|"River Thames" by Ernest Cole|
The facades, however, remain just as they were, with a fascinating array of sculpture that tells a story of artistic ambition, personal frailty, political interference and furious debates over taste and aesthetics.
The building was designed as the home of the London County Council in 1908 by architect Ralph Knott, who chose a rising star of sculpture, Ernest Cole, to produce a series of aspiring figures for the main elevations. Cole was only 24, straight out of the South Kensington Art School, where his work had been noticed by Charles Ricketts and others. So commissioning him with a major sequence of works was a brave gamble.
|"Creation of Eve" by Cole|
|Untitled Group by Cole|
At this point disaster struck. Cole was sent to the Western Front.
The artistic establishment was aghast that a talent of such promise was being put in harm's way and pressure was applied to transfer him to the much safer Intelligence Corps.
|'Recreation' or 'Open Spaces' by Hardiman|
After the war, Cole resumed work but he was a changed man. He had lost his drive and failed to meet deadlines, and he needed more money to cope with post-war inflation. Requests for extra payments were backed up by furious letters from his lawyer wife.
In nearly two years he finished the incomplete group and provided only one more, which he carved without having supplied Knott with a plaster maquette for approval. Knott rejected it as unsuitable.
A major row ensued. Members of the LCC were getting worried about the escalating costs and many dismissed Cole's completed works as incomprehensible modern rubbish.
Knott counter-attacked by getting a group of luminaries including the poet and art critic Laurence Binyon (of We will Remember Them fame) to rally round in Cole's defence. For this, he was rewarded with a letter from Mrs Cole accusing him of having spent the war in safety in London drawing two salaries while her husband was defending his country.
By this time things had broken down irretrievably and the contract was terminated. The Coles retreated to a bungalow near Canterbury, rarely leaving except for a brief period at the beginning of the second world war when they were interned because of their open admiration for Mussolini and the Fascists.
To complete the project, Knott and the LCC brought in Alfred Hardiman, who was much easier to work with and whose images were more accessible for politicians and the public, as shown by the northernmost sculpture on the river frontage, 'Recreation'.