Home and abroad: Royal Arcade, Norwich

Philip Wilkinson is the author of over 40 books, including The English Buildings Book, and most recently The High Street, written in conjunction with the BBC TV series. Happily for us, he’s also the curator of the English Buildings Blog, a firm favorite here at The Dabbler. In this new series of posts, Philip talks us through some overlooked architectural gems…

In the late Victorian period, ceramic tiles were everywhere. Firms such as Minton and Doulton supplied tiles by the acre for everything from domestic fireplaces to hospital wards. Everybody liked tiles, it seemed, but retailers liked them more than most, and food retailers – butchers, grocers, fishmongers, and dairymen – were among the most enthusiastic customers. They liked tiles because of their bright, easy-care surfaces and because images on tiles could become colourful, permanent advertisements.

Shop tiles from the late-19th century often exhibit that touch of the Art Nouveau – a pattern made of curvaceous foliage or a group of heart-shaped leaves – that’s so evocative of the years on either side of 1900. But it took a really ambitious decorative scheme to exploit the full potential of this style. Norwich’s Royal Arcade, built in 1899 on ground previously occupied by the yard of the Royal Hotel, is a stunning example

The stroke of genius here was to employ one of the best designers at Doulton’s, W J Neatby, to do the tilework. Neatby had an interesting and unusual career. When he was 15 he was articled to a firm of architects and worked in the profession in Yorkshire, as clerk of works and then as architect, until he was 23. His architectural training taught him how to appreciate the ornament and monuments in the churches of the north of England, but the work he found himself doing, designing structures like mill roofs, was unsatisfying to a young man whose first love was decoration. So Neatby changed careers, and went to Burmantoft’s Potteries of Leeds to work as a designer of tiles. A few years later he moved to Doulton’s, becoming head of their architectural ceramics department. It was for Doulton’s that he did his best work, including tiles for Harrod’s food halls.

The Norwich arcade also gave Neatby scope to shine. A mass of Art Nouveau patterning, foliate detail, and lettering greets the visitor at this entrance to the arcade. At the very top is a female head surrounded by what look like stylized feathers and flanked by a scrolling design. Further down stripes surround the arch in blue-grey, off-white, and stone – the only restrained thing about this façade is the palette. The curved flanking walls have a pattern of upside-down hearts.

And then, on the lintel, there’s the arcade’s name. This is lettering to give a minimalist nightmares. The bulging loop of the ‘R’ is exceeded only by the extraordinary cross-bar of the ‘A’. This is a whiplash curve, a trademark of Art Nouveau design that’s a world away from the simple four-square letter forms of so many Victorian signs. These curvaceous forms, by contrast, seem to promise both amusement and sophistication. It’s going to be interesting in here, the lettering seems to say.

And so it proves. Lavish ceramic peacocks enliven the interior. Sunshine floods through the glass roof and the stained glass panels. An atmosphere combining lightness with richness is the result – there is jewel-like colour to make the shopper feel good, and, inside, plenty of light to show off the window displays.

But this decorative scheme succeeds because it takes our thoughts and imaginations beyond the goods on display to a different and more enduring place. Those whiplash curves in the lettering recall the similar curves that can be seen on the stations of the Paris Métro and the Brussels houses of Victor Horta. In 1899, when few people crossed the Channel, the arcade brought a touch of continental sophistication, a fresh approach to design, a breath of French air to an English city. A hundred years later, it still works.

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12 thoughts on “Home and abroad: Royal Arcade, Norwich

  1. Gaw
    July 21, 2011 at 09:33

    Wonderful! However, peaking out from the edges of the top photograph I see part of a ‘To Let’ sign on one side and a Waterstones sign on the other. Perhaps this suggests it’s not faring too well nowadays… I hope it’s listed.

    I wonder, Philip, what your thoughts are on the future of the high street? Perhaps the government should have hired you as well as Mary Portas to advise?

  2. wormstir@gmail.com'
    July 21, 2011 at 10:11

    looks lovely, but as Gaw says, you have to wonder how it would look with a Poundland on one side and a Subway on the other..to see the absolute nadir of high streets, I recommend Bodmin in cornwall – the town’s heart was ripped out by the opening of 4 out of town supermarkets. Now it resembles one of those Dawn of the Dead movies, with a few shuffling zombies slowly perambulating up and down the boarded up high street

    • johngjobling@googlemail.com'
      July 21, 2011 at 10:29

      All togevver nah….

