Friday 24 October 2008

County Arcade

A recent trip to Leeds provided an opportunity to sample the Italianate opulence of this late Victorian temple of commerce. The architect was the prolific designer of theatres, Frank Matcham. A profusion of polished, reflective and decorative chromatic surfaces imparts an emphatically theatrical quality to the arcade. In spirit, it feels like an intimate small scale version of Milan’s great Galleria and an Italian influence can be detected in the provision of three glazed domes, the extensive use of Siena marble and a decorative scheme that employed richly coloured mosaics and ceramic detailing in Burmantofts faience. The whole scheme combines into a dazzling and sumptuous setting in which to shop for luxury items.

Interest in Matcham’s work revived in the 1970’s after decades of neglect and the County Arcade was lovingly restored at great expense to its former glory in the early 1990’s. This involved rebuilding all but 6 of the original mahogany shop fronts. The deep perspectives are enhanced by the overhead repetition of beautifully decorated cast iron ribs and globe lighting pendants descending from ironwork braziers. While it may well be the case that the citizens of Leeds have not created an artistic and intellectual narrative around their arcades as happened in Paris, they can at least take satisfaction in the fact that no surviving passage couvert surpasses the decorative splendour of the County Arcade.

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