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GOING STRAIGHT FOR CURVES

Published by the Society in the Ripon Gazette, 24th April 2009
Curves in our streets and our buildings are life-enhancing, argues David Winpenny, Chairman of Ripon Civic Society.

In his book ‘Analysis of Beauty’, published in 1753, the artist William Hogarth put forward a theory about curves. Curved shapes, he argued, are lively and attract the attention much more than straight lines, which, whether they are parallel or at right angles, are inert and inanimate. The curve – especially the double, S-shaped curve, was dubbed by Hogarth ‘The Line of Beauty’.

He was by no means the first to discover the seductiveness of curves. As artists and sculptors have long known, the curves of the human body are some of the best subjects for their work – think of Rubens’ women, for example. And in the 14th century artistic taste in England favoured figures in stained glass and on monumental brasses that were sinuously swaying – the stained-glass knights at Tewkesbury Abbey are the best-known examples.

It was the opinion of a contemporary of Hogarth’s, the architect and landscape gardener William Kent, that ‘nature abhors a straight line.’ Kent’s gardens are full of curves – in contract to most earlier landscapes, that relied on straight lines of trees and ruler-straight canals for grandeur. And perhaps the archetypical English landscapes of ‘Capability’ Brown, copied on the continent as the ‘Jardin Anglais’ or the ‘Englisher Garten’, are the most obvious result of this belief.

So curves are important to the eye, enlivening the sometimes-monotonous regularity of streets and buildings. Think of London’s Regent Street or – even better – Grey Street in Newcastle, voted Britain’s best street. There are good examples in Ripon, too. Some are perhaps more the result of good luck than design – think of the double curve of Kirkgate out of the Market Square, which hides the magnificent west front of the cathedral from view until you are quite near. It is unlikely that this was planned; more probably it came about as the easiest route from Square to cathedral down what may once have been a tricky slope.

Other aspects of the city’s layout are more deliberate – like the curving drive that sweeps round Ripon’s grandest enclave, the Crescent. Of course, Ripon lacks the grand curving terraces of places like Bath or Buxton, but if you look around, it is a place of curves. Look, for example, at how the facade of the HSBC bank building at the top of High Skellgate curves so elegantly into Westgate – a textbook example of how to turn a corner stylishly. It’s a lesson some modern architects have taken on board – the new houses on Blossomgate curve into Marshall Way in a similar and pleasing fashion.

Look, too, at the front of the Town Hall. The architect has given the city a correct classical building, much of it of strictly straight lines (though look carefully at the columns – they have the subtle curves known to the Greeks as ‘entasis’). On the ground floor, though, the windows and door have curved tops – a deliberate ploy to offset the angularity of the structure.

These are quite grand buildings, but curves can enliven lesser buildings. On the top floor of the building just along from the Town Hall that houses the Chinese restaurant are – both at the front and the back –semicircular windows (technically known as ‘Diocletian windows’ because they are found in the palace built by the Roman Emperor at Split) that add a touch of frivolity to the structure.

Many of Ripon’s older shop fronts have curves as a motif – it seems to have been a local style. Good examples are ‘the gallery’ in Kirkgate and Joplings estate agents at the corner of North Street and Allhallowgate – but once you start looking you will see them all through the city centre. There are the occasional bow windows, too – good examples on the White Horse in North Street – and some of the curved Georgian fanlights around the city still retain their glazing bars.

Look out, too, for shaped gables in the Dutch style – as on the former Labour Exchange on Water Skellgate and the houses in Magdalens Road – recently echoed in the new houses nearby. Even simple brick arches into yards and over windows can add a touch of jollity to an otherwise dull facade.

P G Wodehouse once described a young lady (rather than a building) as having ‘as many curves as a Scenic Railway’. We may not want our buildings to be quite so curvaceous, but some are definitely desirable, however you look at it.

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