Monday 29 September 2008

Opposite the British Museum, Great Russell Street WC1

Opposite the British Museum is a very unmemorable pair of hotel buildings by CF Hayward, built in 1889 and 1895. Hayward was sufficiently pleased with them to put his initials in terracotta on the gable of the earlier one.
The British Museum infected generations of Londoners with an enthusiasm for the exotic (E. Nesbit's children are always nipping in) and Hayward obviously got the bug. He decorated one of the bow windows with a Pharoah and the other with an Assyrian god with wings.

Friday 26 September 2008

British Museum, Great Russell Street WC1

The great pediment over the front door of the British Museum was originally going to be unadorned as designed by Sir Robert Smirke in 1823, in accordance with the severe Grecian taste of the late Regency. By the time it was nearing completion in the 1840s, however, Queen Victoria was on the throne and people wanted things a bit richer, so Sir Richard Westmacott was brought in to egg the pudding.
The result is richly symbolic - the Progress of Civilization, no less. From left to right, an Unfortunate Pagan is brought the Light of Religion by an angel, and jolly grateful he is. Then come the embodiments of the arts and sciences, with Navigation, the Queen of Science, at the centre.
What I find fascinating is how Westmacott deals with the problem of the corners. He has to fill them in with something, so he inserts some of the animals that Captain Cook brought back from his voyages (they were a star part of the museum's collections before they were transferred to the Natural History Museum).
But to squeeze them into the pointy bits of the pediment he has to choose the animal kingdom's flattest creatures - a crocodile on the left and a turtle on the right.

Friday 19 September 2008

Faraday Monument, Elephant & Castle SE1

For me, this thing epitomises everything that is wrong with modern architecture and sculpture.
As a composition it is good, a simple rectilinear shape enclosed by a strong arms of steel. As a show it is great, especially at night when its aluminium panels reflect the lights of the city. And the symbolism is superb - it is a monument to the great pioneer of electricity, Michael Faraday, who was born close by, and it contains a working electricity substation sending power to the Tube.
But very few of the drivers who circle it day and night realise what it is. For them, it is just an object in the middle of the roundabout, just about visible past the advertising hoardings.
As a monument, it does nothing for the memory of one of Britain's greatest scientists. As a sculpture, it can be appreciated only by the few pedestrians brave enough to pass through the dark, threatening, urine-soaked subways to the central island.
Faraday deserves better.

Tuesday 16 September 2008

Kingsgate House, Southampton Row WC1

This statue of John Bunyan holding a copy of The Pilgrim's Progress stands on the corner of the former headquarters of the Baptist Union, built by the Union's architect Arthur Keen in 1901-3. It was carved by Richard Garbe, one of those sculptors whose career spanned the cataclysmic changes in taste between the Victorian and modern eras - he was born in 1876 and died in 1957.
There is something of a mystery over the dating of this particular image. Several websites including the authoritative Bob Speel say it is dated 1953, right at the end of Garbe's life. This cannot be true. The statue is totally Victorian in style - he could have stepped out of a genre painting such as When did you last see your father?. The stone is the same as that used to face the building, and the lettering on the plinth is Arts and Crafts in style - it is inconceivable that they could have been cut after 1945.
Added to which, Garbe also contributed a couple of statues to a building just round the corner in High Holborn that was also designed by Arthur Keen and dates from about the same time. Clearly they had a professional relationship.
I believe a date has been misread somewhere and it was carved not in 1953 but 1903, when Garbe was a young man and would have been glad of a bit of work for the Baptists.
Kingsgate House is currently empty and down-at-heel. Its likely fate is yet another hotel.

Sunday 14 September 2008

Victoria House, Southampton Way WC1

Victoria House is one of the last huzzahs of the Beaux Arts style in London, built for the Liverpool Victoria Friendly Society in 1921-34 but still firmly in the Edwardian tradition despite its steel frame. Its giant Ionic facade was designed by Charles W. Long, and the pediments are filled with sculpture by Herbert William Palliser.
Palliser seems tugged in two directions here. The compositions are pure Edwardian, representative groups heavy with symbolism, but with Art Nouveau touches.
On the Bloomsbury Square facade, the group represents Agriculture.
Mother Nature, clad in a robe, blesses rolling fields of wheat.
A hunter with a spear sits to her right, and a falconer to her left. Girls lie down on each side bearing fruit, and a lamb and an antelope fill in the corners.
The Southampton Row facade is more difficult to see because of the narrowness of the street. It represents Industry.
A blacksmith stands next to his anvil, shrugging off his robe by raising his arms above his head. He looks alarmingly as though he is about to piss on the crowd below.
On his right, an engineer adjusts the controls of a gas engine (I think) and on his left a girl navigator holds a pair of compasses on a globe in front of her and a sextant behind her back.

Wednesday 10 September 2008

41 Kingsway WC2

These magnificent merfolk with their tails tying themselves in knots and the strange fish (known in the merfolk language as 'lunch') are over the door of the Leeds Building Society in Kingsway. The 1909 design is by the building's architects Gibson, Skipwith & Gordon and they were carved by Gilbert Seale in Camberwell.
Of course, they are far too much fun for a building society. The shop was originally designed (I think) as a stationery shop called The Pen Corner, owned by L.G.Sloan Ltd who sold playing cards, board games and so on as well as pens and paper. Waterman pens were a speciality, and the building is still known as Waterman House. Are the merfolk a rebus, an architectural pun? Or was Mr Sloan keen on all things marine? Or was it all just a coincidence and they were carved for someone else entirely?

Congress House, Dyott Street WC1

From the pavement in Dyott Street and you can look through the sheet glass walls of the staircase and canteen of Congress House right into the central courtyard, where stands Jacob Epstein's Pieta, the Virgin Mary cradling the dead body of Christ. It was made in 1955 as a war memorial.
The figures pack quite a punch. Christ is shrunken, almost deformed in death, with one arm dangling uselessly and his practically featureless head lolling back. Mary is traditionally portrayed gazing both piteously and with pity on her Son's face, but Epstein has her looking accusingly upwards. It's a face we often see on the TV news from the Middle East today, staring up at us from the scene of some atrocity.
The wall behind, incidentally, was originally clad in green marble but for some reason that was replaced with the the sort of tiles usually found in the changing rooms at municipal swimming baths.
Unfortunately, the view from Dyott St is partly obscured by scaffolding at the moment so you can only see Mary's feet. I had to blag my way into the TUC canteen to get this shot.