Friday 28 August 2009

Africa House, Kingsway WC2

Few pieces epitomise a vanished code like the group high up on Africa House. The building, by Trehearne & Norman, was built in 1921 as the Empire was beginning to fall apart, though you would never think it from confident sculpture over the cornice.
By Benjamin Clemens, assistant master at the Royal College of Art, the group has Britannia at its centre, flanked by noble Arab traders with their camels and a big game hunter oiling his rifle. A native bearer carries a pair of tusks while the hunter's victim lies open-eyed and tuskless next to them. Other animals include a lion, a crocodile, a bison and the largest python you ever did see.
The heirarchy could not be plainer. At the top are the British. Next come the Arabs. At the bottom is the black man, depicted as muscle-bound and not very bright, destined to serve the white man.
It reminds me of the story of a young naval officer in the 1870s who was patrolling the East African coast. His one desire was to go big game hunting, but he could not use naval personnel for private purposes so he approached the local chief for guides and porters.
The chief was willing to give him all he needed, on one condition - he wanted a knighthood.
The lieutenant agonised for days before the desire for game overwhelmed him. He donned his best uniform and approached the chief, calling to his bosun "Bring me my knighting sword".
He gave the chief a couple of resounding slaps on the buttocks with a navy issue cutlass and pronounced him a knight. The chief rewarded him with six weeks of the finest hunting Africa could afford.
Everyone forgot about the incident until 1897 when the chief turned up in London with a retinue of warriors and about 16 bouncy-breasted wives, demanding a position in the parade for Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee, as befitted a knight of the realm.

Thursday 27 August 2009

Supreme Court, Parliament Square SW1

The main tower of the Supreme Court (formerly Middlesex Guildhall) has an arch of figures by Henry Fehr with Britannia (unusually with a sword rather than a trident) flanked by (from left) Architecture, Literature, Government, Music, Truth, Law and Shipping, a heterogeneous but virtuous group. Above them stands St George.

Tuesday 25 August 2009

35 Drury Lane WC2

High up on a shop in Drury Lane is a Mercers' Maiden, marking the property (or former property) of the Mercers' Company.
She first appeared on a company seal of 1425, but the guild does not know who she is or why she was chosen as their emblem. Entertainingly, she is often depicted in the latest fashion of the day, though whether such a revealing blouse was acceptable in London society in early Victorian times when this shop was built is another matter.
Thanks to Steve James for the gen on Mercers' Maidens - I will be looking out for more of them.

Monday 24 August 2009

Supreme Court, Parliament Square SW1

The ground floor windows of the Supreme Court have keystone figures of great charm, by Henry Fehr. On the south face they represent the arts, specifically sculpture, painting, classical architecture and gothic architecture.
I particularly like the representation of sculpture, which appears to be a neat reversal of the Pygmalian myth - a female sculptress is admiring a male figure.

Friday 21 August 2009

Supreme Court, Parliament Square SW1

The south facade of the Supreme Court has a balcony stretching almost its full width, supported by angels designed by Henry Fehr. Between are the different kinds of foliage and creatures featured in the previous post.
The angels are Fehr's typically lovely but passionless beauties, holding various legal attributes such as the sword of justice, a balance and various scrolls and books. One has a sceptre and orb denoting royal authority.

Thursday 20 August 2009

Supreme Court, Parliament Square SW1

I'm ashamed to say I nearly missed these charming little chaps, rustling through the thistles above the throng of tourists in Parliament Square. I was looking at the major sculpture on the newly-revealed Supreme Court (formerly Middlesex County Court, formerly Middlesex Guildhall) and had passed over them with a mental shrug of 'floral fillers' when a small girl pointed up and cried to her family "Look - mice!"And so there were. And squirrels, adders, a bird, a salamander and a fox. What beauties.
The Middlesex Guildhall was built in 1912, an astonishingly late date for the Gothic style, but it was felt to be appropriate for the surroundings of the Abbey and Houses of Parliament. The architects were J.G.S. Skipworth.
The detail was designed by E.P. Skipworth and the main sculpture, including massive historical pageants on either side of the main entrance, were by Henry Fehr, but it is unclear if Fehr did all the carving or whether Skipworth designed the minor stuff including the little creatures and a firm of architectural sculptors did the work.
More on this remarkable building later.

Wednesday 19 August 2009

Westminster Public Library, Great Smith Street SW1

The old Westminster Public Library, now an Indian restaurant, may have been built as part of the same complex as the old Public Baths next door, and by the same architect, but the sculpture could not be a greater contrast.
The young Henry Poole's bathers are vigorous and completely contemporary, and there is even a hint of the future Art Nouveau in their strong swirling patterns and the sunburst.
The library sculpture, on the other hand, is official, off-the-shelf and retrograde: heads of literary men of undisputed classic status. The sculptor seems to be unrecorded, so I imagine they were bought from one of the usual firms such as Daymond or Seale.
Shakespeare and Milton are at centre stage, as always on Victorian libraries. Shakespeare (below) is flanked by Cervantes and Dante. Milton's companions (top) look horribly familiar but I can't quite place them. Goethe and Jonson? Anyone got any better ideas?

Monday 17 August 2009

Old Westminster Public Baths, Great Smith Street SW1

Westminster's first public baths and wash house was part of the old library complex, designed in 1891 by F.J. Smith. The entrance was to one side, and features lovely panels of sculptured swimmers by Henry Poole, then just 18 years old.

Despite the fact that the facade has separate entrances for men and women, the swimmers are all men - perhaps it was felt that naked men and women should not mix even in allegorical carving. But surely it would have been OK to mix the sexes because they are clearly Classical Greeks and so any impropriety would have the sanction of antiquity.
The central panel has swimmers demonstrating the breast stroke and the front crawl against a glorious sunrise (it must be a sunrise: a sunset would have been decadent).
The baths themselves were demolished in the 1990s to make way for the Westminster Archives Centre.

Saturday 1 August 2009

NatWest Tower, Bishopsgate EC2

The two right-hand bays of the old National Provincial Bank were added by the original architect, John Gibson, in 1878. Unfortunately, the sculptor of the other panels, John Hancock, had died so Charles Mabey was brought in.
Mabey clearly did not want to continue the angel theme, and his panels are in higher relief, otherwise they match Hancock's work remarkably well.
The first is Shipbuilding. A rivetter wields a socking great hammer while a shipwrights use a saw and an adze. An arty-looking gent holding a hammer and chisel considers his next stroke on the decorative carving on the bow.
The clothing is interesting. The rivetter wears a cloth cap, has his shirt open and his braces dangling - clearly a manual worker. The shipwrights are more tidily dressed, showing they are tradesmen - one wears a rather battered bowler.. The sculptor, almost a gentleman, wears no hat and also sports are rather stylish cravat.
The end panel is Coal Mining, the ultimate source of the wealth and power of Victorian Britain. Two miners hew at the coal face, two others loading an iron bucket on chains to be winched up to the surface.