Tuesday 19 March 2024

The Mushroom - Arne Jacobsen's Modernist Petrol Station

I went to Copenhagen to look for a mushroom, but not of the edible variety. The paddehatten (Danish for mushroom) is a petrol station, built in 1937 and designed by Arne Jacobsen, arguably Denmark's most influential architect and designer. It stands close to the harbour in Skovshoved, a small fishing settlement, a short train ride from the centre of the city.

It took about thirty minutes to walk from there from the station along a footpath parallel to the sea. The walk took me past the Bellavista Housing Estate (built in 1934) and the Bellevue Theatre (1936), both designed by Jacobsen. The estate is designed so that each apartment has a small balcony and an unimpeded view of the sea. The block's exterior is painted white, making it extremely photogenic in the summer when it contrasts with the clear blue sky. Unfortunately, I was there on a grey December day when the sky was full of clouds and a bitterly cold wind blew in from the sea, cutting though my coat, scarf and hat. I hate the cold but Skovshoved's residents are made of stern stuff. Despite the sub-zero temperature dozens of people were taking a dip in the sea. A well-wrapped up woman walking her long-haired dachsund stopped to talk and said, "the swimmers are here every day regardless of the weather," before admitting, "I swim too, but only in the summer."

Skovshoved Petrol Station
Bellavista Estate

The petrol station was originally intended as a prototype for a series of Texaco filling stations, but the other branches were never built. It was constructed to a simple, functional design using reinforced concrete and features a flat roof. At first glance, the canopy appears to be the only design flourish, but the white Meissner ceramic tiles on the exterior and the red clock show attention to detail. The clock is not an original feature and occupies space that was initially allocated to the Texaco logo. The canopy is illuminated at night, making motorists and passers-by aware of its presence. The light reflects on the underside, acting as a huge lamp. There is a small cafe inside the petrol station and although I was tempted by the ice-cream, I decided that hot chocolate was a more sensible option for early December. A small selection of snacks were available and I had a very acceptable cheese pastry. The building is protected with a Class A listing, and was extensively restored in 2022.

Jacobsen originally wanted to become a painter but his mother persuaded him to opt for architecture, believing it to be a more secure profession. While still a student, he attended the 1925 Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Moderne in Paris, where he won a silver medal for a chair design. It was at the Exposition that he first encountered the work of Le Corbusier, and from where he went on to meet Mies van Der Rohe and Walter Gropius, all of whom influenced his later work. He was responsible for the design of several public buildings in Denmark, including city and town halls, educational facilities and the National Bank of Denmark in Copenhagen which was completed shortly before his death in 1971. Perhaps his best known work was for the still extant SAS Royal (now Radisson) Hotel in Copenhagen, built in 1960. Not only did he design the building, but also the furniture, fittings, items for sale in the souvenir shop and even the buses that ferried guests to and from the airport.

I reluctantly left the warmth of the cafe and walked away from the coast road, to Skovshoved, a former fishing village established in the thirteenth century. Whole families were employed in fishing - the men going to sea for the catch and the women walking eleven kilometres to Copenhagen's markets, carrying the fish on their backs. The lady with the dachshund said that there are few fishermen living here now, but on Strandvejen, one of the main thoroughfares, several of their thatched roof houses have survived. On the same street, the Skovshoved Hotel stands on the site of an earlier inn, destroyed by fire in 1765 but rebuilt the following year. At different times, it has housed a cinema and a post office, but today is a popular seaside hotel. It also has a cosy restaurant, where I was enticed in for a hot drink and stayed for lunch - mushrooms on toast. 

Former fisherman's cottage, Skovshoved

Thursday 15 February 2024

Come just as you are - a postcard from Ada in Margate

In 1939, Margate could boast 240 hotels, 1300 boarding houses and 5000 other properties taking in paying guests. Visitors could also take advantage of the Winter Gardens, opened in 1911, the Lido (1927), two small tidal pools (1937) and the magnificent art deco Dreamland leisure complex, completed in 1920. This together with numerous cinemas, restaurants and other places of entertainment, led to the town being referred to as "Merry Margate". 

