Sir John Soane was, to put it mildly, ahead of his time. It’s 185 years since the great architect and designer died and he is still providing inspiration for the arts. The latest show at his eponymous house museum is a collaboration between Alcantara and multidisciplinary design practice Space Popular. It is a celebration and exploration of portals, both physical and virtual: guests can enter a parallel world using virtual reality headsets to interact with panels and a table covered all covered in Alcantara. Invented in Milan in 1972, Alcantara is a luxury microfibre material part polyester part polyurethane. “We are fascinated by the technical, sensory and aesthetic qualities as well as the endless possibilities offered by Alcantara material,” note Lara Lesmes and Fredrik Helberg of Space Popular, “and its potential to be the canvas and portal to our virtual experiences.” Shifts in scale, unfolding walls and playing with mirrors are just three of the Soaneian portal devices that inspired the artists.
The Eagle Soars at Your Command and Builds its Nest on High
She chooses to conceal her identity. She is strong, powerful, well defined. She is a bird of prey. She is the woman who dares to wear The Golden Nest Dress by avant garde fashion artist Mary Martin London. Sewing metal? All in a day’s work. There are undeniable historical references yet this costume is as resolutely contemporary as the brutalist backdrop of the shoot. Enigma. Mystery. Luxury. And drama. Wherever there’s Mary there’s drama!
A couple of Lavender’s Blue readers who live in one of the houses in this article have undertaken thorough and academic research into the architect under examination and, wishing to remain anonymous, have agreed to share extracts of the detailed outcome of their work. This article concentrates on the architect’s residential development oeuvre in London.
“James Taylor senior seems to have been successful, so when his son showed youthful promise at Old Hall Green Academy near Ware in Hertfordshire, young James, aged 12, was sent to the English College in Rome. He remained there until 1783, when illness prompted his transfer to the English College of Douai, 80 miles southeast of Calais. He moved to London in 1786 and took a house in Bandyleg Walk, Southwark (now Great Guildford Street, behind the Tate Modern Gallery), where he established a small Catholic mission in 1788.”
“Unsuited for the priesthood, young James Taylor trained as a surveyor and married Ann Green by licence in 1789 at St Mary’s Church Islington. A young man with great drive, Taylor was able to purchase a desirable plot beside an old inn at Park Vista, Greenwich, and build a short terrace of three houses. The central one became the Taylor family home. It is slightly salient from the other two and has an additional fourth floor surmounted by a pediment. This carries an oval date stone inscribed ‘Park Place 1791’. Park Place faces south over Greenwich Park and its rearward view originally extended to the Thames.”
“By 1790 he had bought part of Clay Pitt Field in Islington, west of the New River from Robert Vincent. He was able to raise mortgages and arranged to have 10 modest houses built that became Charlton Place (north side). On the opposite side of the street, Taylor soon started building a further 14 houses that became Charlton Crescent.”
Next, our contributors critique these schemes, “At first glance it might be assumed that Taylor’s houses in Islington and Greenwich are typical of late Georgian architecture. Considered in their historical context, they reveal a distinctive Taylor style. This drew inspiration from features already common in the grander mid Georgian terraces of the West End of London, Bath and elsewhere but was adapted to the needs of smaller dwellings. Grand classicism was reduced to quiet simplicity, preserving mathematical proportions of windows, doors and an exactly calculated volume of room space, to create a feeling of balance and harmony on a human scale.”
“The most obvious Taylor features are symmetry expressed in the terrace façade, round headed windows at entrance level with proper Palladian glazing bars, semicircular fanlights above the doors and lightwells (colloquially termed ‘areas’ or more properly ‘airies’) in front of the basement level. These features arrive at a satisfying conjunction in New Terrace, where the regular three by three fenestration falters only in No.50, but is immediately redeemed by the double bays that complete the picture there. Taylor’s solutions were copied and adapted in various Regency and early Victorian terraces, but never with the flair apparent in his early creations.”
