Pevsner Architectural Guides: Bristol By Andrew Foyle (ISBN 978-0-300-10442-4)
Wikipedia - en.wikipedia.org
The buildings’ respective listings at www.historicengland.org.uk
Carriage Works - “Community Works” and NHS march street art - Supplied by / used with permission of People’s Republic of Stokes Croft
If I got something wrong, you can make a pull request on github.
Please note the transcript should reflect what I say in the video, even if that turns out to be wrong. So if the transcript is not what I say, pen a PR to fix it, but if my narration was wrong in the first place, open a PR to add an erratum in this section of the page instead.
Hello and welcome to my first attempt at making a sort of documentary. In this video I’ll be looking at the architectural style of Bristol Byzantine.
The Bristol part is simple enough. This is a style which developed here, in the English city of Bristol, and as far as I know remained limited to Bristol, although this is perhaps a bit of a circular argument, by definition.
The Byzantine part is less straightforward. Even the issue of how to say it is difficult. The internet tells me that British people say bye zan tyne, and Americans say Bizz un teen, but there’s also the potential for Bye zun teen or Biz an tyne, and whichever way I choose is sure to annoy a large proportion of listeners who will think I’m wrong. Byzantine rolls of the tongue better for me though, because of the assonance with Bristol, so that’s what I’ll roll with.
As for what it means - on paper, it’s a subgenre of Byzantine revival architecture, named after Byzantine architecture, named after the Byzantine empire, named after Byzantium, aka Constantinople, aka Istanbul. Ergo, you might think, Bristol Byzantine basically means 19th century Bristolians attempts at looking kind of old-school Turkish, right?
However, if you look at some of these examples and fail to detect much Turkish or eastern orthodox flavour, instead seeing echoes of Moorish architecture much more akin to something you’d find in Spain - well, you’re not alone. Byzantine, it seems, is a term used rather liberally here… it almost feels like a catch-all term for anything vaguely “exotic” or Medditerranean.
Anyway, in this video I will attempt to investigate some of these influences, and explore the context which saw this rather improbable style emerge in this one particular city and time.
Today, the floating harbour is largely focused around residential and leisure uses, and the usual easy explanation is that the advent of containerised shipping rendered these docks almost entirely obsolete. Modern megaships can’t weave their way up the Avon gorge, and through these locks, to come into the city, so a new container port was built out at Avonmouth and the working port regenerated into the ‘mixed-use’ vibe it has today.
But in truth, Bristol docks’ problems started far, far before containerisation. For most of the medieval period it was the second biggest port in the country, after London, and even as late as the 18th century it was the third biggest English city in terms of tax receipts. This status had created a lot of wealth, much of which went into building a fine Georgian cityscape, like Clifton up here.
It should always be noted that much of this wealth came from the ‘triangular trade’ - or less euphemistically, the Atlantic slave trade. Ships would sail from Bristol to west Africa, load up on slaves, cross the Atlantic, exchange the slaves for slave-labour-produced commodities such as sugar, and return home. Altogether, around 2,000 Bristol slave ships carried an estimated 500,000 people from Africa to slavery in the Americas, which from today’s perspective is obviously abhorrent.
But at the time, the Slave Trade Act of 1807 and Slavery Abolition Act of 1833 would have appeared to many Bristolian merchants as a problem, not as any cause for celebration. or step in the right direction. Furthermore, the industrial revolution had fueled the enormous growth of Liverpool, a rival west-coast port with bigger, newer facilities, and located in much more convenient proximity to the mills and factories responsible for bulk of the industrial era’s imports and exports.
So by the early 1800s the port of Bristol needed to reinvent itself to keep up, in a very literal and drastic sense. The Floating Harbour itself was something of a desperate, and ultimately failed, attempt to do so.
The project fully deserves its own video, but to cut a long story short, they built these huge locks to keep the harbour full of water at all times, even allowing for the enormous tidal range of the Avon (9 metres), and dug a bypass channel called the New Cut to replace the tidal flow of the river.
