Ever since we gave up running down by the river in Wapping, I have scarcely visited the muddy riverbank, which one can reach by occasional steps onto the shore, for example by the Prospect of Whitby.   It’s an atmospheric space, totally neglected, where one can watch the passing boats, including an occasional Victorian pleasure steamer:-



I have always wanted to see what survives of the church at Mistley – the two neoclassical towers which were added at either end of eighteenth-century church by Robert Adam at the behest of Robert Rigby, Paymaster General and proprietor of Mistley Hall, who planned to turn Mistley Thorn into a spa town:-


 A House for Essex

One of the more bizarre features of the peninsula leading out to Harwich is the House for Essex, Grayson Perry’s highly bizarre, but unexpectedly convincing weekend folly, which rises out from the ploughed fields:-

It is supposed to evoke a wayside chapel, but is more in the style of a gingerbread playhouse:-

I liked it:  a fantasy, but done with total conviction:-



Harwich is not the most obvious place for a day trip:  the last stop on the branch line from Manningtree, past Wrabness and the International Port.   Outside the railway station is the High Lighthouse, built by D.A. Alexander under the supervision of John Rennie Senior in 1818:-

Past the Electric Palace, the oldest purpose-built cinema in the country (opened November 1911):-

Much of the centre of the town was demolished in the 1960s, but there are traces of its previous gentility:-

And there are places where the original streetscape survives:-

West Street has St. Nicholas, designed by a local Dedham architect in Commissioners’ Gothic:-

So, back to the sea front by way of some well-preserved, barge-boarded houses:-


Claire Tomalin

I have been reading Claire Tomalin’s A Life of My Own:  not just because of its brief account of her time as a Trustee at the National Portrait Gallery and her role in my appointment as Director, but because I have long admired her independence of mind which comes across magnificently from the writing of her autobiography – the lives of her incompatible parents, her time at Dartington Hall and at Newnham College, Cambridge, her relationship with her first husband Nicholas Tomalin, which is described unsparingly, her turn to writing biography, the birth of a disabled son, Tom, the suicide of her daughter, Susanna;  it is all described unpityingly and austerely:  not an easy life, but mostly an admirable one.


Christ Church, Spitalfields (2)

In trying to understand how Hawksmoor used architectural forms in the west front of Christ Church, Spitalfields, with its very grand, projecting portico and dark shadows, and then the way that the tower is constructed in layers, ending in a tapered, slightly Egyptian spire at the top (Hawksmoor would have been very aware of John Greaves, Pyramidographia: or a description of the pyramids in Aegypt, London, 1646), I thought I would look up how it was described in eighteenth-century guidebooks (I used conscientiously to transcribe them in order to try to understand the way buildings were viewed and interpreted in the eighteenth century).

The answer is as follows:-

In 1755, it was described as follows in London in Miniature: Being a Concise and Comprehensive Description of the Cities of London and Westminster , London: C. Corbett, 1755, p.227: ‘In Spittle-fields there is a fine large substantial Church, entirely built of Free-stone’.

Six years later, there was a more detailed description in London and its Environs Described, London: R. and J. Dodsley, 1761, vol. 2, pp.125-126: ‘The foundation was laid in 1723, and it was finished in four years. The body of the church is solid and well-proportioned; it is ornamented with a Doric portico, to which there is a handsome ascent by a flight of steps; and upon these the Doric order arises supported on pedestals. The tower over these rises with arched windows and niches, and on its diminishing for the steeple, is supported by the heads of the under corner, which form a kind of buttresse: from this part rises the base of the spire, with an arcade; its corners are in the same manner supported with a kind of pyramidal buttresse ending in a point, and the spire is terminated by a point and fane. This is the character of this edifice given in the English Architect: who asserts that solidity without weight is its character, and that though this structure is not without faults, it is worthy of great praise’ (I can’t vouch for the accuracy of the transcription because my handwriting wasn’t very legible even forty years ago).

What the latter description shows is that contemporaries (or near contemporaries) perfectly appreciated the games that Hawksmoor was able to play with the language of architecture and took pleasure in describing the way in which the eye moves up the different layers of the west front up towards the spire (I assume that the reference to The English Architect is to the publication of ENGLISH ARCHITECTURE: Or, The Publick Buildings Of London and Westminster which had appeared in 1758).

Please excuse the pedantry !


Christ Church, Spitalfields (1)

Christ Church, Spitalfields has featured often in my blog before, but never, I think, in black-and-white, which shows off its full Roman monumentality. What is impressive is Hawksmoor’s extraordinarily free use of architectural form, the piling up of different architectural vocabularies, made possible by his deep knowledge of antique precedent, not from travel (so far as is known he had never crossed the Channel), but from the books in his architectural library. His architectural philosophy self-confessedly involved ‘Strong Reason and Good Fancy, joyn’d with Experience and Tryalls’:-