Saturday, 24 May 2014

Great Cumberland Place W1

In the siege of Budapest in 1944 Raul Wallenberg saved possibly as many as 100,000 Jews from the gas chambers by issuing them with emergency Swedish passports. 
At one point he climbed on a train about to leave for Auschwitz, calmly handing papers into the occupants of unsealed carriages and waving them out to a line of waiting cars, ignoring warnings and shots from German guards and Hungarian Arrow Cross fascists.
During the last days of the siege, Wallenberg was taken by the Soviets and was never seen again.
The noble monument by Philip Jackson is a full-length portrait of Wallenberg standing against a concrete wall that is revealed on going behind to be a pile of the passports with a flag draped over. A few lie loose in front, engraved with the words.
Wallenberg is nattily dressed, the epitome of a wealthy businessman. He grasps a bundle of passports in his right hand and holds his coat over them with his left, an apparently confident gesture but his knuckles are tightly clenched.

Friday, 23 May 2014

Shaw Theatre, 100 Euston Road NW1

The entrance to the Shaw Theatre is marked by Keith Grant's abstract piece St Joan, intended to recall not the girl but the military culture she embraced but ultimately destroyed her. A stylised knight's helm is intersected by lances and surrounded by longbows, a strong and memorable image.
Like many of Grant's works, it looks its best at night when coloured lights within bring it to life. I must return after dark to get a better picture.
George Bernard Shaw lived in the parish of St Pancras. The theatre that bears his name was originally built in 1971 as part of a complex including a public library, and St Joan stood on Euston Road at the main entrance. When the library was moved to Camden Town Hall to allow the original building to be converted into an hotel, the piece was moved in 2002 to the side and mounted on a new based designed by Grant.

Thursday, 22 May 2014

British Library, Euston Road NW1

Antony 'Angel of the North' Gormley is usually one for big, indeed unavoidable statement sculpture but at the British Library he is unusually discreet. Indeed, most of the people who sun themselves in the very nice circle within the library forecourt don't seem to notice Planets at all.
The work has roots right back in Gormley's early career when he still carved stuff, before he abandoned the chisel took up the welding torch.
From 1979 he experimented with a series of Man Rocks, stones from the sea off Portland. Gormley would get family, friends and colleagues to clutch the rock as he chalked their outline. The outline was then "carved to an adequate depth where the form was beginning to be self-revealed, so is on the cusp between a drawing and the arising of self-determined form," the artist says.
For Planets, the idea of motion is introduced by the use of glacial erratics brought from a Swedish quarry. These rocks of ages had been transported for hundreds of miles before being spewed out at the edge of the ice floe.
The work was commissioned in 1986 but progress was glacial due to funding difficulties and the legendarily slow progress of the library building itself. Planets was finally installed in 2002.

Wednesday, 21 May 2014

British Library, Euston Road NW1

Eduardo Paolozzi's gigantic bronze image of Sir Isaac Newton dominates the forecourt of the British Library. It is very imposing, with the grandeur and poise of all Paolozzi's work.
Erected in 1995, the design is based, of course, on William Blake's famous picture of Newton as a creature of the earth, grubbing about measuring stuff while wilfully closing his eyes to the beauties of the heavens and of the spiritual world. An inch-worm. Science, Blake seems to say, destroys beauty and truth by the process of investigation.
This is not an appropriate image for a temple of learning, and this clumsy use of misplaced symbolism is a perfect example of everything that is wrong with the library building as a flagship of British culture and learning.
The British Museum greets you with a Grecian facade. You have to go up to get to the grand entrance. Arriving there always feels like visiting a temple of learning. The old circular reading room could be instantly taken in with a sweep of the eye, a rational place devoted to knowledge.
The forecourt of Sir Colin St John Wilson's BL takes you downwards towards an invisible front door in a corner. Walking across it feels very much like being sucked down the plughole of the kitchen sink.
As a final irony, the Newton statue was funded not by the Library but by the Football Pools. And the view that ordinary non-library-going, footie-loving members of the public passing along Ossulton Street get is this:

Monday, 19 May 2014

St Richard's House, 102 Eversholt Street NW1

This surprisingly good carving is over the doorway of a dreary 1960s social housing block down the side of Euston Station. St Richard was the 13th century Bishop of Chichester who wrote the famous prayer that finishes with the lines:
O most merciful Redeemer, friend and brother,
May I know Thee more clearly,
Love Thee more dearly,
Follow Thee more nearly.

In fact he was the Pope's enforcer, rejecting the power of the King (Henry III) over the church, imposing celibacy on the priesthood and preaching the Crusade. To the left is his seal, Christ the Ruler of Nations with the Sword of the Spirit in his mouth and the Gospel in his hand, symbols from Revelation.
At the bottom left hand corner is a fig tree, referring to the time Richard spent living near Worthing cultivating figs while he waited for Henry III to submit to the Pope's will and give him the bishopric.
The chalice to the right is one of his miracles - once, while celebrating communion, he dropped the chalice but no wine was spilled.
At the top right is a blackbird, which is a bit gruesome: the legend goes that a student at Oxford had a pet blackbird who sang delightfully. A friend asked for the bird, but he refused to give it up. The friend came back later and cut its tongue out. When the student returned to find the bird voiceless and close to death, he prayed to St Richard and the bird burst out into glorious song.

Friday, 16 May 2014

Vue West End Cinema, Cranbourn Street WC2

The flamboyantly Art Deco facade of the Vue Cinema dates back to 1938 when it was built as the Warner Theatre by architects Thomas Somerford and E.A. Stone.
At the top corners are figures representing Sight and Sound by E. Bainbridge Copnall, who creates a kind of 'motion sculpture' with successive images to create an impression of movement in the same way the movies shown inside the theatre use successive frames.

Thursday, 1 May 2014

Museum of London, 150 London Wall EC2

Two giant salamanders have been installed on the rotunda that London Wall sits in, reproductions of a tiny 17th century brooch in the Cheapside hoard exhibited within in a major exhibition 2013-14. The original is gold with Columbian emeralds and Indian diamonds. This one is 10m across and plastic.
Note the sensitive location behind the lamp standard. The other one is similarly sited. Don't installers stand back and look before they get out the Black and Decker?