Sunday 2 May 2010

Liberty & Co, Regent Street W1

The architecture of Liberty & Co's famous store represents a seismic shift in attitude in one building. The Regent Street facade was designed in 1914 and is Imperial Edwardian in style. For obvious reasons, the building was not actually built until 1925, by which time the English were yearning for a return to innocence, a pre-technological golden age when people lived in half-timbered thatched cottages, drank good honest ale and there were no machine guns, barbed wire or aerial bombardment. It was the age when a million fake-timbered semi-Ds spread over the country. So the extension round the back was actually made in the Tudor style, using timbers from two real old men'o'war. It is almost unbelievable that the same architects, Hall and Hall, designed both parts of the store.
The fake Tudor shop is famous world-wide but hardly anybody looks up at the Regent Street facade nowadays. But the sculpture, called Britannia with the Wealth of East and West, is excellent.
The central group was modelled by Charles Doman and the ends by Thomas Clapperton. The whole thing was carved by G. Hardie and Son at their yard in Shepherd's Bush.
Doman had been assistant to Albert Hodge, and spent several years after Hodge's death in 1919 finishing off his master's projects, mainly the sculpture on the Port of London Authority in the City.
Britannia is surrounded by the peoples of the Empire, whites on her right hand and other races on her left, including a stunning black girl with a palm frond.
Clapperton was a Scot who despite living most of his professional life in London carved many icons of Scottishness including the Flodden memorial, the Sir Walter Scott Memorial in Galashiels and the statue of Robert the Bruce at the entrance to Edinburgh Castle.
His depiction of the Wealth of the West starts on the extreme left with a sailing ship being moored by beefy dockers heaving on cables. A woman and her child wait on the dock. Next, a merchant shows a buyer a sample of a product in an urn, by the light of a torch hanging on the wall behind. The buyer is clutching his chin in an expression of scepticism that I have never seen immortalised in stone before.
Further along women prepare bundles and sacks of produce for shipping, and two superb horses and a team of men heave a chariot laden with goods.
From the extreme right, porcelain and silks are loaded on a sampan, overseen by a Chinese merchant with a scimitar (Liberty had made his reputation importing Chinese and Japanese luxury goods). Next, somewhere in Araby, camels are being loaded. Note the charming figure of a woman with a pot on her head and a baby under her arm - multitasking as women do the world over.
A magnificent woman with an ostrich-feather sunshade looks on as a man ties up a bale of fabric, and merchants load what looks like a couple of balks of exotic hardwood on a man's back. An elephant kneels to be loaded up with India's fabled riches.
A final somewhat eccentric touch is provided by a pair of figures looking over the parapet above.
It is a wonderfully rewarding composition and worth bringing binoculars to see.

1 comment:

The Duke of Waltham said...

Regarding the three figures looking over the parapet (one on the left and the pair on the right), could it be that they were intended to break the line of the parapet and make the whole frieze (I cannot think of another name for it) seem more life-like? Breaking out of the medium's bounds, so to speak. Beautiful work, in any case.