Sunday, 6 July 2014

The Midland Hotel

(In which I finally manage something vaguely resembling a photoshoot!)

I’ve been away with my parents for a few days, to Morecambe, on the Lancashire coast. For many British people of a certain age, ‘Morecambe’ immediately makes them think of this.

Statue of Eric Morecambe on the promenade

However it makes me think of this.

The Midland Hotel, Morecambe

The Midland Hotel opened almost 81 years ago, on 12 July 1933. It was built by the London, Midland and Scottish (LMS) Railway, and replaced a Victorian hotel of the same name. The new hotel was designed by Oliver Hill in the ‘Moderne’ style, in the hope that this would attract wealthy visitors to the town. At the time Morecambe was a popular holiday resort, and among the guests at the new hotel were a number of famous stars of the day, who were appearing at the nearby Winter Gardens.

The hotel in the 1930s

Being a railway hotel, it also featured in LMS advertising of the time.

LMS poster

During World War 2 the Midland was requisitioned, and became an RAF hospital. After the war the hotel was returned to the LMS in a very dilapidated condition, but was eventually restored (although the revolving entrance door, which had been removed to allow access for wheelchairs and stretchers, was never reinstated). However in the 1970s cheap, sunny, Mediterranean holidays somehow lured holidaymakers away from the joys of the British summer, and Morecambe, like many other coastal resorts, went into decline. When I last saw the Midland, in September 1997, it was in a very sorry state (click here to see just how bad things got). Two years later it closed altogether.

Happily in 2003 the hotel was bought by property developers Urban Splash, who restored it to its former glory, but with modern facilities. Where additions have been made, such as the third floor rooms and the new dining room, these have been done in a way that ties in with the original building, but are obviously not original.

The hotel from the Stone Jetty

View showing the third floor addition

When the Midland was built, its modernity was emphasised with a number of original works of art, mostly by Eric Gill. Oliver Hill commissioned Gill to create the pair of seahorses which decorate the central staircase tower (although there are suggestions that their form owes more than a little to the local Morecambe Bay shrimps!).

Eric Gill seahorse (or shrimp?)

Gill also carved a large Portland stone panel for the entrance lounge, entitled "Odysseus welcomed from the sea by Nausicaa". It depicts a story from Homer’s Odyssey, when the shipwrecked Odysseus is met by Nausicaa and three female servants carrying food, drink and clothing. The scene was chosen to symbolise the hospitality being offered to guests by the hotelier.

Odysseus panel

On the ceiling above the spiral staircase is another Gill work with a watery theme; a carved medallion of Neptune, Triton and two mermaids. Around the edge is a quote from a sonnet by Wordsworth; "and hear old Triton blow his wreathed horn".

Neptune panel

The medallion was designed and carved by Gill, and painted by his son-in-law Denis Tegetmeier. Tegetmeier also painted the fourth and final Gill work; a map of the west coast of England from the Lake District in the north to Birkenhead in the south, with the Royal Scot (an LMS train) running along the top.

The map mural, with Morecambe at its centre

The hotel, and another seahorse

Liverpool is represented by a small image of the Adelphi (another LMS hotel), and the two cathedrals. When the Midland opened in July 1933 the Anglican cathedral was in use, albeit not complete, but work on the Metropolitan cathedral had only begun a month earlier. Building was halted in 1941, and after the war the original design was abandoned as too costly. So the mural, which used Lutyens' original design, shows a cathedral that never was.

Liverpool's cathedrals

If you look closely at the word Thirlmere, you can just see some ghostly lines on the left. This is because Gill originally carved ‘Thurlmere’, and had to correct it! We’ve all been there (OK, I’ve been there).


Some of the original furniture from the hotel survived, and is still in use today.

Cocktail cabinet

The two circular Marion Dorn rugs in the lobby, with their pattern of rippling waves, were lost and have been recreated.

One of the Marion Dorn rugs in the lobby

Marion Dorn also designed the seahorse mosaic in the lobby. The motif was also used on advertising, crockery and table linen, and even on the end of the metal banister rail.

Marion Dorn's seahorse mosaic

The seahorse on the banister, with some of the original paint just visible

In keeping with this, Urban Splash used a version of the seahorse on the drain cover in the showers.

Modern interpretation of the seahorse

The rotunda at the north end of the hotel originally housed the tearoom, and was decorated with a mural representing Night and Day by Eric Ravilious.

The rotunda at dusk

The original Ravilious Rotunda artwork. Credit: RIBA

Unfortunately a shortage of time meant that the mural was painted onto wet plaster, and began to deteriorate almost at once. It was painted out a few years later. In the late 1980s a temporary version of the mural was created from photographs of the original when part of an episode of Poirot was filmed at the Midland. Then last year the mural was repainted in what is now the Rotunda Bar.

Then and now - painting the mural

While not an exact copy (it has to take into account new doorways and the surrounding colour scheme) the new mural includes many elements of the original, plus modern additions such as the wind turbines in Morecambe Bay.

The new 'Day' mural, with wind turbines on the horizon

Figure linking Day and Night

The new 'Night' mural

Despite all these artworks, my favourite element of the hotel is part of the structure itself; the cantilever spiral staircase in the main lobby. This curls like a seashell up through three stories, crossing the long vertical windows of the tower as it does so.

The staircase from the top

And from the bottom

The windows have a double layer of glass, so that the lighting in the central section is not visible from the outside or the inside.

The central window lit up at night

I took lots (and I mean lots) of photographs of the staircase, in an attempt to capture just how fabulous it is. I still don’t feel that I’ve done it justice though, so you’ll just have to take my word for it.

View from the top landing

It’s a staircase that you really ought to glide down, in a stylish 1930s bias-cut evening gown. Sadly my wardrobe is lacking in such a gown (and I don’t have the figure to carry it off anyway). So, I made do with my now-improved 'feedsack' dress (accessorised with the straw bag), and my CC41 dress instead.

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