Thursday 30 April 2009

Doulton House, Black Prince Road SE1

Right up until the 1950s the area behind White Hart Drawdock in Lambeth was dominated by the huge Doulton potteries. Originally they made sanitary ware but in the 1870s expanded into art pottery. An enormous building by R. Stark Wilkinson was built in 1878 to be headquarters, studios, factory and advertisement for the products, all in one. Only one corner survived the comprehensive redevelopment that followed Doulton's departure for Staffordshire in 1956, but it still impresses. It is a riot of polychromatic Gothic brickwork and terracotta gargoyles.
Over the door is a charming relief of potters by one of the most distinguished to work in the building, George Tinworth.
Tinworth himself appears standing at the centre, holding a pot. Seated to the right is Sir Henry Doulton, and working steadily on the left is Hannah Barlow, with her cat under her stool. Behind, a worker carries a tray of pots rather perilously on his head, though no doubt this was a lot safer than it looks.
The scene is a gallery of Victorian facial hair and hats. What would they have made of 'designer' stubble and baseball caps?
Gilbert Bayes, who was also at work on the London Fire Brigade HQ round the corner, created a frieze for a later wing on the building which happily survives in the V&A.

Tuesday 28 April 2009

White Hart Drawdock SE1

For the first time, this blog features an ornament of the future.
White Hart Drawdock is a medieval wharf a little upstream of Lambeth Palace, dating back to the 15th century at least. In the 1860s it was cut off from the Thames by the construction of the Albert Embankment, but access was maintained through a pair of tunnels beneath the new road. The enormous Doulton pottery works was next door, and the wharf was busy with barges taking the firm's ceramic drainpipes to London Docks for export round the world.
After Doulton's closed in 1956, White Hart Drawdock languished unused and increasingly unsightly until Berkeley Homes were forced to put their hands in their pockets as a condition of planning permission for nearby flats. Now the wharf is being restored and beautified with oak arches and 'street boats' by Handspring Design. It should look rather nice - the designs are here.

Saturday 25 April 2009

Albert Embankment SE1

Just along from Lambeth Palace, the Archbishop of Canterbury's London pad, a ship sails majestically out of a 1970s office block straight into the traffic on Albert Embankment.
The offices are those of the International Maritime Organisation, built in 1977 by Douglas Marriott, Worby & Robinson. The fad for faceted bronze-coloured cladding was at its height then.
The ship's bow was added in 2001 as "the international memorial to the world's seafarers, past, present and future". It is by Michael Sandle, who was also responsible for the Memorial for the Victims of a Helicopter Disaster, Mannheim (1985) and the Malta Seige Memorial (1989), a 13 ton bronze bell.The Seafarers Memorial is rather poignant with the seaman on the bow, exposed and alone, secured by an oh-so-thin safety line to the mast behind him. Unfortunately, the dedication to all seafarers over all time dilutes the sentiment so far as to make it almost meaningless.

Wednesday 22 April 2009

1 Hatton Garden EC1

The NatWest on Holborn Circus is a humdrum Victorian building (1870) by an unrecorded architect. The carvings on over the doors on Hatton Garden are rather nice, but again the sculptor is not known (at any rate, I have not managed to find out who did them).
But they are rather elegant, transforming utilitarian vents into works of art. Nude figures emerge from swirls of acanthus, carrying symbols of their occupations.
To the right, the Spirit of the Land carries a sheaf of wheat, a bunch of grapes and a pomegranate, plus a scythe to harvest them with, and the Spirit of the Sea holds a paddle with a trident and a dolphin carved on it, pouring out the bounty of the deep with his other hand.
To the left, Commerce with Mercury's rod and a bag of gold flirts with Industry, holding a gear shaft and a distaff.

Monday 20 April 2009

25-35 Grosvenor Place, SW1

The ends of the old AEI building are marked with pavillions topped by more statuary by Maurice Lambert. These are not as disturbing as the angels, but very odd. I think they epitomise engineering. Weird creatures with horseheads on long snake-like necks, bat wings, human torsos and lions paws support a strange gimballed mechanism embellished with esoteric symbols. It is impossible to take them seriously today because of the creatures' strong resemblence to Jah Jah Binks.

