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Ghost Signs Of Stoke Newington

July 31, 2014
by the gentle author

This is the epicentre of ghost sign activity in Stoke Newington Church St. On the left is a triple-layer painted wall of the Westminster Gazette, Criterion Matches, Gillette Razors – all merged into one glorious palimpsest – and on the right is a double layer painted sign advertising “Fount Pens Repaired.”

Sam Roberts was walking past one day in 2006 when he had a moment of inspiration. “I thought that’s neat, nowadays we just have disposable pens,” he admitted to me, “The sign was from a different world to ours.” As Sam’s fascination grew, he began to compile a map  London’s ghost signs and cycled around to photograph them all. Recognising that these curious signs comprise a powerful element in the collective psyche of urban life, he approached the History of Advertising Trust to develop an online archive containing more than six hundred specimens of which he is now the curator.

Recently, Sam has been studying the ghost signs of Stoke Newington, researching the stories behind their creation. The people and the businesses are mostly gone long ago and these fading signs are their last vestiges on this earth. Yet not everyone shares Sam’s recognition of their importance, as the painting-out of a huge intricate ghost sign upon the wall above above Stoke Newington Post Office demonstrated recently.“Many of these signs are over a hundred and twenty-five years old, “ Sam explained, “if they were a pieces of jewellery or furniture, people would immediately recognise their value.”

Thus, Sam is now leading walking tours to tell the poignant and compelling stories of the signs, revealing a local perspective upon the history of the streets and ensuring that these fragile traces of former generations are appreciated for their beauty and significance, as signposts to our shared past.

In Northwold Rd: R. Ellis. Ironmonger. Stoves, Range & Bath Boiler Works. Gas Fitter & Plumber. General House Repairs. Est. 60 Years. - Robert Ellis was born in 1835, died in 1898 and was buried across the road in Abney Park Cemetery. Note usage of bricks to define the height of the letters.

On Cazenove Rd: F. Cooper,  Job Master for Wedding Carriages, Broughams, Landaus, Cabs

The faded illustration on the ceramic panel is captioned “The Duchess of Devonshire canvasses the Jolly Butchers to vote for Fox in 1784″

Eloma Preparations was here in Carnham St from 1947 until the eighties

Richardson & Sons, Shirtmakers, Hackney, Leyton & Walthamstow – painted in 1955 upon an older panel

On Stoke Newington High St, painted over an earlier indecipherable sign: John Hawkins & Sons, Cotton Spinners & Manufacturers, Preston, Lancashire (Painted between 1926-1939 when the company was concentrating on increasing their home market when the struggle for Indian independence took away their overseas trade)

Walker Bros, Fount Pen Specialists, Phone Dalston 4522, Agents for Watermans Ideal Fountain Pen (A sponsored sign dated to the early twenties and repainted later on the left with “Any make” added.)

Hurstleigh’s Bakery – Daren – Brown Bread (Daren flour mills were in Dartford, Kent, on the banks of the river Darent)

Alf the Purse King – A Rubinsten & Sons – Purses, Pouches, Handbags, Wallets

In Stoke Newington Church St : Crane, House Decorator, Plumber, Gas & Hot Water Fitter, Contractor for General Repairs (Dating from 1890, this believed to be Stoke Newington’s oldest ghost sign.)

Visible from Stoke Newington Station, a narrow fragment of a double layer sign advertising “6  Tables”, “A Speciality”  and “Debossing”

Find out more about Sam Roberts’ tours at his Ghost Signs website or visit the History of Advertising Ghost Signs Archive

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Lyndie Wright, Puppeteer

July 30, 2014
by the gentle author

As a child, I was spellbound by the magic of puppets and it is an enchantment that has never lost its allure, so I was entranced to visit The Little Angel Theatre in Islington recently for the first time. All these years, I knew it was there –  sequestered in a hidden square beyond the Green and best approached through a narrow alley overgrown with creepers like a secret cave.

Contributing Photographer Sarah Ainslie & I were welcomed by Lyndie Wright who co-founded the theatre in 1961 with her husband John in the shell of an abandoned Temperance Chapel. “We bought the theatre for seven hundred and fifty pounds,” she admitted cheerfully, letting us in through the side door,“but we didn’t realise we had bought the workshop and cottage as well.”

