Friday, 5 February 2016

St Clements Building, Clare Market WC2

It's hard to believe, but this anodyne mosaic provoked a furious reaction when it was unveiled, with calls from both extremes of the political spectrum for its removal.
It was created by glass artist Harry Warren Wilson when the building was modernised for the London School of Economics in 1959-61. It was originally constructed in 1898 as a print works for the Financial Times and a publication called Votes for Women, and the conversion involved stripping it back to its steel frame and adding a clean, modern but boring new facade.
Wilson's mural illustrates the Thames from Woolwich to Battersea in vitreous mosaic. Aluminium cutouts represent the various academic fields of interest of the LSE, From the top, they are a clipper ship for commerce; a plane for transport; the Royal Exchange for finance; Justicia for the law; the Houses of Parliament for government and Battersea Power Station for industry.
Sue Donnelly, the LSE's archivist, tells me that the mosaic was so unpopular a motion requesting its removal was presented to the Academic Board.
"I think the argument about removing the mosaic was a reflection of the artistic conservatism of the academic body – indeed it is a debate that finds political opponents Kenneth Minogue and Ralph Milliband in agreement – which must have been a first. Interestingly today people either like the mosaic or are indifferent – it doesn’t appear to arouse great passions," Sue writes.
Indeed, a cause that united arch-conservative Minogue and foaming radical Milliband must have been passionately held.
Fortunately, the Board managed to work out that the cost of ripping it off and replacing it with windows was prohibitive.

Wednesday, 3 February 2016

The Young Lovers, Festival Gardens EC4

The Young Lovers is a piece by Austrian-born artist Georg Ehrlich. It was created in 1951 for the second open air sculpture exhibition in Battersea Park, held at the same time as the Festival of Britain.
Festival Gardens were the City of London's contribution to the nationwide jamboree, also intended as a war memorial. They were laid out by Sir Albert Richardson, who designed a fountain with bronze lion's head spouts but no other sculpture.
However, in 1969 money for public sculpture became available at just the moment when The Young Lovers came on the market. Ehrlich himself had died in 1966, So now this elegant, optimistic, idealistic couple, clothed in just the right amount of tulle to avoid public comment, canoodle gently on the sunny side of the cathedral.
Ehrlich, a Jew, was a leading exponent of Viennese expressionism. When the Nazis moved in he was in London and wisely stayed, getting his wife to follow him with as many of his works as she could bring. They became naturalised Britons after the war.

Monday, 1 February 2016

St Paul's Churchyard EC4

John Donne is commemorated by two statues in St Paul's, the famous image within the cathedral of his corpse in a winding sheet by Nicholas Stone, and now this one in the churchyard. It is by Nigel Boonham, cast in bronze in 2012.
The poet and churchman is shown facing west but looking south towards his birthplace close by in Bread Street. For Donne, east was the direction of the rising sun, Jerusalem and hope, while west was the way of decline and death, and beneath the bust is inscribed a line from Good Friday 1613, Riding Westward:
Hence is't, that I am carried towards the West,
This day, when my Soul's form bends to the East

Monday, 18 January 2016

193 Fleet Street EC4

George Attenborough and Son is one of the very few premises in London still bearing the name of the business that built it. It was erected in 1883 to the designs of Archer and Green, and is covered with sculpture by Houghton of Great Portland Street.
The main event, however, is the statue of Kaled, or Lara's Page, It is by Giuseppe Grandi, dating from 1872. Attenborough had a niche created specially for it over the front door of his shop.
Kaled is the page of Count Lara in Bryon's poetic story of a nobleman who returns to his ancestral lands to restore justice. He antagonises the neighbouring chieftains who attack and kill him. Kaled stays with his master to the end, when it is revealed he is in fact a woman. She goes mad.
The centre of the curved facade is marked with a couple of rather jolly winged lions holding a wrought iron structure that originally supported the three golden balls denoting Attenborough's other business as a pawnbroker. The motto beneath is the pawnbrokers' motto 'Sub Hoc [signo] floresco' - 'Under this sign I flourish'.
The windows below the lions are embellished with typically Victorian allegorical ladies representing the Arts and Trades, including painting, literature, spinning and beekeeping. One of them holds a caduceus in one hand and a cornucopia in the other, which mixes the messages rather.
The Chancery Lane windows have roundels depicting heroes of art from Michelangelo to Flaxman.
And for typografans, the lintels of the second storey windows have a florid decorated initial:

