Your simple guide to the architectural features you will see around Cheltenham. Impress your friends by knowing your pedimented porticos from your ogee arches!
If you’re familiar with the Bonzo Dog Band song “My Pink Half of the Drainpipe”, I guess this must be “My Brown Half of the Ionic Portico”.
Cheltenham is best known for its Regency architecture, meaning that it was built primarily during the regency and reign of King George IV. In other words, between about 1811 when King George III became too doolally to function as monarch and 1830, when his son popped his foppish clogs. In practice the ‘Regency’ period in architecture started a bit earlier than that, evolving throughout the late 18th century (pioneered by the great Scottish architect Robert Adam) and of course it didn’t stop overnight when the Prince Regent ceased to be … there were Regency-style designs still being built in Cheltenham well into the 1840s. The style which was fashionable at that time was neoclassicism, which took various bits and bobs of inspiration from the classical orders devised by the Ancient Greeks and Romans.
So to get your head round the subtlety of Regency Cheltenham, you have to have a basic understanding of the classical orders. Though having said that, the Regency style is not about adhering strictly to the rules … it merely provides a design template for the architect to play about with. In Cheltenham, the principles of classicism are more often than not interpreted quite loosely.
There are also a lot of Regency buildings which don’t have obvious classical features but follow the more simple Georgian style – elegant, uncluttered and beautifully proportioned.
Is there a typical “Cheltenham” style? Well yes. If I had to pick out a single building to sum it up it would probably be something like this:
A house in Great Norwood Street, built 1830s. It’s plain but elegant, finished in stucco, glazed with multi-paned sash windows and fenced in by iron railings (set individually into a stone plinth). The frontage is flat, apart from a simple string course (that’s the horizontal band running along between floors), and a porch, and the door has a transom window over the top.
Regency houses often appear to have flat roofs because from ground level you can usually only see the flat frontage and nothing above it. But in fact they have a normal pitched roof (usually tiled with slate) – it’s just hidden behind a parapet. In this photo, you can see the slate-tiled roof poking up above the frontage.
Before the 1840s, window glass could only be reliably made in small panes. Which is why Cheltenham’s Regency buildings have these multiple-panelled windows.
Another typical Regency Cheltenham feature – the wrought iron veranda. This row of houses in London Road is called Oxford Villas and was built between 1818 and 1820. It follows similar principles to the one above, but with three storeys. The frontage is very plain and flat, with the roof hidden behind a parapet, and the ostentatious veranda is the main focal point. Cheltenham’s decorative ironwork is one of its most precious heritage treasures and is worthy of an article all of its own.
Royal Crescent is another example of the Georgian style of townhouse. These are among Cheltenham’s earliest and finest Regency houses, built between 1806 and 1810. The house frontages are curved like the Georgian crescents in Bath, but still very simple and plain – the only adornment being magnificent ironwork balconies and verandas. These are works of art, all hand-made by a blacksmith.
It’s not just the big posh houses that were built in the Georgian style. These small terraced houses in Gratton Street were built in the early 1830s for working class tradespeople (though they would be a bit out of their price range now). Same style though – flat frontage, sash windows, roof hidden behind a parapet, wrought iron additions.
THE CLASSICAL ORDERS
A lot of Cheltenham’s Regency buidings include classical features in combination with the Georgian simplicity. The classical orders follow a fairly elaborate set of rules, which you can read about in more detail on Wikipedia if you so wish. The Greeks invented the orders, and the Romans later adapted them, adding a couple of new ones of their own. Each order has its own set of proportions and decorative styles.
This is a simplified guide to some of the terminology, using as an example the Kraft Foods headquarters in Bayshill Road.
This building is an excellent example of the Corinthian order, but serves as an illustration of classical architecture in general. The large projecting front section is called a portico – though this is a particularly large and fancy one. Four columns at the front support an entablature – the slabby block on the top. The entablature is itself divided into three parts: the frieze (blank bit in the middle), the architrave (ridged bit at the bottom) and the cornice (sticky-outy bit at the top). The cornice is sometimes supported, as in this case, on a series of small brackets called modillions – though they are basically just decorative and don’t necessarily serve as structural supports. The columns are also in three parts, with a base, a shaft and a capital at the top. Each of the orders has its own style of capital, and its own set of rules for the proportions of the column. On top of the entablature is a triangular feature called a pediment, which usually highlights the main entrance of a building. These are optional – not all buildings have them – and they come in many types, but this is a very traditional one for the Corinthian order. This building also has a balustrade along the top, which is a parapet railing made from a row of vase-shaped pillars. This isn’t part of the classical order but it’s quite common on Regency buildings.
One thing the above building doesn’t have, and which properly speaking it should, is fluted columns. Fluting is a series of vertical grooves which are carved down the length of the shaft. All the classical orders specify it, but a lot of Regency buildings have smooth, plain shafts instead. You do find fluted columns around Cheltenham (such as these on a house in Wellington Square) but the majority are left unfluted. This probably reflects the taste and fashion of the Regency period, when a minimum of fussy detail was generally preferred, but may also be an issue of cost – as I imagine it would have added a few quid to the stonemason’s bill.
