Close beside the pride of modern man there stands his ironic view of himself—his awareness that he has to live in an historicizing, as it were a twilight mood, and his fear that his youthful hopes and energy will not survive into the future.London is filled with a beautiful architecture—but like all architecture, it is resistant to man. The yuppies and immigrants go about their everyday lives, eyes closed, ears full of the latest noise, never looking up. Even those who, like me, keep their eyes intent upon the built environment, are pushed back, not by its ugliness, but by its lack of meaning. Red brick, yellow brick, brown brick, grey brick—plaster, white and cream—glass, a little oak, a little stone—concrete, slate, plastic, tin, terracotta, pebble-dash, painted porch-tiles, many quite elegant—but all blank, remorseless, and quite empty of signs. I stare and stare, in an attempt to make sense of these objects: to make texts of them, texts with which to work, to communicate. Down Chichele Road there are the rudiments of signs: a plaster eagle perched atop a house (No. 15), and facing it a Neo-Gothic church made mosque with pea-green domes. Almost every terraced house has stereotyped designs, one or several, floral or abstract, carved into the brick, or moulded into the plaster, and flexwinged wyverns are common ornaments on the gabletops of the area.
— Friedrich Nietzsche, 1873.
But I want an architecture that can be made to ask questions—and these objects offer only the faintest and least interesting of enquiries.
One kind of architectural object, however, can be made to ask a number of highly worthwhile questions—the datestone. Until recently the datestone was not even a category in my mental lexicon; I had never considered the things. But then, well, I got thinking.
I distinguish three related objects. Firstly, the datestone proper: a stone, brick, plaster chunk, wood panel or other object containing a date, with or without initials. The datestone marks the completion date of the building to which it is attached, or originally attached. Second, the false datestone: these look much like datestones, except that the date they show is not the date of the building's completion—generally it is the founding date of the company, or else the date of an earlier building on the same site. Third, the commemorative stone, which I will abbreviate to 'comstone': a large stone (or plaque) with a longer text, commemorating a contemporary or historical event, such as the foundation of a public building, casualties of war, and the like. It is usually, but not always, clear which is which, and there are a few border-cases. Here I am most interested in the genuine datestone, although I will show the others by contrast.
From what I can tell, little has been written on the datestone. The British Library has two works on the subject, both ramshackle productions by local historians: A. S. and E. Day's Datestones of Bradshaw and Harwood, and John B. Taylor's Stories in Stone: Datestones in Rossendale. The latter is hand-written. Neither contains anything of theoretical interest; instead they catalogue stones (with drawn reproductions) going back to the 17th century. There is no indication that certain periods of history have left us more stones than others. The same is true of this website, which catalogues datestones in Jersey.
But when I came to look for datestones myself, I found the distribution of dates to be strongly skewed—the overwhelming majority of stones are from about 1870 to 1910. This is perhaps even more remarkable for the fact that the stones can be found on buildings of all types, public and private, plain and ornate—as Taylor puts it, 'from mansion to hen-cote'.
I cannot claim a rigorous or systematic methodology for collecting the stones. I looked for them carefully on various walks, mostly in London—Cricklewood (where I live), Willesden, West Hampstead, Belsize Park, Hammersmith, Camden Town, Great Portland Street, Regent Street, Piccadilly, the Strand, Fleet Street, Holborn and the Inns of Court—as well as a couple of trips to Nottingham and York. Here is a list of the 92 genuine datestones I have found so far, with images from a digital camera. Nottingham stones are marked with an N, York with a Y; the rest are from London.
1682, 1748, 1759, 1789, 1800, 1810Y, 1860, 1860N, 1865, 1873, 1874, 1875, 1876, 1876Na, 1876Nb, 1877, 1878a, 1878b, 1879, 1881, 1883a, 1883b, 1884a, 1884b, 1884c, 1885, 1887, 1888a, 1888b, 1889a, 1889b, 1890a, 1890b, 1891, 1892a, 1892b, 1892c, 1894a, 1894b, 1895, 1895Y, 1896a, 1896b, 1897a, 1897b, 1897c, 1897N, 1898, 1899a, 1899b, 1900, 1901, 1901N, 1902a, 1902b, 1903a, 1903b, 1903c, 1903Ya, 1903Yb, 1904a, 1904b, 1904c, 1904Y, 1905a, 1905b, 1905c, 1905d, 1905e, 1906, 1906Y, 1907Y, 1908Y, 1909, 1910a, 1910b, 1914, 1924, 1930, 1930Y, 1952, 1957a, 1957b, 1960, 1962, 1969, 1972, 1979, 1983, 1996, 2000Several of these are problem cases. In bold are free-standing objects with dates—plaques, a lamp-post (1902a), a glass awning (1874—from the Criterion Restaurant; I believe this is original, and thus a genuine 'datestone', but I could be wrong). In italics is a curious subclass of datestone (1789 may not be in this group): these are all located around the Inns of Court, and all feature a date with a triangular series of initials, most with 'T' at the apex. Notably, they go back much earlier, and continue late. These stones closely resemble 'marriage stones', which function as a record of marriage, the initials being those of the husband and wife. As far as I am aware, my sole example of the latter is 1810Y. However, because of the concentration of the stones in italics around the Inns, I am confident that their initials are in fact those of heads of chambers. What the 'T' indicates I do not know, but as 1957b and 1960 (both from Gray's Inn) clearly demonstrate, the practice still continues today.
