Sunday 25 January 2009

Tiverton House, Gray's Inn Road WC1

Here's a rule of architecture: if you look at a dull speculative block built after 1918 it will have no details to enjoy at all. If it was built before 1914, it will still be dull but there will be some trivial little item that gives joy.
Exhibit A: Tiverton House, built about 1900 as Hygenic Housing for the Deserving Poor, at a time when the Deserving Poor got the minimum necessary to keep alive. Just look at that terracotta gargoyle. Old Father Thames using the sick bag and enjoying the experience. Lovely.

Thursday 22 January 2009

Prudential Assurance, Holborn Bars WC1

Prudential Assurance built their headquarters at Holborn Bars in installments from 1876 to 1901, to designs by Alfred Waterhouse that set a house style that was used for mini-Prus up and down the country.
Over the entrance is a figure of a solemn girl with a mirror. I thought what a lark it would be if she was the original Prudence. So I looked her up and indeed, she is Prudence herself, one of the Cardinal Virtues embodied in terracotta.
The statue was designed in 1893 by Frederick W. Pomeroy RA, the man who created the figure of Justice on the Old Bailey. It was made by Burmantofts of Leeds.
Prudence is pictured with her mirror of self-knowledge in one hand and what looks like a pen or stylus in the other.
Waterhouse himself also created a figure of Prudence which is rather alarming - she not only has the mirror but brandishes a snake, another symbol of wisdom. And she has eyes in the back of her head, in a wierd re-jigging of the classical convention which showed her with faces looking in both directions.
Gordon Brown famously worships Prudence. I wonder if he comes round at dawn and sacrifices a few chickens every time his ratings plummet?

Tuesday 20 January 2009

Adana, 162 Gray's Inn Road WC1

I used to do letterpress printing at school. We painstakingly set Christmas cards, letterheads and programmes for the school play in traditional type, printing them on a large Arab press the art master had finaggled from somewhere. Smaller items were printed on a fleet of Adana presses, sold from this shop, which opened in 1950 though the Art Deco fascia makes it look rather 1930s.
Adana was set up to cater for the amateur printer, and very helpful they were when I visited to buy boxes of 14pt Perpetua capitals and new rollers for my flatbed press.
Letterpress has gone the way of chemical photography, pianolas and steam locos, though Adana hung on until as late as 1999. I still have my old Adana flatbed in the shed. It is just too good to throw away.
Happily, the old shop is still a printshop, so the sign is still appropriate. There is a short history of the company here.

Sunday 18 January 2009

Fishmongers Hall, London Bridge EC4

It's not often my twin obsessions with architecture and boats combine, but Fishmongers Hall is one of those points with its merfolk supporters in the armorial bearings in stone on the facade. They were carved in 1831 by masons employed by the contractors, the ubiquitous Cubitt brothers. There is a post about it at

Saturday 17 January 2009

Treasure House, 19-21 Hatton Garden EC1

Few of the old 'quarters' where trades used to congregate survive. Savile Row is on its last legs, and even Soho has fewer sex shops than it did. But Hatton Garden is still the headquarters of the diamond trade, and most of the shops are jewellers, so the architectural references to the trade remain potent.
Treasure House, built in 1907 to designs by Niven & Wigglesworth, has a particularly nice set of carvings illustrating the getting, making and uses of gold.
They are not in any particular sequence, unusually, so mining, which logically should be on the left, is centre right. The miner is holding a prybar, looking for a seam in the stratified rock to the light of a Davy lamp.
To his left is a foundryman kneeling in front of a furnace, holding a cauldron of molten metal with a pair of tongs. Shockingly, he is in bare feet - call Health and Safety for some boots before he melts his feet off, someone!The goldsmith is on the far left, with a press behind him and holding a hammer.
The rest of the figures are customers, one man and two women, which may reflect Hatton Garden's 'footfall' quite well. A girl admires herself with a mirror, and......a rather self-satisfied woman gloats over her jewellery - note the box on the seat next to her, overflowing with tom.Finally, a military-looking gent holds a huge gold vase of the type that grateful insurance companies used to give to victorious admirals and generals.
The sculptor does not seem to be recorded, and there are no signatures on the works themselves. On stylistic grounds I think it may be by Charles Doman, who in 1907 was assisting the elderly Albert Hodge, who did other work for Niven & Wigglesworth. Another candidate would be L.F. Roselieb - see Norway House. Anyone know better?

Wednesday 14 January 2009

Unilever House, Victoria Embankment EC4

The stately classicism of Unilever House at one end of the Victoria Embankment stands in stark constrast to the flashy Art Deco of the New Adelphi at the other. But they were both built in the early 1930s and employed two of the leading sculptors of the period: Sir William Reid Dick and Gilbert Ledward.Reid Dick contributed a collosal shire horse standing at each end of the building as though about to pull it apart, were it not for the efforts of their handlers who are keeping them on a very short rein. They are called Controlled Energy.The keystones of the doors below are decorated with merfolk carved by Ledward, a mermaid with flowing hair and a merman with a net full of fish.

Monday 12 January 2009

Portman Mansions W1

Few buildings are more pompous and humourless than the average block of Victorian mansion flats, and at ground level Portman Mansions in Marylebone look just as dull, redbrick and deadening as any. They were built between 1890 and 1900 by Henry Saxon Snell, an architect who usually specialised in workhouses and hospitals.
But look at the skyline and see the lively little monkey that Saxon Snell has placed on the corner of Chiltern Street and Porter Street, gibbering at the dignified line of dragons on the gables over the road.
And at the end of the block, who should be crouching on the party wall but Quasimodo, the Hunchback of Notre Dame, clutching to the parapet with both hands and feet, shouting incomprehensible defiance at the crowd below, who never so much as notice.