This engineering megaproject cost the equivalent of roughly 50 million pounds in today’s money, so having gone to all that trouble, they were obviously going to spruce up the harbourside facilities while they were at it, right? And if there’s one thing the Victorians were famous for, it’s zealously constructing ambitious new buildings and infrastructure to keep pace with their freshly industrialised, rapidly urbanising world.
Which is where we meet Bristol Byzantine. Because unlike most highly ornate, decorative examples of Victorian architecture, including well known landmarks like St Pancras, or even the Houses of Parliament, this is not a style which was primarily unleashed for grand public buildings, town halls, churches and the like. Rather, it was most used in industrial buildings - warehouses and factories.
Now, it might seem surprising that people would lavish this degree of intricacy on warehouses, because you might imagine that even back then, those would have been built with a rather more functionalist, value-orientated mindset. But it’s not like one day they just set out building things as extravagant decorated as this Granary out of nowhere. It evolved gradually over a period of many decades.
One of the earliest examples cited as Bristol Byzantine is Bush House, now known as the Arnolfini art gallery. It is usually dated to the 1830s and described as a ‘tea warehouse’, although if you dig into the records it turns out to have stored a far more diverse array of things than just tea. Anyway, as you can see, it is considerably more plain than the Granary, and in fact I didn’t even mentally group it under the same architectural umbrella as the more strikingly polychromatic brick examples until I started researching this stuff online. To my untrained eye, it seemed like a completely different style, but in fact you can trace a lineage.
It was built by an architect called Richard Shackleton Pope, and it’s worth comparing it to a building he had recently completed in 1830, the Wool Hall, which is now a pub and live music venue called the Fleece. As the name suggests, this was literally a hall for trading and processing wool. The countryside around Bristol is very much sheep territory - here are some I met near Dundry, barely a mile south of the city - so this was an important part of the economy in medieval times, with sheep being driven right into the city centre to go to market. But after the sheer volume of sheep began to clog up Bristol Bridge, Pope was commissioned to build this new venue on St Thomas Street in Redcliffe
This isn’t a Byzantine building, but it’s an important ancestor in the evolution, inasmuch as one architecture writer described it as “the first quasi-industrial building in Bristol to attempt a real architectural facade”. The style attempted, according to the Heritage England listing, is “classical”.
And sure, you can see a sort of attempt at a triangular pediment up there. You’ve got semicircular arches on those windows, which is Romanesque, and it’s all very symmetrical. So, yeah, you can see classical aspects here but personally, when I look at it, it doesn’t really scream ‘classical’ to me, and I think the reason for this is the materials.
Now it may be very inaccurate of me, historically speaking, but I tend to associate “classical”, or perhaps I should say neoclassical or Palladian architecture - with smooth white marble or Portland stone perhaps. Whereas the stonework on this building is so rugged, it really gives it a vernacular flavour to my eyes. This is obviously most apparent on the rubble floors - but even the relatively finely worked masonry on the ground floor has a somewhat chunky, unfinessed quality about it.
The rubble is a stone called Pennant stone, which is quarried quite locally, and the style in which it is used is also quite local to my eyes - it reminds me of the kind of rubble cottages you get in the local countryside - here’s Pensford, for example, a few miles south of Bristol. And I think this serves to make this building feel very local. And given that Bristol and Somerset is clearly not Rome or Athens, that in turns makes it feel inherently less purely classical to me. So while there isn’t anything here yet to mark this out as particularly Byzantine, there is at least the roots of a distinctly Bristol-born style emerging here.
Coming back to Bush House, completed just a few years later, we can see Pope reusing much of the same material palette and stylistic devices, this time with a bit more finesse. Once again, we’ve got a ground floor with a different finish to all the upper stories. We’ve got this rubble-hewn Pennant stone. We’ve got semi-circular arches up there. But it does have a slightly different vibe to the Wool Hall. I’d be hard pushed to call this one particularly Eastern looking, either, but we should remember the Byzantine empire would initially have simply considered themselves the Roman empire: as such, early Byzantine architecture is essentially indistinguishable from Roman architecture. So if this looks kinda classical, I guess it’s not strictly incorrect to say it’s kinda Byzantine too, even if there’s nothing outstandingly Eastern about it.
