Monday, 17 November 2014

Crystal Palace in Paris

The amazing Crystal Palace, star of the 1851 Great Exhibition in Hyde Park and later of Crystal Palace Park in Sydenham, was destroyed by a fire in 1936. However, it lives on in a model in Paris - where it is shown still under construction. 



The Cité d'Architecture et de la Patrimoine in the Trocadéro is dedicated to exploring France's architecture. However, it recognises the importance of the Crystal Palace as a pioneering work of pre-fabrication, and has a marvellous model in 1/100 scale, made by Philippe Dubois and Michel Goudin. 

Behind the famous facade, the builders are still at work assembling and erecting the cast-iron framework. Most of the glass is yet to be put in place. The Park's elm trees, famously incorporated into the interior of the central hall, are visible here.


The depiction of wooden cranes seems anachronistic at first glance, but is correct: this extraordinary structure was built before powered cranes had been developed. 


Of course, there is much more to the Cité d'Architecture than this tribute to a British masterpiece. Perhaps the most striking exhibits are those in the cast galleries: plaster replicas of building features from all over France. 



The Crystal Palace has a natural home here, perhaps: the Palais de Chaillot was itself built  for an International Exhibition in 1937 (replacing the earlier Palais constructed for the 1878 Universal Exhibition). Its windows offer excellent views of a landmark from the 1889 Universal Exhibition, the Eiffel Tower. 



Saturday, 8 November 2014

Speaking arms - the Chappe telegraph

In the eighteenth century, it took the best part of a week to get a message from Paris to the naval port of Brest and receive the reply. By 1800, it could be done in an hour. The reason? Rather than sending a messenger on horseback, the French state was now using a visual telegraph system named for its creator, Claude Chappe.



It was his family's intention that Claude would enter the church, but that career was disrupted by the French Revolution. However, as the nephew of an astronomer, he was already interested in the physical sciences and with his brothers, turned to invention. They worked to devise a practical system of semaphore signalling which would allow messages to be sent and received quickly and efficiently. The word 'telegraph' was coined to describe it.

Although we think of semaphore systems as involving flags, Chappe realised that much better visibility could be achieved if the message was communicated by angled arms. A string of towers could be set up, each one ten or fifteen miles apart, and operators with telescopes would send and receive the signals along the line. The government eagerly took up his invention, with the first line between Paris and Lille operating from 1794, and lines soon extended between key locations across France. They would prove invaluable to Napoleon in wartime, and continued in use until the mid-nineteenth century when overtaken by new technology: the electric telegraph. Perhaps its last use was in the Crimean War, when a mobile system was employed.

To understand how the system worked, there is no better place to go than the Musée Télégraphe de Chappe at Saint Marcan in north-east Brittany. There, one of the towers survives and has been restored to working order. Visitors can not only learn about the system, but watch it in action and even set signals themselves. (My own attempt suggested that I have not missed my vocation!)


The key to the system's speed and security can be found on the museum's sign. The signals did not proceed letter by letter, but communicated a number between 1 and 92. Each pair of numbers gave the page and line of a signal book; by turning to the page and reading the relevant line, the message recipient obtained anything from a word to a complete phrase or sentence. Thus even a long message could be reduced to a fairly small number of signals; without the codebook, it was meaningless, so even the operators did not understand the message they were relaying.



Once it had been encoded into pairs of numbers, the message would be transmitted from station to station. Each one was a small but solid stone building: sturdy construction was required to support the weight of the mechanism on its roof.


The operator worked on the first floor, looking carefully for messages from neighbouring stations on the line. When a signal appeared at the previous station, the operator would replicate it on his own signal. The main arm would be diagonal as he worked, and swung into a horizontal position when the signal was complete. He would then watch to see that it had been correctly reproduced at the next station before returning his signal to the neutral position (all arms vertical).



The towers were on high points, for obvious reasons of visibility. That resulted in some startling locations: many church towers were used, while the station to the east of Saint Marcan was on Mont Saint Michel. Nonetheless, messages could only be sent when daylight and weather conditions allowed sufficient visibility.

The Parisian starting point for the telegraph was at Menilmontant. The site of the Chappe telegraph station is now commemorated by street names, plaques - and the local Metro station, Télégraphe.





