Ian Nairn was a passionate and popular architectural critic from the ‘50s to the ‘70s. He championed urban oddness, quirkiness and surprise against the town-planning blandness which he dubbed ‘subtopia’. He died from alcoholism in his early 50s.
His 1966 book Nairn’s London is now regarded as a classic. Maybe it’s time to revisit some of the places he cared about in South London, and see what’s become of them in the intervening 50 years.
Deptford Town Hall
When Ian Nairn came to Deptford in the 1960s, he waxed lyrical over its town hall: “the jolliest public building in London … infectious topsy-turvy composition“. Pevsner liked it too, describing it as “one of the most florid of Edwardian public buildings”.
It no longer functions as the Town Hall – it now belongs to Goldsmiths College – but is still worth a visit. The basic form of the building is nothing special, a neo-classical box and pediment. But the completely inappropriate clock tower sticking out at the top hints at a spirit of cheerful excess which is best seen in the carved ornamentation.
I especially like these two figures above the entrance, straining to support the balcony above.
These are ‘male caryatids’. A caryatid is, strictly speaking, a draped female stone figure acting as a column or pillar – as at St. Pancras Church on Euston Road. These Deptford figures are emphatically masculine, and would probably object to being called anything as girly as a caryatid, but they’re doing (roughly) the same job, and there isn’t an equivalent male name for it, so caryatid it is. Mind you, their upper-body human masculinity is somewhat compromised by their birds’ wings, and their fishy nether regions.
The caryatids’ fishiness is part of a broader sea-going, naval theme. On the first floor, in niches between the windows, we find statues of famous admirals, including of course England’s darling, Nelson himself.
And above them, below the pediment, is a man-o’-war in full sail. All of which is entirely appropriate, given that Deptford Dockyard was a crucial centre of shipbuilding from the sixteenth century to the nineteenth.
And yet these references to the river and the Dockyard are a bit awkward, because Deptford Town Hall is nowhere near the river. In fact it isn’t really in Deptford, it’s in New Cross. But there again, perhaps this is just one more of those cheerful incongruities which Nairn found so jolly.
St. Paul’s Church, Deptford Church Street
The majority opinion on St. Paul’s Church is that it’s a triumph: “one of the major architectural thrills of London” (Blatch); “the finest church in London south of the river” (Leonard); “one of the most moving churches in London” (Pevsner).
Enter Ian Nairn, party-pooper: “forceful enough … but nothing behind it … rhetoric where there should be poetry … towering but empty … one of London’s least accommodating places”.
St. Paul was a product of the Commission for Building Fifty New Churches, established by Act of Parliament in the early eighteenth century in response to London’s ballooning population. The Commission didn’t get anywhere near its target of fifty churches, but it did put up quite a few, most of them designed by Nicholas Hawksmoor. The architect at St. Paul, however, was Thomas Archer, a member of the Commission, who also built St. John’s Smith Square, and Birmingham Cathedral.
According to Pevsner, Archer’s great achievement at St. Paul was his solution to “the eternal English west tower and west portico problem”. That is to say: the problem of how to reconcile the centuries-old English tradition of a tower at a church’s west end, with the classical tradition of a grand porch at the west end incorporating a row of columns, roof and (usually) pediment.
The most notorious failure to solve this problem is James Gibbs’s St. Martin-in-the-Fields, which Pevsner describes – generously I think – as “illogical and aesthetically painful”. Let’s speak plainly: St. Martin is stupid and ugly. It fails to get the tower and portico to work together, and it fails even more blatantly to get the two of them to work with the rest of the building. Tower and portico are simply bolted onto the west end of an otherwise elegant basilica in such a way as to throw the whole composition off balance, as if threatening to tip it over into Trafalgar Square. If you don’t believe me, go and have a look.
Archer avoided repeating Gibbs’s failure through two complementary moves. Where St. Martin is all straight lines and angles, he embraced curvature; and where Gibbs conceived tower and portico as separate items and then rammed them together, Archer approached tower-plus-portico as a single rounded conception, balanced by a rounded apse at the church’s east end. The result is a semi-circular porch and round tower with its own clear centre of gravity, opening into a square interior which is also balanced and centred.
I’m no great enthusiast for the classical, and even less for the baroque, which tends to strike my puritan soul as simply silly. But St. Paul’s Church at Deptford is very fine. On this occasion, Nairn got it wrong.
St. Nicholas Church, Deptford Green
St. Nicholas on Deptford Green is the original parish church. However, despite its medieval foundation, the only remaining medieval fabric at St. Nicholas is the lower part of the tower.
The body of the church was re-built in red brick in 1697, only about twenty years before St. Paul went up. 250 years later it was all but destroyed in the Blitz. The church which we see today is an amalgam of the medieval tower, surviving seventeenth century fabric at the west end, and (shown here) a thoughtful post-war reconstruction at the east end.
However, what caught Nairn’s attention back in the ‘60s was the accident of place which produced a bizarre encounter between early modern macabre and grim industrial modernity. On arrival, he was much taken by the stone skulls on the church-yard gates: “the sharpest memento mori in London”.
But beyond them, hard up against the church-yard and looming over it, he found to his delight “a whopping power station”. Nairn loved the sheer unlikelihood of the whole thing, and clearly took great delight in relegating poor old St. Nicholas Church to “the filling in this surrealist sandwich”.
But the power station is no more. And it wasn’t just any old power station: it was Deptford East Power Station, on the site of the world’s first-ever station generating at high tension for long-distance transmission. Built from 1887 and operating from 1889, this original station generated power for the West End – which may not seem ‘long-distance’ to us, but was back then. There’s a class angle to this of course: the affluent residents of Mayfair and St James’s got their clean modern electricity, while the working class residents of Deptford lived with the coal and dirt and smog involved in producing it. The station grew steadily over the decades, until in the 1960s Nairn found it casting its giant shadow over St. Nicholas. The CEGB (remember them?) closed it down in 1983, just short of its centenary.
With the power station gone we can no longer share Nairn’s surreal encounter. The church survives, with its church-yard, charnel house, and endlessly grinning skulls. But where once a mighty power station stood, now we find a quiet little housing estate.