Saturday 18 April 2009

25-35 Grosvenor Place, SW1

For years I have cycled briskly past the old AEI building on my way from the station, dismissing it as a bland, conformist design that was intended not to offend the Queen (it looks out on the garden wall of Buckingham Palace).
The building was designed in 1956 by Wimperis, Simpson & Fyffe to house the bureaucrats that ran one of the conglomerates that dominated British industry until the advent of Thatcherism. The elderly modernist Sir Albert Richardson was hauled in as a consultant, presumably to intimidate the planners and Her Majesty into giving permission.
The facade would be extremely boring, except that Maurice Lambert, sculptor brother of the composer Constant Lambert, was brought in to add some decoration.
The images are among the most disturbing I have ever seen. I have spent the last couple of weeks trying to work out what they could possibly mean.
Over the columns of the pediment at the centre of the facade, six angels triumph over demons.
Renaissance and Victorian artists portraying the triumph of St Michael over Lucifer show a knightly figure trampling a scaly serpenty figure beneath his feet, aiming his sword at his horrible head. It is the battle of good and evil, and we are all rooting for good.
Lambert carved a line of men torturing women.
The angels gaze into eternity, their faces calm and emotionless. They may even be experiencing some sort of bliss.
They take no notice of the demons they hold, however much they squirm, squeal and
bite. The angels are in control though - one tightens a rope round his demon's neck, another sticks a knife in the demon's belly.
All the angels are clearly men. And all the demons are obviously women. What is going on?

Thursday 16 April 2009

Wandsworth Town Hall, SW18

At last, we conclude our tour in stone through the London Borough of Wandsworth at Tooting and Balham.
Sculptor John Linehan seems to have run out of ideas at this point, or perhaps this area is a bit short on historical incident.
Tooting gets its name from the Anglo-Saxon clan (or inga) of a chief called Tota, and there his is on the right, riding a horse and accepting homage from a family of villeins. He is wearing cross-garters and a Phrygian cap, oddly.
Behind him is Tooting's only famous visitor, Saint Anselm, who was Abbot of Bec in France, which had been given the area by William the Bastard. Anselm is a rather attractive character, trying to bring a bit of rational thought to Christian belief and also standing up to William Rufus who was even more of a bastard than his dad. Anselm became Archbishop of Canterbury, and is seen accepting tithes of wheat and what looks like a monster cabbage from the locals, who are still villeins.
On the left, a rider gallops o'er Tooting Common.
The frieze runs across the whole facade of Wandsworth Town Hall. The intention was to create a rich tapestry of life in the borough through the ages, but the odd Victorian history-book style of some of the costumes just makes it look like the queue for His Worship the Mayor's Christmas Fancy Dress Ball.

Tuesday 14 April 2009

31 Old Bond Street W1

It is a bit difficult to identify the designer of architectural sculpture. Architects would specify the subject and size, of course, but sometimes they would also draw exactly what they wanted and the sculptor would just wield the hammer and chisel. At the other end of the spectrum, major sculptors such as Epstein would expect to be given more or less carte blanche.
In the case of the narrow shop of 1898 at 31 Old Bond Street, the picture is even more difficult to interpret. The architect was A. Beresford Pite, who certainly knew his own mind, but the four figures where carved by the firm of Brindley and Farmer, who were perfectly capable of creating their own designs, and another artist was also involved - the models were created by the French sculptor Leon-Joseph Chavalliaud.
Chavalliaud spent 15 years in England and was responsible for figure of Mrs Siddons as the Tragic Muse, in Paddington Green and a lot of work in Liverpool.
Whoever dreamed them up, the results are very attractive. On the first floor, two niches contain reliefs of draped female figures of Spring carrying a flower and Autumn carrying a sickle and a sheaf of corn.
A pair of women crouch over the shop window. It is a bit difficult to make out what they are doing. Both have urns or possibly braziers in front of them. One seems to be squeezing or kneading something, and the other holds a column.

Friday 10 April 2009

Wandsworth Town Hall, SW18

Our journey in stone through Wandsworth takes us to Putney, on the south bank of the Thames.
From right to left, sculptor John Linehan first shows farmers, fishermen and a waterman with the 1729 wooden bridge behind. Next, Oliver Cromwell with sword and bible stands behind two grim-visaged horse soldiers of the New Model Army, reminding us of the Putney Debates that set the agenda for democratic reform in England.
The Ironsides make odd neighbours with the next man in line, Thomas Hobbes, the philosopher and advocate of strong central government, who was Charles II's maths tutor in exile.
Then comes Putney-born Edward Gibbon, author of Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, one of the world's great unread books, who leans on his cane watching a girl dying a cloth.
Finally, the only activity that still survives today - rowing. A young man and woman are taking a coxed pair out. The stone arch of the present bridge looms behind.