One feature that is worth drawing attention to is these horizontal bands of lighter, smoother stone. This is Bath stone, a type of limestone so named because it was famously used to create almost the entire city of Bath, which is about 11 miles southwest of Bristol. So obviously it is another very local stone, and it’s also a very beautiful stone, so it’s fascinating to me that it actually doesn’t dominate Bristol’s architectural materiality in the same way that it dominates Bath. There are certainly a lot of lovely Bath stone buildings here, particularly up in areas like Clifton, but, I never really feel like it is the default texture of the city. Bristol uses it as the icing on the cake, not as the cake.
And that’s reflected in this building, where the Bath stone is only used for the detailing, and a more rugged, presumably cheaper sandstone is used for the rest of the building.
The architectural Pevsner guide gushes over this building’s “stately proportions, its scale and the almost Grecian purity of the detailing [...] Its dignified bearing transcends its industrial origins”. Far be it for me to argue with people who actually know what they’re talking about, but while I agree it has nice scale and proportions, I’m not actually the biggest fan of this one. Partly this is due to the dubious modern roofline, but even looking at the original features, I find the mix of semi-circular arched and rectangular windows to be unsatisfying, and the uppermost floor looks almost comically squished.
On the other hand, I do like the subtle recesses used to group these windows, introducing a verticality to offset the horizontal bands of limestone. We’ll see more of this type of thing in future buildings.
By the way, if the modern renovations of this building distress you, you might want to stop watching this video now, because basically zero Bristol Byzantine buildings have made it to the present day unscathed. This is not really surprising, considering they were mostly built as warehouses, and as we have already seen, the Floating Harbour is no longer a working cargo port, they were always going to be repurposed… at best. The luckier buildings have been converted to offices or apartments in a way which leaves their exteriors intact. Others have been somewhat mutilated, if that’s not too dramatic a word, by inappropriate interventions and facadism. Still others are near-derelict, and many more have been demolished altogether.
And, fast forwarding a couple of decades from Bush House to the 1850s and the General Hospital, we duly find another one which has undergone its fair share of extensions, alterations and transformations over the years, although in this case they have thankfully been quite sympathetic ones. The original building was designed by William Bruce Gingell, a possibly-Scottish born but definitely Bristol-based architect whose name will reappear repeatedly in this video.
You’ll see we have the same formula of rubble with Bath stone trimmings, but the amount of flair has inched up ever so slightly. It’s a darker, bluer Pennant stone providing a more defined, high contrast bicolour effect, something which would become key to the Bristol Byzantine style.
Semi-circular arches are present and correct, in particularly charming form, but with the tower of the building, Gingell began to push the stylistic envelope.
Unfortunately, this dome you see today is a reconstruction, the original having been destroyed by bombing in WW2, but even back in the 1850s this tower was topped by a distinctive ogee dome. Ogee, I discovered during my research, is a term meaning a double curve or S-shaped curve, and these immediately start to introduce slightly more ‘exotic’ touches to our previously somewhat austere Romanesque flavour.
The General is still a long way from the degree of ornamentation to come in later Bristol Byzantine. But over in the city centre Gingell was already illustrating how decorative and twiddly he could get. His 1854 build for Lloyd’s Bank, in conjunction with another Bristol architect by the name of TR Lysaght, is almost overwhelmingly decorated with sculpture and architectural detail.
This was supposedly modelled on St Mark’s library in Venice, and the influence of Venetian architecture would be an important ingredient in the Bristol Byzantine mix, adding a sort of second-hand exoticism given the Adriatic city-state’s ties across the eastern Meditteranean. But this particular example seems to come down much more on the Italianate side of things; it’s very Western to my eyes.
As we enter the 1860s though, we get a clearer dose of ‘exotic’ flavour. Edward William Godwin’s 1862 Carriage Works takes the bicolour effect we’ve seen previously and combines it with the semicircular arches we’ve also seen previously in a very specific way. The arches are strung together into a continuous arcade, and each arch very specifically alternates between the Pennant and Bath stones, resulting in a distinctive pattern.