More than half a century later, Lyndie still lives in the tiny cottage and we discovered her carving a marionette in the beautiful old workshop. “People travel for hours to get to work, but I just have to walk across the yard,” she exclaimed over her shoulder, absorbed in concentration upon the mysterious process of conjuring a puppet into life. “Carving a marionette is like making a sculpture,” she explained as she worked upon the leg of an indeterminate figure, “each piece has to be a sculpture in its own right and then it all adds up to a bigger sculpture.” In spite of its lack of features, the figure already possessed a presence of its own and as Lyndie turned and fondled it, scrutinising every part like puzzled doctor with a silent patient, there was a curious interaction taking place, as if she were waiting for it to speak.

“I made puppets as a child,” she revealed by way of explanation, when she noticed me observing her fascination. Growing up and going to art school in South Africa, Lyndie applied for a job with John Wright who was already an established puppet master, only to be disappointed that nothing was available. “But then I got a telegram,” she added, “and it was off on an eight month tour including Zimbabwe.”

After the tour, Lyndie came to Britain continue her studies at Central School of Art and John was seeking a location to create a puppet theatre in London. “The chapel had no roof on it and we had to approach the Temperance Society to buy it,” Lyndie recalled, “We did everything ourselves at the beginning, even laying the floorboards and scraping the walls.” Constructed upon a corner of a disused graveyard, they discovered human remains while excavating the chapel to create raked seating as part of the transformation into a theatre with a fly tower and bridge for operating the marionettes. Today, the dignified old frontage stands proudly and the auditorium retains a sense of a sacred space, with attentive children in rows replacing the holy teetotallers of a former age.

“I had intended to return to South Africa, but I had fallen in love with John so there was no going back,” Lyndie confided fondly, “in those days, we sold the tickets, worked the puppets, performed the shows, and then rushed round and made the coffee in the interval – there were just five of us.” At first it was called The Little Angel Marionette Theatre, emphasising the string puppets which were the focus of the repertoire but, as the medium has evolved and performers are now commonly visible to the audience, it became simply The Little Angel Theatre. Yet Lyndie retains a special affection for the marionettes, as the oldest, most-mysterious form of puppetry in which the operators are hidden and a certain magic prevails, lending itself naturally to the telling of stories from mythology and fairytales.

John Wright died in 1991 but the group of five that started with him in Islington in 1961 were collectively responsible for the growth and development in the art of puppetry that has flourished in this country in recent decades, centred upon The Little Angel Theatre. Generations of puppeteers started here and return constantly bringing new ideas, and generations of children who first discovered the wonder of the puppet theatre at The Little Angel come back to share it with their own children.

“The less you show the audience, the more they have to imagine and the more they get out of it,” Lyndie said to me, as we stood together upon the bridge where the puppeteers control the marionettes, high in the fly tower. The theatre was dark and the stage was empty and the flies were hung with scenery ready to descend and the puppets were waiting to spring into life. It was an exciting world of infinite imaginative possibility and I could understand how you might happily spend your life in thrall to it, as Lyndie has done.

Old cue scripts, still up in the flies from productions long ago

Larry, the theatrical cat

Lyndie Wright

Photographs copyright © Sarah Ainslie

Visit The Little Angel Theatre website for details of current productions

At Fulham Palace

July 29, 2014
by the gentle author

You leave Putney Bridge Station, cross the road, enter the park by the river and go through a gate in a high wall to find yourself in a beautiful vegetable garden with an elaborate tudor gate. Beyond the tudor gate lies Fulham Palace, presenting an implacable classically-proportioned facade to you across a wide expanse of lawn bordered by tall old trees. You dare to walk across the grass and sneak around to the back of the stately home where you discover a massive tudor gateway with ancient doors, leading to a courtyard with a fountain dancing and a grand entrance where Queen Elizabeth I once walked in. It was only a short walk from the tube but already you are in another world.

For over a thousand years the Bishops of London lived here until 1975 when it was handed over to the public. But even when Bishop Waldhere (693-c.705) acquired Fulham Manor around the year 700, it was just the most recent dwelling upon a site beside the Thames that had already been in constant habitation since Neolithic times. Our own St Dunstan, who built the first church in Stepney in 952, became Bishop of London in 957 and lived here. By 1392, a document recorded the great ditch that enclosed the thirty-six acres of Britain’s largest medieval moated dwelling.

