2. High Street Frontage

Grey Friars seen from the High Street

Grey Friars, as it now stands, presents an array of fine and elaborate external and internal classical features which largely go unnoticed and whose importance is generally unrecognised. Many of these features equal those in better known neo-classical buildings scattered throughout the country.

Classical architecture, such as that of Grey Friars was originally developed in ancient Greece (from 400BC) and it was then adapted and extended by the Romans (C1st to C4th), rediscovered and modified during the Renaissance (C15th to C17th) and finally brought to Grey Britain in the C17th and known thereafter as neo-classicism. The Greek influence brought verticals and horizontals and the Roman influence brought arches and domes. The Romans relied heavily on the writings of the architect Vitruvius for their definitions. Classical architecture was influenced by mathematical principles and was based on ‘orders’ which were a kind of architectural code or grammar relating to shape, proportion and decoration and which had to be followed carefully in all constructions. Each order had its own mathematical rules. The core of this code was the vertical supporting column and its supported lintel. The column consisted of a base, shaft and capital (its summit) and the lintel (or entablature) consisted of the architrave, frieze and cornice.

  • Columns left to right: Tuscan / Doric / Ionic / Corinthian / Composite.
  • Features top to bottom: cornice / frieze / architrave / capital / shaft / base.

Of the five orders three are considered to derive from the purer Greek forms (Doric, Ionic and Corinthian) and two are Roman additions (Tuscan and Composite). They are arranged in a hierarchy and have recognisable features. This hierarchy from the simple to the more elaborate can be seen in a building starting on the lower floors and moving upwards; or it can be used externally and internally, and even as a social label for the occupants. The Tuscan order is the most primitive of them all with a plain, smooth column and a simple capital. The Doric order has more ‘masculine’ columns associated with strength and which often have sharp-edged grooves; there is often no base. The capital is plain, convex and cushion shaped. The Ionic order is much taller, more elegant, slender and ‘feminine’. The shaft is often grooved (fluted) but with very flat bands. The most recognisable feature is the capital which has two in-curled scrolls or volutes. The Corinthian order is also very feminine and is characterised by its bell-shaped capital which is decorated with more than one row of acanthus leaves. It also has four equally-placed small spiral scrolls, and the shaft or column is often un-fluted. The Composite order is the most complex of them all, combining grace, strength and ornamentation. The capital is richly decorated with acanthus leaves, scrolls and often other flora and fauna. Similarly the decoration of the entablatures supported by these five orders vary sequentially from plain to simple. Vertical bands give way to more complex dentils and finally to highly elaborate reliefs. These decorations usually appear on the frieze or cornice. It is recorded in Morant’s “History and Antiquities of Colchester” 1748 that an earlier building stood on the Grey Friars site and in 1740 it was sold by its owner Thomas Bayes, to Dr Robert Potter who was mayor of Colchester in 1689 and 1700. His portrait in oils, mentioned in his will if 1752 as “by Summers with a rose in my hand”, survived and is held by Colchester and Ipswich Museum Services. This raises the issue of whether the previous building was completely demolished, or fell into disrepair, or whether any remnants remain as evidence of a former house.

 For fully illustrated version see printed book & resources section of this website.

With some architectural knowledge now absorbed it is time to apply it to the south-facing frontage of Grey Friars which adjoins the High Street (formerly Frere Street). It is sandwiched between All Saints House (of a similar date) to the east and Winsley’s House, Gate House and East Lodge, all C17th and early C18th buildings, to the west.

The façade

Forming the centrepiece of the range of buildings now facing the High Street is the original house, Grey Friars, of 1755 .

The south-facing façade of Grey Friars has an imposing frontage of red brick with two stone string courses running the total length of the building at first and second floor level. This stringing is decorated with miniature moulded corbels on the oldest central section of 1755, but left plain on the later east and west wings. The oldest section is clearly defined but blends architecturally with the later Edwardian wings of 1904. There are 47 sash windows and all but three are of a plain rectangular shape, whereas similar windows in East Hill House opposite have very slight segmental arches (slightly curved at the top). Most of the Grey Friars windows are the ‘six over six’ design – three panes across by two down for each sliding panel. The older central part of the building, however, has a ‘four over four’ design. The sash window was one of the greatest inventions of the late C17th and appears over and over again in houses of the Georgian period.

