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.

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