Thursday, 25 September 2014

Ghost signs (113): Lewisham paint


This lovely ghost sign on Belmont Hill was uncovered earlier this year when a hoarding was removed - many thanks to Alan Burkitt-Gray for telling me about it. Running Past has done some fascinating research on the sign and dated it to before 1912, making it a particularly exciting example. 

C Holdaway advertises himself as a 'Painter Grainer & Decorator' as well as offering 'estimates for general repairs'. While painters, decorators and general repairs remain familiar in modern life, the 'grainer' is less common today. Graining was a method of using paint to imitate wood - either on non-wooden surfaces, or on soft wood to make it look like more expensive hardwood. It enjoyed real popularity in the nineteenth century, when labour was cheap and wood expensive; today, it is often more economical to use the real thing than employ an artisan to imitate it. How apt, then, that this vintage sign should make reference to an equally vintage trade.



Thursday, 18 September 2014

London exploration, large and small


If you want to explore London this weekend, there are some exciting options available. The biggest, of course, is the annual Open House weekend. Over 800 buildings and more are open on 20 and 21 September - from the large and famous, like the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, to small and quirky buildings such as Rotherhithe's Old Mortuary.


Fancy a break and a sit-down? Or an altogether more relaxed weekend? If so, Londonist has a weekend of Thames-themed talks. They're all in a perfect location: HMS President, currently a work of art in itself as it has been painted in 'dazzle camouflage' by artist Tobias Rehberger to mark the centenary of World War One. Tickets for individual talks and day passes are available.

Finally, you can sample the City of London's history on a much smaller scale. The new Heritage Gallery in the Guildhall Art Gallery is not large, but the space curated by London Metropolitan Archives is packed with treasures. The centrepiece is a copy of Magna Carta, ready for its 800th birthday next year; there are lots of other gems including 15th-century portraits of City aldermen and a First World War recruitment poster. The main art gallery has also been re-hung, so it's an excellent time to visit - and admission is free. 



Tuesday, 12 August 2014

Vintage tractors


For the 22nd year, Plenee Jugon in Brittany hosted a Festival of Mechanisation, featuring farm vehicles from the 1920s to the 1950s. There were lots of vintage tractors, some rusty, others restored to vivid colour.






 




Tuesday, 29 July 2014

Bristol time

Moving a country from solar time to unified time is no easy matter (France had three separate kinds of time at one point). However, the railways made it a necessity: local time, which varied by minutes as one travelled east or west, was not really compatible with accurate railway timetables. Noon in Bristol, for example, is over ten minutes later than noon in London.When the Great Western Railway came to Bristol in 1841, it brought 'railway time' with it.

Bristolians had other reasons for wanting to know Greenwich Mean Time as accurately as local time. As a major seafaring port (it traded with America and the Caribbean, and was heavily connected to the slave trade), the city had plenty of people who needed GMT in order to calculate longitude and thus navigate accurately on the oceans. And in 1852, the electric telegraph arrived - with Bristol time creating the ridiculous situation of messages from London apparently arriving before they were sent. Within a few months, the city's public clocks moved from local time to GMT.


Today, few of us tell the time by the sun, so we don't notice the discrepancies between solar noon and the time on our clocks. For those who lived through the transition, though, the clock on Bristol's Corn Exchange with its two minute hands must have been very helpful. Installed in 1822 with just one minute hand set to local time, it was later given a second set to GMT. Only when the city' time was unified in 1852 was the Bristol hand removed; it was finally restored in 1989. 



Sunday, 20 July 2014

Cupboards-full of Roman wall


Eager to protect Londinium, the Romans built a wall around the city at the turn of the 3rd century, and kept working on it for the next 200 years. The wall was composed of Kentish ragstone rubble, held together with mortar, and interspersed with bright red stripes of tiles. It was adopted and adapted by later Londoners, until falling into disrepair in the eighteenth century. Today, only various fragments remain. 

