20th Century Pub pubs

An Extraordinary Gentleman: the Brand New Victorian Pubs of Roddy Gradidge

MAIN IMAGE: The Markham Arms in 1976 © Klaus Hiltscher, used with permission.

The architect and interior designer Roderick ‘Roddy’ Gradidge was both a conservative and a wannabe Teddy Boy proto-punk. Though he worked on all kinds of buildings, and wrote several books, he is usually described in short-form as one thing: a pub designer.

We’ve put together this profile based on the newspaper archives we were able to access, online sources, and the books in the ever-expanding Arthur Millard Memorial Library (our box room). As such, consider it a work in progress: when we get chance, for example, we’ll visit the RIBA library and see if we can come up with a more comprehensive list of his projects. Here’s what we know for now.

John Roderick Warlow Gradidge was born in Norfolk in 1929 but grew up in India where his father served in the colonial army. Young Roderick came back to England in 1943 to attend Stowe under the headmastership of J.F. Roxburgh. Writing in the aftermath of Gradidge’s death the writer A.N. Wilson, a friend, suggested that Roxburgh was a key influence on Gradidge’s character:

When one thinks of the flamboyant gallery of talent fostered by that schoolmaster – Peregrine Worsthorne, Antony Quinton, George Melly, – it is hard not to feel some connection.

Flamboyant is certainly the right word: Gradidge, who everyone describes as ‘huge’ or ‘massive’, started wearing an earring in 1955 and ‘longed to be a Teddy boy’, donning the uniform drape jacket, sideburns, tight trousers and suede brothel-creepers and devoting himself to rock’n’roll.

After school, he studied at the Architectural Association, a vocational higher education institution founded in 1847, from which he graduated in 1953. It’s difficult to pin down when his association with pubs began. Some sources (1 | 2) suggest he designed petrol stations in East Anglia for a time before joining Benskin’s Brewery of Watford as a pub designer. Benskin’s was taken over by Ind Coope in 1957 which might explain how Gradidge came to work under the guidance of Ben Davis. Davis was an influential pub designer and philosopher who trained the Ind Coope (Allied Breweries) in-house team from 1965 onward, and later wrote an important book, The Traditional English Pub, published in 1981. He mentions Gradidge several times in that volume and the two men shared an enthusiasm for Victorian pub buildings, even running at least one guided tour for fellow enthusiasts.

Things start to firm up in the timeline from 1962 when Gradidge was given a job overseeing the well-funded refurbishment of a run-down pub in London docklands, The Newcastle Arms. The Newcastle’s new licensee was the writer and broadcaster Daniel Farson who changed the pub’s name to The Waterman’s Arms and set about turning it into a tribute to the great age of music hall. Fortunately for us he was a habitual memoirist. Here’s his recollection of this time from an essay that appeared in the anthology Pub edited by Angus McGill in 1969:

I was lucky that the brewers’ architect was Roderick Gradidge, an imaginative designer who shared my own enthusiasms… He visualised the music hall saloon immediately and designed a series of arches to replace the wall that was knocked down between the two bars. He commissioned an elaborate proscenium for the stage, gilded with symbols of the Isle of Dogs and Music Hall, and rediscovered an art nouveau wallpaper of green and gold which covered one wall. We agreed on blood-red paint for the other walls but when these were finished he phoned to warn me I was in for a shock. They were glaring, to say the least, but they were meant as a background for posters and photos and I was collecting these eagerly… By contrast, the Public Bar was austere with brown parcel paper on the walls and prints of the London river.

This approach was to become Gradidge’s trademark: not slavish pastiche but, as Ben Davis once observed, a genuine feel for the art and craftsmanship of the past that ‘gave his imaginative work a sound basis’. It wasn’t about recreating the Waterman’s as it had been in 1895 so much as doing something new in the spirit of the Victorian era, and without irony. The new Waterman’s was a success, at least in terms of acclaim if not financially, and became the backdrop to an award-winning musical documentary; prompted numerous newspaper articles; and even a spin-off TV series filmed in a studio clone of the pub.

There’s also surely a sly joke in Farson’s line about shared enthusiasms because both he and Gradidge were gay, although Gradidge himself rejected that term according to A.N. Wilson: ‘Why say I’m gay? … I’m simply a PERVERT.’ Whether he and Farson were friends before this as Bridget Rees seems to suggest in a comment on this blog post, or if this brought them together is hard to say but they were apparently often to be seen pub-crawling together in Soho in the years that followed.

The Three Greyhounds, Soho.
Adapted from a picture by Ewan for Pubology.

As it happens it is in Soho that another of Gradidge’s notable subjects can be found – The Three Greyhounds on the corner where Old Compton Street, the capital of gay London, meets Greek Street. In this tall, half-timbered mock-Tudor structure built in 1924, Gradidge ‘turned up the decorative volume’. So far we haven’t found any photographs or detailed descriptions and can’t say what, if anything, survives of Gradidge’s work today. That’s a shame because there are hints here and there that it might have been among his best.

Another pub with which he strongly associated is the Markham Arms in Chelsea. Thanks to a photo-spread in the July 1972 edition of industry publication A Monthly Bulletin we can get some sense of the Gradidge effect.

