30 October 2016

Grave matters: Stone birds

I learnt a new word recently, the Welsh word ‘mynwenta’, which translates roughly as ‘graveyarding’. It’s something I seem to spend a lot of my time doing, exploring my local cemetery, for the history and stories of its deceased, for the art and architecture of its monuments, for the wealth of its wildlife and the flourish of its flora.

Today’s post looks at birds in the cemetery – not the birds that fly overhead, perch on the crosses, hunt for worms in the grass or build nests in the trees but rather the birds that adorn the headstones and grave monuments – the stone birds.

Though some of these birds appear on headstones purely for their aesthetic value, chances are they also have a symbolic meaning as the Victorians were more than a little obsessed with symbolism. 

Birds that are depicted with outstretched wings, as if in flight, may represent souls, winging their way to heaven. Flying birds have also been interpreted as the messengers of God.

The most common bird found on grave monuments in Victorian cemeteries is the dove, that universal symbol of peace, in this case the everlasting peace of death. For Christians it is a biblical reference to Genesis 8:8 and the dove that was sent out from the ark by Noah to find land after the flood. Though it returned empty beaked the first time, it returned the second time with an olive leaf to show that trees had appeared above the flood waters as they receded, and many of the headstone doves are depicted with leaves in their beaks.

Though I found no examples in my local cemetery, other birds can be found on headstones and each has its own meaning. The eagle symbolises a career in the military and stands for courage and bravery; the owl has long been associated with wisdom so can appear on the headstones of scholars and those known for their wisdom and studious character; and the rooster, in Christianity, symbolises the Resurrection (hence the roosters commonly seen on the weathervanes of churches).

One rather intriguing headstone I found has a lovely carved relief of a swan, with outstretched wings, feeding one of two cygnets at its feet. The symbol appears in the centre of a Celtic cross and I have read in Celtic myth that ‘when inhabitants of the Otherworld required passage to the physical land of life ... they would take the shape of the swan’. 

However, this grave is amongst those in the Catholic section of the cemetery and very closely aligned with those of local bishops and priests so perhaps here the swan is more symbolic of a priest ministering to his flock. 

It may also be a reference to the ‘Seven swans a-swimming’ from the ‘Twelve Days of Christmas’ song, which I only recently learnt was, in fact, a rhyme created as a catechism for Catholics unable to practise their faith openly in Britain between 1558 and 1829. The swans in the song apparently represented the sevenfold gifts of the Holy Spirit: prophecy, serving, teaching, exhortation, contribution, leadership, and mercy.  

I also came across a rather delightful headstone inscription referring to our feathered friends: ‘May the birds sing their song on high in your loving praises.’ I rather like the idea of a chorus of birds singing when someone dies, a final serenade to the deceased – much more appealing that some of the songs people choose to play at funerals. 

23 October 2016

Cardiff’s historic drinking fountains

Given the number of blogs I post about pubs and their signs, you might be forgiven for thinking I’m a bit of a lush but you would be wrong. And just to prove I do sometimes think about other types of liquid than those containing alcohol, today’s post is about water, or, rather, the places where Cardiffians used to be able to drink good quality, free water in public.

Nowadays, drinking or water fountains are typically bland circular stainless-steel creations that resemble shiny bird baths and have taps that either squirt you in the face due to their excessive water pressure or have so little pressure that you almost have to suck the water from the tap, something no hygiene-mindful person would want to do. But, in Victorian times, drinking fountains, though performing the necessary public service of providing clean drinking water to an ever-increasing and thirsty population, were often quite grand and artistic creations.

The earliest drinking fountain I’ve located in Cardiff was not quite so grand, though it was certainly built to last. It dates from 1860, the very early days of the drinking fountain movement in Britain (the first fountain in London was erected in April 1859, in the wall of St Sepulchre’s churchyard in Snow Hill, according to The Welshman newspaper, 1 April 1859). Cardiff’s fountain was originally built into a wall of the Town Hall in St Mary’s Street but was moved when that building was demolished. It now sits in the wall of a bridge over part of the old Glamorgan Canal, and I doubt many of the passers-by even notice it.

The inscription at the top reads: ‘Jesus said unto her, whosoever drinketh of this water shall thirst again; but whosoever drinketh of the water that I shall give him, shall never thirst. John IV.19.14’, and the lower inscription acknowledges that the fountain was donated to the city by William Alexander, Mayor of Cardiff in 1859-60.

