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Monday 28 September 2020

The Stones of Swindon- A talk by Michael Gray

 For our last talk, we were pleased to welcome Heritage Architect Michael Gray to talk about the Baptist Tabernacle, which stood very near the centre of Swindon where the current Pilgrim Centre is now situated. Michael is interested in finding a new purpose for the Tabernacle Stones, and in thinking about it, suggested a project which would be unique to Swindon. This was the online introduction to the talk from our website:

'In 2006 Swindon Borough Council took delivery of 2,000 large carved limestone blocks, that when re-assembled make-up a giant temple front that once adorned the centre of Swindon. The Council had aspirations to re-instate this local landmark as an expression of civic pride but despite their noble ambitions, the portico remains in pieces, stored away and almost forgotten.

In this talk Heritage Architect Michael Gray explains the history of the stones, their classical design and meaning. He will discuss similar projects that have involved the reuse of classical artefacts, and examine the ideas that have been suggested for the stones before introducing a new scheme for discussion.'

 Michael began by saying a bit about the buildings in the centre of the town, here's the first Baptist Tabernacle built in 1865 on the corner of Bridge Street to accommodate the growing numbers of railway workers:

In 1891 the Town Hall, designed by Brightwen Binyon was built half way between the railway Village and Old Town, possibly creating a centre of the town, on land acquired from Colonel William Vilett Rolleston. But before getting further into the history of the Tabernacle, Michael gave us an interesting thought: big, important roundabouts often have monuments in the centre of them, think about the Arc de Triomphe in the centre of Paris:
Holding the thought of the fabulous Arc de Triomphe, it was a small step to consider that perhaps the Tabernacle Stones could be reassembled in the middle of our iconic roundabout? It's a great image, and a great thought, but totally impractical.
By 1886, a larger Baptist Tabernacle was needed, two architects were selected to design a building, a Mr Read was selected, and as was the fashion at that time, the building was of a classical design, influenced by Andre Palladio, 1508-80, and the subsequent Palladian movement. 

It can be seen above, it required 300 tons of Bath stone to build, and was 15 metres wide, and 11 metres tall, as you can see there are 6 Greek columns at the front, and behind the impressive facade, is an ordinary building which seated 1000 people, more than the Mechanics Institute which could seat 900.
Above plans of the front of the building, and below with little or no regard for health and safety, two workmen can be seen cleaning pigeon poo off the ledge at the top of the front of the building. This was thought to be in 1950.
As the congregation declined, other uses were considered for the building, one of them being, as a home for Swindon Museum and Art Gallery, which had been in Apsley House since 1930, that didn't happen and in 1976, there were demonstrations and speeches by Sir John Betjeman about how it must be saved. Demolition despite protests took place in 1978, with Peter Shaw giving consent.
It looks as though it was demolished using a skip on a chain. The stones however were dismantled and saved, and a couple of buyers came forward wanting to add the columns to the front of their house to gain the Croome House effect, as seen below:
Stanley Frost was a potential buyer, but couldn't get planning permission to add them to his house. Neil Taylor also bought them and took them to Northampton in 1993, but again couldn't get planning permission.
The idea of erecting the stones again in Swindon has always been very popular, and in 2004, it was proposed they front the new Museum and Art Gallery beside a new shopping centre with a curved arcade, linking to the Brunel centre. Modus Limited, the company behind this went bust in 2007/8, and that was the end of that plan.
This is an interesting view where you can see that behind the museum and art gallery, there was a plan to build a very large tower block.
The stones are now up at the Science Museum site near Wroughton and are capable of being reassembled and being very fine quality dressed stone, they have not deteriorated
Here's a reconstruction of what remains:
Michael went on to consider where it was possible to erect Palladian columns, in the landscape, as in this Poussin painting? Lawn maybe?
 Lawn possibly?

By a swimming pool as at Casina del Lago, how would they translate at Coate Water?

As these examples show, it would be amusing to erect the Tabernacle Stones in random places around Swindon, but maybe far better to put them as the frontage to a new museum and art gallery in the proposed Cultural Quarter in the centre of town? This is something we need to consider as plans for moving the museum and art gallery collections from their current home in Apsley House move forward.