Although this pattern can be found on Byzantine buildings, to me it prompted a rather different association: La Mezquita, or the great Mosque-Cathedral of Cordoba. Admittedly, this specific comparison is probably not one an academic architectural historian would jump to; I probably did so simply because it’s the only significant Moorish building I’ve been to, and also one of my favourite buildings that I’ve ever been to. Still, you can see why I’d associate this style of arch more strongly with Moorish architecture than anything else, right?
Which rather puzzled me, because Cordoba is in modern day Andalusia, Spain, which in the 8th century, when this was built, was very much not a part of the Byzantine Empire. So I spent the first period of my research worrying what to do about the fact that many of these so-called Bristol Byzantine buildings didn’t look particularly Byzantine, or even particularly like each other.
After all, the term had been invented by John Summerson, who Wikipedia describes as one of the leading architectural historians of the 20th century, so as an uneducated nobody I could hardly disagree with it. I was therefore somewhat relieved when my Pevsner guide turned up, and found that it complains that the category is ‘ill-defined’ and the nomenclature is ‘vexing, for there are various models for the buildings, none of them especially Byzantine’. Phew, not just me, then!
Anyway, back to the Carriage works, which unfortunately are now naught but this facade. The battle for what to do with the decaying building was a long and complex one involving the usual suspects of the planning authorities, property developers, local residents, general public, campaign groups… and I could not begin to cover it in this video. Suffice to say that behind all this scaffolding we have some apartments going up which will have the Carriage Works facade as a kind of deathmask.
Moorish-flavoured arches seemed to quickly become fashionable - in 1863 we see “possibly” TR Lysaght using the same sort of style in this Clarks Wood company warehouse, and in 1865 we see his Lloyd’s bank collaborator WB Gingell getting in on the alternating-colour action, albeit rather weakly, with this brewery building. (And, for those of you keeping track of these things - yep, this is another one that’s been kind of violated...)
But anyway, just round the corner - or, today, ducking through this underpass under this lamentablely divisive urban nearly-motorway - in the same year, Gingell was starting to take things to another level with this warehouse for the Christopher Thomas and Brothers soap company. With the introduction of red brick alongside the honey coloured Bath stone and grey Pennant, we’re now playing with three colours, and starting to turn the corner from a relatively po-faced Classical approach to decoration and into something more exuberant.
Just round the corner again, at the same time, the same company built some offices in pretty much the same style, but with different architects. The former Gardiner’s Offices, formerly formerly the Christopher Thomas and Brothers soap company offices, are attributed to Foster and Wood. These two were once again Bristolian architects, in fact one of the pre-eminent local firms of the period.
Those of you on heritage watch will be dismayed to see the 2007 photo on Wikipedia showing two of the arches replaced by a steel beam to create a wider entrance, but back in the present day you can see the building has been renovated since then, and thankfully the arches have been restored in the process.
The thing to note about both these buildings is that they exhibit constructional polychromy, to use the rather unwieldy phrase of influential Victorian art critic John Ruskin. At its most basic, this means that the colour is not just superficial. You can’t wash off coloured paint or remove colourful tiles and be left with a building which is not colourful, but still equally functional. If you removed all the colourful elements of these buildings, they would fall down, because the colour is inherent to the structural elements.
Taking the concept a little further, we can see that the different colours closely correlate to different structural forms and purposes. For example, here the arches are red, and the… non-arches are grey. Here, likewise, red for arches, yellow limestone for the window frames and cornice, grey for the general stone of the wall. This isn’t a strictly 1:1 correspondence. That is, arches means red, but red doesn’t necessarily mean arches - as you can see for example some horizontal bands of red here. Still, to me, this feels a bit like a prototypical form of structural expressionism, about a century before the term was invented.
