the man behind the drawings
Well-regarded local architect James Wade has set himself the ambitious task of documenting modern Shrewsbury in a series of finely executed streetscapes, writes Katy Rink.
From the gorgeous red sandstone fortifications of Shrewsbury castle to the grand edifices of early modern mansions, half-timbered Tudor buildings, classical Georgian exteriors so admired by Pevsner and brutalist architecture of the post-war era, our town is a living museum of British architectural styles.
James St. Clair Wade, formerly senior architect with Arrol and Snell Architects for more than twenty years, has enjoyed a distinguished career working primarily in conservation, with new builds to his name including the beautiful cloistered Trinity Centre at Meole Brace and his new classical house, The Mount, which is listed in Pevsner’s The Buildings of England (2006).
He is also an expert draughtsman and contributed a regular series of caricatures to Shooting Times. In April 2019 and now self-employed, James began work on an ambitious project to record the historic streetscape of Shrewsbury in a series of architectural views allowing the whole length of each street to be viewed simultaneously (Shrewsbury Streetscape Project).
With the help of his wife Katriona, he set up a Facebook page Shrewsbury Streetscape Project dedicated to the project so that the public could watch its progress. It's a fabulous resource - you can watch James in action and understand the process behind the drawings.
And thanks to My Shrewsbury's local history expert and town tour guide Stan Sedman, we're working together to compile an accompanying history of the buildings of our town and their uses through the ages, which will be hosted on www.myshrewsbury.co.uk along with the full set of Shrewsbury Streetscape Project drawings - and you can enjoy them in print, in the regular column in My Shrewsbury magazine too.
With the future of Britain’s high streets ever more uncertain following the boom in internet shopping, recent floods and now the virus, capturing this moment in time is a service to posterity.
“It’s an artist’s love song to his county town,” Katriona says. “People have suggested that James should do Pall Mall, Regent Street, Cambridge, and so on but he grew up here. It’s a souvenir of this town and these shops, at a very particular moment in time. It’s also a record of how buildings change as people live in them.”
“It’s a personal response, like a portrait in a way, combining both the artistic and the architectural,” adds James. “I take pictures of the buildings, working in short sections. I don’t physically measure them. It would take forever and a day. I get scale right using a map, measuring the frontages so they are in proportion. The rest is by eye.
“I always like that moment when I join them together and you see the whole street for the first time. With Wyle Cop you can see the variety and the contrast of the different buildings and how the buildings step up relative to each other. A lot of the issue is planning the sections so that when they join you get a coherent scape.”
James estimates that takes him 150 hours per street. He has completed the main arteries to the town centre - Mardol, Pride Hill, Wyle Cop and The High Street, Shoplatch and St John's Hill - but he estimates it may take him several years to finish: “With the present situation, where architectural work is very quiet, I have time to work on it,” he says.
“It’s a bit like taking a very slow, virtual guided tour through town,” explains Katriona. “Under lockdown when people couldn't look around Shrewsbury in person, they could do it virtually, watching James draw, building by building. We’ve got people watching from Australia, Albania and Myanmar. Facebook has been a steep learning curve - James doesn’t even have a mobile phone!
“It’s a project we wanted to encourage people to follow and engage with. We post progress videos showing the techniques used and discussing the individual buildings as the work proceeds."
The videos are now attracting thousands of views. Andrew Spicer of Fairholme Films has also made a beautiful short documentary about James, giving an insight into the process of producing a Streetscape drawing - you can watch it at streetscapeproject.com
"James’ quiet and intelligent application of his professional skills imbues his designs with almost moral exactitude"
James’ first building was Tanners, along Wyle Cop North, he explains: “I was experimenting with the best scale to work at. It needs to be just big enough to get detail in. If I draw too large, when you join them together, the finished result is too long to put on anyone’s walls. One customer bought framed drawings of both sides of the Cop to give the effect of walking up the hill!"
It is James’ quiet and intelligent application of his professional skills to this artistic challenge which imbues his designs with almost moral exactitude. To our untrained eye, they appear perfect in every way and yet James is not beyond taking a few liberties, where his artistic sensibilities are most offended.
“I can’t promise there won’t be an element here and there that is not entirely historically accurate,” James says, as he contemplates whether to spend 25 hours drawing Princess House, the utilitarian 1970s block which dominates the Market Square, or whether to insert a new design of his own.
He is even considering reinstating Sir Robert Smirke’s monumental Shirehall, demolished to make way for Princess House in 1971.
Smirke led the Greek Revival in England and rebuilt Covent Garden Theatre (now the Royal Opera House) as well as the main block and façade of the British Museum.
“I don’t have an individual favourite,” James says. “Of course there are some I’m very fond of, but it’s the combination that creates the character of the town. For me, it’s about displaying the variety and quality of our ordinary buildings in Shrewsbury. It’s very much sum of the parts that’s important.”
James would like his work to be regarded as a tribute to those who built up this amazing collection of buildings through the centuries and to those who still maintain and look after them today: “Working as an architect you know the expense and hard work that goes into looking after buildings and the choices between a quick fix and an authentic repair with the right materials - it’s not easy. I take my hat off to anyone who faces those problems and keeps going.
“Each generation has built on the work of previous generations in a respectful and interesting way (with a few exceptions!) to produce an overall effect that is varied but also harmonious. There may be other towns in the UK that are better known but you would have to go a long way to find anywhere that has quite the variety and intricacy of Shrewsbury’s streetscape.”
BUYING A PRINT
Limited edition signed prints are now available for whole street panoramas and individual sections from streetscapeproject.com
They are produced by specialist art printers UK Giclee, with framing by Shrewsbury Framing Studio.
See the gallery for details and prices (pictures are grouped in albums by street name) To order, email firstname.lastname@example.org
The individual A3 sections are £75 unframed. Wyle Cop South panorama and High Street North are £450 each unframed. Wyle Cop North is £500 unframed. Bespoke sections are possible too.
The Shrewsbury Streetscape Project front cover (R) of My Shrewsbury magazine in July 2020 - showing the Halifax Building on the High Street, a late Victorian building (1892) in Flemish Revival Style, formerly the Salop Fire Office - shown next to the real thing (L)!