- since 2011 -

A time to dance

Wednesday, 10 August 2011

In Georgian Liverpool there was only one place to throw the freshest shapes

If I ever feel pretentious enough to write Liverpool: The Mythography I know which scholarly extract I'd stick upon page seven or thereabouts, after the titles and imprint and dedication and heaped encomiums from critics and writers ('I have read this book and much like it' - Simon Schama; 'Fills a much-needed gap' - Will Self). It'd come from WG Sebald's Austerlitz, a novel about an orphan of the Second World War tracing his roots in Eastern Europe:

It does not seem to me, Austerlitz added, that we understand the laws governing the return of the past, but I feel more and more as if time did not exist at all, only various spaces interlocking…between which the living and the dead can move back and forth as they like, and the longer I think about it the more it seems to me that we who are still alive are unreal in the eyes of the dead, that only occasionally, in certain lights and atmospheric conditions, do we appear in their field of vision…

Angels with dirty faces: Wellington Rooms decorative sculpture

Angels with dirty faces: Wellington Rooms decorative sculpture

I was reminded of this supposition the other day when I walked past the Wellington Rooms on Liverpool's Mount Pleasant - a place whose own past, by chance, I'd gatecrashed around five years ago. It's one of those buildings that can change from indeterminate blur to sharp focus given, as Sebald puts it, the right 'atmospheric conditions'.

You could stroll past it obliviously for years and then suddenly you'll see it: an unremembered anachronism between the Feathers Hotel and shiny new Liverpool Science Park, opposite the oxblood brick facade of John Moores University's John Foster Building (originally the Convent of Notre Dame).

How the building looks today...

How the building looks today...

It's not entirely forgotten - in fact lots of people care about it very much, which explains why it hasn't been demolished or converted into something shameful. Getting on for 200 years old, it was designed as a set of 'assembly rooms' by a Londoner, Edmund Aikin, and built by public subscription just after the Battle of Waterloo, hence the name. As late as 1902 it was still being described by one city guidebook as 'the resort of fashion'. People went there dressed to dance, to see and be seen - dainty creatures in crinoline as opposed to water buffalos in leggings.

Anyway, a while back, just as I've clocked the once-grand Georgian entrance, up pulls a car and out gets this fella with a set of keys. Faint heart never won fair maiden - not least one with curvaceous classical colonnade - so I nose over and he's something to do with a building firm. Typical Scouse, doesn't know me from Dick Tut but says, "Ee'yar, come and have a look." And I'm inside, just like that (serendipity: one of those words whose definitions I never quite grasped until one time, by happy coincidence, I flipped open a dictionary to the exact page with its entry).

And back in 1831, from Lancashire Illustrated by S Austin, J Harwood, and G& C Pyne

And back in 1831, from Lancashire Illustrated by S Austin, J Harwood, and G& C Pyne

Much later it had become the Irish Centre, and in the semi-darkness, dust and rubble it feels like one too many St Patrick's Parades have been through. There's a stage and dance floor with bits of ornamental plasterwork in what was presumably the original ballroom, and other smaller spaces where guests had supper or played cards. Despite its forlorn state, the faintest insinuation of music and merriment still lingers.

Back on the outside, today, nothing seems to have changed since my accidental trespass. The façade is equally scruffy: besieged by weeds, railings, garbage, a flagless flagpole and miscellaneous street 'furniture' (signposts, lamp post, parking meter etc). It's crying out for an 'upgrade' like they've just done on the Cunard Building down at the Pier Head (apparently it's called 'nebulous stone cleaning' - using chemical-free vapour to draw out the dirt, then low-pressure cold water to wash it away and return the stone to its original colour, hurrah).

No point gilding the lily. Underneath all that grime there's not much for an untrained eye like mine to marvel at. But when you read the brief description in Pevsner's Architectural Guide to Liverpool, you begin to appreciate the building's subtler charms. 'The central door is in a semi-circular projection recalling the Monument of Lysicrates', writes Joseph Sharples. 'Originally an open colonnade, infilled in the 1820s because it gave insufficient shelter… Capitals after the Temple of Vesta at Tivoli… In the blank walls to either side two fine panels of sculpture…pairs of winged female figures bearing garlands…'

Parthenon, Athens: beaten by the call of the bevvy

Parthenon, Athens: beaten by the call of the bevvy

Aw yeah, the old Choragic Monument of Lysicrates. It's still there in Athens and I've got little excuse for not checking it out when I had the chance. Erected in 335BC to celebrate winners of a choral competition (singing and dancing again), by the late 18th century it was regarded in British society as the height of good taste and architectural refinement - with copies built for the likes of Tatton Park in Knutsford, Alton Towers in Staffordshire, and Greenwich Hospital in London. In 2007, before Liverpool FC's Champions League rematch with AC Milan, I didn't even make it to the Parthenon, falling short at the foot of the Acropolis amid a general refrain of 'Is there ale round here anywhere?' Shocking - there was none.