The other decorative feature I want to draw attention to is somewhat similar in being part of the structure, not just glued on top of it. Check out this row of bricks arranged at 45 degrees to create a zigzag effect. There’s something similar around the arches too. I really love this effect; as soon as you add sunlight and shadow into the equation, you get a decorative effect that constantly changes, nearly invisible in some light, striking sawtooth patterns at other times.
But it’s arguably Foster + Wood’s 1867 Colston Hall which really launches these emerging motifs into a new world of possibilities.
At which point, another brief, unfortunate interlude. Yes, Colston Hall as in that Colston, the slave-trading Colston who used to be memorialised on a statue on this plinth, with its rather inaccurate caption, until July 2020 during BLM-inspired protests, when it was torn down and launched into the harbour, an image of which hit the headlines around the world.
The music venue has since renamed itself to the Bristol Beacon to distance itself from the controversy, but since I am speaking in a historic context, referring to it by that name seems very anachronistic. So I will refer to it as the Colston Hall, but I assure you that no endorsement of slave-traders is implied.
I think Colston Hall is a pivotal building in this story, which makes it all the more unfortunate that I can’t film it properly, because as you can see it is currently undergoing renovations. These have reportedly found the remaining Victorian parts of the building to be in very poor condition - I say “remaining parts”, because the place has been gutted by fire twice, and extended with…. this, which certainly plumps for the ‘bold juxtaposition’ approach to extending historic buildings in favour of mimicry or pastiche. Which is something I generally approve of, for what it’s worth.
At this point my first draft script said something like “the obvious innovation here is the use of yellow brick”, except, the use of yellow brick is not at all obvious, unless you really squint behind that scaffolding, so I am particularly indebted in this section to photographers for making their shots of this facade available under permissive Creative Commons licences.
Anyway, firstly I think this building is important because it shows the style jumping from industrial to civic use. To take a style developed on warehouses and factories and now apply it to a major new concert hall seems like a sort of coming of age.
Secondly, we are seeing a turning point in the dominant material, and resultant aesthetic. Architects Foster + Wood dispense with Bath stone and Pennant rubble, in favour of bright yellow and red bricks. The adoption of brick didn’t necessarily mean abandoning local materials, per se. Much of the brick we’ll see in this video came from Cattybrook pits, which is only about 7 miles north of here.
What it did mean, on a purely visual level, was an unlocking of a more diverse, brighter, higher-contrast palette, which, compared to the chunky rubble Pennant, could be arranged into crisper patterns made from a tighter grid. If architects were drawing pixel-art before with their masonry blocks of stone, they just moved from 4 or 8 bit to 16 bit sprites. The possibilities for decorative ‘constructional polychromy’ had exploded, although in fairness the Colston Hall did not exactly push the boundaries of these possibilities itself. While we do see some beautiful brickwork, including the use of these zigzagging, diagonally laid ones again, the use of colour is decidedly restrained. Instead, much of the decoration is non-structural, sculptural, drawn from the same sort of well of inspiration as the Lloyds bank we saw earlier.
But by building Bristol Byzantine in brick, Foster + Wood were opening a gate to connect this local style with a broader design trend flourishing across the country. Polychromatic brick was by now a well-established design trend in Victorian England, popularised by critics like the aforementioned John Ruskin and architects like William Butterfield and his All Saints Margaret Street. It had been and would continue to be a popular choice in Gothic revival, including icons such as the aforementioned St Pancras hotel.
In Bristol, however, this decoratively multicoloured brickwork would be combined with the previously somewhat subtle Byzantine, Venetian and Moorish influences to create some unique and remarkably extravagant buildings - arguably none more so than this, the Granary.
If that isn’t one of the most ornately decorative industrial buildings you’ve ever seen, then please tell me in the comments where you live, so I can come there and film your warehouses.
It almost feels pointless talking about this, as the images surely speak for themselves, but I feel duty bound to make a token effort of narration. So - observe, how we now have three vivid colours to choose from, with red, yellow and black. We still have our classically semi-circular arches, in our typically two-tone Moorish colour alternations. But these have been joined by a whole stack of variations and new styles. On the ground floor, we have these pointy arches, stylised with ogee curves inlaid in the brickwork above.
