Signs of the art deco era all around us - but some the victims of time
PUBLISHED: 22:17 18 December 2015 | UPDATED: 22:17 18 December 2015
Children whose Christmas presents next Friday will embrace the latest expensive hi-tech and must-have gadgets and toys could never envisage my wartime Santa pillowcase containing a comic annual like Beano, two or three books, a pair of grey socks, and a bar of chocolate or box of liquorice allsorts.
And no, we never felt deprived because for us, it was normal. Often, we had to use our imagination and pretend one simple thing was something grander...as I did with three or four offcuts of wood about nine inches high and three inches square, all sawn at an acute angle at one end.
These were not a gift, let me stress - just intended as fire-wood. But their play potential led me to extract them from a sackful brought by my Uncle George from the site of the new Catholic Church rising on Lowestoft Road in Gorleston where he was working as a carpenter in 1939.
To naive little me, they looked as if they were part of the framework of its spire tip which I tried to re-create with them. Stupidly, even nowadays – 75 years later – I never fail to think of those bits of timber when I pass that brick-built RC Church of St Peter the Apostle. It seems miraculous that the spire still looks pointed and has survived without those vital bits of wood that were my short-lived plaything...
That very distant memory was triggered when I received a letter from retired Yarmouth registrar Trevor Nicholls about our borough’s collection of Art Deco style buildings and a list which included that very church, described by him as “austere”.
There were parallels here: his mention of the church caught my attention, just as his interest in our local Art Deco was sparked by reading a recent article in a national newspaper on its visual and aesthetic legacy. The BBC’s Broadcasting House in central London, opened in 1932, was the favourite of that columnist who likened it to “a great ocean liner.” It wafted Trevor back six decades to his childhood, enjoying a bag of Smith’s Crisps over which he had sprinkled salt from the distinctive twist of blue paper as his charabanc travelled along Caister Road past no fewer than three examples of Art Deco: the crisp factory and its neighbouring Bure Hotel, both demolished in 1986. and the blue bus depot “with its fascinating bas-reliefs on the facade depicting a double-deck bus, stage-coach and Stephenson’s Rocket” which survived bomb damage caused in a 1941 wartime air raid.
Of course, as a little crisp-munching lad, he was unlikely to have heard of Art Deco, but the memory lasted until he was conversant with it, just as mine did over bits of wood from the rising Gorleston church.
He continues: “Yarmouth’s most prominent Art Deco building was the Regal Cinema (ABC), subdued from the point of view of Art Deco embellishment although the bas-relief figures high on the frontage were colossal.” It was razed in 1989, shops replacing it.
Cinemas? He wonders about the interior style of the Palace Cinema in Gorleston High Street, built as a cinema in 1939 but now closed for some time after years as a bingo hall. “Is the interior Art Deco? The period is right. I have never been inside.”
Well, I have, Trevor, but long long ago, before I had ever come across the description Art Deco. During the war, having loved the film The First of the Few about the invention of the Spitfire fighter aircraft, I joined a long queue up Cross Road beside the Palace to see The Hurricane.
I was puzzled by what I saw on-screen - Dorothy Lamour in a sarong, South Sea islanders and palm-fringed beaches – and wondered how our famous wartime fighter aircraft was going to emerge from that scenario, only to discover that the film was about...a hurricane bringing destruction as it blew through. Another shilling wasted!
However, back to Art Deco which, Trevor says, used to be widespread: “Yarmouth has a good share, and once had more.”
He lists some in the style or influenced by it, including: the ex-Co-operative store on the Market Place, recently reopened as shops; Gorleston Super Holiday Camp (1937-75); the Iron Duke public house on the North Drive-Jellicoe Road corner; the ex-Commodore public house in Gorleston High Street; the former Yare Hotel on Hall Quay, later a bank and now solicitors’ offices; Struan House on Gorleston’s Marine Parade, a wartime secret “listening post” demolished in 2007; three bridges – on Barnard Avenue and Jellicoe Road, once spanning the long-gone M&GN railway line, and the Haven Bridge...
Trevor obviously has a soft spot for the Haven Bridge and its Art Deco inspiration, “a structure which countless people see every day.” He believes “the geometric shapes of the balustrades, recently repainted to good effect, show its influence” although the present lights are “out of period”.
According to Trevor: “The Haven Bridge was one of the favourite secular subjects of the local artist, John Dashwood, who lived nearby in Cobholm and who died earlier this year. His sister tells me that he loved the intricate shapes of the balustrades, seeing beauty in utility.”
Next April an exhibition of John Dashwood’s work will be staged in the Yarmouth Minster.
Trafalgar House, erected in 1938 as the Town Hall annexe and recently converted into flats, also falls into the Art Deco list, particularly inside where the interior doors were “pure Art Deco, inlaid with geometric borders in exotic woods worthy of Broadcasting House itself.”
Have they survived its recent conversion into flats, or were they removed before the developers moved in?
Yarmouth MP Brandon Lewis’s ideas on improving our rail gateway, Vauxhall Station, by building above it to provide housing accommodation finds favour with Trevor Nicholls, who explains: “For all the blandness of the mid-20th century rebuilding, the station contains some of the oldest railway archaeology in the county.
“The pillars and very shallow arches supporting the concourse roof and which once extended some way over the platforms and tracks are part of the original station opened in 1844 with the first railway in Norfolk – the Yarmouth and Norwich.”