Friday, 27 July 2012

Guildhall, Basinghall Street EC2

The bit of the Guildhall that faces onto Basinghall Street was built in 1870 as the library by Sir Horace Jones, architect of Tower Bridge, which it strongly resembles. Jones placed three niches in the facade that were later filled with statues of Queens of England by J.W. Seale of Lambeth.
The figures are representative rather than realistic. Anne is portrayed as a beauty with a wasp waist when in reality she was so short and fat that when she died she had to be buried in a cubic coffin. Even Victoria, who was in her fifties at the time, is shown as a young woman.
Elizabeth I has unfortunately suffered damage to her hands and may have been holding regalia, possibly a sceptre in contrast to the orbs held by Anne and Victoria.
J.W. Seale was the progenitor of one of the sculpting dynasties that dominated the London architectural sculpture market until it collapse under the onset of International Modernism in the 1950s. Others included G.W. Seale and Gilbert Seale.

Friday, 20 July 2012

BUPA House, Bury Street W1

This enormous sculpture by Peter Randall-Page stands outside the headquarters of the private healthcare giant BUPA in Bloomsbury. The medical connection makes its title, Beneath the Skin (1991), a little sinister, making one think of some horrible larva burrowing away. Or a major organ in need of surgery at one of BUPA's luxury hospitals.
Actually I like it a lot. It has proportion, shape and presence. The polished surface of the Kilkenny marble is fantastic, although the top has been over-polished by the bottoms of tourists resting on their way to the British Museum round the corner.
The black-and-white pattern in the background is also by Randall-Page, entitled Chain of Events (1996). It is in black granite inlaid into Portland stone.
Beneath the Skin is a good example of Randall-Page's early organic style, using natural shapes to create memorable images. Now he has moved on, investigating the way nature uses simple mathematical relationships such as the Fibonacci series to create complex structures like sunflowers or pine nuts. There is much more on his website.

Sunday, 15 July 2012

Goldbeater's House, Manette Street W1

In Victorian times, the lane that runs down the side of Foyle's bookshop was occupied by sundry industries including an organ builder, a maker of coach trimmings (it was close by to Long Acre, where the coaches were made) and a goldbeater who used tremendous cast iron mallets to beat out ribbons of gold into gold leaf just a few atoms thick. This would have been supplied to the carriage trade also.
The scene was described by Dickens as the home of Dr Manette in A Tale of Two Cities:
There ought to have been a tranquil bark in such an anchorage, and there was. The Doctor occupied two floors of a large stiff house, where several callings purported to be pursued by day, but whereof little was audible any day, and which was shunned by all of them at night. In a building at the back, attainable by a courtyard where a plane-tree rustled its green leaves, church-organs claimed to be made, and silver to be chased, and likewise gold to be beaten by some mysterious giant who had a golden arm starting out of the wall of the front hall - as if he had beaten himself precious, and menaced a similar conversion of all visitors. Very little of these trades, or of a lonely lodger rumoured to live up-stairs, or of a dim coach-trimming maker asserted to have a counting-house below, was ever heard or seen. Occasionally, a stray workman putting his coat on, traversed the hall, or a stranger peered about there, or a distant clink was heard across the courtyard, or a thump from the golden giant. These, however, were only the exceptions required to prove the rule that the sparrows in the plane-tree behind the house, and the echoes in the corner before it, had their own way from Sunday morning unto Saturday night.
I remember visiting the House of St Barnabas in Soho Square many years ago and being buttonholed by an old gentleman who had been one of its officers. He was very proud of having convinced the Dickens Fellowship that the great novelist had based Dr Manette's house on the House of St Barnabas and not, as they had previously thought, the Duke of Monmouth's house on the other side of the square.
Not only had the House of St Barnabas got a garden with a plane tree (which still exists), but the road, then known as Rose Street, runs down the side of it. So when Dickens describes the people in the garden hear Sidney Carton's footsteps, then a silence, then the front door bell ringing, he was clearly running down Rose Street and under the arch of the Pillars of Hercules which would have muffled the sound.
Later, a little chapel was built on the garden and the organ builder made an organ for it. The old goldbeater's premises was knocked down for an extension to Foyle's, including flats for the Foyle family. The original sign was given to the Dickens museum in Doughty Street, where it is still on display, and this replica installed in its place.

Tuesday, 3 July 2012

Tower Hill Terrace EC3

Tower Hill Terrace is a rather bleak space on top of a huddle of shops selling fast food and tourist tat, but its western side is graced by a pair of gateposts to All Hallows Barking, topped by these kids frolicking in the surf with dolphins.
They were created as a memorial to Sir Follett Holt, first chairman of the Tower Hill Improvement Trust. Sir Follett, a businessman with links to Argentina, had supported Tubby Clayton, founder of Toc H and vicar of All Hallows, in his campaign to remove 'certain ugly buildings' from Tower Hill. Appropriately, Tower Hill Terrace itself is the basement of one of those buildings - a rather grim warehouse.
Sir Follett died in 1944 but the memorial was not erected until 1965 at the end of the restoration of All Hallows after its almost total destruction in the blitz.
The figures, called 'The Sea' were designed by Cecil Thomas, another great friend of Tubby Clayton. He also created many works in the church, including Clayton's own memorial, a full-length recumbent figure like a medieval bishop.
Thomas was one of the 'soldier sculptors' who served in the First World War - others include Jagger, Dick and Roslyn. It seems significant that so many sculptors who came to prominence between the wars should have been soldiers, but almost every able-bodied man of that generation served in one way or another so perhaps it is not so strange. The post-war boom in memorial sculpture inevitably linked them conflict, I suppose.
Thomas started his career as a miniaturist, working in cameos and coins. He later had his studio in Brompton Road, bequeathing it to the Royal Society of British Sculptors (now the Royal British Society of Sculptors).