Sunday 28 June 2009

Shoreditch Telephone Exchange, Shoreditch High Street E1

There was a time when public buildings were respected, even utilitarian structures like the telephone exchange in Shoreditch.
The building, erected by the General Post Office in 1956, is plain but carefully proportioned and adorned with this nice figure of a nude telephone engineer winding cables round the Earth - those are electromechanical relays above his head.
The exchange has a certain notoriety among Cold War conspiracy theorists as one end of a secret nuke-proof tunnel carrying government phone lines. It links up exchanges all the way to Shepherd's Bush.
Now the building is shabby and ill-used. The entrance is covered with grilles and metal doors, the windows are covered with stick-on plastic sheeting and it looks as if BT keeps the place on mainly as a place to park its vans.

Thursday 25 June 2009

54-55 Cornhill, EC3

Far above Cornhill, the highest point in the City, these devilish creatures stare down on the bankers, stockbrokers and insurance men as if waiting to drop down and tear them limb from limb. They were designed by W.J. Neatby, the incredibly versatile Victorian architect who did virtually everything from miniature paintings, stained glass, furniture and ceramics. From 1889 to 1900 he was head of architectural sculpture at Doultons in Lambeth, and it was while at the firm he created these phantasms.
The building was designed by Ernest Runze in 1893, cladding it entirely in Doulton's terracotta.
It is interesting to compare the figures. The one on the gable at the top is almost human, squatting on the gable and looking intently down. It has claws, horns and a beard - but also breasts.
The other one has short, hyena-like legs and a tail whipping round its foreleg. It also has breasts, but not the battery of teats you would expect of a dog but just two, as a woman would.
Neatby was also responsible for the very alarming foxes on the Fox and Anchor in Smithfield, where he went totally Art Nouveau.
I find it slightly disturbing that his most prominent work is the Meat Hall at Harrods, but perhaps I am reading far too much into all this.

Tuesday 23 June 2009

Artillery House, Artillery Row SW1

This remarkably detailed First World War howitzer appears over the doorway at each end of Artillery House in Artillery Row, Westminster.
The building was designed in 1928 by Maurice Webb, son of Sir Aston, and covered in cream artificial stone. The decoration was by a sculptor of German extraction who was christened Louis Fritz Roselieb. In 1916, when he joined the Royal Flying Corps, he understandably changed his name to Louis Frederick Roslyn.
After the war, Roslyn became famous for war memorials featuring mourning soldiers, sailors, nurses & co in bronze, but here he seems to have simply modeled a real artillery piece, possibly a 6in field howitzer. An odd effect, as though a child had brought his toy guns to Daddy's office and forgotten them.

Saturday 20 June 2009

Adelaide House, London Bridge EC4

Adelaide House is one of the more prominent monuments to City greed and bad taste between the wars. It was built in 1920-25 to the designs of Sir John Burnet.
The vaguely Egyptian style is said to be the result of a visit there he made to build a war memorial. It is very flashy for Burnet, who was a pioneer of the reduction of ornament in favour of clean lines, but the City often seems to bring out the worst in great architects.
The unforgivable crime is the way it wraps round and crushes the lovely Wren spire of St Magnus next door.
Even the allegorical stone figure over the entrance seems wrapt in gloom. She holds a globe with a band of astrological signs in her hands, as if contemplating a future London full of buildings like Adelaide House.
The lady was carved by Sir William Reid Dick, and seems to have been chiselled directly out of the wall - see how the joints run through the wall and the figure.

Wednesday 17 June 2009

The Bell, Lambeth Road SE11

In medieval times the Dukes of Norfolk had a country house on the Thames in Lambeth, next to the Archbishop of Canterbury's palace. When the fourth duke sold it in the 1550s the property included two inns, the George and the Bell. Of the house and the George, no traces remain, but the Bell stayed open until the late 20th century, albeit rebuilt.
This jolly, muscular bellringer stands on the chimney stack, sounding opening and closing times for ever, even though mine host put up the shutters and departed many years ago.

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Saturday 13 June 2009

Victoria Station SW1

Caroline of Caroline's Miscellany commented on the timing of my last post - apparently she spent a good deal of time during last week's tube strike looking at Victoria Station.
So Caroline, if Bob Crow's merry men carry out their threat to do it again, this is for you:

The western half of Victoria Station, the terminus of the London, Brighton and South Coast Railway, was built in 1906 by the railway's own architect C.D. Collins and its engineer Charles L. Morgan. The centrepiece of the facade is topped with a bizarre assemblage of pediment, volutes and a clock. Unfortunately they don't fit together in a unified composition.
A pair of figures recline on the volutes, looking uncomfortably as though they are about slide off and fall through the glass roof of the canopy below.
But the sculptures are very good.
On the left is Hermes, the messenger god, with his winged helmet and staff. On the right is a woman wearing a lionskin, who must therefore be Omphale, Queen of Lydia, who bought Heracles as a slave from Hermes. They were in the habit of cross-dressing, she donning the skin of the Nemean lion and his club, while he put on her flimsy negligee. Those whacky Greek Gods!
Omphale is shown with a palm leaf rather than a club and has a couple of books, possibly the Athens volumes of Bradshaw.
The sculptor seems to be unknown, but the prime suspect has to be Gilbert Seale, who had been employed by Morgan just a few years earlier to tart up the blank wall of the new train shed facing onto Buckingham Palace Road with swags of fruit, coats of arms etc. The figures have a certain tense alertness in common with Seale's merfolk in Kingsway.

Friday 12 June 2009

Victoria Station SW1

Victoria Station was built in two halves in 1860, the Brighton line on the right and the Dover line on the left. Despite their proximity, the rival companies refused to cooperate on an overall scheme.
And when, nearly half a century later, the termini were rebuilt on a much grander scale, the companies were still at war and brought their own architects in for their halves.
The Dover side was designed by Alfred W. Blomfield and W.J. Ancell, with sculpture by H.C. Fehr.
An arch at the centre is flanked by a pair of pavilions with broken pediments supported by pairs of mermaids to emphasise the railway's links with the ferry port and the naval base at Chatham. Each mermaid leans protectively over a ship.
The mermaids are all ideally beautiful (Fehr didn't do ugly) so they all look the same. Interestingly, the ships are all different. Two are under sail, one with a busty figurehead. Two are steamships, one a warship the other a ferry. Both are puffing steam rather uncomfortably into the poor girl's armpit.

Tuesday 9 June 2009

Royal Arcade, Old Bond Street W1

The Royal Arcade was built in 1879 as plain old The Arcade, as recorded on the pediment at the top, becoming 'Royal' when the shirtmaker W.H. Brettell was patronised by Queen Victoria.
It was designed in a rather jolly Victorian classical style by Archer & Green, with a bunch of standard Imperial sculpture on the front.
To left and right are Peace and Plenty, Peace being denoted cherubs bearing doves and laurels, and Plenty by cherubs carrying a cornucopia and a sheaf of wheat. I love his hat with its jaunty little ribbon.
The pediment in the centre is held up by four caryatids dressed as Asia, Europe, America and Africa.