Friday 31 October 2008

Midland Bank, Poultry EC2

Sir Edwin Lutyens got the commission for the 1925 headquarters of the Midland Bank in Poultry because he happened to be best mates with Reginald Mackenna, the chairman, but he was actually the perfect architect for the job. The building is noble, proportionate and humane, unlike the jokey post-modern licorice allsort over the road by Big Jim Stirling.
On either side is a statue of a boy playing with a goose, carved by Sir William Reid Dick. It is a typical piece of Lutyens whimsy - he wanted something that would recall the address, Poultry, which got its name from the poulterers that traded there in medieval times.
Reid Dick celebrated this with a reinterpretation of one of the famous sculptures of ancient times - the boy playing with a goose by the Greek sculptor Boethus. Boethus made the original in bronze, but the group is known today by Roman copies in stone - this one is in the Louvre.
The boy and the goose are locked in a deathly struggle - but is it play, or is the little fellow trying to strangle the bird?

Monday 27 October 2008

Candover Street, W1

Some of the best Art Nouveau architecture in London is by Herbert Fuller-Clark, including the amazing Black Friar pub in the City and this charming group of apartments round the back of the huge hole in the ground that used to be the Middlesex Hospital.
They were built in 1903, just before Fuller-Clark started work on the Black Friar.
Everyone notices the huge mosaics advertising a firm of heating and ventilation engineers called T.J. Boulting & Sons, leading to the immediate assumption that this was their 'Range and Stove Manufactory'. But as Philip Wilkinson at English Buildings points out, the upper floors are clearly all flats. There is a big Tudorish mullion-and-transom window in ground floor on Riding House Street, indicating that it might have been Boulting's showroom. I suspect the manufactory itself was in Birmingham.
The composition is lively and fluid, and as with the Black Friar there is some delicious ornament.
The gable at the top and the date stone feature lovely winged angel heads, and the mosaic over the front door is flanked by, on the left, a gruesome goblin sticking his tongue out at customers as they come in, and, on the right, a pair of lions wrestling in a flower.

Friday 24 October 2008

Becklow Road, W12

Victorian schools are being converted into flats all over London. This one, in Acton, has a nice bit of carvery on the front in the Decorated style with lots of vegetative matter sprouting over it.
At the centre is an angel bringing the benefits of education to a group of children. She is labelled 'Scientia' or knowledge.
The frame and plaque look oddly unconnected, as if the carvings had been chosen from a mail-order catalogue and incorporated into the building to add a touch of class.

Tuesday 21 October 2008

New Adelphi, WC2

Donald Gilbert is best known for his bronzes and the ceramic animals he designed for Denby. He made the bust of Sir Henry Wood that every year is crowned in laurel leaves and placed in the Albert Hall for the Promenaders to worship.
The enigmatic cloaked but nude figure Gilbert carved for the New Adelphi looks expressionlessly down on us, shielding his eyes from the sun with an upstretched arm and a rather oddly bent-back hand, almost double-jointed.

Sunday 19 October 2008

New Adelphi, WC2

This figure is either Inspiration or The Time of Day, depending on who you consult. It is by Gilbert Ledward, who was professor of sculpture at the Royal College of Art where his assistant was Henry Moore.
Ledward served as an artilleryman in Italy in the First War and afterwards became famous for his war memorials, including the bronzes on the Guards Division monument in Horse Guards Parade.
By the time the New Adelphi commission came along, Ledward had turned away from the normal practice of making a clay model and scaling up, to carving the stone directly, as Michelangelo had done. He resisted the move to abstraction that his former assistant pioneered, believing that sculpture had a mission to the masses.

Friday 17 October 2008

New Adelphi, WC2

This rather Old Testament figure is by A.J.J. Ayres (1902-1985), a sculptor who regarded his first duty as carving as part of the architecture rather than as an extension of his ego. His work adorns many churches, including Westminster Abbey. He taught Sir Anthony Caro.

