Tuesday, 29 December 2009

More Mercers' Maidens

The Maidens that mark the properties of the Mercer's Company come in quite a variety of shapes and styles.
In Mercer Street, Covent Garden there are a few, as one might expect, including this one above the doorway to Maidstone House, one of a number of artisans' dwellings built by the Mercers in 1905. She is very Edwardian Baroque, the style Osbert Lancaster called Wrenaissance.

The Mercers also own Barnard's Inn, a former base for lawyers of which the tiny 15th century hall survives, hemmed about by the backs of office blocks. For years it was the Mercers' School until it closed in 1959. It is now a public hall for Gresham College.
The school was rebuilt by Thomas Chatfeild Clarke in 1893 and the whole complex was reconstructed again in 1988 by Green Lloyd Architects in the post-modernist style. They added a thoroughly post-modern maiden in bronze over one of the arches that provide a public passage through the buildings.
The entrance to the Inn is through an arch in Halton House, Holborn, also by Chatfeild Clarke but later (1907).
A Mercers' Maiden looks out over the entrance and another in an aedicule right up at top. This one is a bit cheeky, with flowing locks and an alluring hint of shoulder.

Sunday, 27 December 2009

Cutler's Hall, Warwick Lane EC4

Benjamin Creswick must have regarded the Cutlers Hall commission as his personal property from the moment it was announced. After all, he had been apprenticed as a grinder to a cutler in Sheffield before health problems forced him to change to Art, so he knew the trade uniquely well.
Creswick was a protege of Ruskin and was establishing his London studio when the the Cutler's Company was evicted from its ancient Hall near Cannon Street by the construction of the Metropolitan Line in 1886. A new site was bought in Warwick Lane and their architect, T. Taylor Smith, produced Neo-Jacobean designs.
Creswick used terracotta, a favourite material of Ruskin's, to create a frieze dedicated to the dignity of manual labour, with added social comment.
There are four panels running from left to right. On the left is Forging, the process of heating long thin steel bars and forging them together to form a strong, hard blank for knife blades. The figure on the far left is tempering a pair of hot scissors by plunging them into a tub of water. The next is forging a pair of scissors. The man holding a table knife in a pair of tongs is the 'maker' or 'smith', and the man with the hammer is a 'striker'.
The next panel shows Grinding, which proceeds from right to left. A pair of workers roll in a new grinding wheel, passing a young man bringing a box of blank blades. A man sets the blades for grinding as his mate harangues him for payment of his union dues or 'natty'. A grinder dresses the stone and the another grinds the edges, following which a young 'glazer' checks them for defects.
A man takes a box of the finished blades to the next process...
Hafting, or attaching the bone or ivory handles. On the left, a man files a handle on his workbench - note the large vice. Next to him, a man fills the handles with the compound that secures them to the blades, watched by his son who has brought him his dinner. Next, a group of workers stands at a glazing frame with a pedal-powered polishing wheel or dolly. One of the group is turning to give sage words of advice to an apprentice who is drilling holes for rivets while his companions scrape the handles and hammer the rivets home. The man on the end gives the finished work a wipe and holds it up the light to check that it is true.
The last group shows cutlers fitting scissors. The old man on the left is resting on his hammer, lost in 'sad reflections', apparently. A small boy pokes the fire for the scissor hardener while a man pedals a lathe to bore the pivot holes in the blades. To the right, the scissors are 'glazed' on a wheel before the edges are filed and the scissors finished and checked by the bloke on the right.
Apparently, Creswick intended the frieze to be an accurate portrayal of modern cutlers, but all it does is expose how mired in tradition the Sheffield table-trade cutlers were. It was the late 1880s and everything is muscle-powered from the forge bellows to the lathe. There is some line shafting in the Grinding panel that hints at steam power but otherwise the entire process seems to be unchanged from the previous century. Some of the workers are even wearing knee breeches.
Sheffield's tableware makers resolutely refused to modernise and were undercut first by the Germans and finally by the Chinese. Today just one remains, William Turner, and ironically the company was founded in 1887, the very year Creswick made this frieze.