Day-trippers and holiday makers flocked to the seaside resort and many of them would have sent postcards to friends and family, reporting on their holiday activities, the weather and their lodgings. These postcards occasionally turn up online, in vintage stores or in charity shops, and give a glimpse of life at the time they were sent. Some cards were designed to promote a specific resort, usually featuring images from the town, carefully selected to tempt more people to come. Others took a more humorous approach, such as the slightly saucy cards (although very tame by today's standards) produced by Donald McGill and others. The card I purchased on a recent Margate trip falls some way between the two, depicting a woman in her nightclothes reading a note,  inviting her to "come just as you are" with "To Margate" emblazoned across the image.

The rear of the card bears a short message: "Have not seen Mr and Mrs S. since we arrived, they are far too busy, hotel packed, they sat down yesterday (220) people so we were lucky to get fixed up here at all, lovely weather. With love from Ada." Ada does not tell us where she was staying, but it must have been a large hotel to be able to seat so many people. She also omitted to date the card and the postmark on the rear is illegible. The halfpenny stamp on the back bears the image of King George V, who reigned from 1910-1936, which means it was sent during Margate's merriest period. There are no clues about the identity of the card's designer.

Ada's message is addressed to a Mr. Brown at Anderton's Hotel in Fleet Street, London. Anderton's no longer exists, having been demolished in 1939, but the hotel and its site had a long and interesting history. The Horn Tavern stood there in the fifteenth century and over time is said to have been popular with both the legal profession and Cornish tin miners. A new six floor hotel was built in 1880, with a red brick facade and retail properties on the ground floor. A 1931 photograph on the Historic England website, shows it to have been a handsome building, flanked by the Methodist Recorder newspaper on one side and large commercial premises on the other. Prolific architects Herbert Ford and Robert Hesketh were responsible for the building's design. They are thought to have worked on approximately 400 buildings during their working lives including residential and commercial properties.

Anderton's was more than just a hotel and many groups and societies would meet on its premises, including the Professional Photographer's Association, which had its first meeting there on 28th March 1901. In 2001, a commemorative plaque was mounted on the site of Anderton's, to mark the centenary of that meeting. The hotel also had a Masonic Hall, a 1922 photograph of which appears on the Historic England website. In 1920, the hotel hosted a gathering of twelve trade unions, who two years later would amalgamate as the Transport and General Workers' Union (TGWU). 

The hotel closed its doors in January 1939, ahead of its demolition. On January 29th, the New York Times was moved to write: "Fleet Street landmark goes: Anderton's a link to Shakespeare's Day, to be replaced by office building...a gloomy structure, some things not certain." Things don't change very much do they?

Most of Margate's hotels and boarding houses closed during the Second World War and for many years the town deteriorated, its glory days seemingly in the past. More recently, there has been a revival with a handful of boutique hotels, new high quality restaurants,  the Margate Bookshop and Turner Contemporary, the David Chipperfield designed gallery overlooking the sea. The many independent shops include Ramsay and Williams ice-cream bar and gallery where vintage posters, books and other collectibles are sold alongside interesting ice-cream flavours including ginger and marmalade. It's one of my first stops on any visit to Margate and it's where I found Ada's card to Mr. Brown.

Sunday 28 January 2024

Sleepless in Churu - Maharaja Ganga Singh

Seven years ago, I spent two nights in a room where every surface was covered with brightly coloured murals. Rather than sleeping, I lay in bed staring at them for much of the night. The works of art covered the walls and ceiling of Maharaja Ganga Singh's windowless room in Malji Ka Kamra, in Churu, Rajasthan, a once neglected haveli, lovingly restored as a hotel. The haveli was built in 1920 by Malji Kothari, a Jain merchant, and used by the Maharaja whenever he visited the town. It was also the setting for many important gatherings involving royalty, prominent merchants and British officers. 

I didn't think much more about the Maharaja until recently, when doing research for another writing project, I discovered that Sir William Orpen's 1919 painting of him is exhibited in the  National Portrait Gallery in London. The gallery caption referred to his distinguished military career, but Ganga Singh was also an accomplished linguist, reformer and politician. 

Maharaja Ganga Singh of Bikaner, by Sir William Orpen, 1919.

Ganga Singh ruled the former princely state of Bikaner from 1888-1943. He became Maharaja at eight years of age, when his brother died without leaving a male heir. The young royal studied at Mayo College in Ajmer - sometimes referred to as the Eton of India - where he received a western education. He was a talented student, excelling in English, speaking the language flawlessly and always winning first prize in this subject. In later life he liked to tell jokes and anecdotes while speaking in a Cockney accent. At fourteen, he left the college to study under a tutor who helped him develop riding and shooting skills and an understanding of the British system of government. In his free time, he enjoyed sports including cricket and roller skating.


