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ORNAMENTATION - A LOST BUILDING ART?

Published by the Society in the Ripon Gazette, 1st August 2008
David Winpenny, Co-Chairman of Ripon Civic Society, asks whether we have seen the end of ornamentation on our buildings.

What has happened to the concept of decoration in architecture? Look round the streets of Ripon and you will see a profusion of ornaments that decorate the facades of our buildings. What are they for? And is the modern trend for simpler, undecorated structures to be welcomed?

In the middle ages stonemasons decorated their buildings – al least the better-quality ones – as a matter of course. Gothic architecture is a structural style, depending on the balance of arch, window, wall and vault. To mark the focal points of the structure the masons carved the capitals of the columns, the bosses on the vault and other areas with whatever was the fashionable decoration of the time. Sometimes this was a simple moulding, that added to the pay of light and shade in the building. Or else there were carved heads – Ripon Cathedral has lots of them (and some of them may be portraits of local worthies, if only we knew!).

At other times, especially in the first half of the 14th century, the carvers broke out into a riot of naturalistic leaf and flower carving; the most famous examples are in the chapter houses at Southwell Minster and York Minster. Add to this the profusion of angels (the nave of Ripon has some; the most famous are in Lincoln’s Angel Choir, and there are some lovely angel musicians at Beverley Minster) and gargoyles, and you have a riot of carving – once coloured inside the buildings – that adds interest and character.

Once Gothic disappeared, the builders of Tudor, Elizabethan and Stewart times kept up the decoration, now often influenced by Renaissance motifs and a love of the grotesque. And even in the classical period – the times of architects like Wren, Hawksmoor, Lord Burlington, Kent, Ripon’s Sir William Chambers and Robert Adam who worked at nearby Newby Hall – decoration played a major role in the structures. Capitals were deeply carved, mouldings were decorated with carving or plasterwork representing ribbons, masks, animal skulls, bay leaves and a multitude of other devices.

And when the Victorians came to revive many of these styles, they revived the decoration, too. Even in simple shop fronts there is decoration. Columns and capitals surround the window frames – there are good examples on Kirkgate – while chapels like the one on Coltsgate Hill are decorated with full-blown swirls of leaves worthy of a Medici tomb. Nor did it stop there; think of the amusing Edwardian grotesques on the Spa Baths, the rather more staid 1920s flower-and-ribbon mouldings on the former Williamsons building, and even the Moderne 3-D stripes on what used to be the Palladium Cinema in Kirkgate.

This tendency to decorate vanished in the 1950s and 60s. Ripon fortunately escaped the grey-shuttered-concrete worst of the 60s Brutalist concrete – think of the Stonebow building in York, or London’s South Bank buildings – but we are still feeling its effects in the design of today’s buildings. It is now thought adventurous to cut the edges of window cills at an angle, or to slightly shape the gable.

Of course, some of this is down to economics – workmanship is not so cheap these days that a man can spend a day carving a flower in a piece of stone. But decoration – and the craftsmanship needed to prepare it – should at least be considered. Otherwise we shall entirely loose the skills that were once common, and we shall be reduced to the type of buildings that Ruskin prophesied in ‘The Two Paths’, published in 1859 – ‘You shall draw out your plates of glass and beat out your bars of iron till you have encompassed us all . . . with endless perspective of black skeleton and blinding square.’

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