Shifting attention to the front door of Grey Friars, it can be seen that the columns either side are of the Ionic order. This was considered the order suitable for clergymen and ladies. The columns on either side of the Minories doorway opposite are only of the Doric order. This is because the Rev John Halls, being a clergyman, was considered to be of a higher social class than the merchant Thomas Boggis of the Minories. Returning once more to the Grey Friars doorway, it is evident that the two pillars on either side are not quite free standing, but are attached by a small portion of their shafts to the wall behind. They should therefore be described more correctly as adjoined pillars. These are very similar to pilasters which are a much flatter form of pillar attached to a wall and projecting slightly from it; they are essentially a decorative feature rather than a functional supporting structure. More of these will be seen throughout the interior of Grey Friars, but here, at the doorway, the adjoined pillars do in fact give some support to the entablature with its architrave, plain frieze, and cornice decorated with tooth-like mouldings known as dentils. Above the entablature there is a low-pitched ornamental gable also edged with dentils which is known as a pediment and this is triangular in shape. Some doorways are surmounted by a shallow curve as can be seen again at East Hill House over the road. In both these examples the space formed by the pediment or arch is known as the tympanum which may or may not be decorated in relief. In both these houses they are left blank but the frieze of East Hill House shows ox skulls and flowers in high relief. The Grey Friars small-roofed doorway space, slightly elevated by three steps , with its pediment above forms the centre-piece of the Grey Friars south-facing façade, and as such, can certainly be considered a simple portico. Completing this function to impress, there is a glass fanlight above the door itself with delicate tracery and the name ‘Grey Friars’ engraved into the glass.

This grandiose front door in the days of the Preparatory and Junior Departments of the Colchester High School for Girls (1920-57) was only for the Headmistress and staff. Pupils used the side entrance behind which a narrow passage with bicycle sheds led to the garden. It was at the extreme end of the east wing adjoining All Saints House. Complementing the pediment over the front door, a second central pediment appears above the first floor window decorated with miniature corbels to match the stringing here. Flanking the door case on either side are a matching pair of two-storey bow windows. This was a deviation from the standard plan of Palladian correctness. John Crunden in his book “Convenient and Ornamental Architecture” 1767 shows a similar house and explains the introduction of the bow windows at the front – “these are more for variety than choice, but a house thus built makes a great figure in the eyes of country people and renders, as they think, the house very cheerful”.

The window on the first floor immediately above the front door is of very special interest. It is known as a Venetian or Serliana window. The latter name was derived from the name of the Italian artist and architect Serlio (1475 – 1554) who first illustrated this type of window in his treatise ‘Architectura’ published posthumously in 1854. He paid great attention to the meanings that different styles could convey, and virtually created a vocabulary to describe aesthetic responses to buildings – but more of this when the interior of this Venetian window is examined. From the outside this window conforms to the design of a Serliana. It has three parts, the central one is arched, wider and taller than the other two. The whole window is supported at its base by four corbels and projects slightly from the verticality of the wall. The two mullions and the left and right borders of the frame are decorated with pilasters of the Ionic order. These are purely decorative and have no supporting function. In the centre of the row of windows on the first floor of the west wing and also the east wing (both added in 1904), a Venetian window has been cleverly copied to continue and balance the neo-classical style of the whole – but neither is so elaborate as the original one over the front door. The Minories also has an C18th Venetian window at the rear facing the garden.

From a position just outside the front door and gazing upwards it is obvious that the east and west wings each have a second storey, whereas the original building of 1755 appears to have only one storey – but the secons storey is hidden. Connection internally between the four parts of the present building at this height is possible because of the extension to the rear and northwards in 1780 which included a mezzanine floor. Similarly the solid parapet at two levels on the front of the house not only hides and protects the rainwater gullies, but also obscures skylights and small dormer windows which lit the attics and the former servants’ quarters. Just visible on the summit is the hipped roof which allows these four separate sections of the building to merge together as one unit.

See the Resources section for a fully illustrated guided tour downloadable leaflet.

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