Friday 31 July 2009

NatWest Tower, Bishopsgate EC2

The middle panel on the NatWest facade is the last carved by John Hancock. The matching two bays on the right were added by Gibson in 1878, by which time Hancock had died at the tragically early age of 46.
Hancock's last panel shows the Angel of the Merchant Navy standing on a dock as a ship comes in. As with many maritime scenes portrayed by artists who never went near the sea, it make absolutely no sense. At the bow, a bearded matelot holds a painter attached precariously to a ring on a post. So the anchor that the burly sailor with the sideburns is throwing overboard at the stern would presumably be completely unnecessary.
Another sailor in the bows is lowering a jib and gathering it in, but the halyard is not connected to the peak of the sail.
That enormous spar sticking up behind the Angel is another mystery. A sail is hung from it, so it should be a yard, but there does not seem to be any mast for it to hang from.
And - what on earth is that stuff draped over the top of the poor girl's head? Seaweed?

Thursday 30 July 2009

NatWest Tower, Bishopsgate EC2

John Hancock's next panels are devoted to Manufactures and Agriculture. The Angel of Industry is spinning wool in the old fashioned way, with a distaff and spindle, but rather oddly she is holding the distaff under her right arm. Perhaps she is left-handed, or are angels ambidextrous?
On the right, ladies spin using a spinning wheel, although by the 1860s even they were on the way out, made obsolete by the steam powered spinning jenny.
On the left, a potter throws an urn on a wheel while another carries a finished pot from the kiln.
The Angel of Agriculture carries a sheaf of wheat and a sickle, and stands with one foot on that inevitable cliche of such groups, a cornucopia that looks about to distribute its bounty all over the heads of passers-by.
Behind, a pair of oxen draw a plough, urged on by a small boy with a stick. A knobbly oak tree rises in the background. Hancock clearly enjoyed himself with this scene - the figures are sprightly and vigorous, though the oxen look a bit glum.

Wednesday 29 July 2009

NatWest Tower, Bishopsgate EC2

The title above is wrong in almost all respects. This post is nothing to do with the NatWest Tower. Which has been renamed Tower 42 anyway. And the original National Provincial Bank was carefully designed to have the front door in high-class Threadneedle Street, like the Bank of England, to avoid having to put a plebean Bishopsgate address on the letterhead.
These are the panels that John Hancock carved on either side of that entrance.
On the left is the Spirit of the Fine Arts, by which Hancock means Engraving, Architecture, Sculpture and Surgical Breast Enhancement - sorry! no! she is definitely Painting.
According to the Victorians, the Fine Arts did not include Music, Photography or (heaven forfend) Performance Art.
On the right, the Angel of Science reveals something divine to an artificer and an engineer. Behind her, an old geezer who may well be Archimedes explains the elements of navigation to a couple of small boys. The Lamp of Reason shines from behind.

Tuesday 28 July 2009

NatWest Tower, Bishopsgate EC2

The NatWest Tower is not the greatest skyscraper in the world, but it pulls off one of the most difficult tricks in architecture - extending a great classical building in an unashamedly modern style without either ruining the old or compromising the new.
The original headquarters of the National Provincial Bank was designed by John Gibson in 1864. It is a procession of giant columns, just one storey, as if the bank was boasting that it could afford to build low when everyone else was cramming in as much floor space as possible on their sites.
A century later, the NatWest wanted to make a more modern statement with a bigger, brasher HQ. They brought in Colonel Siefert, a man who never put art before money, but he saw that adding extra floors on the Gibson building would destroy it, and would not provide the space required either.
So he built London's then-tallest building behind Gibson's hall, making it into a plinth for the tower. It works outstandingly well.
If only the Bank of England had had the courage to do the same, instead of allowing Sir Herbert Baker to plonk a massive and stupendously boring stone block on top of Sir John Soane's masterpiece, one of the 20th century's great acts of vandalism.
Where was I? Oh yes, the NatWest. It is covered with high-quality statuary. Between the giant columns are panels representing the usual Victorian themes of commerce, trade, honest toil etc. They are by John Hancock, a friend and admirer of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.
The panel over the doors shows the Angel of Commerce armed with the fasces or bundle of rods representing justice, standing next to a hive for prosperity.
From the left, traders from India, America, Africa and China bring their produce to her feet. She waves them on to a group of merchants who record, weigh and value the goods. The banker on the extreme right is sitting on his bonus.