The researchers note that James Taylor’s first project in Islington was the three storey Charlton Place built in parts from 1790 up to 1805. Charlton Crescent opposite dates from 1791: “The crescent has a radius of seven chains (141 metres) and rises over two metres along its length. It is a possibly unique example of a bilaterally symmetrical ‘palazzo’ arrangement in a rising crescent. Door transoms mostly have a modest round fanlight style that echoes the shape of companion windows…”
“Concurrently with Charlton Crescent construction, Taylor was also developing another terrace around the corner that he called New Terrace… James Taylor retained No.7 (now 56 Duncan Terrace) for his own use from its completion in 1793 until 1803… Unusually, the original York stone pavement in front of New Terrace is raised well above street level so that the basement floors would be above the level of water in the New River. That early aqueduct, dating from 1613, ran just beyond the vaulted cellars until it was arched over in 1861. The raised pavement originally extended to steps rising directly from the street. In 1963 it was lowered by two feet opposite No.50 to improve illumination for its basement flat and steps reinstated to their present position.”
“These nine houses have an aura of restrained astylar elegance, following a ‘palazzo’ rhythm of one-three-one-three-one in its façade elements. This pattern is accented by the discreetly salient central house, with its shallow central pediment. The tympanum has an underlining string course and an oval date stone. Its level moulding extends along the terrace as a parapet capped with simple coping that hides low valley roofs, some converted to roof terraces late in the 20th century. The salient terminal houses at either end are accented with a cornice moulding of the coping and an additional string course. The central and terminal houses were further distinguished by small balconies embracing all first floor façade windows. The other houses had simple balconettes fronting individual windows as a precaution for child play. These ironwork embellishments were removed before the 1930s and replaced with neat and appropriate horizontal rails.”
“On each house, the double sash windows in the façade form a regular three by three fenestration grid. All houses have two round headed windows with Palladian astragals at ground level, where the third element is formed by a fan lit Georgian door. Each door has six raised and fielded panels, central brass knob and knocker, and post 1840 letterboxes. The leaded tracery fanlights are surmounted by attractive Coade stone ‘macaron’ keystones that follow three designs. No.50 has the cheerful bearded face of an old man. Nos.51 and 53 have a young female head with coronet. No.52 and Nos.54 to 58 all have young male heads with pomade and helmet. The fanlights are braced by moulded Coade stone impost blocks joined by a frieze across the door. Each block has three anthemions on the fascia and one on the return. At No.50 they have two rosettes on the fascia and one on the return.”
“No.50 is distinguished by projecting full height rounded bays on either side of the lateral front door. These have sympathetically curved window frames fronting an oval staircase on the left and an oval plan sitting room on the right. The two blank enclosures over the front door were due to a then prevailing Window Tax. To the northern end of No.58 its side wall is also carefully detailed. It has three round headed blind windows at ground level, three rectangular blind windows at first and second floor levels and at basement level there is even a blind doorway between two blind windows.”
Heading south of the River Thames, our contributors report, “As work progressed on New Terrace, building began on Taylor’s home in Park Vista, Greenwich. Park Place forms a group of three similar houses built on a confined site beside an old inn. The ground floor is raised above street level so that the doors are reached on a half flight of stairs, while basements received extra daylight from the south because of their shallower lightwells. All three houses have round headed sash windows on the ground floor and rectangular sash windows elsewhere on the entrance front. Stringcourse and coping are carried across the three houses but Coade stone embellishments are absent. Ground floor fenestration is offset from that of the upper floors and residual symmetry fails because of the central door dilemma. These houses are more akin to Charlton Place compromise than to New Terrace elegance and mark a milestone on Taylor’s learning process as he progressed from simple to rather grander houses.”
“The central house in Park Place achieves prominence by having wider frontage and by supporting a rather inharmonious extra floor level with pediment and plaque. It also is slightly salient and has a wider and more elaborate front door with fanlight, narrow pilasters and sidelights. This, and the matching wider ground floor window are overarched by external embrasures above its piano nobile windows – an interesting and commendable design solution.”
“These Colebrook Terrace houses form a graceful, coherent composition that pays careful attention to symmetry. On the main terrace façade, like No.50, both end houses have just two lights at each level. The elements that terminate this façade each form a full height salient bay with windows arranged vertically in arched recesses, cleverly disguising the change in window spacing. These projections are emphasised by rusticated stucco at ground level and by a cornice and stringcourse at roof level. They have round headed façade windows inset within additional external embrasures. The rearward aspect too was carefully considered, as it would be visible from Charlton Place. It has large sash windows braced by narrow sash sidelights on the three principal levels. The two central houses form a rearward salient that reflects the fascia salient on the end houses. The two central houses form a rearward projection that reflects the fascia salient on the end houses. Some of these features demonstrated by James Taylor were adopted in later built parts of Duncan Terrace and became commonplace in Regency developments elsewhere.”