Wednesday, 16 December 2009

St Paul's House, Warwick Lane EC4

The publishers Hodder and Stoughton had their headquarters near St Pauls Cathedral, partly because it was a traditional area for publishers (many had run their businesses from the aisles of Old St Pauls before it burnt down in the Great Fire), partly because it is close to Stationers' Hall and partly because it specialises in religious books.
Their old HQ was in Warwick Lane, built in 1961 by Victor Heal and featuring an 'apron' under the principal windows carved by Alan Collins.
The apron is a stylised chessboard. inspired by Hodder's logo of four chess pieces. They don't stand in neat rows, though, but are jumbled up, some upside down, some inside out, to create a uniform texture that contrasts but does not compete with the dark plum bricks.
Pevsner describes the stone as Portland, but interestingly it may have come all the way from Malta. His biographical notes say:
As an art student in London, England, I developed a love for sculpture through the availability of Malta limestone that had been used as ballast in supply-ships returning from the island garrison at the end of WWII. The off- loaded blocks were free-for-the-asking, and the excitement generated by this fine carving stone, and the instruction of Freda Skinner, a past student of Henry Moore directed me toward sculpture as a career.
Bainbridge Copnall scoured London's blitz ruins for suitable carving stone, and the war revitalised the flagging market for war memorials. Say what you like about the death, starvation and suffering: the War was good for sculpture.
PS: I wish to make it very clear that I am not advocating total war as a mechanism for stimulating the arts. Probably. You decide.

Monday, 14 December 2009

London School of Economics, Sardinia Street WC2

I must admit I was a bit taken aback by this when I first saw it. The corner of the old Public Trustee Office, built by the Office of Works in 1912 ("Soothingly restrained" - Pevsner) seems to have been punched in by a roadside bomb, crushing bits of architecture up into a jumble held by some sort of glue over the heads of oblivious pedestrians hurrying to catch a bus in Kingsway.
Looking up, the corner gets even odder. The blank windows line up with the windows of the original facade but otherwise make no sense at all, being assembled from bits of carvings just as randomly as the wreckage below.
It is, of course, art. The original angled corner has been covered by a fibreglass screen by twice-Turner-prize-nominated Richard Wilson. Called Square the Block, it is moulded from stuff called jesmonite, a lightweight acrylic fibreglass, to match the colour and texture of the original so well I was convinced it was stone.
The work was commissioned as part of a complete rebuilding of the former offices as the London School of Economics' New Academic Building, full of lecture halls and 'social interactive spaces', whatever they are. The architect, Nick Grimshaw, provided Wilson with drawings of the old facade to work from. It was unveiled a couple of months ago.
I'm not sure. While I'm a big fan of modern sculpture, this one undermines the original classical composition in quite a rude way although the LSE inevitably says it 'both mimics and subtly subverts the existing fa├žade', as prime a slice of contemporary artbollocks as I have seen in a long time.
It would have been perfectly acceptable, interesting, and a great experience as a temporary thing, like the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square, but Square the Block is up there for good. Soon, the joke will look very jaded.
More in an LSE press release here.

Saturday, 12 December 2009

Warwick Lane EC4

A very dull new block at the top end of Warwick Lane in the City has a medieval nobleman in relief set into one of its columns, dated 1668.
It shows an Earl of Warwick, whose London house was on the site. The most famous was, of course, the 16th Earl, Richard Neville, known as the king-maker.
According to Stow, when he stayed in Warwick House during the Wars of the Roses he was acompanied by six hundred uniformed men, "in whose house there was often six oxen eaten at a breakfast, and every taverne was full of his meate, for hee that had any acquaintance in that house, might have there so much of sodden and rost meate, as he could pricke and carry upon a long dagger."