      They changed our local Palais into a bowling alley
      and fings ain’t what they used t’ be

      There’s Teds wiv drainpipe trousers
      and Debs in coffee houses
      and fings ain’t what they used t’ be
      There used to be Trams not very quick
      Gotcha from place to place
      But now there’s just jams ‘alf a mile fick
      Stay in the human race… I’m walking

      They stuck parking meters outside our doors to greet us
      Now Fings ain’t what they used t’ be

      Corr! monkeys… flying round the moon
      We’ll be up there with ’em soon
      Fings ain’t what they used t’ be

      Once our beer was frothy
      but now its frothy coffee… well
      Fings ain’t what they used t’be
      It used to be fun Dad an’ old Mum
      paddling down Southend
      But now it ain’t done
      Never mind chum
      Paris is where we spend our outin’s
      Grandma tries to shock us all
      Doing knees up rock ‘n’ roll
      Fings ain’t wot they used t’ be

      We used to have stars
      Singers who sung a Dixie melody
      They’re buying guitars… plinkty plonk
      Backing their selves wiv th(f)ree chords only
      Once we’d dance from 12 to 3
      I’ve got news for Elvis P
      Fings ain’t what they used taaa
      There’s a lot we used taaa
      Fings ain’t what they used taa beeeee

      All together now….

      They paved paradise
      And put up a parking lot
      With a pink hotel, a boutique
      And a swinging hot SPOT
      Don’t it always seem to go
      That you don’t know what you’ve got
      ‘Til it’s gone
      They paved paradise
      And put up a parking lot

      They took all the trees
      And put them in a tree museum
      Then they charged the people
      A dollar and a half just to see ’em
      Don’t it always seem to go,
      That you don’t know what you’ve got
      ‘Til it’s gone
      They paved paradise
      And put up a parking lot

      Hey farmer, farmer
      Put away that DDT now
      Give me spots on my apples
      But LEAVE me the birds and the bees
      Don’t it always seem to go
      That you don’t know what you’ve got
      ‘Til its gone
      They paved paradise
      And put up a parking lot

      Late last night
      I heard the screen door slam
      And a big yellow taxi
      Come and took away my old man
      Don’t it always seem to go
      That you don’t know what you’ve got
      ‘Til it’s gone
      They paved paradise
      And put up a parking lot

      I said
      Don’t it always seem to go
      That you don’t know what you’ve got
      ‘Til it’s gone
      They paved paradise
      And put up a parking lot

      They paved paradise
      And put up a parking lot
      They paved paradise
      And put up a parking lot

      Fings ain’t wot they used t’be.

  3. philipwilk@googlemail.com'
    July 21, 2011 at 11:35

    My thoughts on the future of the High Street are too long and rambling for a comment on a post, but it’s grim, when the out-of-town supermarkets are offering so much, at such competitive prices, with on-site car parking thrown in – and as often as not former High Street stalwarts such as Boots and M&S on neighbouring out-of-town sites too. When I did the book for the BBC series on the High Street, I tried to be optimistic, pointing to some of the lessons of the series – that better marketing, building good relationships with customers, specialization, local produce, playing to one’s strengths, etc, can all help High Street businesses succeed. But it’s tough, and right now more and more people need cheap goods and are resorting to Tesco’s on the one hand and pound shops on the other.

  4. Gaw
    July 21, 2011 at 11:54

    For what it’s worth, I think a big step to reviving the high street will be a material decrease in rents. However, for this to happen, landlords need to capitulate on upward-only rent reviews and, perhaps more problematically, banks need to be willing and able to write down some of their property lending. Planners also need to accept the unavoidability of extensive residential conversions, taking footage out of the market.

    I suspect cheap as chips high street property might see the rise of new breeds of retailer and new, imaginative ways of combining local space and the digital world.

    • Worm
      July 21, 2011 at 15:03

      the problem is also exacerbated by the rise of shopping malls and arcades, where the landlords would rather have an empty shop than lower rates, because if they lower their rent at all, then they would have to lower rent for all the other shops in the arcade…

  5. info@shopcurious.com'
    July 21, 2011 at 13:46

    What a wonderful winkelpassage!

    • Worm
      July 21, 2011 at 13:56

      isn’t this comment meant for the other post about My Secret Life? 😀

  6. philipwilk@googlemail.com'
    July 21, 2011 at 14:22

    Gaw: You’re on to something with rents. Also: aren’t a lot of shop rents still paid quarterly? And wouldn’t monthly rents help the cashflow for small High Street businesses? But, again, at the expense of the landlords’ cashflow.

    • Gaw
      July 21, 2011 at 14:30

      Yes, monthly rents are becoming increasingly common as are ones based on a percentage of tenant turnover. Regarding their fall, the law of supply and demand suggests it’s a question of when rather than if.

  7. philipwilk@googlemail.com'
    July 21, 2011 at 14:28

    Worm: The scope for architectural puns is great, but when I try to exploit it, people are wont to kick me up the apse.

    • Gaw
      July 21, 2011 at 14:30

      Very arch.

Comments are closed.