Saturday 30 August 2008

St George, Bloomsbury

The spire of St George was one of the oddest in London when I first saw it decades ago, and now it has become one of the oddest anywhere by the restoration of the lions and unicorns gambolling round its base.
The architect, Nicholas Hawksmoor, had included the royal beasts as playful guards for the statue of George I in a toga that stands on top of the s
tepped pyramid that forms the body of the spire. Apparently he did not include them in the estimate and the vestry initially refused to pay for them, and they were raucously mocked when unveiled in 1731. Hogarth included a distant view of the spire with beasts in Gin Lane.
Eventually, the Victorians had them recut as formal knots, and the beasts passed into history. Until recently, when a lavish restoration funded by Paul Mellon (described as a 'philanthropist and galloping Anglophile' in a plaque in the church) brought them back.
The new beasts were carved by Tim Crawley, as close to the originals as possible given that the surviving images are very small and little remained on the tower itself.

Tuesday 26 August 2008

Congress House, Great Russell Street WC1

Congress House was one of the first major modernist buildings projected for postwar London - David Aberdeen's design won a competition in 1948 even though construction was only completed in 1957.
The bronze group perched rather precariously on a stand next to the entrance is called The Spirit of Brotherhood and was created by Bernard Meadows, a great talent who was totally overshadowed as the assistant and friend of Henry Moore and teacher of Elizabeth Frink.
Unfortunately, Spirit of Brotherhood is not his finest work. It is deeply sentimental. A working man dressed in an inately noble but unspecific labourer's costume helping his fallen brother off the deck with a heave and a heartfelt "Aye up, chum, get thee t'union and thas'll be champion." It is a great composition - look at the way the men's interlocked arms and the whirl of the costume spiral optimistically upwards - but for the fact that you cannot look at it from the street without peeking up the fraternal unionists' demarcations .

Monday 25 August 2008

Southwark Health Centre, Walworth Road SE1

Southwark Health Centre is a poignant memorial to England's aspirations with Socialism in the middle of the last century. It was built in 1937, and the council obviously decided to splash out on it partly to demonstrate their commitment to public welfare but also to enlarge their empire by adding to the Town Hall and Library that were already on the site.
The architect was P. Stuart who used a rather flashy Art Deco style with lots of ornamental stonework. The main entrance is marked by the maxim "The people's health is the highest law", a slight mistranslation of Cicero's tag Salus populi suprema lex, which is literally "The welfare of the people shall be the supreme law" (I think). A bit of political spin here, possibly.
A rather wonderful allegorical group called Family Health stands on the parapet. A mother stands protectively over her children, armed with the healing staff of Asclepius. The serpent has got a great big smile over its face, rather unusually, and the smaller girl is holding her favourite dolly. It is all very domestic despite the nudism, which might have been very popular among the sun-worshipping aristocrats of the 1930s but was rather frowned on in traditional working class areas like South London.
The figure that is notably missing from the group is the father, rather prophetically given that absent dads are now a major problem in this very deprived area.
The sculptors were A.T. and E.J. Bradford.

Friday 22 August 2008

New Camera Shock

As threatened, I have got a new camera. The Panasonic Lumix was a wonder of compactness and was unique when I bought it in having a wide angle zoom, but its telephoto ability was abysmal and its modest pixel count meant that enlarging long shots gave very iffy results.
So I have invested in a Fujifilm Finepix S8100, a 'bridge' camera with an outstanding 18 times optical zoom (that's 27mm to 486mm in real money), 10 megapixel resolution and antishake. That's just about ideal for architecture, going from wide angle for interiors to telephoto for bits of statuary. To show the difference, here is the picture of the statue of Pavlova on the top of the Victoria Palace Theatre I posted a while back:And here is one I took the other day with my new toy:What a difference! The prima ballerina's face is clear and expressive, and you can see all the details of her costume. Unfortunately, you can also see the lightning conductor sticking out of her head and the wires that presumably help to support her arms as well as keep the pigeons off. The other downside is that I had to stand in the middle of the road to get the shot and was nearly run down by a bus.
More pics soon, if I live.