Friday 24 July 2009

25 Cockspur Street SW1

Portrait busts abound on buildings of the mid-Victorian era, but their identity is frustratingly difficult to establish. Has anyone any idea who these two are?
They look out through portholes on 25 Cockspur Street, which was originally built for the Cunard Line in the late 19th century (all the buildings in the street were booking offices for steamships) but various other institutions rented space in the upper parts including the International Association for the Total Suppression of Vivisection under the formidable Anna Kingsford.
The man on the right has flowing hair and a rather artistic beard, and the woman on the right has a medieval style headdress.
Abelard and Heloise? Nah, Abelard was a priest and would have been clean-shaven. Ferdinand and Isabella? Ferdinand would have a crown. Kermit and Miss Piggy?
All suggestions gratefully received.

Monday 20 July 2009

Orchard House, Abbey Orchard Street SW1

These are about the nearest you get to trees in Westminster. These swirling Doulton terracotta panels date from 1898 and are by W.J. Neatby.
Delicate peacocks strut below stylised apple trees. Below, the corbels are in the shape of women's heads with basket-weave hairstyles.
It is all very stately and elegant, in strong contrast to Neatby's bugaboos on Cornhill, or his shrieking foxes in Charterhouse.

Thursday 16 July 2009

Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts, Tufton Street SW1

The SPG was founded in 1701 to bring religion to British colonies in the Americas, and became extremely prosperous when a plantation owner bequeathed it a huge estate in Barbados. The Society then focused on the "conversion of heathens and infidels."
John Strype's Survey of the Cities of London and Westminster (1720) described the Society's Seal thus:
"It is the Representation of a Ship under full Sail, making up towards a Foreign Land; the Natives all about near the Shoar, with their Hands stretched out, or lifted up, and some on their Knees. A Minister in a Gown in the fore part of the Ship looking towards them, with the Gospel open in his Right Hand. And a Label in the middle of the Seal thus inscribed, TRANSIENS ADJUVA NOS: The Sun in the Firmament brightly shining out"
The motto comes from the Acts of the Apostles 16:9, in which a vision of a man from Macedonia beseeches St Paul to 'come over and help us'.
The desire to save the immortal souls of the natives was not seen as in any way inconsistent with owning hundreds of slaves on the Barbados estate.
This stone version of the seal looks much older than 1907, the date of the SPG headquarters building designed by Sir William Emerson, where it now appears over the front door. Perhaps it was preserved from the original offices.
Emerson did contribute the statue in a niche on the corner of the building, which is of St Paul holding a closed book (his Epistles) and the sword with which he was martyred.
The SPG moved to Lambeth in 1987 and the Arts Council took it over, restructuring it and using the door in Great Peter Street as the main entrance. Above it, they carved their initials in stone - a rather nice touch considering the obvious thing to do would have been to get a thrusting modern designer to do a sign in chrome, neon and plexiglass.

Tuesday 14 July 2009

Old Public Baths, Cheshire Street E2

The old public baths and washhouse in Bethnal Green was built in 1898 to provide baths for washing both bodies and clothes. The architect, R. Stephen Ayling, specialised in social works such as hostels, abbatoirs and public conveniences. His design was praised at the time for providing space for prams, "in which the washers usually bring their linen. In most of the London baths this been omitted, with the result that the waiting halls are often impassable."
The separate entrances for men and women are signed by scrolls held by elegant cherubs.
The place was converted into flats and a boxing club in 1999.

