Let’s face it, Southampton is not a beguiling place – it’s dominated by tedious tracts of shopping centres, ranging from cheap sheds to faux grand malls, and ghastly multi-storey car parks. But all this encircles a ghostly walled medieval city that was once one of the richest and most important ports in England. As visitors head south from the astonishing medieval Bargate, they traverse one of the great high streets of empire, wrecked by the Luftwaffe and abandoned to its fate by postwar planners.
The trivial utility infilling of the 1950s has a charm of its own, but the endless banal flats and tawdry office blocks have none. There is no end to the indignity being inflicted on the area. Among the tat, however, is a handful of fine medieval buildings and the remains of many more – a castle, friary and merchants’ houses. Some were discovered and covered with corrugated iron roofs 50 years ago and have remained out of bounds ever since.
In the south-east corner of the walled town stands God’s House Tower. This was originally the Saltmarsh Gate into the city, strengthened after the French raid on the town in 1338 and further fortified by the addition of a gun battery and tower in 1417. The town guns and gunpowder were stored here.
It is extraordinary and a welcome survivor of the small-scale medieval streetscape of the town. As the need for town defences dwindled, God’s House Tower struggled to find new uses: it was a jail, offices, storage and a mortuary, before being turned into an archaeological museum in 1961. The city’s archaeological material has been displayed at SeaCity Museum since 2011, so the tower sought a new and sustainable use.
In its latest incarnation, the tower has become a mixture of heritage interpretation, art gallery and cafe. The building has been sensitively restored and extended, and a number of gallery spaces have been fitted ingeniously into the relatively small footprint to maximise usable space.
The heritage interpretation in the tower has an entrance fee, but the art galleries do not. Paying visitors are directed to the right from the welcome point, free visitors to the left. Somewhere in the middle they must inevitably meet. This may be an issue if there is a rush of visitors, but the tower is far from the madding crowd of shoppers and not likely to encounter major problems.
The interpretation of the tower is excellent. The lower floor examines the development of the medieval city and how God’s House Tower fits into the story of its defence. Clear graphics, a timeline, a model of the medieval city and video projections work effectively together. On the next floor visitors learn about the building as a gun battery, with potted cartoon biographies of some of the key figures associated with it. The top floor was closed when I visited, but tells the story of the town’s jail with the spoken words of the prisoners floating down from above.
From there, visitors go through to the three art spaces. Two – the collections gallery and contemporary gallery – are stacked on top of one another in what was the main void of the gun battery space. The cafe is on the ground floor below them. The third gallery space – the Crawford Room – is over the original town gate, if I have worked out the floorplan accurately. This gallery is the most impressive, having a fine medieval timber roof.
Two of the galleries are filled with modern art and it really doesn’t take much to fill them. The installation of one gallery had not been completed when I visited. The art was, as modern art so often is, hopeful that it carried an important message or stimulated thought, or both at once.
The final gallery has a display of the three Moonlight Pethers, works by Abraham Pether and his two sons, Henry and Sebastian, who were all local artists of the late 18th and early 19th centuries and known for their moonlight scenes. The gallery ceiling is low and some dodging about is necessary to escape the glare from the varnished surfaces.
There is little doubt that the pièce de résistance of the site is the cafe, which fills the ground floor of the building. It is operated by Hoxton Bakehouse and is rather good. Given that so much of what is on offer is free, the cafe must be an important source of revenue.
The shop was not ready when I visited, nor was its online incarnation. A nice touch is that the toilet area occupies the latrine space of the earlier building. The venue also offers an extensive and varied public programme. This venture, run by A Space Arts, is interesting as it finds a new function for a building that it might be challenging to find a use for.
The spaces look good, what is on offer is episodically engaging and the public programme seems varied and appealing. But it may lack the critical mass to draw a wide range of visitors.
In any case, who is the target audience? Does the tower appeal to the citizens of St Mary’s, a nearby and economically challenged part of Southampton? At least the venue can be reassured that the bijou flats relentlessly filling the old walled city will deliver customers in the future as its previous and poorer inhabitants are priced out. Is that the point of public investment in the arts and heritage?
But I’m being unfair to the team who have delivered a sparkling building and inhabit it with enthusiasm. I wish them luck.
Dominic Tweddle is the director general of the National Museum of the Royal Navy, Portsmouth
National Lottery Heritage Fund; Arts Council England; Southampton City Council; Friends of Southampton’s Museums, Archives and Galleries; Esmée Fairbairn Foundation; Wolfson Foundation; Barker-Mill Foundation; Pilgrim Trust; Garfield Weston Foundation
Shogun Graphic Systems
A Space Arts; HKD; Cheryl Butler
HKD; Grant Cox (CGI model map), working with Cheryl Butler