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AUTOLYCAN TRIFLES

Published by the Society in the Ripon Gazette, 9th July 2010
David Winpenny considers a few trifles – and poses a question.

‘My father named me Autolycus; who being, as I am, littered under Mercury, was likewise a snapper-up of unconsidered trifles.’

The words of the roguish Autolycus in Shakespeare’s ‘The Winter’s Tale’ have long provided a useful phrase – ‘unconsidered trifles’ – when writers want to point out that their subject matter is usually overlooked but may be worthy of some attention. These days, too, the more literary of E-bay sellers attach the words to their buying and selling activities.

For those of us interested in buildings, too, it is a useful formula. This column has often exhorted you to look up above the shop fronts and ground floors of buildings to see what the upper storeys can tell you about their history. A while ago it also challenged you in a Christmas quiz to identify details of Ripon buildings – not as easy as you might think!

Every building, however sleek and modernistic, relies on its details to give it character. Even if it is only an exquisitely-crisp edge to gleaming white plasterwork or the polish of a stainless steel window frame, detail is all-important.

Let’s ‘snap up’ a few of Ripon’s ‘unconsidered trifles’ and see what they do for the look of the city. Start with stone – and in the Spa Gardens. The Severs Fountain – now dry – near the new turf maze is worth an inspection. The fountain originally stood near the southern end of North Bridge, at the junction with Magdalen’s Road, and provided drinking water both for people and for cattle. It is finely carved with naturalistic leaves and berries – it recalls the decoration of some of the best Victorian buildings of the mid-19th century.

Victorian architects liked to commission such carvings. They were influenced by two things. One was the great explosion of natural science kick-started by Joseph Banks’ botanical adventures with Captain Cook and fuelled by the work of Charles Darwin and Alfred Wallace. Exotic plants and even animals would appear in odd places – carved wattles and zinnias would rub shoulders with stone wombats and sloths. The other influence was the great medieval stone carvers, whose use of natural plant, flower and animal forms was often spectacular – most especially in the chapter houses of Southwell Minster in Nottinghamshire and of York Minster.

At the end of the 19th century the oomph seems to have gone out of the stone carvings. The Clock Tower at the junction of North Street and Palace Road has workmanlike decoration, but no great inspiration; there is a tendency for the foliage carving to resemble stylised seaweed. It is not done as crisply as either the Severs Fountain work nor, oddly perhaps, as the spiral ‘volutes’ on the former Williamson’s building by Borrage Bridge. The volutes were put up in 1925, but have all the spirit of the Baroque in them – worthy details of a handsome building.

It is round the corner from the volutes that we find the 1925 date, in a nice cursive script in white moulded terracotta. Its classical simplicity contrasts nicely with the 1904 terracotta lettering on the Spa Baths, with its intertwined figures. Of course, the whole of the Spa Baths building is full of riotous detail – have you noticed the round discs with wavy lines across them? Heraldically these are ‘roundels’ or more specifically when decorated with blue and white waves, they are known as ‘fountains’ – very appropriate to both the Baths’ origins and to the proximity of the Abbey. They are also part of the Harrogate coat of arms . . . Look, too, at the Baths’ adjoining laundry tower. Just below the top are beaked terracotta faces that could be from the skyscrapers of Batman’s Gotham City.

Another terracotta trifle is found in Low St Agnesgate, where a plaque shows a beehive surrounded by leaves and the motto ‘Labor omnia vincit’ – ‘Work conquers everything’. It’s worth keeping an eye open, too, for that symbol of the Aesthetic Movement of the 1880s (think Oscar Wilde) the sunflower, which pops up in terracotta on many of Ripon’s brick houses.
Metalwork also offers some good ‘trifles’ for the observant. The Marquess of Ripon’s statue in the Spa Gardens is hardly a trifle, but repays careful study. Not only has the sculptor taken a great deal of trouble to get the details of the Marquess’s Garter robes correct; he has also added his name – F Derwent Wood ARA – and the date 1912 to the base.

The gilded crown on top of the Clock Tower is appropriate to this memorial of Victoria’s 1897 Jubilee; it has fared better than the metal finial that once topped the Severs Fountain. The best remaining metal pinnacle in Ripon is on top of the tower of St Wilfrid’s Church in Coltsgate Hill. The church was designed by Joseph Hansom and built in the early 1860s; he may have designed the finial or just left it to his metalworker. The result is an exuberant combination of a cross in a circle, with a crown below it and, under that, some curving three-leaved sprigs. Too much Victorian metalwork has been lost over the last century, so we should be proud to have retained this example.

In Greek mythology Autolycus, the ‘snapper-up of unconsidered trifles’ was the thieving son of Hermes (the Romans’ Mercury), the messenger of the gods. And that leads us neatly into a final puzzle for you. In which rather unlikely spot in Ripon will you find a metal sculpture of the head of Hermes complete with his winged helmet? No prizes – the answer in next week’s column.

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