Friday 3 April 2009

137 Piccadilly, W1

The Hard Rock Cafe (no drugs or nukes) is on the ground floor of a strange building, tall and thin with a huge mint-striped segmental pediment at the top. It was built by Collcutt & Hamp in 1907.
The pediment is broken by a pylon supported by a muscular Atlas, who has been cast in several bits so the joints make him look a bit like Action Man with swivelling torso and legs.
The fourth floor has a mystery coat of arms on it, which were kindly identified for me by Rouge Dragon Pursuivant at the College of Arms as the arms of Gloucester.
It turns out that the building is on the site of Gloucester House, home of Prince William Frederick, Duke of Gloucester in the 19th century. Despite being Chancellor of Cambridge University he was known as Silly Billy.
However, the arms are not those of the Prince but of the City, according to Rouge Dragon Pursuivant: "Dukes of Gloucester do not, of course, have any real connection with that city, and the appropriate way of commemorating the fact that this one lived there would really be to have shown his personal arms (a version of the Royal arms). It is possible they did not obtain permission for this in 1907, or simply mistakenly thought that ‘Gloucester House’ had had some connection with Gloucester."
The monogram on the pylon is a bit of a mystery - it could be JDJ or DJJ or even JJD. The ground floor was originally a motor showroom apparently, so perhaps the initials stand for an early make of horseless carriage.
The block's current owner is Sir Alan Sugar. The hire'em and fire'em entrepreneur went into property a number of years back, buying the Hard Rock Block and converting the top floors into enormous and very pricey flats. The front ones have lovely views over Green Park.

Thursday 2 April 2009

Wandsworth Town Hall, SW18

We reach Clapham, part of the LCC borough but now mainly in Lambeth. It doesn't seem to fit here, somehow - the figures are rather superior and there are no workmen except for the compulsory comedy cavemen about to disembowel a deer on the right.
To their left, Osgood Clapa, who holds the manor that bears his name from King Canute, accepts homage from a villein or possibly a churl.
Two unidentified saints represent's Clapham's 'religious zeal and fervour', following Geoffrey de Mandeville, one of William the Conqueror's henchmen who was given Clapham as well as most of Essex for his services.
Then comes John Arthur, a puritan divine.
Two personal heroes of mine come next: Samuel Pepys, who retired to Clapham and is surrounded by items showing his continuing interest in books, ships and girls. Across the table from the diarist is the great scientist Henry Cavendish, shown with a globe to indicate that he 'weighed the earth'.
William Wilberforce and the historian Lord Macauley, son of Wilberforce's friend and fellow-member of the Clapham Sect, Zachary Macaulay, stand before a coach being driven along the Kingston Road.
And finally, Tom Hood the poet sits beneath a tree dreaming of Faithless Nelly Gray, or possibly of Faithless Sally Brown.

Wednesday 1 April 2009

London Fire Brigade HQ, Albert Embankment SE1

Down at Chichester Harbour on Sunday we watched with fascination as waterborne firefighters battled to dowse a burning powerboat off Emsworth. I was reminded of the incident when I passed the HQ of the London Fire Brigade yesterday.
Over the entrance are swirling, dramatic carvings by Gilbert Bayes, dating from 1937. The lowest shows merfirefighters dowsing a blaze on a steamship by pointing fish at them. Other fish are doing their bit in the water behind. Unusually, the merfirefighters have bifurcated tails like the Starbucks mermaid, and are wearing stylish seashell helmets. The subject reflects the fact that the Brigade's river section is based at a jetty here.
Bayes depicts other myths of fire above. Phaeton tries to drive his father Apollo's chariot through the sky but the horses are cutting up rough and are about to dive onto the earth, creating the Sahara desert and burning the skin of the Ethiopian black.
At the top is a strange creature cobbled together from the head of a lioness, the talons and wings of an eagle and the tail of a snake. It isn't a chimera (body of lioness, tail of snake, head of goat) or a gryphon (body of lion, head, talons and wings of eagle). Whatever it is, I wouldn't like it to appear over my house. The insurance company would never believe my house was burned down by a lioneaglesnake.
Below the mythical fire-related sculptures on the facade of the London Fire Brigade's HQ, sculptor Gilbert Bayes placed a couple of panels showing ordinary heroes at work.
My son is a firefighter and looked at them with a professional eye. Apparently, the hoses have no means of controlling the water flow which must have made them extremely difficult to use, not to mention rather dangerous.
The ladder drill panel shows a method of climbing walls using short ladders with hooks on the end. The firefighter hooks it onto a window frame or ledge, climbs up to it, hauls the ladder up behind and repeats the procedure until he gets to the top. British fire brigades have abandoned this method now as it is simply too dangerous, but some Eastern European firefighters still do it.