Friday 28 August 2009

Africa House, Kingsway WC2

Few pieces epitomise a vanished code like the group high up on Africa House. The building, by Trehearne & Norman, was built in 1921 as the Empire was beginning to fall apart, though you would never think it from confident sculpture over the cornice.
By Benjamin Clemens, assistant master at the Royal College of Art, the group has Britannia at its centre, flanked by noble Arab traders with their camels and a big game hunter oiling his rifle. A native bearer carries a pair of tusks while the hunter's victim lies open-eyed and tuskless next to them. Other animals include a lion, a crocodile, a bison and the largest python you ever did see.
The heirarchy could not be plainer. At the top are the British. Next come the Arabs. At the bottom is the black man, depicted as muscle-bound and not very bright, destined to serve the white man.
It reminds me of the story of a young naval officer in the 1870s who was patrolling the East African coast. His one desire was to go big game hunting, but he could not use naval personnel for private purposes so he approached the local chief for guides and porters.
The chief was willing to give him all he needed, on one condition - he wanted a knighthood.
The lieutenant agonised for days before the desire for game overwhelmed him. He donned his best uniform and approached the chief, calling to his bosun "Bring me my knighting sword".
He gave the chief a couple of resounding slaps on the buttocks with a navy issue cutlass and pronounced him a knight. The chief rewarded him with six weeks of the finest hunting Africa could afford.
Everyone forgot about the incident until 1897 when the chief turned up in London with a retinue of warriors and about 16 bouncy-breasted wives, demanding a position in the parade for Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee, as befitted a knight of the realm.


Capability Bowes said...

I love this sculpture; I think its such a shame that few people ever bother to raise their eyes above street level to see it - but even from the top of a bus it can be difficult to see. So thanks for including it. I love the long wiggly snake at bottom right. Hie yourself along to the Albert Memorial for another depiction of Africa (Cleopatra riding a camel, if memory serves), along with Asia on an elephant, Europe on a bull and America on a buffalo. Has anyone ever seen Australasia on a kangaroo??

Anonymous said...

I walk down Kingsway a few times a week and apart from the Bush House portico this is my favourite sculpture. My only question is this; why is Brittania armed with a sword rather than the common trident or slightly less common spear?

andy fuller said...

Worked there in 1973 as a clerk to a firm of solicitors` Tuck and Mann and Geffen. Only 21 at the time but a key recollection of Africa House was that every lift was manned by a gentleman resplendent in a dark grey uniform. The senior partner Mr Geffen was combined charm with a ruthless determination that the business of the day was conducted professionally and with a particular eye for detail. The standards he set were high and would insist that you wear office jacket and tie in his office.
I did however have enormous respect for him. he was a great believer in youth and would always encourage me in my studies and displayed tremendous compassion when he learnt as to my father`s poor state of health.
I was probably too young at the time to fully appreciate the history of Africa House. I was too busy watching and eyeing a young legal secretary who worked at a solicitors` office on the other side of the passageway.
A very happy period in my life. Will have to pay a visit down there after all those years.