Happy New Year! January is that curious month when, perhaps, we haven’t quite shaken off the old year nor become fully attuned to the new.
In fact, we look both ways – appropriately, as the month is probably named after the Roman deity Janus, god of beginnings and endings, of time and transitions, of gates, doorways and passages (though some scholars link the month not to Janus but to the goddess Juno).
If we stick with the more usual link to Janus, his penchant for looking both back and forward was usually depicted with him as having two faces, gazing in opposite directions. Being two-faced is, of course, a term for deception – and people who are two-faced are not to be trusted.
There’s an interesting reminder of two-faced insolence in the grounds of Ribston Hall not far from Knaresborough.
Over a Gothic gateway is a carving of a head, known as ‘The Two-Faced Butler’.
One of its two faces bears a look of respect; on the other side, it has its tongue sticking out in a most insolent manner. It is said that it was put up sometime in the 19th century after the butler of the day was found, having listened politely to instructions from his mistress, putting his tongue out at her when she turned her back. Perhaps the head was a warning to others not to do the same.
But what of buildings that are two-faced – two-faced not in the sense that they are there to deceive but because they have, literally, two faces, two separate aspects that present themselves to viewers?
Many country houses have two facades – usually designated as the entrance front and the garden front – that often allowed architects to express themselves in different ways.
At Castle Howard, for example, the entrance front, with its wide-spreading wings, is impressive but somewhat severe, with its tall attached Tuscan columns (and subsidiary Ionic columns), and the deeply incised lines of its masonry – the rustication. This is how the architect, Vanbrugh, expressed the grandeur of his client, the Earl of Carlisle.
Round on the garden front, however, Castle Howard displays a different face – the columns are the more festive Corinthian pattern, the rustication is reserved for the basement storey, and there is plenty of carving and ornamentation to please the eye of the honoured guests who were invited to stroll in the Earl’s gardens.
Sometimes, such differentiation between the two sides of a house can be taken to extremes.
At Wentworth Woodhouse, near Rotherham, there are two complete country houses back to back with each other; one is a Baroque house, 130 feet wide, built of brick with stone trimmings – not quite as elaborate as Castle Howard’s garden front, but with something of the same feel about it.
The other front is quite different – though construction began even before the Baroque side was finished.
This east front of Wentworth Woodhouse in a much simpler – one might say severe – Palladian style, and it’s much longer – 606 feet, in fact. These two facades show not so much a desire for variety but more a sudden change in architectural style, probably spurred on as much by political upheaval – the Whigs ousting the Tories as a dominant force – as by taste in design.
One of the most famous of two-faced country houses is Castle Ward on the shore of Strangford Lough in Northern Ireland. Here, Lord and Lady Bangor seem to have been the Jack Sprat and Mrs Sprat of architectural taste.
He favoured the Palladian style, so when you arrive at the entrance front of Castle Ward you are met with a correct classical façade, with rusticated lower floor and attached Ionic columns – not unlike the design of Ripon Town Hall, though all in stone.
Go round to the garden side, however, and Lady Bangor’s taste dominates; using the same basic layout, of seven windows across each of its three storeys, she has presented us with something completely different – a Gothic facade of pointed-arch windows, battlements and pinnacles.
Of course, if your two facades are separated by some distance, it’s easy to have different designs for each part – think of those 19th Century railway tunnels that have, say, a castle at one end and, hundreds (or thousands) of yards further on, a classical portico. Something similar occurs in the garden at Biddulph Grange in Staffordshire, where you enter what appears to be a timber-built Cheshire cottage, make your way down a dark, dog-legged passage, and emerge in an Egyptian temple made mostly out of yew hedging.
And now, in Ripon, we have a chance to take up the challenge of having two faces.
In August 2008 this column drew attention to the views from the area in front of the then-emerging Booth’s supermarket towards the buildings at the rear of Fishergate; it was described ‘one of Ripon’s most unattractive views... If visitors are as likely to approach [the city centre] from the back as from the front, stores need to make that way in as attractive as possible; it makes good commercial sense to do so. At present they are putting them off.’
Now there are plans to redevelop a large area known as Ireland Court, just to the north of Wren’s store, where there is a jumble of buildings. There would be both retail and residential elements.
Ripon Civic Society agrees that this is a good place for such development, and it would offer a much more attractive facade to visitors and locals using the Booth’s car park. So far, it is welcome.
But the Society has doubts about the plans as they are presented – not least the loss of old, probably reusable buildings, and the proposed felling of trees. So, while an extra face for the city is welcome, we need a smiling butler, not a visage that jeers at us. It is a subject to which this column will return.