Picture of the Obelisk and Civic Society Crest Banner: a montage of Ripon architecture
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Published by the Society in the Ripon Gazette, 15th May 2009
David Winpenny, Chairman of Ripon Civic Society, follows the trail of architectural decoration from the offices of English Heritage to one of Ripon’s best buildings.

If you’ve been watching the fly-on-the-wall English Heritage (EH) programmes on BBC 2 on Friday evenings you may have been struck by two things – the forceful presence and decisive opinions of Dr Simon Thurley, English Heritage’s Chief Executive, who gave a lecture here in Ripon in April last year to mark the 40th anniversary of the Civic Society; and the building in which he works.

The part of the building in which EH is housed, on London’s Holborn, is now called Waterhouse Square – but it was built from 1879 to designs by Alfred Waterhouse for the Prudential Assurance Company as the company’s Head Office. Waterhouse’s most famous works are the Natural History Museum in South Kensington, and Manchester Town Hall, but his buildings for Prudential are found up and down the country, and are all in much the same style as the grand offices in Holborn.

Their chief characteristics are the colour – a deep orange-red – and the profusion of ornament. Waterhouse was renowned in his own day for the colour of his buildings; he was sometimes known as ‘Slaughterhouse’ because of their blood-like hues. His Prudential offices show that as he grew older he became convinced of several things – that using different colours in a building detracted from the form of the structure; that materials had to be durable, and that – as much as possible – details should be able to be manufactured by machine.

This last idea, of course, put him at odds with people like William Morris and Philip Webb (and with John Ruskin from earlier in the century) who believed that only work made by a craftsman with his own labour was worthy. ‘By hammer and hand all arts do stand’ was their cry (it is also the motto of the Worshipful Company of Blacksmiths); mass-produced work was always second-rate. But Waterhouse was perhaps more realistic in his ideas. Hand-crafted work is often excellent and expressive; but it is expensive, time-consuming and not available in sufficient quantity to be practicable for everyone.

What enabled Waterhouse to make his buildings – including window frames, mouldings and pinnacles – of a uniform colour – the ‘slaughterhouse red’? It was something that he had first noticed on a visit to Amiens in northern France in 1855, when he was 25. He wrote in his notebook, ‘Much struck by the terracotta work’ – and terracotta was the weather-proof and easily-cast material with which he came most particularly to be associated.

We have no buildings by Waterhouse in Ripon – but his influence is felt in quite a number of buildings in the city. Look around at the later 19th-century buildings and you will see plenty of terracotta decorations. By the 1880s and 1890s the Aesthetic Movement had popularised the use of the sunflower motif, and there are houses around Ripon that have terracotta sunflowers built into their walls –sometimes glazed. An artistic trend with complicated origins that include medieval architecture and Japanese culture, the Aesthetic Movement was mocked in Gilbert and Sullivan’s operetta ‘Patience’. The sunflower was one of the emblems of the Aesthetic Movement; the lily, much favoured by Oscar Wilde, was another, and lilies, too, appear on Ripon houses in terracotta friezes.

Look out, too, for bands of decorative mouldings of many types – diamonds, ropes, acanthus leaves among them – and for the finials on roofs and keystones over arches – all examples of terracotta-moulders’ work.

And, of course, Ripon’s most impressive and imaginative terracotta building is the Spa Baths. Here, every surface of the 1904 exterior is a riot of terracotta detail – here in two colours rather than in Waterhouse’s restricted single, red pallette. They give the whole building a festive air from a distance and, close up, there are so many fascinating details, all of them moulded shapes – grinning faces, fearsome heads, bulging domes, bulbous pinnacles – that the architect must have had great fun in specifying them.

Simon Thurley praised the Spa Baths when he visited Ripon; he saw them in their proper architectural context, of course – but perhaps they faintly reminded him of his London offices, too. The Baths building may not be as grand as the former Prudential Head Office, but in a small city like Ripon it has more impact than even a large building in a huge city. Let us cherish it in all its terracotta splendour!

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