In classical architecture it is usual to take the diameter of the base of a column as a unit of measurement. Thus a column might be six diameters high – i.e. its height is six times the span of its footprint. This means that for each element of a building a set of proportions can be used relative to each other regardless of the actual size.
One of the most common classical features you will see in Cheltenham is the portico. It’s really a glorified porch. The Kraft Foods building above has a very grand one spanning the whole height of the building, but a typical Regency portico will be a more modest porch over the front door – perhaps with a pediment, perhaps not – supported at the front on two or four columns.
CLASSICAL ORDERS: DORIC (GREEK)
A beautiful example of a pedimented Greek Doric portico, Suffolk Lawn, Lypiatt Road, built c.1827
Doric columns are the simplest and plainest of the orders, and also the most chunky and compact. The height of the column is six or seven times the diameter of the bottom of the shaft. The most distinctive feature of a Greek Doric column is that it doesn’t have a base – the shaft sits flat on its plinth.
The capital of a Doric column is fairly plain and simple, usually just a flaring of the shaft, topped with a flat square slab called an abacus. The shaft is fluted, i.e. carved with vertical grooves.
Detail of Greek Doric capital, with abacus, on the New Burial Ground chapel (now St Mary’s Mission Hall) built in 1831. This column has proper Greek-style (sharp edged) fluting which is relatively uncommon in Cheltenham.
Originally the Greeks built their temples out of wood, and the entablature was formed by placing a beam of wood across the top of each column. When they moved on to the use of stone they wanted to retain the appearance of wood, even if only in stylised form, so they decorated the entablature with triglyphs. A triglyph is a set of three vertical lines, intended to represent the endgrain on a beam of wood, with a little row of six ‘pins’ hammered in underneath. These triglyphs, evenly spaced along the entablature, are a particular feature of the Doric order and don’t occur in any other.
The positioning of the triglyphs was a bit of a headache for the Greeks. It was important to them to have a triglyph at the very corner, but they also liked to have them lined up with the centre of each column. This made it impossible to have the triglyphs evenly spaced … there was always too big a gap at the outer edges. There are several ways they attempted to resolve it, none of which looked quite right. This conundrum is known as the Doric corner conflict. It’s too lengthy to explain here, but the main point for identification purposes is that Greek Doric always has a triglyph at the corner of the entablature … regardless of how the rest of the spacing is arranged.
In Cheltenham’s Regency architecture, pure and complete Doric forms are relatively hard to find but variants of it are quite common. Triglyphs are often absent, and the columns are often unfluted. Here are a few examples …
Playhouse Theatre, Bath Road. This building of c.1804-06 has lovely chunky Doric columns, though there is minimal decorative detail and no triglyphs.
Greek Doric portico on a house called Eversleigh in Parabola Road. These columns are unusually slender for the Doric proportions, but the entablature is a good example of this order, with triglyphs positioned on the corners. This is a very late example of Regency architecture in Cheltenham, most likely built in the 1840s.
Greek Doric entrance on the end house of Royal Well Terrace in Chapel Walk. This is a nice example of the order with its triglyphs on the corner joints.
CLASSICAL ORDERS: DORIC (ROMAN)
Roman Doric entablature. Note how the triglyphs are spaced evenly and don’t go right to the corners.
Roman Doric is essentially the same as Greek, but with a couple of key differences. For one, the Romans weren’t fussy about getting their triglyphs to line up at the corners, so they just spaced them evenly and left a gap at the corner. The other thing they did differently was to add a base to the columns, and often a bit more decorative detail on the capitals. In proportions though, the Roman Doric is the same as Greek.
Beautiful Roman Doric pedimented portico with fluted columns on Langton House, London Road, Charlton Kings. Notice the circular base at the bottom of the columns, compared with the flat-footed Greek versions above. The entablature here lacks triglyphs, but other than that it’s a good example.
Also in Charlton Kings, this splendid house in Cudnall Street has fluted Roman Doric columns supporting a plain entablature with a miniature conservatory on the top.
CLASSICAL ORDERS: IONIC
The Ionic order is more elegant than the Doric and the proportions slightly more elongated. It’s a visually pleasing style and in Cheltenham it’s probably the most commonly used of all the orders – you will find examples of it everywhere!
Ionic columns on The Limes, Bayshill Road. These are ‘giant’ ones, spanning two storeys.
The usual proportions for Ionic columns is eight or nine times the diameter of the base. They have a spiral scroll shape on the capital – a bit like a cross-section through a mushroom, and the column stands on a small base and is usually fluted. The entablature is a bit lighter and shallower than the Doric, and the cornice is traditionally decorated with dentils – a row of closely spaced square or rectangular tabs. The architrave (lowest section of the entablature) is often divided into three bands.
