Wednesday 17 December 2008

Silken Hotel, Aldwych (again)

One more group from the facade of the old Gaiety Restaurant. These girls represent Sculpture, Architecture and Painting.
Few of the other groups can be photographed well because of the plane trees in front.

Interesting to compare with the trees in 1903.

Saturday 13 December 2008

Silken Hotel, Aldwych (Cont)

The Aldwych facade of the old Gaiety Restaurant has a Drama Group, appropriately enough considering the sadly demolished Gaiety Theatre was next door.
To the right is the hooded figure of Tragedy, holding a knife in one hand and a severed head with the other. A snake has curled its way through the eye socket of a scull, over Tragedy's shoulders and is turning as if to strike. All very odd.
Comedy on the left is much more straightforward, a lovely flirtatious girl with a fan to show how jolly she is. Representing comedy in symbols is very difficult. Showing her slipping on a banana skin or boarding the boat for the West Indies (Jamaica?) would probably have lowered the tone.
Binney had a bit of a problem with symbology with the group in the centre as well. Here he shows three of Shakespeare's most famous heroines, Ophelia, Cleopatra and Juliet, all helpfully labelled.
Cleopatra and Juliet have the instruments of their deaths - Cleo has both asp and bosom on display, and Juliet carries the chalice with the sleeping potion (though she eventually stabs herself). Ophelia, on the other hand, is drowned in a stream, which is rather difficult to include so Binney settles for showing her wringing her hands in a bonkers sort of way.
The heroines are being saluted by girls playing what look like alpenhorns.

Thursday 11 December 2008

Silken Hotel, Aldwych

The Silken Hotel is taking shape behind the facade of the old Gaiety Restaurant on the west corner of Aldwych, designed by Norman Shaw and built in 1903. For some reason Shaw included a frieze of monumental figures round the top, where they are practically invisible without binoculars.
They were carved by Hibbert C. Binney, whose only other work in London (I think) is the figure of Justice on top of 161 Piccadilly.
Here, Binney seems to have been unable to decide on an appropriate theme for the large number of figures needed to surround the building, though he might as well have modelled the queue at the post office as nobody can see them properly.
So he plumped for a random selection of the usual allegorical figures: Theatre, The Arts, Industry and Commerce - that sort of thing.
To start, here is a rather odd group on the south facade overlooking the Strand. It shows War protecting Justice, Motherhood and Peace.
War is on the left, armed with helmet, sword and shield, and shouting something. She looks very sergeant-majorly: "Right, you 'orrible allegorical figgers - get your 'air cut."
Justice stands at the centre left, with the slogan 'To Uphold the Right'.
On centre right, Motherhood cradles a child, looked over by a couple of cherubs. And on the far right, Peace holds a palm.
Imagine the fuss if Binney entered it for the Turner prize today. It would cause spluttering outrage in the right-on art elite.
The main part of the Silken Hotel on the corner of Aldwych is designed by Foster and Partners. It has the merit of being marginally less spirit-sappingly dull than the English Electric (later Citibank) building it replaces.

Monday 24 November 2008

Marble Arch (north side)

The sculptured panels on the north and south sides of Marble Arch (1825) form an interesting contrast. E.H. Baily did the south side, and they are competent but static and uninspired. Sir Richard Westmacott did a much livelier job on the north.
To the right (above), Peace stands on discarded instruments of War of an antique nature including armour, pikes and a very nasty-looking poleaxe. Two little boys are twirling a cloak round her, creating an animated swirling motion.
On the left (below), a trio of girls represents the Union. Miss England, wearing Britannia's helmet, is flanked by Miss Ireland with her harp and Miss Scotland with St Andrew's shield. It is the way Scotland is turning on her heel, with her hand on England's shoulder, that adds vitality to the group.

Friday 14 November 2008

2 Bloomsbury Square, WC1

The College of Preceptors was a Victorian institution that aimed to improve the standard and status of teaching by providing proper qualifications. It was founded in 1846 by a group including Joseph Payne (its first professor of education) and the formidable Miss Frances Buss, headmistress of the North London Collegiate School.
The rather grand building was erected in 1887, designed in a sort of Flemish Renaissance style by one F. Pinches.
The College, now known as the College of Teachers, moved out a few years ago and the building has been rather well restored as a suite of meeting rooms for the Bonnington hotel group.
Busts of famous educators stare down from the facade. Matthew Martin, chief executive of the College of Teachers, very kindly identified them as:
Top left: Johann Pestalozzi, Swiss educationalist and author

Centre: John Milton, poet and 'acrimonious and surly republican'