Friday, 11 December 2009

Royal College of Surgeons of England, Portugal Street WC2

A while back I speculated on the possible owners of various coats of arms on the old Westminster Hospital in Horseferry Road. Rouge Dragon Pursuivant identified two of them as the University of London and the Royal College of Physicians but the third, a bird of prey with a crown and sceptre, remained a mystery.
Well, all things come to him that waits and the other day I was cycling down Portugal Street, round the back of Lincoln's Inn Fields, when I came across the self-same crest, over the rear entrance of the Royal College of Surgeons of England.
So that's cleared that one up.

Friday, 4 December 2009

Saville Theatre, Shaftesbury Avenue WC2 (now Odeon Covent Garden)

Now to the bookends of Gilbert Bayes's great frieze, just round the corners in Stacey Street (left) and St Giles' Passage (right). Here Bayes places the stars of the only plays he mentions by name - George Bernard Shaw's St Joan, and Khaki. The figures are ushered in by angels holding back curtains.
After a try-out in New York, St Joan was staged in London in 1924. The star was Sybil Thorndyke, and the figure on the frieze has Sybil's square jaw.
Khaki, staged in 1924, was a vehicle for Ernie Lotinga, a music hall comic whose stock character was an everyman called Josser. In the play, Josser is in the Army on the Western Front, outwitting everyone, including his officers, the French and the Germans with his quick and cunning mind. Lotinga went on to make a series of films as Josser.
The attack on the officer corps attracted the unfavourable attention of the Lord Chamberlain, who insisted on substantial changes before it could be staged, as outlined in Great War Fiction.
The common thread is socialism and pacifism. No wonder these panels are safely round the corner, where everyone will miss them.



Thursday, 3 December 2009

Saville Theatre, Shaftesbury Avenue WC2 (now Odeon Covent Garden)

The Twentieth Century is represented by a group that already seemed to my postwar generation to be from some ancient epoch. The chorus girls with their ostrich-feather headdresses doing the Charleston look as historical as the Bacchantes in the Roman section, as does the gentleman on the right in evening dress, his hair brilliantined and holding an opera hat.
Again, I am sure he and the girl he is holding in a reassuring hug are portraits of actors in role. In fact, I think I have identified the pipe-smoking figure to the left. The character is obviously Sherlock Holmes, and the actor is probably Tod Slaughter, famous for playing villainous villains in melodramas at the Elephant and Castle. Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street was created by him.
In the 1920s, however, he played heroes, one of which was the great detective.
Come to think of it, is the cloaked assassin in the same play with Holmes? Which of the stories features a shooting?
Back in the late 1960s when I started work, I knew a bloke called Michael Slaughter, who was always known as Tod. Neither he nor any of us knew why - it was just the nickname every Slaughter was given, like 'Chalky' for anyone called White or Miller. How quickly fame evaporates....

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

Saville Theatre, Shaftesbury Avenue WC2 (now Odeon Covent Garden)

I inadvertantly split the next scene between shots, due to not paying attention properly. Two elegant Georgian ladies, possibly Sheridan's Rivals, waggle their fans, watched by a young man in a tricorn hat and greatcoat. A 'professor' leans against his Punch and Judy tent, where Punch stands gloating over the body of his wife Judy, who he has whacked for the fourth performance that day. Dog Toby in his ruff poses, and a one-man-band attracts an audience playing pan pipes and a drum, with his trumpet ready.
The next group are Romantics, consisting of a pair of medieval lovers singing, with a sinister gent behind sneering through his moustachios. A Cavalier is next, followed by a heavily hatted-and-coated man with a pistol. Is he a highwayman or an anarchist? Joseph Conrad had adapted The Secret Agent as a three-act play in the 1920s but it flopped.
I have this strong feeling that all these figures are portraits of actors in various roles, but I can't identify any of them. If anybody has any ideas, the comment box is right below....