Thursday 29 May 2008

Royal Mews, Buckingham Palace

I've cycled past this heroic struggle in stone for decades without noticing it, although that might be something to do with the aggression of van drivers in Victoria requiring an iron concentration on the road. It was only when I looked up William Theed the Younger for previous posts I noticed a reference to this sculpture on the Riding House of the Royal Mews.
The Riding House was built by Sir William Chambers in 1765 but the sculpture is part of a revamp by Sir James Pennethorne in 1858. It shows a rather dynamic Hercules (you can recognise him by the lion skin over his head and the club lying at his feet) taming the Horses of Diomedes by the simple technique of grabbing them by the manes and banging their heads together.
I don't think the Queen, a noted equestrian, would approve even though they were notorious man-eaters. Neither would she look kindly on Hercules' action in feeding Diomedes to his own horses.

Thursday 22 May 2008

More William Theed the Younger

As a pendant to the entry on Peek House with its odd sculpture of a camel train, here's a picture of another camel by William Theed the Younger, part of his 'Africa' group on the Albert Memorial.
Most people assume that the statues of the world's races mourning 'our blameless prince' celebrate the Empire (a woman made exactly that remark while I was there) but they don't - they include a Chinaman, an Afghani in his tall lambswool hat, an Arab trader, Red Indians (as they were known in the 1860s), a Bedouin and lots of others.
In any event, when Theed carved the Africa group (to a general design by the memorial's architect Sir George Gilbert Scott), the British had very few colonies there, only Cape Colony and a strip along the coast in West Africa, and they were really just coaling stations for ships heading for India.
So the sculpture is an idealised Victorian vision of Africa, and very odd it is. The central figure is an Egyptian queen on the back of a camel, with her hand resting rather too familiarly on the shoulder of a half-naked male attendant. On her other side, that Arab merchant is writing a bill, seated on a bale of cotton and sundry exotic merchandise including a sword.
Behind her is an extraordinary couple, a black man with an animal skin over his shoulders and a little modesty cloth hanging from his waist, and a European woman reading from a scroll. It seems to represent The Benefits of European Culture Being Brought to the Benighted But Grateful Negro. How patronising.

Sunday 18 May 2008

The Kingly Street black sheep

Many memorable ornamental details in London are basically advertising, so it is satisfying to come across one which is an advertisement for an advertising agency.
The sheep in Kingly Street, just behind Hamley's in Regent Street, is the symbol of Bartle Bogle Hegarty, who pride themselves on fighting above their weight. Despite the relatively small number of people they employ, they get lots of awards and can point to lots of campaigns you will remember, such as the bloke stripping off in the launderette for Levis, and Audi's fixed-in-the-brain-so-you'll-never-get-rid-of-it 'Vorsprung Durch Technik'.
BBH's first campaign for Levi's was for black jeans, then unheard-of. BBH did a poster with a crowd of white sheep going in one direction, And one black sheep going in the other direction.
Suited executives at Levi Strauss hated it, for two reasons:
1) It didn't mention jeans, and
2) It didn't feature girls with big knockers.
But it was a huge success, and many years later BBH adopted the black sheep as its corporate logo. And there it is, proudly advertising their London HQ.

Saturday 10 May 2008

24 Great James Street

This is a house that is not at all what it appears. To a casual glance it is early Georgian, like the rest of Great James Street - which is one of the finest Georgian streets in London. The blue plaque claiming that Dorothy L. Sayers, creator of aristocratic 'tec Lord Peter Wimsey, lived there in the 1920s adds verisimilitude to that impression.
But the house was totally rebuilt in the 1960s, with a very grand doorcase recycled from a demolished 1720s house in Great Ormond Street.
The giveaway is the way the doorcase is too tall for the ground floor, protruding up into the first floor. As a result, the window above does not line up with the others in a very unClassical way.
But the doorcase itself is fabulous and thank heaven it was saved.
Under the pediment is a carving of the Phoenix on its funeral pyre, its wings outspread in a sort of blessing before it expires, secure in the knowledge that it will come back in an egg born in the ashes.

Friday 9 May 2008

Fox and Anchor, Charterhouse Street

What are these extraordinary creatures, perched on a ledge on the Fox and Anchor in Smithfield as though about to pounce on unsuspecting drinkers at the pavement tables below? They cannot be foxes, surely. They looks more like hellhounds with those pointed ears and gappy mouths.
The facade is high Art Nouveau, designed by W.J. Neatby in 1898, so it is possible they started as foxes and got transmogrified in the interests of Art.
The whole frontage is covered in Doulton faience, a material designed to last for ever and a favourite of Art Nouveau designers. A favourite Art Nouveau motif is the peacock, which makes its appearence just below the hellhounds.

Thursday 8 May 2008

33 Eastcheap

One of the unexpected side effects of encouraging decoration in architecture is that it perpetuates the history of the site. The architect has to come up with suitable decorative motifs, and history is often a rich source of inspiration.
At 33 Eastcheap, built in 1868, the architect Robert Lewis Roumieu placed a vigorous portrait of a boar crashing through some undergrowth at the centre of his design. Why? After all, the place was a vinegar warehouse, despite the faintly ecclesiastical tone of the Victorian Psycho style architecture.
The answer is rather interesting and splendid. The site was that of the Boar's Head Tavern, haunt of that great tosspot Sir John Falstaff in Henry IV Part II.
The building is sadly neglected at the moment. I think it would be totally spiffing if it were converted back into the Boar's Head Tavern, specialising in cakes and ale, apple-johns, canary wine, mouldy stewed prunes and dried cakes.

Wednesday 7 May 2008

Peek House, Eastcheap

The entire south side of Eastcheap was demolished in 1882 to allow the Metropolitan Line to be excavated, and in 1883 the firm of Peek Bros, Tea and Coffee Importers, built a grand new office at No 20 with a circular corner tower. To liven the tower up, they got William Theed the Younger to carve an alto relievo depiction of their coffee being brought across the sands of Araby on the backs of three camels led by a Bedouin in his flowing robes. It's straight out of Desert Song.
Theed loved exotic subjects, having done the Africa section on the Albert Memorial and a line of horses for Buckingham Palace.
Why is it so deadly serious but chuckle-out-loud funny at the same time? I think it is the way the driver is striding so purposefully with his robes flowing out behind, such is his determination to reach Eastcheap before the Peek brothers (Fred and Jim) get fed up with waiting and go to the pub.