Hill begun. The north west corner was a field, however, and all the streets had gaps waiting to be filled.

Up until the time of the Second World War, builders still knew how to add modest touches of ornament to ordinary houses to make them more interesting.

There are several different kinds of treatment of the house walls at the eaves level. In some cases it seems to have been functional, to provide a ledge for the roof gutter, but it also gave the masons the chance to exercise their imagination.

In one example, a course of stretchers above the window-heads projects slightly forward. Above it, alternate headers are either flush with the course below or project out a little more. The topmost course of stretchers projects out more again, and on top of that is the wall plate that supports the roof. Notice also the plain window-head.

On Olympia Hill, the middle layer of bricks is placed diagonally, giving an attractive dog-tooth effect in the right light.

This picture also shows two bay windows. The earliest houses on the estate, at the bottom of Hood Street, don’t have them, but everywhere else does, and these again show a lot of variation.

Although most of the pre-war houses are terraced and are of consistent design, they were not built as terraces.

The plots were sold in small lots to speculative builders, or singly to people wanting to build their own houses. The uniformity is due to the regulations imposed by the Thorp Estate.

This still left room for individuality, as in our picture of a double doorway. The two form a single design. The moulded doorhead projects out to form a cornice, and the verticals are relieved with a simple carved or moulded feature. Although the window-heads look plain, they too are subtly ornamented.

Our last two pictures are of gates. This cast iron gate is the only survival of the ornate gates and fences that virtually all of the pre-1939 houses used to have.

An order was made, I think in 1942 or 1943, that any not required for safety were to be requisitioned for scrap to assist the war effort. It is widely believed that the iron was unsuitable for steel making and most of it was simply dumped.

The householder who owned this gate must have fought tooth and nail to keep it, but the railings evidently had to go. The effect on the suburban townscape must have been devastating.

You couldn’t just replace them. Building materials of every sort were scarce and were controlled. All you could do was plant a hedge.

Since then, many householders have put back their gates and fences, some in metal, some in wood, some with screen blocks. Materials were still short for many years after the war so people did the best they could.

Our second gate has gateposts of simple angle-iron, but with a billet ornament at the top; they are actually the sides of an iron bedstead. Bedsteads like this were made up of a rectangular frame supporting a diamond mesh of strong wire links. The diamond shapes were about 4in x 2in.

The billets were actually the tapered iron pegs that fitted into slots in the bed-head and foot. On top of this went a flock mattress, filled with a stuffing of shredded wool or other material.

Careful housewives also put a coarse kind of sheet, I think called a saver, on top of the metal frame. This was held in place with tapes and stopped ironmould from the bedstead from getting onto the ticking of the mattress.