Story Behind The Beautiful Southbank House, Lambeth
Over the top decoration in London always catches my eye. Maybe it’s because most new buildings favour a sleek – glass and steel – facade? In any case, whenever I spot something elaborate I always want to know the story behind it and I was in luck with Southbank House in Lambeth.
Clues In The Details
Standing on the corner of Black Prince Road, SE1 this fanciful tiled and terracotta building wears its function as its jazzy dinner jacket.
Above the entrance a group of figures admire large pots and a row of different shaped vases adorn the wall behind them.
The terracotta relief carving by George Tinworth dates from around 1878, titled ‘Mr Doulton in his studio’. There’s also a seated woman to the left, thought to be Hannah Bolton Barlow, a leading female artist whose pet cat sits under her stool!
But along the side of the building we get a more straightforward clue.
(Always Look Up!)
Doulton Pottery Buildings
Established in 1815, Royal Doulton produced fine ceramics from their factory site in Lambeth until the 1950s.
A nearby plaque under a rail bridge (more on them later…)
Founded by John Doulton, the company began by making glazed sewer pipes. However, his son Henry had a taste for the fancier things and branched out into fine bone china and figurines. He was even awarded the royal warrant in 1901 by King Edward VII, so that’s where the ‘Royal’ in the names comes from.
This shift towards the decorative was helped by the proximity to Lambeth School of Art (est. 1854 and still going today under the name City & Guilds of London Art School in Kennington).
This building is the only surviving part of the huge factory complex. It used to house the pottery’s museum, design studio and art school and was built in 1871.
“Remember that the most beautiful things in the world are the most useless; peacocks and lilies for example” – John Ruskin
But of course as well as its style, this building has substance. It serves the purpose of showing off the goods; a “living advertisement” as described by Gavin Stamp, architectural historian.
White Hart Dock
After The Second World War, Lambeth ceased to be an industrial hub. However, as well as the beautiful architecture discussed above, you can find some more unusual visual reminders;
These wooden, pointy arches decorate the former White Hart Dock, established here since at least the 14th century.
You may be thinking, surely a dock should be on the River front, and you’d be right. Today this body of water in inland thanks to Joseph Bazalgette’s Albert Embankment (constructed 1866-69). However, by including some low bridges, Bazalgette allowed barges to still reach this area at low tide in order to unload their cargo! By peering over the wall you can see the evidence…
The water also came in handy during The Second World War as an emergency water supply used for putting out fires during bombing raids.
This artwork, recalling Thames lighters that would’ve ferried goods and supplies under the bridges, was created by Handspring Design in 2009.
Don’t Miss Under the Bridge!
Further along Black Prince Road there are more historic clues under a bridge.
There are some mosaics which show the history of the Black Prince (eldest son of Edward III who died before he could inherit the throne).
And on the left hand side are a variety of ceramic plaques using motifs drawn from Doulton’s products.
Southbank House, Lambeth
Today Southbank House is a shared workspace venture with offices available to hire, including relatively affordable artist studio space. In a sense then, its gone back to its original function!
More London Pottery Links
You can also find a few more rustic-looking reminders of London’s pottery history dotted around the capital. Mostly these are in the form of 19th century bottle kilns and two of the most famous can be found in Fulham and Notting Hill…
Easily spotted from the train coming into Putney Bridge, this in use throughout the 1800s and 1900s. Today, sadly, the building isn’t currently in use but it has a history dating back to the 17th Century.
In 1671 John Dwight established a pottery here. Dwight was onto a winner with his new technique that was hitherto unseen in England.
An Oxford Univeristy graduate, he’d been experimenting with techniques to create porcelain and Dutch stoneware, mimicking the products seen and exported from China and Holland. Sadly for Dwight his epic quest to create the perfect product meant that he never made a huge amount of profit. His daughter continued the family business from 1703 but by 1743 the owners had declared bankruptcy. However, in recent years some of Dwights pots and ale-jugs during excavations!
Between Notting Hill and Holland Park you can find a road called Pottery Lane. In fact, this whole area was once known as ‘the potteries’ thanks to the area’s rich clay deposits, perfect for making bricks and tiles.
A more striking reminder of this today is this bottle kiln on Walmer Road.
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I used to work in Southbank House room 9A Decca Record Library. Still the best company I have worked for. Decca had a few rooms on the first floor namely The art dept, sleeve design photography studio and finance to name but a few. Also Decca radar had an office there. Upstairs were DVLA and an office belonging to the fire brigade. I was there between 1974 and 1979. Wonderful years. We thought it was haunted and record sleeves were held down in the basement.
Thanks for that info Gwen, glad to hear it!
I used to work in that building too. In 1988 – 89. Beard Hawkins Direct. I remember the old lift and there was a cafe downstairs that serviced toast and Marmalade. There was a design studio downstairs. I think we were on the third floor, One of my first jobs and I was 18 years old.
Thanks for sharing Juliette! The cafe sounds very ‘Paddington’ with the marmalade!
I collect Doulton pottery from Lambeth, so seeing this building is for me very special. I’ve got pieces by Hannah Barlow…all animals and some pieces by George Tinworth
, including a plaque by George Tinworth. It’s so lucky for us all that this building has survived with this depiction of these artists at work
I was just there today, and it was a wonderful find. There are more ceramic plaques one tunnel over, on Salamanca Street. These celebrate the Duke of Wellington and the Battle of Salamanca. Also by the Doulton company. Enjoying your blog!
Good find Joan! Will have to go and find them as well! Glad you’re enjoying it 🙂
I discovered it by accident when I was wandering around Lambeth on a day off. I was intrigued by the many different decorations and looked for a clue to the reason. As you said, “Always look up”. I do, and I was delighted when I found the name. Until then, I hadn’t known they originally made decorative tiles and I spent ages seeking out the different designs. Passers-by must have thought I was nuts. I am so pleased it has been put to good use and not replaced by glass, steel and cement.
Hi Jennifer, it’s truly the best way to see London isn’t it? Welcome to the weird-looks-by-strangers club 😉 it’s worth it! So glad the blog post could help answer a few questions!
I used to meet my sisters for lunch in Sirenas, the Italian restaurant in the basement of SouthBank House. I loved getting there early so I could have a good look up at the building while I was waiting for them.
Ah that’s a lovely memory, thanks for sharing 🙂
Wonderful building to check out on one of my next London trips. I took tours with Gavin Stamp and appreciated the quotr from him. I also found this interesting building facade on an architectural post on Facebook:
Delightful to share your hands-on accounts of actually working there – this is a bonus to the pics on this page. I just checked on the area covered by that building and how lucky that it was able to be preserved to this day. Thanks for that Peter Palmer NZ…
Dear Katie, what lovely stories as usual. I thought the pictures were superb. Isn’t it such an interesting history? Everything is so exciting and extremely detailed. Thanks again from Ron Lloyd.