Saturday 21 June 2008

QAMH, John Islip Street

The motto Sub Cruce Candida (Under the White Cross) belongs to the Danish Order of Dannebrog, so what is it doing above the old military hospital that Tate Britain now uses as offices?
The answer is that Queen Alexandra, wife of King Edward VII, was Danish and chose the motto herself when she became president of the Imperial Military Nursing Service. Note the Dannebrog cross interlinked with the letter A on the shield in the pediment. The red brick and Portland stone edifice, typical of the bombastic Edwardian style, was built in 1906.
Apparently, the King was visiting the hospital and a cook carrying a huge bowl of custard bustled through a door and tipped the lot over him. I bet that Queen Alexandra, one of the most betrayed and most long-suffering wives in history, laughed like a Dane.

Thursday 19 June 2008

Criterion complex, Piccadilly Circus

When the sun sinks towards the horizon, the three divers that perpetually spring from the roof of the Criterion extension suddenly glow gold and fresh.
The group, called Three Graces, freeze a moment of rapid movement, like the manic Horses of Helios galloping through the foam in the fountain on the street corner below.
Both works are by sculptor and bar owner Rudy Weller, created in 1992 when the Criterion was redeveloped. The Horses of Helios are designed for tourists to stand against and be photographed, while the Three Graces add a touch of drama to the skyline.
I'm not sure about all this 'capture the moment' stuff in monumental sculpture. It can look just a tad...vulgar. Especially when gilt.

Saturday 14 June 2008

Eagle House, Jermyn Street

I love this eagle, although it looks more like an owl. Perhaps it is an eagle owl.
He stands on top of Eagle House, a block of serviced offices just behind Waterstones (nee Simpsons). It was built some time between the wars in a timid, bland 'don't frighten the horses' sort of Art Deco, but right at the top where he knows no one will notice, the architect has placed this monstrous bird, perching on the parapet, waiting to pounce.

Wednesday 11 June 2008

161 Piccadilly

In 1908 the top end of St James's Street where it meets Piccadilly was an architectural arm-wrestling contest between two insurance giants. On the eastern corner, Norwich Union was building solid, stone-faced, respectable and reassuring offices. And on the western corner, Royal Insurance was doing exactly the same.
Symbolism is everywhere. The Norwich Union building (by Runtz & Ford) is topped by a figure of Justice with scales and sword. Nothing could say 'probity' clearer if it were not for Justice's attendants, who are improperly dressed. The group is by Herbert Binney.
The Royal Insurance building is evenmore muscular, by the architect J.J. Joass. As always, Joass uses the classical vocabulary to produce something rather strange. The composition consists of a base supporting columns, with an attic above, but the columns do not reach the attic, so the putti that used to stand in the niches in the columns have had to step up and support the upper floor. This is truly wierd. The sculptor was Bertram Mackennal.
Above the front door, there is a carving by the eminent sculptor Alfred Drury of that favourite bird of insurance companies, the phoenix, on a shield supported by more putti. And above that, the coat of arms of the company with a crown and lions on either side. It is so probitous it squeaks.
But I suspect all this rich symbolism is totally lost on the high-spending clients of the caviar and champagne restaurant that now occupies the site.

Thursday 5 June 2008

Shakespeare's Head, Carnaby Street

This one of my favourite pub signs. The Bard is leaning out of a window looking with interest at the scene below as if he is soaking up material for Henry VI part III or a new play with Falstaff in it.
Unfortunately the bust urgently needs restoration. His right hand, which I think used to hold a quill pen, has dropped off and someone has painted him in a desperate colour scheme of white, black and light blue, transforming him into the Phantom of the Opera.

Sunday 1 June 2008

Victoria Palace Theatre, Victoria Street SW1

This is no ordinary dancer poised perpetually on points on the dome of the Victoria Palace Theatre - it is the immortal Pavlova, who made her London debut there.
The original statue was made in 1911, a year after the theatre had been rebuilt by Frank Matcham for the impressario Alfred Butt. Unfortunately the great prima ballerina was extremely superstitious and refused to look at it, drawing the blinds on her car window every time she passed the place. Lucky she wasn't driving, really.
The original statue was removed in 1939 for safe keeping during the Blitz, but unfortunately disappeared. Presumably it was melted down to make Spitfires, or perhaps it is ornamenting someone's garden to this day.
In 2006 this replica was put in place, a charming addition to the skyline.