The scroll thingy on the Ionic capital is called a volute. But you can also just call them scrolls if you prefer. There is normally a band round the shaft with some additional decoration, usually the egg-and-dart motif. Originally, volutes were designed to be viewed head-on and were flat in profile. Later the Greeks realised that you could give them a 3D look by angling the scrolls outward at the corners. Both types are commonly used in Cheltenham, and this portico on Park House in Thirlestaine Road shows both types used together.
Volutes of flat profile and sticky-outy profile, supporting a pedimented portico (without dentils).
Detail of an Ionic volute, on Dorset House, Pittville Lawn, built 1820s. This is a very fine example and has a row of tiny acanthus leaves forming an abacus at the top, plus some segments of flowers at either end of the egg-and-dart pattern around the top of the shaft.
Other examples of the Ionic order in Cheltenham …
Ionic pedimented balcony in Lansdown Terrace, Malvern Road. Built in the 1830s, the whole terrace has these balconies with tetrastyle (that’s the posh way of saying there’s four of them) Ionic columns and dentilled cornice.
A slightly more vernacular interpretation – this tandoori restaurant in the Bath Road combines a row of Ionic fluted columns with a cladding of coloured and mirror tiles.
Ionic portico on Rodney Lodge, at the top of Rodney Road. This is an early example built c.1806 and must have been among the first neoclassical-style houses to appear in Cheltenham.
CLASSICAL ORDERS: CORINTHIAN
Of the three original Greek orders, the Corinthian is the most luxurious and elaborate. This 1820s example is in Suffolk Square.
Corinthian columns are similar in proportions to the Ionic, but sometimes more slender – eight, nine or ten times the diameter of the base. They are normally fluted and stand on a base. Their most distinctive feature is the capital, which is a deep inverted bell shape and decorated with tiers of carved acanthus leaves.
The entablature is very similar to the Ionic order: dentils along the cornice and an architrave divided into three bands. But additionally it has a row of modillions – small scroll shaped brackets – underneath the cornice. These give extra support to the cornice and add to the general extravagance. On Cheltenham buildings, both the dentils and the modillions are often absent.
Corinthian capitals – in this case on the northern terrace of Suffolk Square (a close-up of the ones shown above). These have the full works: three tiers of intricately carved acanthus leaves, a topping of mini scrolls, and a concave abacus adorned on each side with a rosette.
This Corinthian portico on a large detached villa in Montpellier Street, now in use as business premises, is a good example of the order, including a dentil cornice. In this case the capitals have a less cluttered single-tier design.
Queen’s Parade of c.1840 has a pavilion at either end with Corinthian columns. These are unfluted, but there is a dentil cornice above.
PILASTERS: WHEN A COLUMN IS NOT A COLUMN
A pilaster is basically a kind of fake column. It may have all the features of a classical column from any one of the orders, including a base, a capital and a shaft which may or may not be fluted. Or it may have some other less traditional design. But it is a flat, stylised representation of a column rather than an actual free-standing one. It often spans the whole height of the building. As it is purely decorative and not structural, it may be moulded from plaster rather than carved into stone. Pilasters are very common in Cheltenham, which is why I thought they deserved their own section.
Doric pilasters. This (probably) late 18th century building is in St George’s Place.
Ionic pilasters on a terrace in Painswick Road. The Ionic volute lends itself especially well to the flat-profile treatment.
Corinthian pilasters, with a dentil cornice above, on Royal Well Terrace in St George’s Road. Lovely wrought iron balcony too.
Osborne House in Lansdown Road has columns which are based on classical principles but the capital has an Egyptian motif, followed through in the stained glass window and the balcony ironwork above.
Quintessentially Cheltenham, the caryatids! For those who find classical columns (like the Greek Doric one on the left) are simply not extravagant enough, why not stick your building frontage on a carved maiden with an abacus on her head? These famous beauties are in Montpellier Walk.
The composite order was developed by the Romans for occasions of maximum voluptuousness and artistic freedom. It uses the proportions of the Ionic and Corinthian orders and combines their capitals into a posy of leaves and scrolls.
Detail of a composite capital (of a fairly simple design) on no.41 Bath Road. It combines an Ionic volute with the carved acanthus leaves and curvy abacus of the Corinthian order.
An even more individualistic variant can be found on Columbia House in Winchcombe Street, once a fishmonger’s shop which retains its historic frontage with tiled pilasters. In this instance the Corinthian acanthus leaves are more prominent and the small Ionic volutes above them are acting as hooks for a fishing net! The one on the left shows a large scallop shell over the net while the right hand one has a smaller scallop shell and a pair of entwined dancing dolphins.
The Romans came up with this simplified form of the Doric order. It has very plain columns, Roman Doric in style but slimmer, and with no fluting. The entablature is also plain and unadorned.
This example of a Tuscan Doric portico is on Laverham House in St George’s Place, built in the 1790s and once the home of the Sadler’s Wells puppet theatre.
This modern building in Christ Church Road is a simple and striking pastiche of classical architecture, stylising the shape – though not the proportions – of Ionic columns.
This article and all photographs © Rebsie Fairholm 2009
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