Wednesday, 23 December 2015

Temple Bar Memorial, Fleet Street EC4

The authority of the City of London extended beyond the old walls at many places, known as the Liberties. The entrances to the Liberties were controlled by guard points originally just a bar resting on two posts.
Gradually they became more elaborate and gained other functions such as the display of the heads of traitors and other malefactors.
The grandest bar of all was the one on the ceremonial route between the Palace of Westminster and St Pauls, which was regularly used by the monarch on national events. It became known as Temple Bar after the Templar's round church close by.
In 1670 a new bar was built in stone as part of the reconstruction programme after the Great Fire. In Victorian times however it was seen as gloomy reminder of times gone by and an obstruction to traffic. It was after much soul-searching removed stone by stone and ended up in the park of a grand house in Hertfordshire. In 2004 it was re-erected near to St Pauls.
Many felt the bar should not be replaced at all, especially as the road is particularly narrow at that point. Many proposals were made including one by George Street, who was designing the Royal Courts of Justice to the north of the site, who envisaged a gothic style bridge for judges to cross from the Temple. Other ideas included raising the old Temple Bar on a new arch, and making a traffic circus round it. The refusal of Child's Bank on the other side of the road to release land scuppered all these plans.
The design was eventually given to Horace Jones, architect of Tower Bridge, who created a slender column intended to allow traffic to flow more freely.
There is something about public sculpture that provokes Times letter writers to apoplexy, and this project was the subject of a particularly entertaining row. Everything from the continued traffic obstruction, lax organisation, shenanigans on the committee and, of course, the cost were gleefully attacked.
Particular vilification was directed at the figure on top, London's symbolic dragon as modeled by Charles Birch. For some reason many correspondents seem to think it is a griffin which of course it is not (a griffin has the body of a lion with the head and wings of an eagle: a dragon is a winged serpent.) It was booed by the crowd when the memorial was unveiled in 1880.
In today's eyes, however, the memorial is a typical piece of fussy, sentimental and overblown Victoriana.
The memorial is covered in carving. On the south side is a statue of Queen Victoria by her favourite sculptor, Joseph Boehm - she had dropped hints to the Lord Mayor, apparently. On the north side stands the Prince of Wales (later Edward VII), also by Boehm.
The slender east and west sides have portrait heads of the Lord Mayor, Sir Francis Truscott, and the Prince of Wales's eldest son Prince Albert Victor, known as Eddy. Eddy died of the 'flu in 1892 at the age of just 28. Lurid tales began to circulate painting him as a depraved epileptic moron, creating a rich legacy of TV documentaries on the 'secret shame of the Victorian royal family.'
The columns on the corners are elaborately carved with symbols of the arts (including busts of Homer and Chaucer), science, peace and war.
At ground level are three charming bronzes showing the Queen visiting the City.
The one on the south side shows Queen Victoria's Progress to the Guildhall in 1837, by Charles Mabey. The little lad kneeling at the door of the State Coach is the head Grecian of Christ's Hospital school, delivering a Loyal Address.
On the north side is Queen Victoria and the Prince and Princess of Wales going to St Paul's in 1872, by Charles Kelsey. They were giving thanks for the recovery of the Prince from an attack of typhus occasioned by the appalling state of the mains water supply at Sandringham.
On the east is my favourite, the one at the top of this post, showing the old Temple Bar disappearing behind curtains drawn by Time and Fortune. It is also by Mabey.

Sunday, 20 December 2015

Lamb Memorial, Giltspur Street EC1

Charles Lamb, the man who was Elia, went to school at Christ's Hospital when it was still housed in the old Greyfriars monastery in Newgate Street. He is portrayed in this memorial by Sir William Reynolds-Stephens in school uniform. Sir William also designed the aedicule in his typical magpie 'bit of this, bit of that' style.
The monument was made to celebrate the centenary of the essayist's death in 1834. It was originally mounted on the wall of Wren's Christchurch, next to the old school, but was transferred here in 1962 when the church was restored as a ruin after its near destruction in the blitz.
When the memorial was proposed, The Times said that a bust was the most appropriate form as it would avoid the need to show Lamb's "slight, spare figure, his spindle legs," in the words of a contemporary essay in the Gentleman's Magazine. His head, in contrast, was 'worthy of Aristotle' according to his friend Leigh Hunt.

Friday, 11 December 2015

SOE Memorial, Lambeth Palace Road SE1

The memorial to the Special Operations Executive is topped by a bust of the woman who epitomises the bravery, skill and suffering of the agents tasked to 'set Europe ablaze'. Most of them were tortured and executed.
Violette Szabo was one of the most admired by her comrades in arms, said to be fearless. She died in Ravensbruck aged just 23.
The sculpture is by Karen Newman, a no-nonsense realist who worked for over 20 years at Madame Tussaud's making waxworks of figures from Jimi Hendrix to the Duke of Edinburgh. Her Szabo is serious, determined and lovely.
Newman seems to have cornered the market in lady resistance fighters, having also portrayed Noor Inayat Khan and Nancy Wake.