Above this, and above all, we have this fantastically complex perforation blurring fenestration and ventilation. Granaries need to maintain a flow of fresh air, so this is partly functional, but function alone wouldn’t dictate such ornate, playful visuals.
We’ve consistently seen buildings with a different ground floor treatment since the very roots of the style - and we’ve seen this developed with even more tiers of style, but in this instance we have literally every single floor receiving a completely unique treatment.
We’ve got these ‘normal’ arches, then these star shaped holes with flat-topped windows above, then we’ve got circles embedded within arches, cross-patterned holes, two small arches within arches, rows of zigzagged bricks again, arches with twin columns - and a row of zigzagged bricks - the level of variation is insane, and yet the whole elevation still manages to hang together cohesively enough at a glance.
At the top, we’ve got turrets along the roofline, and at the bottom, I am obliged to point out, despite its complete irrelevance to the Byzantine theme, we have the cellar bar where Del Boy fell through the bar.
Just around the corner, at 35 King St we find a cork warehouse from c.1870 -- the listing suggesting it is “possibly” by Henry Masters or WBG. If I may stick my neck out, I would say more likely the former, given that many of his other buildings displayed strong Venetian flavours quite akin to this one, whereas hardly anything else by WBG reminds me of this at all.
Here again we have a feast of beautiful detailing. At the top, we have a highly sculptural cornice, and the top row of semicircular arches have decorative ‘eyebrows’ pinched into a point, all arranged in a somewhat musical 2, 2, 3, 2, 2 grouping.
Below, the pointed arches’ eyebrows have been stylised so far to become all point, no arch. And between there and the ground, we have these slender vertical columns and window groupings which create a sense of loftiness far beyond this building’s actually rather modest height.
We’ve back to only two colours, with red brick and yellow limestone, but with detailing this superbly balanced, that’s enough. And for those who are missing the Pennant rubble, well… it’s been relegated from the fancy facade, but it’s still there.
It’s probably about time I addressed the question I alluded to in the intro. Why on earth would people decide to build their warehouses in such ornate and exotic style?
I found one essay online which confidently states “from the outset it was a statement of intent about Victorian Bristol’s ambitions and versatility. The buildings [...] [not only met the practical needs of Bristol’s merchants and manufacturers, they also] declared Bristol to be a port city which stood equal to any other in the world, a nexus of global trade which looked outward as much as inward for artistic inspiration.”
And this explanation does sound believable, however the former history student in me is naturally sceptical of such bold claims without any documentary evidence provided in support, and naturally prone to poking holes or dreaming up counterexamples.
For example, the sailors and stevedores who would see these buildings were surely not the people that merchants and traders needed to impress. These weren’t headquarters where clients were entertained and deals struck. Secondly, to what extent would those commissioning these buildings even influence the style at all, versus setting out their requirements and then entirely deferring to the architect on aesthetic matters?
Thirdly, I am not even convinced that these styles would, at the time, have projected an image of globalised modernity - that is, that a contemporary observer would have taken such buildings as evidence Bristol was an equal port to any in the world. In the mid 19th century the Ottoman empire was famously labelled ‘the sick man of Europe’, and the Moors were never particularly renowned for seafaring or trading in the first place. These are not necessarily obvious reference points for a port to claim modernity and prestige.
In fact, despite the fact I have been cheerfully describing these influences as ‘exotic’ throughout this video, these are not necessarily even particularly exotic or adventurous. This is, after all, an era when architectural influences were drawn from as far afield as India, and Bristol routinely traded with the New World. From this perspective, Mediterranean flavours are actually pretty old-fashioned, surely?
I don’t mean to dismiss the line of thinking entirely. I don’t doubt that the architects were keen to show that they took inspiration from a broad range of cultures, because artists and creatives always are. But I do wonder how much this stuff was really driven by any conscious commercial statement of intent for Bristol overall on the world stage. It feels more to me like a local fashion, with Bristol’s merchants and (rather small circle of) architects showing off not to the world, but to each other.