It is worth noting that a datestone is not always a reliable indicator of the age of the building to which it is attached; both Taylor and the Days mention that stones can be incorporated into later buildings:
The datestones on a few buildings seem contrary to what the architecture would suggest and may have been incorporated from an earlier structure, which may or may not have been on the same site.If the datestone cannot reliably attest the date of a building, it is usually reliable on its own date. However, there are exceptions—false datestones, for instance this double stone, from an old Prudential office in Nottingham. Its date of 1848 is in fact the date of the company's founding, and the building itself is considerably later, an excellent example of High Victorian Gothic, designed in terracotta by Alfred Waterhouse during the 1890s. Another example is this, which unless I am radically mistaken about Georgian aesthetics, is not from 1829, but rather commemorates the founding of King's College London. Often false datestones are combined with real ones—the latter being the restoration date, or else the two stones showing an anniversary commemoration, as here.
This is a chart of the frequency distribution of our 92 genuine stones:
Datestones become increasingly common during the period 1860-1910, and then rapidly fall off; a disproportionate number of those before and after this period are in the 'Inns' subclass discussed above. Comstones, on the other hand, are found throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, although I have not counted them with the same energy and interest as the datestones.
The question is, then: why should the period 1870-1910 present such a strong concentration of datestones? It will be quickly observed that there simply are a lot of buildings from this period—thus the Days: 'Nineteenth-century datestones are linked with the great explosion of population in the Bolton district when expansion took place by building mainly terraced housing along the main roads of the area'. But we observe in return that the architecture of English cities is highly eclectic, and that plenty of buildings remain from all periods of the last three centuries, despite Paul Thompson's claim that the 'medieval and Georgian architecture which now survives is no more than a winning fragment'. The distribution is just too skewed, even taking into account the unsystematic collection of my data—a deeper reason must be sought.
As I walked about London, and thought about London, I noticed that the problem of datestones seemed to become in my mind a much greater problem, of history and its architecture. And a casual remark in the Days' book provides a further clue: 'Datestones add much of interest to the visual apperance of a building, and when in the original setting, place the building firmly in the historical period.' (Italics mine.) When I polled friends, most murmured something vague about the late Victorians being conscious of progress and destiny—particularly sensitive to their own place in history. I emailed an eminent scholar, who replied:
I think that generally the Victorian period was a time of pride and money, and of 'the invention of tradition' (book by Hobsbawm and Ranger) and therefore they were both more conscious of such niceties and more able to afford it. . . In modern times we are generally less interested in identifying ourselves with buildings and they are often made by developers more interested in money than pride.Most modern developers are concerned with cost-efficiency, and would disdain the datestone as purely ornamental; the comstone, on the other hand, is an imposition from the trustees and benefactors of the building, who wish to commemorate an historic occasion. In other words, certain events are considered significant enough to memorialise, and so are certain buildings as public functions (library, school, council block)—but not architecture itself. This is what is meant, I think, by the claim that our architects have less 'pride' in their work: they are not allowed to give it an intrinsic historical significance.
Why is this? History, as we popularly conceive it, and as it is currently made, describes the State and its subsidiaries, even down to local councils and the petty officials and society-folk who lay comstones. The buildings we choose to make historical, by giving them a date, are thus the buildings that serve a purpose in the framework of the State.
The old datestones, on the other hand, are the equivalent of dates in colophons, or on paintings and picture-frames—they denote the building as a work of art, as a piece of architecture, and as such, part of a history—a history not of the State, or even of society, but of aesthetic achievement.
The craze for datestones in 1870-1910 does not represent a sense of national pride—it has nothing to do with civics, with the public sphere. If it did, we should expect to see datestones on monumental civic achievements—on the glorious and baroque façades of Regent Street, or earlier, on all the triumphal Nash buildings in the centre of the city. But there are none. In fact there seems to be no correlation between the possession of a datestone and the grandeur or civic importance of a building. Some important works have them, others do not—and those that do often use Roman numerals, such as 1800 (Royal College of Surgeons), or at least stately lettering, as in 1877 (Belsize Park Town Hall). Most datestones, on the contrary, are private statements, soft and elegant signatures, equivalent to the dateless monograms also occasionally found through London.
Nietzsche, in the work quoted above, finds freedom in the escape from history, or at least in the mastery of it. I, however, am more sympathetic to Gadamer, who sees liberty in history: the man who would oppress a nation cuts its people loose from their own history, unmooring man from himself, and gives them another history, or even a myth. To sign one's work in stone is to add one's name, however small, to a distinguished list, and to become part of a history. Thus too the marriage stones, with which wed couples solidify and manifest their commitment in the face of history. History is solidity.
Sketched above is a narrative that can be read into the facts of the datestones as we have them. It may be utterly fanciful, or it may yet contain some truths worth sifting. We have yet to determine (if indeed we are on some semblance of the correct track) why the period 1870-1910 should have conceived of its architecture in these historical terms. Perhaps we might invoke the rapid growth of the architectural profession, which 'increased more than tenfold between 1820 and 1870'. Certainly we will want to talk about the changing clients; John Betjeman, in his 1972 Pictorial History of English Architecture, informs us that 'The people who paid for buildings at the beginning of the age of electricity and the internal combustion engine were different from the mid-Victorians'. (And his remark that today's architects are 'brought up in a generation whose romance is to be found in a future which does not exist, rather than the past', while describing the flight from stylistic historicism, applies equally to the decline of historical consciousness, and hence of datestones.)
But at least we have begun to press those damned stones—we have at least spurred them to talk, to ask questions—and so we have not succumbed to that effacement of our history, for which our masters so devoutly wish.