Saturday, 9 August 2008

Angel Court, St James's

Angel Court is a rather dismal alley off King Street, enlivened by a remarkable series of reliefs by E. Bainbridge Copnall. They commemorate the St James's Theatre that stood on the site until it was scandalously demolished in 1957 despite a vociferous campaign led by Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh, who managed it.
Under the arch where smokers from the Golden Lion huddle, the heads of Olivier and Leigh are flanked by themselves in their legendary production of Antony and Cleopatra. Cleo lies on a divan brandishing the asp and Antony broods in his tent, reaching for his sword. The pyramids fill the background.
Three more reliefs have been placed at the bottom end of the alley, tastefully set off by a ventilation pipe on one side and a CCTV camera on the other.
At the top is George Alexander, the actor who managed the theatre from 1890 to 1918, though he looks more like Peter O'Toole to me. Alexander premiered two of Oscar Wilde's most popular plays, Lady Windermere's Fan and The Importance of Being Earnest, and Wilde himself appears on the middle relief.
Wilde is flanked by a pair of rather sinister scenes - Dorian Gray taking a sneak peek at his wrinkly portrait and Salome taking a sneak peek at her trophy head of John the Baptist.
At the bottom is the Broadway impressario Gilbert Miller who owned the theatre until its demolition. Is that Sir Gerald du Maurier to the left? He was manager of the St James's in the 1920s and 1930s. Perhaps it shows him as Lord Arthur Dilling in the record-breaking run of The Last of Mrs. Cheyney. The cellist on the right seems to be Pablo Casals - does anyone know why he should be commemorated here?The reliefs were commissioned for the office block that replaced the theatre, which was in turn demolished in 1986 for St James's House, a post-modern effort by EPR Architects. There's another post-modern thing the other side of the pub, built by STB Architects in 1989. Remember post-modernism? It started as an movement to bring joy back into the streetscape by allowing the decoration that had been banned by the international modernist orthodoxy. How quickly it degenerated into cheap, vulgar displays like these two objects.
At least Bainbridge Copnall's great reliefs survive, even if they have been shunted round the back like embarrassing bequests from elderly relatives that you can't throw away without offending the family.
Further down King Street, take a quick look at the archway to Cleveland Yard that punches through the solemn office 1998 building by Trehearne & Norman. The arch is decorated with a pair of veined leaf shapes by Robin Connolly. A nice detail.

2 comments:

Philip Wilkinson said...

Did you see the two rather odd panels of engraved glass on the facade of one of the buildings in King Street, on the same side of the road as the pub? They're by Clifford Rainey but I've not been able to find anything else out about them.

Chris said...

I missed them - I'll have another look next time I'm in the area. I'd not heard of Clifford Rainey but Google revealed this from an exhibition in the US: "Rainey shows his playful side in Art Committee No. 2, which consists of 12 glass penises mounted on the wall like trophies." I will look out for his stuff now!