Whatever the rationale for choosing these styles, they continued to flourish in the first half of 1870s. 1871 saw the completion of the City Museum and Library, the next (and last) major civic commission in this story. This was a collaboration between Foster from Foster + Wood and Ponton from the Granary’s team of Ponton + Gough, although Historic England suggest Foster alone handled the exterior.
The original design was considerably more ambitious than it appears today - polychromatic masonry was intended but never happened, balconies likewise. Some of the detail which was built was lost during WW2 bombing, including a sculptural cornice. So today it has a strangely minimalist take on Venetian gothic, making it look more modern than it actually is, at least in my eyes.
This is no bad thing in my opinion, because although I’ve spent much of the last 10 minutes or so gushing about intricately decorative Victorian architecture, I’m not in fact one of ‘those’ people who thinks more ornamentation means a better building, and decries the clean lines and raw surfaces of twentieth century styles and materials as sterile or unhuman. On the contrary, I much prefer the National Theatre to the Houses of Parliament, to take a probably somewhat unpopular example.
Anyway, in this instance I don’t think the building suffers from the stripping down of ornamentation - it allows the very nice proportions, shape and rhythm of these arches space to breathe.
1872 saw the creation of Victoria Street, cutting through the medieval street pattern of Redcliffe to provide a direct route between Bristol Bridge and Temple Meads railway station, and with it a new wave of commercial buildings. Construction of the Royal Talbot Hotel kicked off in 1873, with a Bristol-based architect called J Bevan responsible.
This building isn’t listed at all, which rather puzzled me, as it seemed to me like a charming building worthy of Grade II. You could perhaps accuse this elevation of being a little mechanical, but the curved corner on the junction with Bath Street is lovely, and close examination of the detailing reveals some extremely nice touches - these zigzagged bricks around the arches, and a double horizontal layer of them up here. It turns out that almost none of it original, having been badly damaged in the Bristol Blitz in 1940. My Pevsner guide informs me the rebuild was in 1994, describing it as “almost undetectable”, and includes an 1870 image I can’t reproduce here which confirms the remarkable accuracy of the reconstruction.
Next door, 4 and 6 Victoria Street is the only building for which I can find no suggestion of a possible architect at all. I am actually a bit mystified why Henry Masters has not been touted, as he has been linked with number 8, the buildings were developed as a group at the same time, they look similar to each other, and also reminiscent of 35 King Street - although of course that isn’t definitively attributed to Masters either.
Like 35 King Street, they have these slender redbrick columns spanning multiple floors, topped off with decorated pointed arches. Here we have a new twist on the previously seen ingredients: taking the idea of alternating stone colours in the arches and mixing it with the more granular ‘pixel art’ of our polychromatic brick, the result being what Historic England describe as ‘patterned voussoirs’, and what I would describe as looking a bit like Space Invaders.
The ground floor frontage of No 8 has very obviously suffered a 20th century intervention, and the cornice seems to have weathered significantly over the years, but otherwise much of these two remains delightfully intact, the depth and colour of their detailing a particularly welcome presence on an otherwise frankly bleak street, the devastation of the Blitz providing a mostly blank canvas for 20th century architects, which they singularly failed to do anything interesting with.
Although our not-particularly-Byzantine Byzantine styles were now seeming to flourish on the high street, they had not been forgotten on the wharf. 1874 saw our old friend William Bruce Gingell return to the Bathurst Basin, opposite his General Hospital, with this warehouse, which is easily my favourite of his buildings in this video. In fact, with all due respect to the man, a tiny part of me almost wants to query the attribution, because it does not seem very in keeping with his other work. The hospital, Brew House, and Gardiners buildings all feature extremely chunky arches, lintels and so forth - chunky almost to the point of clunky, in my opinion. This one, on the other hand, seems to display an extremely light and delicate touch. Could it perhaps have been largely the work of one of his associates or juniors, uncredited? I don’t know, and I don’t have any evidence for even raising a doubt, besides the fact this one looks deft, graceful and a little whimsical to me, while his others look stout, serious and perhaps a little leaden, which as the saying goes, is just, like, my opinion, man.
