Sunday 27 September 2009

Supreme Court, Parliament Square SW1

Even the back door of the old Middlesex Guildhall was adorned with sculpture. Here, Henry Fehr has created a wonderful trio symbolising the values of the law. Over the door, set in a lavish Gothic-with-Art-Nouveau-touches canopy, is Justice, blindfold to show she is indifferent to wealth, privilege or power. Despite her blindfold, she can obviously see because she is carrying the lamp of truth.
The pair of smaller statues on either side of the doorway seem to represent Reason and Passion. The young lady on the left is calm and thoughtful, firmly grasping the sword of the intellect. The girl on the right is ensnared in vines of passion flowers, her hands held to her throat in a gesture of panic.

Monday 21 September 2009

Apollo Theatre, Shaftesbury Avenue W1

Several authoritative references, including Pevsner, describe the winged female figures around the cupolas on the Apollo Theatre as angels.
Angels? With those legs, bare to the navel? Not to mention transparent blouses that leave nothing to the imagination, my dears. No, these lively lovelies are Muses. The pair at the left are sharing a book with some sort of writing on, and one of them has a harp (or, this being the Apollo, a lyre). They must be Music and Song.
On the right, the girl with the cheeky smile is brandishing a marotte or fool's bauble, so she must be Comedy. The remaining girl is pointing rather melodramatically at her foot, so she must be the muse of Tragedy.
The other surprising thing about them is that they are real stone - the paint job made me assume they were cast stone.
The Apollo was built in 1900 by architect Lewen Sharp, and the muses were carved by one T. Simpson.

Friday 18 September 2009

Supreme Court, Parliament Square SW1

The window keystone figures on the back of the former Middlesex Guildhall have a modern slant, though the costumes are still medieval.

The pair to the left are a very early (and in those days highly unlikely) man-and-wife engineer couple. She fiddles with a sector gear and pinion, and he holds a pair of dividers and a cog.

In the middle is the angel of navigation, a star on her brow. She holds an armillary sphere.

The next figure is Harry Potter holding a snitch NO, only kidding, he is a telecomms engineer with a winged globe distributing signals round the earth as lightning bolts.

To the right is another inexplicable figure holding a tiny dancing beardie in a loin cloth. Possibly Mother taking Son to Westminster School of the Performing Arts because he's so talented he gets bullied at the crammer he was at.

Wednesday 16 September 2009

St Giles in the Fields, St Giles High Street WC2

Not many inner London churches have room for a lych gate, let alone one as grand as at St Giles. It was originally built at the northern entrance, on St Giles High Street, and replaced a rather smaller brick arch of 1687.
The original gate had a curious tympanum with a vigorous depiction of the Resurrection, carved in oak by a man called Love. He was paid £27 for it.
In 1800 the gateway was replaced with a grander, Palladian structure in stone. It was designed by the architect, builder and surveyor William Leverton, who was also, as recorded in an inscription on the back, a churchwarden.
The Resurrection was clearly much admired, as an exact copy was placed in the new arch and the original hung in the vestibule of the church where it remains today. The gate itself was moved to its present position in 1865.
The tympanum depicts Christ bursting onto the world in a blaze of light, announced by angels with trumpets filling the sky.
Beneath his feet, a nasty little imp with bat's wings, tail and claws scuttles off to her master, Satan, who stands in the mouth of Hell at the bottom right hand corner (which is on Christ's left, or sinister, hand). Flames and smoke belch from the infernal regions, as sinners are dragged down to eternal torment.
All along the bottom, graves spring open and the dead arise, some as skeletons, others as rather gruesome shrouded corpses. An angel holds a naked man with one hand, pointing heavenwards with the other. Another man grasps him by the leg, hoping to get a lift to glory. Two women sing and play the harp as they arise.
It is all so busy that it is difficult to make out from the ground - most of this detail can only really be appreciated by zooming in to the digital images.

Monday 14 September 2009

Supreme Court, Parliament Square SW1

One of the amazing things about the former Middlesex Guildhall is that it is stone faced on all four facades, even though two of them look over narrow Little Sanctuary where most clients would have imposed a bit of economy and gone for brick or encaustic tile. But the minor facades of Middlesex Guildhall even have sculptural ornament, an unbelievable excess.
The keystones of the windows on the north side of the building show the kind of people who thronged medieval Westminster: a monk with a book, a scrivener with a scroll, an armourer with a knight's helmet and a goldsmith displaying a goblet.

Thursday 10 September 2009

Park Village West, Regent's Park NW1

John Nash more or less invented town planning at Regent's Park, with its public open spaces, private houses grouped together to look like palaces and service roads concealed round the back.
And in 1824, right at the end of his life, he invented the suburb in the two small groups of houses he built on either side of the canal to the north of the park. Detached and semi-detached villas with small gardens are huddled just a little too closely together, creating the maximum effect at the minimum of cost, a formula followed by developers to this day.
No 12 is everyone's favourite, with its octagonal tower topped by deep overhanging eaves.
Over the door is a relief of the Roman harvest goddess Ceres, who carries a sickle and a cornucopia spreading a rich harvest of fruit over the earth. She should really have a sheaf of wheat as she gave her name to cereals and anyway, if it were not to harvest wheat why is she carrying a sickle?