The next drinking fountain wins the prize for the most colourful and extravagant decoration. It sits in a wonderful old building that was originally the Free Library but is currently home to the Cardiff Story museum, amongst other things. 

The fountain is ceramic, made by Burmantoffs Pottery in Leeds, in green, brown and buff-coloured faience, with wonderful low-relief female figures flanking the water spout itself. 

The entire corridor in which it’s located is lined with majolica, with printed and painted tiles depicting the time of day and the seasons, the barrel-vaulted ceiling is clad in faience, and the floor is covered with patent mosaic tiles. The whole is a model of flamboyance!

From the ostentatious to the practical; the stone fountain in Llandaff Fields is another that was built to last, and it has certainly outlasted the old tree that was growing behind it when it was first built. The Evening Express of 8 May 1901 reported on its beginnings:

By the generosity of Mr. and Mrs. H. M. Thompson, of Llandaff, there was on Monday fixed beneath the old elm tree in Llandaff Fields a substantially-built ornamental fountain, which will, doubtless, be regarded as a boon by the frequenters of this resort. It is of red Forest stone, of simple, yet effective, design, and is the work of Mr. Clarke, sculptor, &c. of Llandaff. The water has been laid on, and the fountain is now ready for use.

These days the fountain looks rather forlorn, an abandoned relic of another time, and seems often to be in danger of being knocked over by the over-zealous drivers of the lawn-mowing machinery.

The final two drinking fountains date from the early 1900s, the one in Victoria Park from 1908 and the other, in Grange Park, from 1909. There were others in this same design scattered about Cardiff but they have long since disappeared. The fountains were designed by Macfarlanes of Glasgow and made by the Saracen Foundry in Possilpark, Glasgow, a company then considered the most prolific architectural iron foundry in the world. Similar fountain canopies can be seen around Britain (there is one on display in the Grand Hall of the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh).

The Cardiff drinking fountains were gifted to the city by the family of Mr Moses Samuel, a well known local watchmaker and jeweller, who passed away in June 1894, in his memory and in memory of other members of the Samuel family.

On 7 August 1908, the Evening Express reported on the unveiling of the Victoria Park Fountain:

Councillor John Chappell, J.P., and the members of the parks committee were present at Victoria. Park, Canton, Cardiff, on Thursday evening, for the purpose of dedicating to the use of the public a drinking fountain, presented to the city by Mr. Isaac Samuel, J.P. There were also present Miss Lena Samuel, Mr. Gertrude Samuel (London), Mr. Percy Samuel, Mr. Isaac Samuel, Mr. M. Lewis, president of the Hebrew congregation; Mr. L. Joseph, and other friends of the family. Mr. Chappell formally accepted the fountain on behalf of the citizens, and spoke very highly of the qualities possessed by the late Mr. Samuel. Mr. Isaac Samuel, in replying, said that he and his brothers were only too pleased to establish a connecting link between their father and the city of Cardiff. The ceremony, which was witnessed by a huge crowd, concluded with votes of thanks to the donor and chairman.

The following month, on 19 September 1908, the Cardiff Times reported the unveiling of a fountain in The Hayes, in central Cardiff, and noted that

Drinking fountains had already been erected in Roath Park to the memory of Mr and Mrs Samuel, parents of the present donors; in Victoria Park, to the memory of Mr Lewin Samuel, and in North-road, to Mr Louis Samuel, and it is intended to erect two more, one in Splott Park and the other in Roath recreation ground, to commemorate the late Mr Arthur Samuel and Mrs Joseph.

I found no mention of the drinking fountain in Grange Park so it’s possible it is one of the ones mentioned above and was later relocated to its present position, where it makes a handsome addition to the structures in the park, in particular the grand old band rotunda.

18 October 2016

Cardiff: pubs and their signs 2

Fancy a drink? How about a pub crawl? Just to check out the signs and their buildings, of course. No imbibing!

Poet’s Corner, Roath
It was brought home to me recently how behind I am with my posts on this blog when I discovered that this pub, the Poet’s Corner in City Road, Roath, has closed down since I took these photographs back in September last year. Built in the late 1800s and known by a series of names, including The Ruperra Arms, PC’s Food and Drink Factory and Tut’n’Shive – who thinks up these names? – last orders were called for the final time in December 2015. Word at the bar is that old pubs like this are being targeted by property developers keen to grab a prime piece of inner city real estate, knock down the heritage buildings, and build cheap and soul-less concrete blocks in their places, though it also seems there are just too many pubs and not enough punters these days – or maybe that should be too many pubs and not enough poets!