Top right: Friedrich Froebel, pioneer of modern education and inventor of the kindergarten

Bottom left: John Locke, empiricist philosopher and political refugee

Bottom right: Thomas Arnold, headmaster of Rugby School

Monday 3 November 2008

52 Grosvenor Gardens, SW1

As construction of the Midland Bank HQ (see below) was proceeding (it took fifteen years!), Lutyens got another commission for a facade, behind which lesser architects would do the boring bits.
This was for a speculative office block opposite Victoria Station, built by the Duke of Westminster. Lutyens got the job because he was best mates with the Surveyor of the Grosvenor Estate, fellow-architect Detmar Blow.
The facade is neo-Classical, just like the Midland, and frankly a bit dull, although the recessed main entrance with its giant Doric columns has a spark. It was originally called Terminal House but was simply numbered after a recent revamp.
Little heads enliven keystones all over the building. One, above the front door, is a fierce face in a helmet surrounded by foliage. The helmet is very familiar but I can't place it. Tibet? South America?
My complete ignorance of botany means I can't identify any of the plants either. The man with the whacky beard on the left seems to be surrounded by grapes. Below, the serious guy has poppies, I think. I suspect they are all native crops and headdresses of a particular place. Anybody have any ideas where?

Friday 31 October 2008

Midland Bank, Poultry EC2

Sir Edwin Lutyens got the commission for the 1925 headquarters of the Midland Bank in Poultry because he happened to be best mates with Reginald Mackenna, the chairman, but he was actually the perfect architect for the job. The building is noble, proportionate and humane, unlike the jokey post-modern licorice allsort over the road by Big Jim Stirling.
On either side is a statue of a boy playing with a goose, carved by Sir William Reid Dick. It is a typical piece of Lutyens whimsy - he wanted something that would recall the address, Poultry, which got its name from the poulterers that traded there in medieval times.
Reid Dick celebrated this with a reinterpretation of one of the famous sculptures of ancient times - the boy playing with a goose by the Greek sculptor Boethus. Boethus made the original in bronze, but the group is known today by Roman copies in stone - this one is in the Louvre.
The boy and the goose are locked in a deathly struggle - but is it play, or is the little fellow trying to strangle the bird?

Monday 27 October 2008

Candover Street, W1

Some of the best Art Nouveau architecture in London is by Herbert Fuller-Clark, including the amazing Black Friar pub in the City and this charming group of apartments round the back of the huge hole in the ground that used to be the Middlesex Hospital.
They were built in 1903, just before Fuller-Clark started work on the Black Friar.
Everyone notices the huge mosaics advertising a firm of heating and ventilation engineers called T.J. Boulting & Sons, leading to the immediate assumption that this was their 'Range and Stove Manufactory'. But as Philip Wilkinson at English Buildings points out, the upper floors are clearly all flats. There is a big Tudorish mullion-and-transom window in ground floor on Riding House Street, indicating that it might have been Boulting's showroom. I suspect the manufactory itself was in Birmingham.
The composition is lively and fluid, and as with the Black Friar there is some delicious ornament.
The gable at the top and the date stone feature lovely winged angel heads, and the mosaic over the front door is flanked by, on the left, a gruesome goblin sticking his tongue out at customers as they come in, and, on the right, a pair of lions wrestling in a flower.

Friday 24 October 2008

Becklow Road, W12

Victorian schools are being converted into flats all over London. This one, in Acton, has a nice bit of carvery on the front in the Decorated style with lots of vegetative matter sprouting over it.
At the centre is an angel bringing the benefits of education to a group of children. She is labelled 'Scientia' or knowledge.
The frame and plaque look oddly unconnected, as if the carvings had been chosen from a mail-order catalogue and incorporated into the building to add a touch of class.

Tuesday 21 October 2008

New Adelphi, WC2

Donald Gilbert is best known for his bronzes and the ceramic animals he designed for Denby. He made the bust of Sir Henry Wood that every year is crowned in laurel leaves and placed in the Albert Hall for the Promenaders to worship.
The enigmatic cloaked but nude figure Gilbert carved for the New Adelphi looks expressionlessly down on us, shielding his eyes from the sun with an upstretched arm and a rather oddly bent-back hand, almost double-jointed.