Two centuries ago, at the height of this country's fascination with classical architecture, Liverpool had its own Greek Revival thing going on. As a maritime city acquiring untold wealth through trade and commerce, it even fancied itself as the 19th century's answer to Athens (and later still Florence, when Renaissance-inspired buildings were all the rage). The Medical Institution, not far from the Wellington Rooms at the top of Mount Pleasant, is a fine surviving example.

St George's Hall: Liverpool's venerable old stunner

St George's Hall: Liverpool's venerable old stunner

The grandest of all, St George's Hall, is really a Greco-Roman hybrid in terms of its detail and engineering. It was built on a site intended to recall a classical 'forum' (i.e. acropolis) overlooking the city-centre and adjoining the neo-classical constellation of Museum, Library and Walker Art Gallery on William Brown Street. (I love the fact that this cobbled corner of the city is semi-pedestrianised: no nervous prancing from kerb to kerb, nor any cantankerous car horns and bad gear-changes; only the occasional lines of parked-up coaches and the hum of traffic from the Queensway Tunnel entrance and Lime Street).

Wellingtons Rooms from JMU John Foster Building

Wellingtons Rooms from JMU John Foster Building

The Wellington Rooms came first, in 1816. George III (the mad one) was on the throne and the Elgin Marbles, as it goes, were being purchased by the nation for the British Museum. While Beethoven put the finishing touches to Piano Sonata No28, ghost stories were getting shared by Byron, Shelley, Mary Godwin and John Polidori on the banks of Lake Geneva.

In a book published almost a century later and entitled Recollections of a Busy Life: Being the Reminiscences of a Liverpool Merchant, Sir William B Forwood, one of the Rooms' former presidents, wrote that they 'were regarded as the centre of fashionable society…members belonging almost exclusively to families of position and standing. The balls were conducted on the strictest lines of propriety, carefully enforced by vigilant stewards who would not admit of any rough dancing. Six or seven balls were given each year. The first before Christmas was often called the dirty-frock ball, as new frocks were reserved for the debutantes' ball, the first of the season…

'About 1890, during my presidency, the supper room was enlarged, electric light was introduced and a supper with champagne provided. These changes were very successful [but] there were misgivings as to the introduction of the electric light and its effect upon the complexions of the ladies. The old form of illumination by wax candles suffused a very soft light, but the candles were unreliable and often did damage to dresses'.

In America they'd go nuts for a place with this kind of provenance. In England it ends up on the Buildings At Risk Register. English Heritage has designated its condition as 'very bad' with 'severe dry rot' - which Liverpool City Council has served notice upon the leaseholder (repeatedly) to arrest. The Rooms are also a priority for the Georgian Group which 'exists to protect and preserve Georgian buildings, monuments and landscapes' and, as a statutory amenity society, must be consulted on any planning applications affecting them.

To sum up, two more passages if you'll permit me. First, the Georgian Group's response to a proposed three-storey hotel conversion: 'The intervention would not only terminally alter the character of the Wellington Rooms, it would also damage the picturesque skyline in this elevated part of the historic city… As often happens with long-derelict buildings, there is a judgement to be made about when to tolerate a less-than-ideal scheme and when to hold out for something better. The Wellington Rooms are a particularly acute case in point, but in our view any rescue package must - as a bare minimum - respect and preserve the building's special qualities'.

And lastly, another abstract from Austerlitz which makes the years 1816 and 2011 seem less than a heartbeat apart, and salvation for the Wellington Rooms all the more worthwhile:

Such ideas infallibly come to me in places which have more of the past about them than the present. For instance, if I am walking through the city and look into one of those quiet courtyards where nothing has changed for decades, I feel, almost physically, the current of time slowing down in the gravitational field of the same space, as if future events already existed and were only waiting for us to find our way to them at last, just as when we have accepted an invitation we duly arrive in a certain house at a given time. And might it not be, continued Austerlitz, that we also have appointments to keep in the past, in what has gone before and is for the most part extinguished, and must go there in search of places and people who have some connection with us on the far side of time, so to speak?

'Two centuries ago, at the height of this country's fascination with classical architecture, Liverpool had its own Greek Revival thing going on. As a maritime city acquiring untold wealth through trade and commerce, it even fancied itself as the 19th century's answer to Athens'


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The Liverpolitan
Published at Brighter Design
Unit 26A, Britannia Pavilion,
Albert Dock, Liverpool, L3 4AD

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