Pen and Wig, Cathays
In contrast to the Poet’s Corner, the Pen and Wig, no more than a mile away, seems to be thriving. I’m sure it benefits from being closer to the city centre, very close to City Hall, the National Museum, Cardiff University and the Crown Court, and, as you might guess from its name, the area is awash with legal professionals. This pub also boasts a large rear garden area and a reputation for good food, including Sunday roasts, a combination sure to bring in the customers. 

The building was previously occupied by an ophthalmologist and only converted to a public house in 1994. The pub sign may be modern but is stylish and has a traditional feel.

Robin Hood, Canton
As far as I’m aware there is no actual association between this pub and the legendary Nottinghamshire outlaw and, in fact, there are pubs throughout Britain called ‘Robin Hood’ for no other reason than the fact that the owner liked the name. Apparently, this particular Robin Hood was built as recently as 1901 and its main claim to fame is that it used to be owned by Charlotte Church’s parents – this is where the Welsh singer-songwriter-actress-television presenter began her career in singing. With such a handsome Robin hanging outside to inspire her, I'm a little surprised she didn't adopt the stage name Maid Marian!

The pub sits in a nice tree-lined suburban street and I imagine it’s rather pleasant sitting outside sipping on a cold one on a hot summer’s day. (For the dubious, yes, we do actually have hot summer’s days in Cardiff!) 

The Heath, Cathays
I pass the Heath often, as it occupies a corner adjacent to Cathays Cemetery and is on one of my regular walking routes to Bute Park and the River Taff, yet I’ve never crossed its doorstep. It’s known as a working man’s pub, though I imagine it also attracts its fair share of the medical students and staff from Heath Hospital, just down the road. 

The Heath was built in 1899 but has been altered and extended since its original construction, though I understand it still retains some traces of its original interior decoration, with plaster reliefs of national symbols and a coat of arms high up on the walls. 

I particularly like the Heath’s pub sign, which has a rather eerie look with its solitary caped woman and sinister black bird.

02 October 2016

Cardiff art: A celebration of mining

Wales and coal mining go together like bread and butter. In fact, coal mining was the bread and butter of many Welsh men for many a year, and none more so than in the Valleys north of Cardiff. From valleys and men stained black with its soot and dust, the black gold of coal flowed down the innumerable railway lines to the port of Cardiff and thence by ship to power industries in Britain and around the world.

It’s no surprise, then, to find that many of Cardiff’s public artworks pay tribute to the industry that put Cardiff on the world map and to the 250,000 men who slaved and sometimes died underground to extract the coal that powered that industry. Over time, though, the styles of the artworks have changed rather dramatically.

This first grouping sits outside the Edwardian-era Glamorgan Building, formerly Cardiff’s County Hall but now home to the Schools of Social Sciences, Planning and Geography within Cardiff University. Two groups of statues sit adjacent to the building’s main entrance, one group representing navigation and the other, shown here, coal mining. The statues were sculpted between 1908 and 1912 by Albert Hemstock Hodge (1875-1917), a Scottish artist who specialised in architectural sculptures like these, and were originally intended to go on the roof of the building. Maybe the Portland stone proved too heavy for that lofty perch!

Hodge’s style is reminiscent of Classical Greek sculpture though, to my eye, his work shows none of the grace and elegance of the Greeks. The work is allegorical: from the helmet she wears and the shield on her right arm, one of the two seated female figures can be identified as Minerva, Roman goddess of trade and industry. She appears to be receiving a gift of a basket of coal from the front male figure. To see the real miners in this group, though, you need to climb the entrance stairs and take a look at the back of the statue. Here, one man is straining to push a tram full of coal, while another uses his pick to help pull the heavy load.

Though rugged and well-muscled workers, these two don’t resemble any Welsh men I’ve ever seen! But then neither does the collier in this more recent artwork. 

As one critic commented ‘The statue looks more like a pumped-up male model than a raw-boned Welsh miner’.

Titled ‘From Pit to Port’, this bronze and wrought iron work was designed and partly constructed by John Clinch (1934-2001) but completed by Jon Buck after Clinch died. 

Unveiled in 2005, it stands alongside Roath Dock in Cardiff Bay, celebrating the connection between mining and the port from where the coal was shipped far and wide.