? Sculptures in the Sky - the aesthetic importance of the chimney in Cambridge - Richard Butler - Imponderabilia

Sculptures in the Sky - the aesthetic importance of the chimney in Cambridge

On a winter's eve, smoke rises ignominiously from a decrepit, weather-beaten chimney. This once obligatory element of domestic architecture in northern climates has been made largely redundant by a combination of technological and social factors. Here I propose to discuss the aesthetic importance of the chimney. This will include social and cultural factors as well as popular taste. To illuminate my discussion I will concentrate on the chimney stacks and pots of two Cambridge Colleges - St John's and Trinity.

Figure 1

Before central-heating, an open fire was the only economical way to heat a room and the vast majority of buildings built before the 1960's featured chimneys. Many new homes still include them. In the homes of poor and rich alike the chimney and its three elements as shown in Figure 3: the fireplace, the stack, and the pot, became ubiquitous. The Cambridge Colleges were no exception. In a College setting, they were a revealing element of architecture - as light pours out from a window, smoke rising from a chimney pot may well be indicative of activity indoors. Dr. J. S. Boys Smith, a former master of St John's College, said in his memoirs that the coal fires in his College "made the rooms cosy and cheerful" (J. S. Boys Smith 1983: 13).

Still, many thought the chimney was an unfortunate necessity. So common was the chimney that it was frankly unremarkable and unappreciated - the architect of New Court in St John's College, Thomas Rickman, did not even detail the chimney stacks or pots in his drawings. I wish to concentrate on the aesthetic importance of the external parts of the chimney - the stack and its crowning pot - and examine featues of verticality and variety.

Figure 2

Many of the Cambridge Colleges have buildings with emphatic vertical features. In Tudor and Gothic architecture, this verticality is provided by pointed windows, high-pitched roofs, crenellations, turrets, pinnacles, finials and chimney stacks. It is hard to imagine a medieval College without these features - they are its essential character. Presupposed is the verticality of the pinnacle and the turret, but oddly not the chimney stack.

To illustrate this point, consider the four chimney stacks on the river range of St John's Third Court. Figure 2 shows how they appear today, which is also the original c. 1670 design. Figure 1 shows the design resulting from the rebuilding project in 1841. When considering the design shown in Fig. 1 it is worth noting that the distinctly Gothic New Court was constructing across the river from 1826. Which design is more aesthetically pleasing?

Figure 3

Personally, I find it a great shame that the 1841 stacks, with their powerful vertical elements and decorated pots are now missing from the fabric of the College. I realise that this conclusion shows little fidelity to the original design of Third Court, but in the overall context of location and adjacent buildings, I feel that the intermediate design was the most pleasing.

This argument also displays the great importance of the pot - often haphazard, neglected or leaning. The pot is perhaps the essential element of verticality in the chimney. The decorative possibilities of the pot are many - perhaps the most extraordinary that comes to mind are the cinder-trapping conical pots used in mediaeval Venice. Contrast the present state of the chimney stacks in St John's Third Court (Fig.2) with the south range of Trinity's Great Court (see Fig. 3). Trinity is to be highly commended for being one of very few Colleges to have retained so many of their chimney pots.

My second argument concerns variety. A.W.N. Pugin, a strong proponent of Gothic architecture in the nineteenth-century, said that chimney stacks gave "a great variety of light and shadow, and a succession of bold features" (Pugin 2003: 52). The chimney stack is an effective way of adding variety to the roofline and originality to the building. Consider Figure 4: the removal of chimney stacks in New Court in St John's College would undeniably alter the appearance of the building. Many vertical elements are visible here - from the pinnacle to the crenellated turret. Perhaps the restoration of the four truncated-cone pots would further enhance the appearance of the building. Sadly, of over one hundred pots once in place on New Court chimneys, none remain. Searches in St John's College in December 2008 were unable to locate any of the original pots. Their removal seems to have been a slow process, as photos from the 1940's and 1960's show progressively fewer pots still in place. This must reflect the installation of gas fires (in 1948) and central heating (from 1964) (see Boys Smith: 15 & 273).