Friday 10 July 2009

Yorkshire Grey, Theobald's Road WC1

The Yorkshire Grey was breed of horse favoured by medieval knights for its load carrying capacity, a very important feature when armour got so heavy they had to be craned into the saddle.
In the 18th century the Yorkshire Grey was adopted by the stage coach companies as the preferred engine, which explains the number of pubs with that name on the old trunk routes.
So the rather Charge-of-the-Light-Brigade cavalryman that rides on the roof of the Yorkshire Grey in Holborn, built in 1877, is slightly confusing - such a heavy horse was not particularly in demand at that period. Perhaps the carver (said to have been William Plows) thought that a military man would have more popular appeal than a public transport hack.
If he thought that, he was wrong. The figure has been described as 'an inflated tin soldier on horseback'.

Wednesday 8 July 2009

Bank of Scotland, 38 Threadneedle Street EC3

The side entrance to the HBOS offices in Threadneedle Street has a wrought iron grille with the words South Sea House, and indeed the place is on the site of the offices of the South Sea Company, set up in 1711 to trade with South America.
The current building was designed in 1902 for the British Linen Bank by Scottish architect John Macvicar Anderson. He designed the grumpy-looking Neptune on the keystone of the arch, with cornucopia pouring money over his head.
Above that is a charming relief showing two sailors lounging on the dockside, one with navigational implements including a telescope, a lead line and a chronometer. The other sits next to bales of exotic south seas produce. A forest of masts rises behind.
Anderson said he recovered the work from the studio of the sculptor John Bacon Junior, who died in 1859. Apparently, the South Sea Company had commissioned it but never paid up, so Bacon held on to it.
It is a wonderful bit of propaganda, hinting at the boundless riches that the Company would bring to London's docks.
It is ironic that the building should have become the London HQ of HBOS, considering the pivotal role that company had in the recent property bubble.

Monday 6 July 2009

Dirty Dick's, Bishopsgate EC2

I've always had a soft spot for Dirty Dick's, even though it has always been bogus and gets more bogus with every new round of public hygiene legislation. When I used to go there every so often in the early 1970s they still had the odd cobweb, but even the dead cat is behind glass now, apparently.
The original Dirty Dick was a Regency buck called Nathanial Bentley, a dandy in his youth who was so distressed by the death of his fiancee he thereafter refused to wash. "I'll only be dirty again tomorrow," he would say. He was not a publican, however - he owned a warehouse known for its filth. Letters addressed to 'The Dirty Warehouse' would be delivered to him. It was only after his death that an enterprising publican opened a drinking den devoted to his memory.
The present building was put up in 1870 and is crowned with a carving not of Dirty Dick but of a mitre and gateway - Bishop's Gate. The bishop in question, incidentally, is St Erkenwald, Bishop of London in the 7th century.

Wednesday 1 July 2009

Lambeth Mission, Lambeth Road SE1

The Lambeth Mission was set up by the first Methodists, converted by John Wesley himself when he preached at Kennington Common. Between the wars it was made famous by the energetic and forward-looking minister Thomas Tiplady, author of such hymns as "Above the hills of time the cross is gleaming."
Tiplady wanted to harness the new medium of film to the cause, and collaborated with a Methodist lay preacher called J. Arthur Rank to produce wholesome films with a Christian message which were shown at the Mission.
In 1945 the chapel was hit by a V2 and was rebuilt in 1950. The architect was Alec Gavin, and Tiplady also commissioned Bainbridge Copnall to provide a monumental sculpture for the front.
Copnall was headmaster of the Sir John Cass Institute of Arts and Crafts at the time, and had been scouring London's bomb sites for nice bits of stone. It is fitting that debris from the hell that was the blitz should be used to create this uplifting and optimistic piece.
Officially called The Word, it is better known as The Lambeth Street Preacher. The minister points heavenward, while a couple at his feet hold their child up to clasp the Bible in his hand.
Copnall was not very happy with the final work, as he wanted it to have a rough finish and to stand free in its niche. The architect insisted that it be given a high finish and for it to be enclosed in a brick surround.
Of course, Copnall could not possibly have predicted that many years later his street preacher would look just as if he was calling heaven on a mobile phone.