Tuesday 13 January 2015

The Architecture of Drinking Fountains

A contemporary article complaining about the architecture and location of the metropolitan drinking fountain, often installed as a charitable bequest ... 


The movement for supplying the people with a pure and refreshing draught of water must be received with unmixed approval. The philanthropic spirit which introduced drinking-fountains has spread, and the metropolis is now dotted with numerous little structures, from which all classes who need may allay their thirst, principally through the efforts of the "Association" that originated the movement here, aided and extended by benevolent individuals who, at their own cost, have added to the numbers scattered over the town. We are not sanguine enough to believe that it will do much for the repression of drunkenness, or that those who habitually indulge in stimulating drinks will fly the glaring dens of vice that choke up our public ways. Still it is an immense advantage for those "who labour and are heavy laden," not of necessity to be driven into the polluted atmosphere of the gin-palace and the public house to satisfy the cravings of nature, elbowed and jostled by the depraved and miserable beings who put an enemy into their months to steal away their brains, but may slake their parched throats with a liquid that neither destroys the body nor brings ruin to the purse. In this way we trust many will shun the plague-spots, and escape infection. The experiment was well worth trying, and only good can result from it ; but whilst we seek to raise the moral condition of those whom the drinking fountains are intended to benefit, it is worth while to consider whether the fountains at the same time may not be made, in the eye of taste, an ornament to the metropolis, instead of a blur. There is, perhaps, no class of objects open to so free and varied an expression in design, so completely under the control of the designer, so capable of adding a grace to our streets, and beautifying our thoroughfares, as fountains. Yet in those erected we vainly look for elegance of form or successful artistic adaptation. Some of them are elaborate enough, and no doubt rather costly structures, such as that recently opened in front of St. Mary-le-Strand, representing a miniature temple, with a little gilt figure of a boy at the top, reminding us of those ingenious devices which confectioners exhibit in their windows as the wonders of the sugar art. This temple seems to be a favourite with the fountain makers, for we observe the idea repeated in others of still more toy-like proportions.
      In several the utmost skill of the designer has never got beyond the general appearance of a monumental tablet, which, but for the feeble stream emitted from the centre might serve as appropriately to record the virtues of the dead within the sacred edifice as they do now the living honours of the donors against the churchyard-rails—witness that at St. Dunstan's upon which is set forth, in large obtrusive letters, the grandeur of a city knight, alderman of the ward—how he was Lord Mayor one year, and elected M.P. another —with the gaudily emblazoned arms at the top, to astonish the vagrant eye of the Fleet-street wanderer. We fear the grace of the gift is somewhat disparaged by this show of self-glorification. "Verily they have their reward." To do good by stealth is not the virtue suggested by the drinking-fountains. For the most part the donors seem to forget that the stream of benevolence never runs so sweetly as when flowing with modesty. In others, added to the meanness of the design, is the utter unfitness of the symbols employed in the way of ornament—fresh water running from salt sea-shells, or pouring from the mouths of marine monsters and heads of grotesque animals, such as we find at the waste-water spouts of medieval buildings: apart from the complete absurdity of streams flowing through animals, it does not accord with our notions of purity to drink from the mouths of beasts. The idea is simply disgusting, and should never be resorted to for fountains intended to supply water exclusively for drinking. As an example of the objectionable introduction of such ornaments, we may cite the fountains under the portico of the British Museum, which, in other respects, are extremely beautiful, formed of white marble," to which are appended elegant classical cups, "silvered o'er," that may well tempt the visitor to partake of the cooling draught. Yet in these the water flows from gasping mouths, and is given off from the protruded tongues of lions. In the wide range of nature, there are surely objects enough of beauty to supply emblems appropriate to the subject, and befitting the occasion—the graceful plants and flowers that that fringe our running streams, offer an endless variety for illustration and ornament. In less expensive structures simple rock-work might be adapted with advantage ; the water gushing from a crevice, as it is seen in the hill countries, forming natural basins in the stone. For more elaborate works, nymphs pouring the liquid current from elegantly formed vessels, or the great law-giver Moses, striking the rock, from which burst forth the living stream to slake the parched tongues of the children of Israel —the fittest and most suggestive, perhaps, of all for a fountain dedicated to the poor; but whatever class of subject is adopted, let us be rid of those puerile animal conceits that are scarcely less offensive to all delicacy of taste than the filthy sputterings of the notorious "mannikin" at Brussels.

      Another important consideration, which appears to have been entirely overlooked, is locality. We cannot think the skirts of hospitals and graveyards proper places for the erection of drinking fountains. The water flowing from the little Norman structure, the first drinking-fountain erected in London, by Mr. Samuel Gurney, within the rails of St. Sepulchre's, appears to come from the mouldering graves, by which it is closely backed; and the pump in St. Paul's Churchyard, to which has been added a drinking-cup, is similarly situated and equally objectionable; whilst the miserable contrivance at the railway termini of London Bridge, attached to gas-lamp, is in such close proximity to a repulsive structure, that the wonder is any degree of thirst can induce the passers-by to drink from such a source. Though it may not always be possible a in overcrowded neighbourhoods to surround the fountains with pure air, there can be little difficulty in placing them apart from offensive matters or offending associations. The enjoyment of a draught of water is increased by the brightness of the cup and its isolation from proximate impurities. The moral condition of the poor is not a little influenced by that which meets the eye. We desire them to drink, then let them do so under the most refreshing circumstances of sweetness and cleanliness, that they may be lured again and again to partake of the blessing that is offered them.
      The position of the fountain at the Oxford-street circus is better chosen, and offers an example for the placing of others in similar situations, where they might be erected under a covering that would afford shelter from the rain, as well as a place of refuge in the centre of thronged crossings. In our variable climate, shelter is so often needed, that it is surprising no attempt has been made to meet this deficiency. Light elegant structures, in ornamental iron, open at the sides, with a glass roof, would afford some protection from the weather, and be a boon to the public, who have so often to abide the peltings of the pitiless storm whilst waiting for a conveyance. In skilful hands, the combined requirements of a fountain, a place of refuge, and shelter, might be made a work of utility and beauty, and contribute to the adornment of the town. There is so little of ornamental attraction in London streets, that the opportunity of introducing and encouraging it should not be lost. Our public statues can scarcely be said to decorate our highways and squares, but are for the most part a disgrace and a laughing-stock. Unsightly indicators have got possession of our lamp-posts, advertising their supreme ugliness to the passers-by; and ungainly and tasteless structures greet us at every turn. We can understand that, in the early stage of the fountain movement, its promoters would be more solicitous to set the fountains going than regardful of architectural excellence or fitness of site. Now that the good work is in active operation, we would earnestly impress upon the estimable gentlemen forming the "Association for the Erection of Public Drinking-Fountains," the necessity of paying, in future, a little more attention to the choice of situation, propriety of ornament, and beauty of design.

The London Review, 1 December 1860

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