Friday, 21 October 2011

County Hall, Riverside Walk SE1

"River Thames" by Ernest Cole
County Hall was London's alternative parliament over the water. In the great war between right and left in the 1980s the Greater London Council under 'Red' Ken Livingstone set itself up in opposition to Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who responded by brutally executing it and ordering the building to be converted into tourist facilities, the political equivalent of planting the soil with salt.
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
Construction started in 1912, so it was 1915 by the time Cole's sculptures were required. He started at a rush, completing five groups and most of a sixth in just 18 months despite having joined the army, which left only weekends for art. Most of the actual carving was done by his assistant Peter Induni.
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
In that capacity he was sent to America. On the way met a widowed lawyer called Laurie Manly and fell in love. Laurie decided Cole was a modern artistic genius ranking with Epstein and would devote her life to protecting his interests. Cole rejected his old friends such as Ricketts and struck out into abstract art. Ricketts said he had "gone over to the enemy."
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'.


Adam M. Considine said...

We have some public work very similar to these in downtown minneapolis. You would enjoy them.

Michel Couzijn said...

In 1971, the Londoner Alfred Hitchcock opened his movie 'Frenzy' with a view from a helicopter flying through London Bridge, then focusing on this Riverside 'County Hall'. It was built while young Alfred was in his teens, and opened with splendour during his adolescence. This must have been quite a festive event. I am sure that Alfred, making that movie at age 72, must have remembered the event when he chose 'County Hall' as his typical London stage.

In this movie, a large group of people are listening to a political speech that is given right in front of County Hall. The pompous speech is about the cleaning of the river Thames from 'industrial' pollution. The attentive observer will notice Hitchcock somewhere in this audience (he is the only one not applauding). Suddenly, the speech is disturbed by the discovery of a nude female corpse floating down the river Thames...

Go see the movie. No Londoner should do without it. I don't know any other movie paying homage to 'County Hall' like Hitch did.