And coincidentally, today Swindon Libraries have a jigsaw of the Baptist Tabernacle to do, why not have a go? 
Click on the link below to see the video of the talk: Passcode: 18.&SJ+j

Friday 11 September 2020

Sculpture in a Landscape 1969 - 2020 at West Leaze

 This sculpture exhibition was to have been the Friends fifth and final visit of the year, but due to restrictions imposed by Covid -19, this has been the only visit which is able to take place. Because things are happening differently this year, we have not been able to travel together in a coach, or car share, but we are going independently. I visited yesterday, and wanted to encourage everyone who can do so to visit this very special exhibition in the fabulous garden at West Leaze where the 1969 exhibition took place.

Their website gives this introduction:

'This year our exhibition, ‘Sculpture in a Landscape 1969 – 2020’, has a rather different focus from our previous shows. In 1969 the same property was one of the first private gardens in the country to be used for showing contemporary sculpture. That exhibition was organised by sculptor Roger Leigh and his wife Pat. It featured 18 sculptors many of them with reputations that survive to this day. They included Hubert Dalwood, Denis Mitchell, Henry Moore, William Pye and Austin Wright. The Wiltshire archives hold many of the papers about this exhibition and visitors to the exhibition will be able to get an insight into that event. Work by several of the 1969 artists will also be on show.'

Yesterday was a glorious day to visit, the sun shone properly for the first day in a while, and everything was seen at its best, although not all photographs turned out well, so what follows is a mixture of what photographed well, and things I loved. The sculptures were set out on a slope dipping away from the house in uncut grass with paths mown through, making it perfect for wildlife and chalkland flowers. The sheep in the first photograph look very realistic, and looked fabulous beside the beautiful conifer, they are by Jon Barrett-Danes and are resident in the landscape, they were missing lambs and a dog which have now been installed. Included in the entry fee of £7.50 is a magnificent catalogue giving an excellent summary of each sculptor taking part. If you have visited once, you can return to the exhibition provided you bring new visitors with you, well arrive at the same time.

This installation of five pieces 'Occelli' is made of copper and glass by Peter M Clarke are really reminiscent of .seed heads.

I suddenly saw scabious flowers
and harebells among the grass
And then noticed one of Sara Ingleby-Mackenzie's wonderful creations, 'Uptown Girl' beside the summerhouse. I first encountered her work at Urchfont Manor in 2018. Sara has been creating unique sculpture since 1982. More on her website
Everything at West Leaze has been carefully orchestrated, in the nicest possible way, and this includes things like this delightful planter in front of the summerhouse
The physicality of this work, 'Themis' by Tobias Ford made from welded steel which has been rusted and cured is magnificent.
And now I'm including photos of another two pieces by Peter M Clarke. He says: 'The essence of nature-the patterns, shapes and textures to be found on leaves, bark or seed - provide the inspiration behind the creation of my metal sculptures'
Above 'Pynaceae'. copper on wooden plinth, and below 'Copper Leaf'
Tim then drew my attention to the bark on a nearby tree:
This 'Murmuration' by Diana Barraclough worked really well.
Below Dominic Clare's 'Succession 2020' in western red cedar is an impressive piece. The wood has been shot blasted and burnt exposing the grain by blowing away the soft summer growth. When looking at it, we spoke to someone who has visited his workshop.
We were by now walking uphill, and towards the pond which gave us more entertainment, we stayed for at least 15 minutes watching dragon flies chasing each other around, and water boatmen ducking and diving in the crystal clear water.

I asked permission to photograph this woman posing beside John O'Connor's 'Spring' sculpture.

Matt Maddocks' sculptures on the grass, in the sun looked great, this one is 'Creation' grey granite mirror polished
and this is 'Aurora' in grey granite
Below this is titled  'Dreams Remembered' by Lucy Lutyens
This was a lovely sitting area to one side of the house where pieces by Jane Muir were displayed, I liked the artichoke so much I bought a small one in the shop. It looks lovely in the garden, and a great reminder of the visit.
This piece by Peter Hayes right in front of the house was fantastic. I really admired his pieces in the exhibition at Swindon Museum and Art Gallery. There must be a record of it in this blog somewhere.
I'll include another of Sara Ingleby-Mackenzie's girls in long high heeled boots.
The signboards were designed by Mollie Gratland and were fascinating.
I have included a letter from Desmond Morris above, there's information about West Leaze below, and Jimmy Bomford also attended the private view of the 1969 exhibition.