Whether it’s Gingell’s work or not, it is one of my favourites in this video. I like the bright yellow shades of brick being the dominant colour. I like fact that it has two halves, which on the one hand clearly match, with this continuous parapet, and reflected polychromatic brickwork along the seam, and shared visual language, such as the inlaid ogee hoods over the windows; and yet are distinctly different, too.
We have discreet use of the three-dimensionally zigzagged bricks we’ve seen before, as well this rather nice riffing on the theme, where the bricks are flush to the wall and zigzagged the other way instead. The left half is also another nice example of creating verticality by grouping several floors of windows into these recessed super-arches.
And, for those of you on heritage watch…. everything except this facade dates from 1981, and round the back, it shows. The architects have chosen a similar yellow coloured brick, and made a token effort to inject some red brick ‘detailing’, but it’s hard to see why they bothered to be honest.
Sadly this building seems to be more or less the last hurrah for Bristol Byzantine. I say ‘seems to be’, because of course I didn’t do anything resembling proper digilent historical research, so for all I know there was a huge boom of these buildings in the late 1870s, they just all happened to have been destroyed in the meantime.
From today’s perspective, at least, though, it’s probably fair to say this stands as the latest truly outstanding example to be built. Not the outright last - there were subsequent forays into similar territory. Back at the Christopher Thomas soap works, in 1881 another polychromatic brick warehouse went up next to the offices we saw earlier.
The architect did a nice job creating continuity with Foster + Wood’s existing arches on the ground floor, but it’s not clear who that was. Historic England unambiguously attribute this to William Bruce Gingell, but the Pevsner guide is equally decisive in crediting a C James. The overall building, though, is hardly iconic.
The enormous pan building behind, also from circa 1881 and also tentatively credited to C James, is more of a landmark, but to include its Florentine crenellation and turrets as Bristol Byzantine seems to be stretching an already stretched definition.
In 1883 we see this tobacco factory from H Crisp and HCM Hirst, which serves to rather summarise the fading out of Bristol Byzantine. Yes, we have an arcade of Moorishly alternating colour arches. And yes, we can tick off many other features we’ve seen throughout this video - Pennant rubble, Bath stone trimmings, and the listing asserts it to be partly Venetian gothic in style. But it doesn’t exactly radiate any eastern or exotic flavour. In fact, with this pediment and balustrade up here, we seem to have drifted back to where we started: plain old classical. Elsewhere, architects drifted back to generic Victorian. Essentially, it seems Bristol Byzantine simply fizzled out.
And unfortunately, this video is about to do likewise. Because whereas most TV documentaries would, at this point, be dramatically re-emphasising how their subject “changed the WORLD!”, this style’s long term influence - outside Bristol - was little-to-none, as far as I can tell. Of course, within Bristol, these buildings continue to influence the urban realm by their very existence, as any building does. Furthermore, you can often see 20th century contributions attempting to respond to them, with varying degrees of success, as here on King Street for example.
But, I am left struggling to even sustain the idea that my subject even exists. Bristol Byzantine is commonly defined as a design trend in Bristol’s 19th century industrial buildings. But, several major examples aren’t industrial; most of them are by now more accurately described as 20th century buildings with 19th century facades; and there’s no real evidence the architects believed they were working in a single ‘Bristol Byzantine’ style, as opposed to doing a bit of Venetian gothic here, then trying a bit of Moorish over there...
Still, however illusory the category may be, it gave me some motivation to get out walking, photographing and researching some local history, which turned into a rather enjoyable distraction. If you enjoyed this video at all, then perhaps you might consider subscribing to this channel, as I hope to produce some further videos on similar territory - architecture, urbanity, civil engineering, local history and so on - both in Bristol and hopefully further afield, as and when it’s realistic to travel.
All that is left is to say special thanks to all those photographers, map-makers, chart artists, wikipedia editors and so on who contribute to the reusable commons of information and images, without whom this video would not have been possible. And finally, thanks for watching.