Friday 15 August 2008

Marble Arch (south side)

What a sad thing the Marble Arch is, sitting forlornly in its traffic island ignored by the few tourists that brave the subways to get to Hyde Park, when it should be the star of the daily Changing the Guard Show at Buckingham Palace.
It is a shadow of its former self as well. Sir John Nash had designed a much taller upper storey (the 'attic' storey) with sculpture commemorating victory over Napoleon, and an equestrian statue of George IV was to top it off.
It was incomplete when that spendthrift monarch died in 1830, and Edward Blore was brought in to take control of the spiralling costs. He cut down the attic, thriftily recycling the sculpture in Buckingham Palace and the new National Gallery. The equestrian statue went to Trafalgar Square.
Eventually, the arch got in the way of the enclosure of the forecourt and was removed to its present site in 1851. Its bleak surroundings today are the result of the horrible Park Lane widening scheme of 1961.
The two reliefs on the south side are by E.H. Baily, RA, the sculptor most famous for the statue of Nelson on his column.
On the left, a Roman naval warrior stands in front of a galley with an upturned prow and bronze ram. He is chatting up a woman who is definitely not a dockyard floozy but Justicia, as you can tell from the bundle of rods round an axe (the fasces) she is carrying.
To the right, Peace and Plenty are in animated conversation over the Flame of Liberty.

Saturday 9 August 2008

Angel Court, St James's

Angel Court is a rather dismal alley off King Street, enlivened by a remarkable series of reliefs by E. Bainbridge Copnall. They commemorate the St James's Theatre that stood on the site until it was scandalously demolished in 1957 despite a vociferous campaign led by Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh, who managed it.
Under the arch where smokers from the Golden Lion huddle, the heads of Olivier and Leigh are flanked by themselves in their legendary production of Antony and Cleopatra. Cleo lies on a divan brandishing the asp and Antony broods in his tent, reaching for his sword. The pyramids fill the background.
Three more reliefs have been placed at the bottom end of the alley, tastefully set off by a ventilation pipe on one side and a CCTV camera on the other.
At the top is George Alexander, the actor who managed the theatre from 1890 to 1918, though he looks more like Peter O'Toole to me. Alexander premiered two of Oscar Wilde's most popular plays, Lady Windermere's Fan and The Importance of Being Earnest, and Wilde himself appears on the middle relief.
Wilde is flanked by a pair of rather sinister scenes - Dorian Gray taking a sneak peek at his wrinkly portrait and Salome taking a sneak peek at her trophy head of John the Baptist.
At the bottom is the Broadway impressario Gilbert Miller who owned the theatre until its demolition. Is that Sir Gerald du Maurier to the left? He was manager of the St James's in the 1920s and 1930s. Perhaps it shows him as Lord Arthur Dilling in the record-breaking run of The Last of Mrs. Cheyney. The cellist on the right seems to be Pablo Casals - does anyone know why he should be commemorated here?The reliefs were commissioned for the office block that replaced the theatre, which was in turn demolished in 1986 for St James's House, a post-modern effort by EPR Architects. There's another post-modern thing the other side of the pub, built by STB Architects in 1989. Remember post-modernism? It started as an movement to bring joy back into the streetscape by allowing the decoration that had been banned by the international modernist orthodoxy. How quickly it degenerated into cheap, vulgar displays like these two objects.
At least Bainbridge Copnall's great reliefs survive, even if they have been shunted round the back like embarrassing bequests from elderly relatives that you can't throw away without offending the family.
Further down King Street, take a quick look at the archway to Cleveland Yard that punches through the solemn office 1998 building by Trehearne & Norman. The arch is decorated with a pair of veined leaf shapes by Robin Connolly. A nice detail.

Wednesday 6 August 2008

New Gallery, Regent Street

I'm going to get a camera with a longer lens, and possibly start carrying a pair of binos around as well. It is totally frustrating not to be able to see the detail in really high-level sculpture, especially when it is as good as the figures and bronze work on the New Gallery building in Regent Street.
The New Gallery itself is in the middle of this Beaux Art block built in 1920 to 1925 by the Scottish architectural practice Burnet & Tait - the shop/office blocks at either end are known as Vigo House and Westmoreland House.
The corners are marked by domes that recall the pepperpots on the Nash building it replaced. Shields and barking snakes heads in bronze run round the domes (they were designed by George Alexander) and stately women in classical drapes stand in front.
They each carry something that clearly symbolises the building in some way, but it is impossible to see what they are without a telephoto lens. One seems to hold a statuette of a seated woman, another some fruit, and a third brandishes a vase in one hand and what looks like a hammer in the other. Below the south dome, a girl sits cross-legged spinning (I think). What on earth does it all mean?
The sculptor was Sir William Reid Dick, also a Scot, who was official sculptor to George V.