The Maharaja replaced a British appointed regent in 1898, assuming full duties at the age of eighteen. Almost immediately he was met with a crisis as famine, cholera and smallpox struck his subjects. Thousands died and many others fled to the more verdant Punjab. Ganga Singh's response was to modernise his state, borrowing money to finance nine irrigation projects, two railway lines and three roads, as well as medical relief centres and the provision of interest free loans to farmers. These projects also provided much needed employment for his subjects. In 1927 his public works programme culminated in the opening of the Ganga Canal. This involved the conversion of one thousand kilometres of desert into green fields, enabling five hundred new villages to be established on previously uninhabitable land. 

His reputation as a reformer was further enhanced by his establishing a representative assembly in 1913, a High Court system in 1922 and a series of financial benefits for his employees including life insurance. He also set up a savings bank for ordinary citizens, outlawed child marriage, introduced prison reforms and established several institutions including educational facilities for women. His commitment to education was recognised in 2003 when the University of Bikaner changed its name to Maharaja Ganga Singh University. 

The Maharaja also had a distinguished military career. He founded the Bikaner Camel Corps, a force of five hundred men, that became known as the Ganga Risala. After he offered their service to the British, the Corps saw action in China during the Boxer Rebellion of 1900 and in Somaliland in 1902-1904. They also served in the First World War, and in 1915, routed Turkish forces at Suez in Egypt. Ganga Singh was much admired by the British and became a member of the Imperial War Cabinet. In 1919 he was a signatory of the Treaty of Versailles and from 1924 he represented India at the League of Nations. During this period, the movement for Indian independence gained momentum.  The Maharaja, although on good terms with the colonial authorities, also desired greater autonomy, but feared the end of the Princely State system in an independent India ruled by the Congress Party. He preferred a federal approach, combining independence with the retention of his princely powers. He failed to gain support for this approach and  after Independence, Bikaner and the other states were absorbed into a unified India.


The Maharaja’s military status and contribution was immortalised by Sir James Guthrie in another painting held by the National Portrait Gallery - Statesmen of World War OneIn an imagined scene, Ganga Singh appears with the Prime Ministers of Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Newfoundland and South Africa. The then British Prime Minister, Lloyd George is also present, as are others who at one time or another fulfilled that role - Arthur Balfour, Winston Churchill, Andrew Bonar Law and Herbert Asquith. Back in Churu, his image appears on the exterior walls of the Parekh haveli, built in 1925. The murals show him using various forms of transport including a Rolls Royce and a horse drawn carriage. 


The Maharajas were famed for their lavish lifestyle and for entertaining. Ganga Singh was no exception, always well turned out, he took particular care with his facial hair. One courtier is quoted as saying: "Every day after a bath, for at least ten minutes, he set his moustache with a very fine elastic netting." Furthermore, after getting dressed, he would, "...go to the room where his shoes were all in a row, and he would pick up a long pointer like you have in school. He would just touch one of the shoes with it and that pair would be polished and brushed." Despite his love of stylish clothes and liberal approach to social matters, he held conservative attitudes about family. His wives never appeared in public without wearing full purdah and no photographs of them exist.


Ganga Singh also served opulent dinners. In his controversial book, Passion India: The Story of the Spanish Princess of Kapurthala, Javer Moro claims that when asked for the recipe of a particular dish, the Maharaja said: “Prepare a whole camel, skinned and cleaned, put a goat inside it, and inside the goat a turkey and inside the turkey a chicken. Stuff the chicken with a grouse and inside that put a quail and finally inside that a sparrow. Then season it well, place the camel in a hole in the ground, and roast it.” Clearly, camels played a significant part in the Maharaja’s life, both on the battlefield and on the dining table. Moro's book is a fictionalised version of the diaries of Anita Delgado. The Maharaja of Kapurthala fell in love with her when he saw her dancing in a Madrid café. She travelled back to India with him, changed her name to Prem Kaur and became his fifth wife. 

Ganga Singh did not live to see Independence. In his role as a full General of the British Army, he offered to go to the front in 1939 at the outbreak of the Second World War. He was rejected due to his age, but did see active service in the Middle East in 1941. Within a year, he had returned home, diagnosed with a terminal cancer to which he succumbed on the second of February, 1943. He is still remembered for his reforms and achievements, not only in Bikaner, but also in London's National Portrait Gallery.