“No.49 has an elaborate round headed light at ground level, supported by slim Doric columns and matching rectangular pilasters. It also retains a horizontal ‘tethering’ rail to the right of its ‘mounting’ steps with another shorter handrail to the left. This house originally had three rectangular blank windows above a round headed blank in each of the salient bays that flank the front door. Both these round headed blanks were opened up and had windows installed in the 1960s. The uppermost blanks establish that the attic floor was an original feature in these houses, although attics were never intended in the earlier part of New Terrace.”
“No.46 closes the view from the City Road end of Duncan Terrace. It has an original three storey side extension, making it significantly larger than the other houses. Initially the entrance on this extension had a grand fanlight with sidelights in its setback porch façade. This fanlight was removed at a much later date and was installed as a decorative feature inside the house, to be replaced by a plain rectangular door casing with heavy lintel. Above this door are two blanks and the extension is illuminated by a lateral round head window with two windows above. On the gable end of the main terrace, at a right angle to the entrance door of No.46, there is a single blank window on each of the four floors. This house also had the largest garden, which originally extended behind five houses in Charlton Crescent. Its first occupant was William Taylor, probably a close relative of the architect.”
“The two central houses have a three by three fenestration on the façade but lack Coade stone embellishments of brickwork around their doors. The front railings are plain. They originally had the same elaborate lamp holders seen in the earlier part of New Terrace but these were removed at some stage. Except for No.49, the graceful wrought iron bow balconies at first floor level still survive.”
After that thorough analysis of James Taylor’s lasting work in Islington and Greenwich, what’s our experience of the houses on the ground? First to Islington: Charlton Place and Charlton Crescent lead straight off Camden Passage, a popular pedestrianised street packed with cafés and antique stalls. The two terraces are relatively plain but well proportioned and finely detailed. A mid terrace house was demolished in Charlton Place to plunge an entrance through to later housing to the rear. The truncated gable elevations on either side of this gap are essays in incidental brutalism. The bow windows and blind windows of the side elevations of the two sections of New Terrace frame the far end of Charlton Place. New Terrace is on a significantly grander scale and style. The elevated pavement and wooded grass banks create a desirable enclave.
Secondly, we’re off to Park Vista on Park Place, which is a discreet mainly residential road well named for its views over Greenwich Park. The upper floors of Park Vista in particular have long reaching views across the open space. James Taylor’s contribution to the streetscape is short – a mere six bays – although it is still the tallest at a maximum five storeys. The height of Park Vista dwarfs the two and a half storey Plume of Feathers pub next door. Heavy planting at piano nobile level blurs any asymmetrical anomalies. The round headed piano nobile window of the middle house looks like it would have lit the architect’s own office. The first floor windows of the left hand house plus the first and second floor windows of the right hand house have been reduced from three panes wide to two panes at some stage. James Taylor’s legacy is one of truly sustainable residential development. How many of today’s houses will age so well?
We prefer tropical to topical and views to news, but sometimes you just gotta break with tradition to mark tradition. As the second age of Gloriana reigns down upon us we’re celebrating an Elizabeth, Princess of Greece and Denmark’s certain anniversary. We’re in clubland of course. The best balcony save for Buckingham Palace. And what a flypast! Or in our case, flyover. Battle of Britain Spitfires, Lancaster Bombers and Hurricanes are the first of 71 planes and helicopters roaring across the sky. Glasses are raised, cheers erupt and anthems sung from our terrace, soon echoing down Pall Mall. Apaches, Chinooks and Typhoon fighter jets blaze the heavens above. Next, C-130 Hercules (missing its crew: Prime Minister Johnson was last seen applauding Trooping of The Colour with the fuchsia clad Carrie). The best really is saved for last. Nobody in living memory will ever forget the sight of the two most important digits of the day. You get them. Seven. Zero. And no Royal event is complete without a Newzroom Afrika broadcast from South Chelsea! Newzroom Afrika is of course South Africa’s leading 24 hour 100 percent black owned television channel. Didn’t we say the best really is saved for last?