This refurb was inspired by the artist James Whistler and used a peacock motif of his design as inspiration for interior details such as the back-bar and the light fittings, above. It was not a straightforward period recreation and, in fact, looks very of its time. The hot pink exterior was colourful shading to gaudy and, as The Markham Arms was then gaining a reputation as a gay pub, Gradidge must surely have been consciously emphasising the camp glamour inherent in a certain strand of Victorian style — peacocks indeed. Sadly, the Markham ceased to be a pub in the 1990s so all this careful work is long gone.

A fourth certain Gradidge project, The Great Northern at Hornsey in north London, is at least partially intact and still trading as a pub under the stewardship of Fuller’s. In 2004 Michael Slaughter wrote this in the CAMRA Regional Inventory for London (PDF):

Built 1897 by architects Shoebridge and Rising in a flamboyant, Flemish Renaissance manner. The pub was remodelled internally in the late 20th century by Roderick Gradidge, one of the most sensitive architects dealing with pub refurbishment. The front parts are now a single space but some sense of subdivision has been achieved by the reuse of the fine glazed screenwork. The large rear music room is mightily impressive with its two great tie-beams, glazed skylight and two plaster friezes: the decoration, including the powerful fireplace, looks like Gradidge work.

It has recently undergone an extensive refurb and relaunch as a ‘craft beer’ venue, to some controversy, but it looks to us (from afar, with only the internet for reference) fairly well intact. The fireplace is still there and gives a pretty good idea of what Gradidge was all about – it is grand and attention-grabbing, a work of art in its own right, rather than the kind of deliberately vague background pastiche that relies on people not looking too closely.

Which brings us back to Mr Gradidge himself. As he got older he did not settle into respectability, even though his active involvement with the Catholic Church intensified. He began to get tattoos long before that was the kind of thing respectable people did until they were all over his body, including a dragon that covered most of his back. Later on he grew his grey hair long and wore it in a ponytail. And, once the Teddy boy phase had passed, he started to have all his suits made with both trousers and ‘skorts’ – plain kilts of his own design. That last habit earned him a nickname, the Kilted Crusader.

‘Crusader’ in this context was a reference to his strident campaigning on behalf of then unfashionable Victorian and Edwardian architecture, and a corresponding and vocal hatred of modernist architecture. He was on the committee of the Victorian Society for most his adult life and co-founded what is now called the 20th Century Society, and at one point found himself allied to Prince Charles in his crusade against modern architecture.

He was in his mid-forties when he wrote an essay about pubs for Save the City, a 1976 manifesto for the preservation of the City of London’s unique character jointly published by the Victorian Society, the Georgian Group, the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, and the Civic Trust. In it he sets out his mature views on the essence of what makes a pub work:

A pub is a frighteningly volatile collection of intangibles, relying on ordinary human beings to keep them together. The simplest of rooms can be transformed by polish, glitter and good lighting. The finest mahogany and cut glass interior can be destroyed by neglect and insensitive additions in a surprisingly short space of time, and when it ceases to trade properly because of this the brewers too often start to think in terms of ‘modernisation’ and so the destruction starts… Since the qualities we are talking of are ‘unlistable’, there is little that the preservationist can do when this threatens to occur.

He goes on to argue that modernist pubs are basically doomed to be unappealing in their very nature, and to applaud the slow discovery of a ‘popular modern aesthetic’ which has ‘a lot in common with the best Victorian design’.

After this time Gradidge seems to have moved away from pubs as he tackled several substantial writing projects, including a biography of his idol, the then-unfashionable Edwin Lutyens. Reading between the lines of obituaries – not that far between the lines, in this case – he also made more and more of a pain of himself, roaring at people in patrician manner, and arguing all sorts of unfashionable positions with such obnoxious vigour that he stranded himself on the fringes of the architectural establishment.

‘In a sane England,’ A.N Wilson wrote in the aftermath of Gradidge’s death  in December 2000, ‘the man to whom we were all making our farewells would have been asked to design our great public buildings.’ As it was, his legacy would be on the purely domestic scale – a collection of interiors, renovations and and extensions with no single building of his own design ever being constructed from scratch.

And, sadly, he is not even remembered by the hundred or so pubs he is supposed to have had a hand in designing because no-one seems to know which they are. If we did we’d probably find that they’ve been re-re-re-refurbished in pursuit one new trend after another. But we’ll certainly be making a trip to Hornsey next time we’re in London to look at that fireplace, which has about it something of the Highgate Cemetery memorial.

We’d like to thank Tim Delaney for giving us a nudge to research and write this piece; Martyn Cornell for the ongoing usefulness of his gift of spare copies of A Monthly Bulletin; and also our Patreon supporters who paid for the purchase of a couple of books and a few of what ought to have been billable hours that we spent on this instead.

5 replies on “An Extraordinary Gentleman: the Brand New Victorian Pubs of Roddy Gradidge”

Not sure we got that impression particularly. He liked pubs and beer, obviously, but we didn’t come across any accounts of Nairn-like excess, and he worked right up until he died.

Excellent article – never heard of the guy, and now I really feel I should have. (Maybe Patreon isn’t such a daft idea after all.)

On a frankly trivial note, I wonder if he invented the skort? It is, as they say, a Thing – my daughter used to wear one for PE. Basically cycling shorts with a skirt attached, or a skirt with a pair of short shorts built in, depending how you look at it.

Wow. This is better than Google. I posted a casual query and within a week there’s an erudite (and well-illustrated) response appears on the internet.
You might just be hearing from me again…

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