by Valerie Bott
Brentford & Chiswick Local History Journal 3 (1982)
When so much of contemporary building is rather box-like and functional, one of the delights of suburban London is the survival of a great deal of decorative architecture. Chiswick is surprisingly rich in such buildings, but it is all too easy to take them for granted.
Decorative features may be found in the form of a building – look at the roof lines of Voysey House (originally built for Sanderson’s Wallpaper Co.) and the neighbouring Barley Mow pub – or the construction – yellow brick contrasting with crisp white-painted woodwork in 18th century houses or red brick, red tile and terracotta giving harmonious textures in Bedford Park – or in colour – look for the tiled pavements and porches in Wavendon Avenue and (best seen at night) the coloured glass in front doors and windows in Sutton Court Road and St. Mary’s Grove – or in fine detail – ceramics, woodwork, metalwork and worked stone used in a decorative fashion for functional reasons. Sometimes features which were never intended to be especially decorative are attractive because they are well-made, pleasingly designed or have weathered well.
Most of Chiswick’s building has been of brick, especially over the last 200 years or so. Lengths of brick wall up to 400 years old can be found here and there – look at back garden walls at Chiswick Mall and on the sharp double bend of Thames Road at Strand on the Green. (Bright orange-red brick is usually Tudor or Stuart, pinky-plum late 17th or 18th century, yellow-brown London stock brick 18th or 19th century work.)
Carefully finished Victorian brick is very pleasing – look for front walls trimmed with stone or terracotta (ceramic) capitals and finials (Hartington Road , Bedford Park , or the corner of Burlington Gardens and Sutton Court Road) which are plentiful in Chiswick. St Michael’s Church in Elmwood Road, with its red-brick buttresses, neat tiled dormers and steeply pitched roof provides a very English image when compared with the Catholic Church in the High Road, also red brick but with fine terracotta decoration in a rather Mediterranean style.
Brick, tiles and terracotta are all forms of firedclay; tiles for floors, fireplaces and walls are a much finer quality fired clay, often glazed and sometimes highly decorated in colours by transfer-printing or embossing with moulded designs. The Tabard Inn (Bath Road) has spectacular tiles by William de Morgan in rich blues, greens and purples and a small number of pictorial tiles to designs by Walter Crane. More conventional tiles, mass-produced by big firms like Mintons and Maws, are to be found in houses all over London, particularly in porches and on front paths.
Chiswick Town Hall’s splendid tiles are all indoors but many more modest buildings, particularly Victorian and Edwardian houses, repay careful scrutiny. (Try not to look too suspicious or the inhabitants will think you are ‘casing the joint’!) Some more substantial ceramic panels known as ‘faience’ can be found, especially on shop fronts and pubs, (the Crown and Anchor pub, with embossed crowns and anchors and the brewery’s own sign in faience, and the Old Packhorse with the Fuller’s Griffin and embossed lettering are both in Chiswick High Road.)
Some faience and terracotta were made to imitate stonework and when this has been painted it can be difficult to distinguish real stone from the imitations. Methods of mass-production introduced during the 19th century made ceramic and cement ‘stone’-work less expensive; labour was cheap and so the production of hand-carved stone capitals for bay windows or door-lintels with housenames and date-stones was widespread. Too many ordinary terraced houses in Chiswick have stone trimmings, either real or artificial, to list here, but several of the houses in St Mary’s Grove are worth an extra look for the faces on the keystones of the porch archways, and one house there has had all its carved leaves picked out in colours (as such carving might have been in a medieval church).
Cement has been used around a tile and rubble core to make a fine balustrade resembling carved stone on the corner of Grove Park Terrace and Grove Park Road, and in a much more restrained fashion to provide an Odeon-style trimming to the doorway at the Unigate Depot in Sutton Lane.
With no natural building stone locally most building would have been timber-framed until brick became fashionable. Most wood visible in local buildings today is less substantial than a medieval timber frame. Some decorative woodwork has a function too – barge-boards on gables are often carved elaborately (modest ones on the dormers of Arlington Park House and amore elaborate one on Anstiss’ Clifton Works in Grove Park Terrace) but they have a purpose, namely to protect the ends of the roof-timbers from the weather. In Elmwood Road are a particularly pretty fretwork trimmings to porches and even Turnham Green Tube Station’s roof canopies are trimmed with zig-zag woodwork. Some original wooden garden fences – white painted railings – can be found in Bedford Park, and Melbourne House in South Parade (one of the 18th century houses one whose lands the Bedford Park estate was built) has a gate with gothic woodwork set with fine iron foliage.
Metalwork is often both decorative and functional and is found in many local buildings. The roof gables of houses in Heathfield Gardens and Barrowgate Road are finished with iron finials and there is splendid curly art nouveau metalwork holding up the glazed canopy over the main doorways at the Town Hall. The railings of the former public toilets opposite the former Police Station in the High Road are well worth a look (they now enclose a shrubbery). Fine cast brass fanlights can be seen on several 18th and early 19th century houses – Lingard House on Chiswick Mall and its neighbour Thames View House, have good examples – while the small group of modernistic 1930s houses with flat roofs in Ellesmere Road (the A4/M4 North Side) have magnificent metal grilles behind glass in their front doors, presumably for security as well as decoration.
Fine 1930s ironwork can be found elsewhere – the name HARTINGTON COURT appears in squared three-dimensional iron lettering above this block of flats, while only a short walk away in Grove Park Road are lacy iron trimmings on Victorian verandahs, a superb iron porch in Grove Park Gardens and a fine first floor balcony on Holly Lodge in Bolton Road.
It would be easy to write many pages listing the more attractive Chiswick buildings – but part of the fun is in spotting details that you have not previously noticed and discovering your own personal favourites. Take the top deck of a bus for a close view of unaltered storeys above modern shop fronts, leave the car and walk, take detours down side streets – besides being a pleasurable way of entertaining yourself, all this attention to detail can help the local historian to relate one set of buildings to another, can encourage the houseowner to provide suitable replacement windows and doors instead of styles which clash with the original and it can give even the casual observer a key to the changing social status of the houses both when they were built and in the world of today.