Hindu Gothic: the Bizarre Architecture of the Elephant Tea Rooms
The city of Sunderland in the North East of England has never achieved an architectural uniformity to match that of neighbouring cities like Newcastle. The merit of its commercial centre lies instead in variety and surprise, and the diverse array of banks and shop fronts along Fawcett Street culminates in the Elephant Tea House, a building which strikes a discordant note in terms of both style and colour. The patron was an eccentric grocer named Ronald Grimshaw, who established a small empire of retail outlets in the town. Designed by Sunderland’s own ‘rogue-architect,’ Frank Caws (1846-1905), the building looks like the fantastical collision of an Italian gothic palazzo and a Hindu temple. The whole is executed in a combination of red brick, faïance and terracotta, producing a visually abrasive polychromy that accentuates the spirit of stylistic abandon in which the building was conceived.
The three storeys are treated as separate compositional elements – horizontal strata which wrap around the elevations. The windows are strung together into miniature Venetian arcades tinged with colour and divided by slender pillars with foliated capitals. Surging through the horizontal lines is a corner-turret with a pagoda-like spire corbelled out from the bristling wall surface. The turret evokes the form of an eastern minaret, but abounds in gothic detail, including a coronet of gargoyles which radiate from beneath a cluster of minute finials.
The design reaches greater heights of fantasy in the upper portions, where the roofline is broken into a series of sharp gables punctuated by chimneys. Nestled between them are gothic niches with Indian elephants rearing their trunks beneath ogee arches. In fact, the elephants provide partial justification for the style Caws cheerfully termed ‘Hindoo-Gothic’: they carry tea chests on their backs, indicating that the building was intended as an emporium for exotic beverages and spices.
Despite the obvious discordance, the design was not without precedent. Structural polychromy was a passion of gothic architects in the 1870s, due in part to Ruskin’s celebration of the gothic palaces of Northern Italy in The Stones of Venice (1851-3). Caws’ basic model for the design was indeed the Italian gothic palazzo that became common in Victorian towns and cities, but in this case it is infused with an unexpected orientalism. The fusion of gothic and eastern styles had frequently been attempted in British colonial architecture, where it projected an image of unity between the Empire and its dominions, but it is rare to find it imported to the homeland and carried off with such frivolity. Overall, the building is a forcible expression of Caws’s eccentricity and exuberance. The Elephant Tea House represents Victorian architecture at its most eclectic and is the most strikingly ornamental building in Sunderland.
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