Some pieces of wall are well-known and substantial; they can be found just outside Tower Hill tube station and alongside the Museum of London, for example. (If you want to explore in much more detail, the Museum of London's London Wall Walk is still available online, although many of the 23 information panels are now damaged or missing.) Other sections are in more surprising places - even an underground car park



Two pieces of late Roman wall find themselves in another surprising context. On the east side of Jewry Street is the former Sir John Cass College, built in 1902 and currently occupied by London Metropolitan University. Within its basement are the ancient fragments - carefully preserved, in a manner wholly evocative of twentieth-century education establishments, within glass-fronted cupboards. The larger piece even has a label. 






Sunday, 13 July 2014

Edwardian tourist tat

London is awash with tacky souvenirs: improbable snow globe scenes, inaccurate plastic postboxes on keyrings, child-sized fake policemen's hats. While cheap plastic may have helped in their proliferation, they are by no means a new thing. One of the cups in my lithophane collection is a perfect Edwardian example. 

What could say 'London' more clearly than a Delft-inspired rural scene? In fact, there is nothing obvious about this cup to suggest that it has anything to do with the metropolis.



However, a quick look inside the cup confirms that this is about generic cheapness rather than understatement or subtlety. The base of the cup takes us straight to one of London's best-known landmarks. Except...


Isn't the clock tower supposed to be attached to the Houses of Parliament? Which are bigger than they appear here? And isn't that rural road with the apparent lawn to one side meant to be Westminster Bridge and the Thames? In fact, hasn't this image been produced by somebody with only a vague idea of what the Houses of Parliament looks like?

So, next time a questionable souvenir catches your eye, just remember not to be nostalgic for the good old days!



Sunday, 29 June 2014

Ghost signs (112): beds on Whitechapel Road

At first glance, 201 Whitechapel Road is a pleasant Victorian building but not of particular interest. However, above each first-floor window is a painted sign: Bedding, Bedsteads, Feathers, Flocks. 


The building has a long past as a clothing shop, not unusual for this area. In 1871 it was a hosiery and menswear shop; in 1982 it housed a wholesale clothing manufacturer. Today, it is a retail clothing shop again. However, our signs presumably mark a break in such usage, since woollen flock was used to stuff mattresses: combined with bedding and feathers, it suggests that the shop sold not only bedsteads but also the mattresses and pillows to go with them.

In researching this post, I came across a lovely resource: Panorama High Street East, which has photographs of the length of Whitechapel Road and beyond, combined with all sorts of information on each building. It's a lovely way to explore this stretch of the East End!

Sunday, 22 June 2014

Tin tabernacle, battleship

Intended to be temporary structures, tin tabernacles were cheap flat-pack churches or chapels, ordered from a catalogue and erected quickly to tide the congregation over until a permanent structure was built. The corrugated-iron stop-gap then disappeared; but even those which weren't replaced were vulnerable to issues such as rust. As a result, they are relatively rare today, and seeing one is always a pleasure. The tin tabernacle in Cambridge Avenue, Kilburn is especially exciting, as its more recent life has given it an extraordinary interior. 


The Congregationalist chapel was built as part of a housing development in 1863, and developer James Bailey intended it to be replaced later with a more conventional chapel. However, his bankruptcy in 1866 was probably one reason that this never happened, so the iron structure is still standing over 150 years later. 

Transformations over the years included the addition of a total-immersion font at the east end of the building. By the early twentieth century, however, the chapel was falling out of use. During the Second World War, it was used as an Air Raid Precaution store. 


Soon after the war, the building was transferred to the Sea Cadets - who continue to occupy it today. They showed great ingenuity in transforming the interior into a battleship - using two old buses to do so. Information boards on all aspects of ships and shipping, from sails and knots to ship identification, were crafted using painted wood. The total immersion font and crypt were filled with concrete, and a Bofers anti-aircraft gun now stands in pride of place.



That same ingenuity furnished the naval chapel. The fittings come not from another place of worship but from the set of Becket, filmed in 1964 at Shepperton Studios with Peter O'Toole and Richard Burton. 

 
The tin tabernacle can be visited on most Saturday afternoons (contact them via the website to double-check). Donations are very welcome, as this fragile and extraordinary building is in desperate need of restoration, and a fund-raising campaign is underway.


I visited with the Victorian Society - find out more about their excellent events programme here