Magazine article The Spectator

Those Magnificent Men

Magazine article The Spectator

Those Magnificent Men

Article excerpt

Tom Greeves, architect and saviour of Bedford Park, who died a few weeks ago, drew unique and extraordinary fantasies of robust mid-Victorian buildings in ruins the vision of Piranesi applied to Sir Gilbert Scott. Until the publication of Ruined Cities of the Imagination three years ago, these enchanting images were mainly known to stalwarts of the Victorian Society, but they were not, in fact, the first of Greeves's fantastic drawings to be published. There was another side to his antiquarian imagination, and this was an interest in antique forms of transport. So, in 1966 the 26th issue of the late-lamented Saturday Book contained plates of 'Greeves's Flying Machines'.

These were whimsically ridiculous heavier-than-air machines held aloft over Victorian urban landscapes by giant rotors or by blasts of steam. Some required huge ramps to ascend into the clouds, rather like the `grove of iron pillars, red painted and ornate' which, in his story The Argonauts of the Air, H.G. Wells erected in 1895 next to the railway between Wimbledon and Worcester Park to enable `Monson's Folly' to fly over London for the first and last time. But the main inspiration for Greeves, I think, was the `Aerial Steam Carriage' proposed in 1843 by Samuel Henson and John Stringfellow to take passengers all over the globe. It never flew, of course, and only a model of it was made.

`So many people expressed pleasure in the drawings of fantastic flying-machines' that Saturday Book 27 carried two more plates of Greeves's mobile architectural contraptions. Best was the double-page spread of 'A Steam Palace' - a great Ruskinian juggernaut, higher than a church steeple, with tiers of pointed windows and a driver's cab in the form of a Gothic shrine in front of a more Romanesquelooking boiler. It was, of course, again enchantingly preposterous, but this time Greeves's fantasy was inspired by machines which had actually been built - and worked.

It is often forgotten that, before the railway became firmly ascendant, steam power was also used for locomotives which ran on the new macadamised turnpike roads rather than on wrought-iron rails. Richard Trevethick experimented with them in Cornwall in 1801, and by the 1830s a number of steam carriages were regularly carrying fare-paying passengers. These really were horseless carriages as many of them resembled stagecoaches with a boiler and chimney at the rear. With such vehicles, Sir Charles Dance began a service between Gloucester and Cheltenham in 1831 using the efficient boiler and engine developed by Sir Goldsworthy Gurney a few years earlier, and in the same year Walter Hancock ran steam carriages between London and Stratford in Essex. …

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