Figure 4

The 1841 reconstruction of St John's College Third Court stacks raises some interesting questions. How did the attitude of the people who built and maintained these structures change through time? In St John's each court has a different architectural style and thus a characteristic chimney stack. Between 1841 and 1978 there were at least ten reconstructions of chimney stacks in the First, Second and Third Courts and at least eight included design changes. The chimney stacks in First Court were rebuilt in the Second Court style. Those in Second Court were rebuilt in the Third Court style, and some of those in Third Court reflected the neo-Gothic New Court nearby, (as we have seen). It would seem that the designers of the day had little concern for what was original. Perhaps they saw the chimney stack as purely functional and not artistic? It is only in the 1960s, when Alec Crook oversaw the refurbishment of Second and Third Court, that the original designs were recreated (Crook: 82, 109, 171, 174, 176). Until Crook's work, the history of the chimney stacks was almost a game of 'musical chairs'.

The indifference of the rebuilding projects shows a triumph of function over conservation. My arguments have shown that the mundane chimney stack, perceived as essential but ugly, is potentially an aesthetically beautiful design feature. Why then, with conservation and restoration work apace, was almost every chimney pot in St John's College removed and discarded? One answer I would suggest is that the chimney and the coal fireplace went very quickly out of fashion after the Second World War. The advance of technology and the comfort of central heating may have regrettably made the fireplace a forgettable part of history. J.S. Boys Smith wrote that due to coal shortages after the Second World War, his rooms "always tended to be cold" (Boys Smith: 14).

The chimney stack has often been derided as an unpleasant but necessary piece of architecture. The aesthetic importance is often underrated. For such common structures, they often generate a lot of strong emotions. Alec Crook wrote in his book Penrose to Cripps that the old Third Court stacks (those in Fig.1) were "ugly" and refers to them as "the bastard stacks" (Crook: 174). My arguments stem from two words - verticality and variety - and two Colleges - St John's and Trinity. St John's New Court shows that the chimney stack is as important a vertical feature of the building as the crenellated turret (see Fig.4). Variety along a roofline is important aesthetically - stacks in Great Court (Fig.3) add movement and creativity. Like in the game of musical chairs, the music stops and starts, with attitudes developing over time, from complacency to conservation. I began my article with a description of a lowly chimney stack, yet I hope that the aesthetic arguments presented make the chimney stack more a sculpture in the sky.


Tudor architecture Development of English architecture during the Tudor period (1485-1603), featuring narrow windows and steeply pitched roofs.

Gothic architecture A style of architecture originating in the mediaeval period, characterised mainly by pointed arches.

Crenellations Regular and often rectangular spaces cut out of the top of a wall, associated with mediaeval castles in Europe.

Turret A small tower that rises from the edge of a building. Many turrets are octagonal in plan.

Pinnacle A structural element often found at the top of a buttress in Gothic architecture.

Finial A decorative feature found at the top of a pinnacle.

Classical arch A round arch, as opposed to a Gothic or pointed arch.

List of Illustrations

Fig. 1: West range, Third Court (St John's), 1841 chimney stacks.

Fig. 2: West range, Third Court (St John's), contemporary photograph.

Fig. 3: South Range, Great Court (Trinity), Trinity Lane stacks.

Fig. 4: New Court (St John's), roof near central cupola.


Boys Smith, J.S. (1983) Memories of St John's College Cambridge 1919-1969 Oxford

Pugin, A.W.N (2003) The True Principles of Pointed or Christian ArchitectureLondon

Willis, R. & Clark, J.W. (1886) The Architectural History of the University of Cambridge and of the Colleges of Cambridge and Eton Cambridge

A.C. Crook (1978) Penrose to Cripps Cambridge

Royal Commission on Historical Monuments (1959) An Inventory of the Historical Monuments in the City of Cambridge, Part II London

Richard Butler is a third-year student at St John's College in Cambridge. He is from a small town on the south-west coast of Ireland. He is studying History of Art & Architecture, with a particular interest in British Victorian and Imperial architecture. He is a keen photographer and he also plays the piano and the organ. At the moment, he is co-Head Projectionist of his College's 35mm Film Society.