Thank you to everyone who made this such a special exhibition, with special thanks to Lesley Andrews who curated the exhibition. Please spread the word about it.

Tickets are available on the website and must be bought in advance, the exhibition continues until 27 September, and is open every day but Monday and Tuesday.


Friday 4 September 2020

Swindon Before the Railway - a talk by Nicola Cornick

 We gathered excitedly last Thursday around our computers for a Zoom talk by historian and author Nicola Cornick, fascinated to find out more about Swindon before the railway put it on the map as a destination between Bristol and London.I took copious notes, but not being a historian, I have only a hazy idea about what ages a medievalist might be interested in, it's between 6th-14th centuries. The map below dates from about 1804,  a mere 37 years before the railway came through this idyllic country town                                                                                                                                                                                               

It's interesting speculate on various places on the map, was the Direction Post the site of the current Magic Roundabout? And is the Small Pox House the site of the former Victoria Hospital? And the origin of the name Swindon, was it really Swine Down, or Suindune in The Domesday Book. The place where pigs were raised?
Nicola took us back to when Swindon was a Saxon village with farmers and craftspeople living here, 1000 years ago there were blacksmiths and cutlery was being made here. The Vikings were here in 878 and were defeated. After the Norman Conquest, the area was divided into five areas. The town on the hill, what is now known as Old Town has a road system based on a square, with a market square in front of the Corn Exchange which goes back to 1346.
Above you can see a photograph of High Street which looks very similar today
What are mostly missing are the Holyrood Church above and totally missing, the Lawn Mansion House which was demolished in 1952
The Bell was a pub for a long time, although apparently not as long as is claimed above the door, sadly no longer a pub
Swindon has a reputation for smuggling, with many passageways beneath Old Town supposedly used for this, the Moonraker's pub sign is a Wiltshire tradition, told here.
This photo shows the interior of Ashdown House where some of the finest Swindon stone, Purbeck limestone was used for flooring.
The Cotswold Games involved lots of sword fighting as can be seen here, and also standing on your head, riding horses and shooting . What a great advertisement for the games this is.
And so we come to the end of the illustrated talk, with the last slide depicting a country lane.

Despite William Morris's disparaging remarks made about Swindon in the 1885, describing Holy Rood Church as 'insignificant', there's plenty of evidence that Swindon was a thriving rural market town, with plenty of advantages such as stone, springs and excellent farm land around. With a little bit of searching, I found this excellent blog post written by Nicola giving far more interesting details than I managed to note down.

The video recording of the talk is ready now, please click : here it is.

I've also had a couple of extra pieces of information, firstly in answer to my question, which I feel silly about now, I asked where the mill was! A member of the Friends has supplied these two paintings:

They are both by Thomas Luckett Jefferies who was Richard Jefferies' uncle. He also owned the Mill, the bakers by the Locarno as well as the farm.

Nicola was asked on the night about whether Wadard became Goddard and says this:

I also looked into the question on the night as to whether the Goddard family were descended from Wadard, the knight who owned Swindon after the Norman Conquest. Although there is a branch of the Goddard family who do claim descent from Wadard, there isn’t actually a properly authenticated family tree that proves this!

There was also a question about the pest house, here's the location:

'We have just watched the recording of Nicola's talk, and we noticed the question about where the pest house was.  The pest house is marked on the 1873 OS 25 inch map of Swindon.  The National Library of Scotland has digitised old OS maps and overlaid them on a modern satellite view.

The link below should take you to the page (you may have to get rid of an instruction sheet first by pressing X at its top right).  On the map page, you should see the pest house roughly in the centre, and there's a control panel on the left at the bottom of which is a transparency slider.  Use this to get rid of the old map and see where the pest house location is today - in the alleys between Goddard Avenue and The Mall.