Thursday 16 October 2008

New Adelphi, WC2

I have always averted my eyes when passing the New Adelphi, having a delicate stomach. The thing is not only hideous in its toadly grandiosity and expensive flashiness, it is a continuing reminder of the fact that London had one of the Adam brothers' greatest works and destroyed it out of greed.
The original Adelphi was built by the Robert, James and John Adam (adelphoi is greek for brothers) in 1768. The river frontage was called Adelphi Terrace, possibly the first time the word terrace was used for a row of houses. Unfortunately the development failed commercially, and the area declined into a warren of offices and factories. Charles Dickens was employed as a child in a boot blacking factory quite close by. In 1936 the whole central block was demolished and replaced by an Art Deco monster by Stanley Hamp. If you think it wouldn't happen today, consider that in 1993 there was an opportunity to demolish the bloody thing - so they added two storeys instead.
If you can block out the building, however, there is some excellent sculpture added by the developers to try and deflect just criticism.
Four giant statues are carved into the riverside frontage, the work of four of the best sculptors working in London at the time. I will post each individually over the next few days.
The easternmost figure is by Bainbridge Copnall, a man gazing upwards and seemingly about to be borne aloft by seagulls.

Tuesday 14 October 2008

Vincent Rooms, Vincent Square SW1

The Vincent Rooms are the training restaurants of Westminster Kingsway College. They were set up in 1910 by the men who brought French cuisine to London: Salmon, Escoffier and Cesar Ritz. Alumni include Jamie Oliver, Antony Worrall-Thompson and Ainsley Harriott so the school must shoulder some of the blame for the scourge of the celebrity chef.
The current building was designed by that hugely under-rated architect H.S. Goodhart-Rendel and built in 1950-7. Over the door is a slate incised with a picture of a candle-lit dinner for two, complete with champagne and all the implements of high-class seduction, as Kai Lung says. The cat only adds to the decadent atmosphere.
It is signed Ledger, an artist of whom I can discover nothing. It is also said to be a sundial, but there is no gnomon and it faces south-west so the folds of the table cloth that might be placed to tell the time are completely wrongly aligned.

Monday 13 October 2008

20 Pont Street, SW1

Large areas of the Cadogan Estate between Sloane Square and Knightsbridge are covered in houses that strive for variety, with asymmetrical fronts, spiky gables, bay windows and porches sticking out in every direction. The style was originally called Queen Anne, but was compulsorily rebranded Pont Street Dutch by Sir Osbert Lancaster.
The effect of this relentless variety is, unfortunately, a feeling of uniformity. The massing of blocks that makes Georgian terraces so impressive is lost. There is a certain dreary repetitiveness in the universal use of terracotta and the standard height of the buildings.
It's the little things that make Pont Street Dutch so richly enjoyable. At 20 Pont Street, built some time after 1878, the gable is relieved by a couple of dragons, angrily hissing and pawing the air.

The capitals of the columns supporting the porch have female faces wearing bizarre headresses with ram's horns spiralling out.
The faces on the sides, hidden under the balcony above, are even more disturbing. The one on the left is a grinning satyr, the horns clearly growing out of his skull, and the one on the right is mysteriously veiled, as if to protect her from the horrid sight of Oscar Wilde being taken away in a black maria from the Cadogan Hotel opposite, after his arrest on a charge of gross indecency.

Wednesday 8 October 2008

Hungerford House, Victoria Embankment WC2

This must be the loveliest electricity generating station ever. It was built in 1900 to power the street lights in the area. It is a classical, rather Baroque building enlivened by Arts and Crafts details such as the cupola on top and the funny little pointy hats on the dormer windows.
The pediment with its figures of a goddess flanked by a gryphon and a winged lion is particularly good. Her throne could have been designed by Mackintosh. She must be a deity connected with light - see the sunburst behind her. The name of the sculptor seems to be lost, and the building's architect is identified only as the LCC Architects' Department.