David explores an article by poet and architectural critic John Betjeman entitled ‘The Seeing Eye – or How to like Everything’.
Do you see as well as look? An odd question, perhaps, but a vital one, especially in these days when eyes are more likely to be glued to the small screen of a mobile device rather than fixed on the surroundings. And even if you do look, what do you see?
In 1939 John Betjeman wrote an article in the Architectural Review called The Seeing Eye. Its provocative subtitle was “or How to like Everything”. Its hero is his friend, the artist John Piper, who found interest in architecture of all periods and styles, noble or humble. As Betjeman wrote, “Mr Piper has turned the neglected styles into something beautiful and peculiar to himself. Instead of despairing of what we have always been told is ugly and meretricious, he has accepted it at face value and brought it to life. He has made us look a second time, without any sense of satire, moral indignation or aesthetic horror”.
When he wrote the piece, Betjeman was just 33, and Piper was 36. Their youthful enthusiasms were for churches of all dates, and for Georgian and Victorian architecture.
In 1939 Georgian buildings were only just beginning to be appreciated; for decades they had been castigated as boring and mechanical. And as for the Victorian buildings that were found in such vast numbers – they were certainly still despised.
Betjeman had a self-imposed mission to change attitudes. He worked for the Architectural Review, which provided a platform for his views. And in the Shell Guides – the first of which was his own Cornwall, which came out in 1934 – his stated aim was to “draw attention within [their] confined limits to the many buildings of the 18th and 19th centuries that have architectural merit”.
That, of course, falls far short of liking Everything. His point, in his Architectural Review piece in 1939, was not that Piper had shown us how to like buildings that have “architectural merit”, but that he had shown everyone that if you look properly at buildings, all of them have interest.
But how many of us do look properly? Betjeman’s article begins by imagining people in a train compartment which is stopped an unaccountably long time at a provincial station, in an Adlestrop-like way. Three of them – a woman who keeps her eyes fixed on a photograph of Bala on the opposite wall of the carriage for fear she’s thought to be flirting with the men; a clergyman who knows only about church architecture; and an architect who does look out of the window but despises what’s there – are dismissed as the unseeing. The fourth – “it may be you or me . . . someone who takes a look at buildings”.
As he admits, this proportion of one perceptive observer in four is “rather high”. These days it would be grossly overstated. Next time you travel by train or by bus, takes note of how many people seem to be taking notice of what they see out of the windows; it is unlikely to be a quarter of them.
Let’s take the 36 bus on a short journey from Ripon bus station only to the far end of Low Skellgate (it’s a route through narrow, historic streets that the bus should not be following, but that’s another battle!).
What might the acute observer, with as open a mind as John Piper’s, notice as he or she travels these few hundred metres? As we depart all is red brick – the wall of the former Currys store with its panels of angled bricks on the left; older, semi-industrial buildings on the right, with a set of outside steps. Ahead is a range of Georgian-fronted buildings (some with older origins) that have a good variety of window styles, and an interesting roofline of both pantiles and slates.
As we turn left into Market Square, more variety ahead, with the tall and narrow building that houses the Chinese restaurant and the more grandiose town hall sandwiching the level roofline of the NatWest bank. To our left, notice the varied facades of Market Place East – bay windows, render, modern and Georgian brick, painted fronts and the attractive mock-Tudor beams of Appleton’s shop – a style that’s also copied in an almost Bavarian way across the square on the building that houses Superdrug.
Left again into Kirkgate, past the Palladianism of the Skipton Building Society; the upper storey of Simply Beds has interesting 20s-style glazing, and opposite, on the left, is the nightclub, formerly the Palladium cinema, with its 30s Art Deco front – though may we have the Toblerone-shaped sign back to replace the drainpipe, please? After a precipitous descent of Duck Hill another 30s building, the derelict former library, is ahead. Then, as we turn right along Water Skellgate, we see the Dutch gable of the former Employment Exchange.
Just beyond is an attractive pair of houses with banded brick and chevron decoration over the doors. Then the bright red brick of the Ripon City Club, in a Mannerist style, is followed by the restrained front of the former Opera House, now Sigma Antiques. Opposite is the Masonic Hall, on the corner of High Skellgate. It has an attractive doorway, but would benefit from a rethink about how it presents itself.
Into Low Skellgate – plenty of attractive frontages along here – you’ll see them better on the way back as the bus queues for the lights. And let’s alight just over the bridge, noticing the handsome 1925 Williamson’s building as we press the bell.
There is plenty more to admire and think about, of course, and the more you look the more you will see. So raise your head from your phone or your tablet – or even your book, magazine or newspaper – and really look at what’s outside the window as you journey; you may be surprised at what you see!