Tuesday 8 September 2009

Supreme Court, Parliament Square SW1

The window keystones on the right of the main facade of the old Middlesex Guildhall show Agriculture. Up to Victorian times, Middlesex was covered with small farms and market gardens supplying the city with produce. Cobbett hated it. In Rural Rides he fulminates: "All Middlesex is ugly, notwithstanding the millions upon millions which it is continually sucking up from the rest of the kingdom....the soil is gravel at bottom with a black loam at top near the Thames; further back it is a sort of spewy gravel; and the buildings consist generally of tax-eaters' showy, tea-garden-like boxes and of shabby dwellings of labouring people...dirty, and have every appearance of drinking gin."
From left to right, the first four figures are growers of wheat, hops, fruit and grapes. Then there is a bloke holding an animal that I'm not confident in identifying. It seems to have either trotters or hooves, so it could be a piglet or a lamb. The next figure along, however, is clearly a shepherd with his crook, so I am going with piglet until presented with evidence to the contrary.

Friday 4 September 2009

Supreme Court, Parliament Square SW1

The mouldings over the ground floor windows on the left hand side of the main facade of the old Middlesex Guildhall are decorated with figures connected with the River Thames. The old geezer with the trident must be fishing for eels, as then he would fit in with the rest of the trades, but Fehr has clearly taken the opportunity to make him do double duty as Old Father Thames.
From left to right:

Fishing with nets for salmon and trout
Spearfishing for porpoise, seal and sturgeon
Woman with her hand on the bow of a boat
Fishing for eels (the trident is dug into the mud and the eels are trapped between the tines)
A fishwife takes fish to market.
As ever, let me know if you think I have got any of these stupidly wrong.

Wednesday 2 September 2009

Willing House, Gray's Inn Road WC1

Here's a funny thing: sculpture in the style of the Ancient Greeks but glorifying that most modern activity, Advertising.
Willing House at the top end of the Gray's Inn Road was built in 1910 for Willing Advertising. The architects were Hart & Waterhouse, who covered the entrance block with symbols of the black art of promotion.
Standing on a spire at the top is a figure of Mercury, the god of communication, designed by A. Stanley Young.
Over the front entrance is a rather charming frieze by William Aumonier.

From left to right, a guy blows his own trumpet; a young man launches a carrier pigeon; an old man demonstrates the world-wide reach of advertising by pointing at a globe; a couple of cherubs sit in front of what look like telephone wires; and another cherub with a telescope stands on the dock as his ship comes in.
A pair of magnificent winged lions guard the door - and of course the winged lion is the symbol of St Mark the Evangelist.
The building is a budget hotel these days, so the symbolism doesn't work as well. Perhaps the panel should be replaced with a frieze of Classical hoteliers such as Procrustes and his bed or Circe and her swine.

Tuesday 1 September 2009

Supreme Court, Parliament Square SW1

The main entrance of the old Middlesex Guildhall is marked by three friezes by Henry Fehr. Over the arch is Henry III granting a charter to Westminster Abbey - the king stands at the left next to the Abbot, who I like to think is Philip de Lewisham (Abott in 1258) purely because his name is so unlikely. A Benedictine monk (Westminster was a Benedictine house), a cardinal and the Archbishop of Canterbury also appear.
On the left, the scene is the signing of Magna Carta by King John. He is backed by a couple of bishops (no fewer than eight bishops were there, including the Archbishop of Canterbury, Stephen Langton), a couple of monks and assorted Barons. Curiously, neither of the blazons on the shields correspond to those of any of the twenty-five barons at the event - perhaps they are members of the royal household.
The frieze on the right shows Lady Jane Grey accepting the crown of England on the death of her cousin, Edward VI in 1553. Her husband, Lord Guilford Dudley, stands behind her, and I think that must be her horrible mother, Lady Frances Brandon, behind the crown. The crowd of men presumably represent the Protestant nobility who pushed her onto the throne, including John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland, Guilford's dad.
Unfortunately, the conspiritors underestimated the power of Edward's elder sister Mary, who mounted a counter-coup. By the end of the year all had been executed. Lady Jane was still in her teens.
I find it difficult to understand why these two last events were chosen for a building designed to celebrate Middlesex. Runnymede is in Surrey, and Lady Jane Grey had no links with the county at all. It seems to be simply Edwardian romanticisation of the past.
Right in the middle is a small panel depicting the Great Hall at Hampton Court, for some reason, with a tiny figure of Law on each side. To left and right of the central frieze are statues of Prudence and Justice, under ornate canopies.