Time has accreted innumerable layers and the visitor encounters a rich palimpsest of history, here at one of London’s earliest powerhouses. You stand in the tudor courtyard admiring its rich diamond-patterned brickwork and the lofty tower entrance, all girded with a fragrant border of lavender at this time of year. Behind this sits the Georgian extension, presenting another face to the wide lawn. Yet even this addition evolved from Palladian in 1752 to Strawberry Hill Gothick in 1766, before losing its fanciful crenellations and towers devised by Stiff Leadbetter to arrive at a piously austere elevation, which it maintains to this day, in 1818.

Among the ecclesiastical incumbents were a number of botanically-inclined bishops whose legacy lives on in the grounds, manifest in noteworthy trees and the restored glasshouses where exotic fruits were grown for presentation to the monarch. In the sixteenth century, Bishop Grindal (1559-1570) sent grapes annually to Elizabeth I, and “The vines at Fulham were of that goodness and perfection beyond others” wrote John Strype. As Head of the Church in the American Colonies, Bishop Henry Compton (1675-1753), sent missionaries to collect seeds and cuttings and, in his thirty-eight tenure, he cultivated a greater variety of trees and shrubs than had previously been seen in any garden in England – including the first magnolia in Europe.

At this time of year, the newly-planted walled garden proposes the focus of popular attention with its lush vegetable beds interwoven with cosmos, nasturtiums, sweet peas and french marigolds. A magnificent wisteria of more than a century’s growth shelters an intricate knot garden facing a curved glasshouse, following the line of a mellow old wall, where cucumber, melons and tomatoes and aubergines are ripening.

The place is a sheer wonder and a rare peaceful green refuge at the heart of the city – and everyone can visit for free .

Cucumbers in the glasshouse

Melon in the glasshouse

Five hundred year old Holme Oak

Coachman’s House by William Butterfield

Lodge House in the Gothick style believed to have been designed by Lady Hooley c. 1815

Tudor buildings in the foreground with nineteenth century additions towards the rear.

Sixteenth century gate with original oak doors

The courtyard entrance

Looking back to the fountain

Entrance to the medieval hall where Elizabeth I dined

Chapel by William Butterfield

Tudor gables

All Saints, Fulham seen from the walled garden

Freshly harvested carrots and vegetable marrows

Ancient yews preside at All Saints Fulham

Visit Fulham Palace website for opening times and details of events – admission is free

Tiles By William Godwin Of Lugwardine

July 28, 2014
by the gentle author

There is spot where my eyes fall as I enter the house between the front door and the foot of the stair, where I always felt there was something missing and it was only when I visited Bow Church this spring to admire C R Ashbee’s restoration work that I realised there would once have been floor tiles in my entrance way. It was a notion enforced when I noticed some medieval encaustic tiles at Charterhouse and began to research the possible nature of the missing tiles from my house.

In 1852, William Godwin began creating gothic tiles by the encaustic process century at his factory at Lugwardine in Herefordshire and became one of the leading manufacturers in the nineteenth century, supplying the demand for churches, railway stations, schools, municipal buildings and umpteen suburban villas. Inevitably, some of these tiles have broken over the time and millions have been thrown out as demolition and the desire for modernity have escalated.

So I decided to create a floor with the odd tiles that no-one else wants, bringing together tiles that once belonged to whole floors of matching design, now destroyed, and give them a new home in my house. Oftentimes, I bought broken or chipped ones and paid very little for each one – but I hope you will agree that together their effect is magnificent.

Encaustic tiled floor designed by C R Ashbee for Bow Church using Godwin tiles

Medieval encaustic tiles at the bricked-up entrance to Charterhouse in Smithfield

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At Hyper Japan

July 27, 2014
by the gentle author

On Saturday, Earls Court was teeming with manga characters – from fairies to steam-punks and schoolgirls to super-heroes. There were those with pointy ears, there were those with tails and plenty with primary-coloured hair. Some were ferocious and other were funny, yet they all shared a sense of joy in the Japanese art of dressing up extravagantly and embodying your fantasy in public that is known as ‘cosplay.’ Hyper Japan promises video games, pop music, sushi, samurai swords, bonsai, comics, and more – but it was the costumed characters in their glory that stole the day.

The last day of Hyper Japan 2014 is at Earls Court today from 9:30am until 6:00pm