Sunday 19 October 2008

New Adelphi, WC2

This figure is either Inspiration or The Time of Day, depending on who you consult. It is by Gilbert Ledward, who was professor of sculpture at the Royal College of Art where his assistant was Henry Moore.
Ledward served as an artilleryman in Italy in the First War and afterwards became famous for his war memorials, including the bronzes on the Guards Division monument in Horse Guards Parade.
By the time the New Adelphi commission came along, Ledward had turned away from the normal practice of making a clay model and scaling up, to carving the stone directly, as Michelangelo had done. He resisted the move to abstraction that his former assistant pioneered, believing that sculpture had a mission to the masses.

Friday 17 October 2008

New Adelphi, WC2

This rather Old Testament figure is by A.J.J. Ayres (1902-1985), a sculptor who regarded his first duty as carving as part of the architecture rather than as an extension of his ego. His work adorns many churches, including Westminster Abbey. He taught Sir Anthony Caro.

Thursday 16 October 2008

New Adelphi, WC2

I have always averted my eyes when passing the New Adelphi, having a delicate stomach. The thing is not only hideous in its toadly grandiosity and expensive flashiness, it is a continuing reminder of the fact that London had one of the Adam brothers' greatest works and destroyed it out of greed.
The original Adelphi was built by the Robert, James and John Adam (adelphoi is greek for brothers) in 1768. The river frontage was called Adelphi Terrace, possibly the first time the word terrace was used for a row of houses. Unfortunately the development failed commercially, and the area declined into a warren of offices and factories. Charles Dickens was employed as a child in a boot blacking factory quite close by. In 1936 the whole central block was demolished and replaced by an Art Deco monster by Stanley Hamp. If you think it wouldn't happen today, consider that in 1993 there was an opportunity to demolish the bloody thing - so they added two storeys instead.
If you can block out the building, however, there is some excellent sculpture added by the developers to try and deflect just criticism.
Four giant statues are carved into the riverside frontage, the work of four of the best sculptors working in London at the time. I will post each individually over the next few days.
The easternmost figure is by Bainbridge Copnall, a man gazing upwards and seemingly about to be borne aloft by seagulls.

Tuesday 14 October 2008

Vincent Rooms, Vincent Square SW1

The Vincent Rooms are the training restaurants of Westminster Kingsway College. They were set up in 1910 by the men who brought French cuisine to London: Salmon, Escoffier and Cesar Ritz. Alumni include Jamie Oliver, Antony Worrall-Thompson and Ainsley Harriott so the school must shoulder some of the blame for the scourge of the celebrity chef.
The current building was designed by that hugely under-rated architect H.S. Goodhart-Rendel and built in 1950-7. Over the door is a slate incised with a picture of a candle-lit dinner for two, complete with champagne and all the implements of high-class seduction, as Kai Lung says. The cat only adds to the decadent atmosphere.
It is signed Ledger, an artist of whom I can discover nothing. It is also said to be a sundial, but there is no gnomon and it faces south-west so the folds of the table cloth that might be placed to tell the time are completely wrongly aligned.

Monday 13 October 2008

20 Pont Street, SW1

Large areas of the Cadogan Estate between Sloane Square and Knightsbridge are covered in houses that strive for variety, with asymmetrical fronts, spiky gables, bay windows and porches sticking out in every direction. The style was originally called Queen Anne, but was compulsorily rebranded Pont Street Dutch by Sir Osbert Lancaster.
The effect of this relentless variety is, unfortunately, a feeling of uniformity. The massing of blocks that makes Georgian terraces so impressive is lost. There is a certain dreary repetitiveness in the universal use of terracotta and the standard height of the buildings.
It's the little things that make Pont Street Dutch so richly enjoyable. At 20 Pont Street, built some time after 1878, the gable is relieved by a couple of dragons, angrily hissing and pawing the air.

The capitals of the columns supporting the porch have female faces wearing bizarre headresses with ram's horns spiralling out.
The faces on the sides, hidden under the balcony above, are even more disturbing. The one on the left is a grinning satyr, the horns clearly growing out of his skull, and the one on the right is mysteriously veiled, as if to protect her from the horrid sight of Oscar Wilde being taken away in a black maria from the Cadogan Hotel opposite, after his arrest on a charge of gross indecency.

Wednesday 8 October 2008

Hungerford House, Victoria Embankment WC2

This must be the loveliest electricity generating station ever. It was built in 1900 to power the street lights in the area. It is a classical, rather Baroque building enlivened by Arts and Crafts details such as the cupola on top and the funny little pointy hats on the dormer windows.
The pediment with its figures of a goddess flanked by a gryphon and a winged lion is particularly good. Her throne could have been designed by Mackintosh. She must be a deity connected with light - see the sunburst behind her. The name of the sculptor seems to be lost, and the building's architect is identified only as the LCC Architects' Department.