Saturday 31 October 2009

London Underground, 55 Broadway SW1

The last two 'winds' that are still visible from street level are the North Wind by A.H. Gerrard and the West Wind by S. Rabinovitch.
Gerrard's North Wind (on the west side of the south wing) is a busty girl holding her hair as it trails in geometrical waves behind her. 'Gerry' Gerrard was in a position to observe how hair waved in the wind, having been an airman in the First World War, but he has clearly rejected naturalism for formal composition. He was steeped in Art Deco, designing a lot for ocean liners at the time. After the Second World War he became professor of sculpture at the Slade, spending considerable time scouring bomb sites for good carving stone.
Samuel Rabinovitch studied in Manchester, the Slade and Paris: the West Wind (on the south side of the east wing) was his first major commission. She sweeps in from the Atlantic with a gull.
He went on to carve some heads on the new Daily Telegraph building in Fleet Street but then decided for some reason to abandon sculpture in favour of all-in wrestling and acting in films, under the nam Sam Rabin. He returned to art later, becoming drawing teacher at Goldsmiths' College.

Friday 30 October 2009

London Underground, 55 Broadway SW1

Henry Moore contributed the West Wind on the north face of the east wing of 55 Broadway. It is the softest, most lyrical of all the figures, the least Art Deco and possibly the one that looks most to the future. But perhaps Moore was in a romantic mood - he was courting his future wife Irina at the time, and one of their first dates was to take her up the scaffolding to watch him carving it.
The East Wind on the south face of the west wing (confused yet?) is by Allan Wyon, a member of one of those families of sculptors that were such a feature of the 19th and 20th centuries. Wyon's father, grandfather and greatgrandfather had all been Engraver of Seals to the Monarch, and he followed in their footsteps but rather than take up the office took holy orders and spent the last decades of his life as vicar of Newlyn in Cornwall.
His East Wind is a dynamic figure of a man riding the rays of the rising sun, squeezing a balloon from which the wind is spreading over the earth.

Thursday 29 October 2009

London Underground, 55 Broadway SW1

Epstein's sculptures on the podium of the London Underground building might have got all the attention, but the allegorical figures along the parapet are by some equally distinguished artists including Eric Gill and Henry Moore. If Epstein's work had been up there as well, no-one would have noticed.
The figures illustrate the Four Winds, but because each wing has a wind on both sides, there are actually eight of them. Also, confusingly, because they are presented blowing out of the building, the South Winds are on the north wing, the East Winds on the west wing and so on. Because Winds are named for where they come from, now where they are going to. Clear?
Gill got three of these plum commissions, a brisk and chilly North Wind (above), the balmy and fecund South Wind (below) and the East Wind, but unfortunately that is now hidden from the street by a boring commercial block gratuitously put up right in front.

Wednesday 28 October 2009

London Underground, 55 Broadway SW1

A treat on BBC4 tonight - at 8.30 in Art Deco Icons, David Heathcote looks at London's first skyscraper, Charles Holden's London Underground building, built in 1927.
It was controversial enough to have such a tall building so close to Westminster Abbey and the Houses of Parliament, but Holden had to bring Jacob Epstein in to carve the lowest and most visible sculptures. Holden and his client Frank Pick knew what to expect - Holden had collaboarated with Epstein on the BMA building and had caused a mighty rumpus then.
And Epstein delivered. The figures, Day on the south face and Night on the north, are as powerful as anything he did, and attracted a storm of reactionary fury with all the usual newspaper leader columns advising men not to let their wives or daughters see these abominations.
The crime? The figure of Night shows a father being embraced by his son, who has a visible penis. In fact, his whole body is twisted round to make the penis visible. If he were simply giving Dad a hug he would be facing away from the public.
Just why this should be so offensive is not clear, considering the number of cocky cupids carved on any baroque church. It may have been its size - it is said that Epstein was forced to whittle the willy down to more acceptable proportions as the price of Frank Pick's survival in his job.
Removing the sculpture entirely would have been impractical - as with the BMA figures, they were carved in situ.
UPDATE David Heathcote said that Epstein had to remove an inch and a half off the poor boy's willy because rain ran down it and formed a perfect arc of water onto the pavement. I find this story entirely convincing.

Tuesday 20 October 2009

Croydon Public Library, Katharine Street CR9

Croydon's library is part of a classic late-Victorian municipal complex built in 1892, consisting of a council chamber, offices, public meeting rooms, library, a corn exchange (it is difficult to appreciate that Croydon was still a market town) and, of course, a monster clock tower expressing the borough's virility.
The overall architect was Charles Henman Jr, who employed a number of sculptors to embellish the design.
J Wenlock Rollins was commissioned to carve a full length statue of Croydon's most famous and generous resident, Archbishop Whitgift.
He is portrayed seated, wearing a gown, ruff and flat hat. He thoughtfully turns the page of a book on his lap. A rather contemplative study of the man who ruthlessly enforced Queen Elizabeth's power over the newly Protestant Church of England.
It is, unfortunately, rather worn and deserves to be gently recut.
Rollins also contributed an attractive carving of two scholarly nudists in the pediment over the library's front door. They recline back-to-back against an urn filled with fruit, one reading Poetry and the other Prose.

Friday 16 October 2009

Albany House, Petty France SW1

The figures of Man and Woman guarding the front door of Albany House, a dull government building in Petty France, were cast in bronze by Willi Soukop in 1963.
Soukop's story is a remarkable tale of triumph over adversity. His father was a Moravian shoemaker living in Vienna, who was wounded in the First World War and committed suicide as a result. As an apprentice engraver, Willi earned so little he had to work nights carving umbrella handles for a local trader. He eventually got in at the Vienna Academy of Fine Art in 1928. There, he met an Englishwoman who persuaded him to come over here in 1935. He started a studio in Dartington, home of lefty aspirational art. Unfortunately the idyll was interruped in 1940 when he was interned in Canada for nine months as an enemy alien.
Soukop taught Elizabeth Frink for a while, and you can see something of her in the strange mutilated human forms pinned onto the stonework like monster bronze insects.

Monday 12 October 2009

London Road, Croydon CR0

Few shoppers seem to notice the Pizza Hut in Croydon's pedestrian precinct is set in an attractive but sadly decayed Victorian pub, with Gothic pointed windows, Romanesque arches and and some very ornate Tudor style chimneys (consistent style does not seem to have been a priority with the architect).
A pair of heads stick out of the walls. Who are they? The man's forked beard and the woman's ruff and earrings seem to indicate a specific couple was intended. The King and Queen?
Croydon is very much associated with Archbishops of Canterbury, who had a palace here for centuries, so perhaps it is Rowan Williams. A theory that is backed up by this head on Croydon parish church:

Thursday 8 October 2009

Victoria Station, Buckingham Palace Road SW1

I don't often do heraldic carving but this one over a side door to Victoria Station is very unusual as it is signed, by Gilbert Seale of the sculpting dynasty. It is one of a pair on the curtain wall of the train shed of 1905, said to have been designed by Vincent Harris of the LCC Architects Department, with input by the engineer Sir Charles Morgan.
The arms comprise (clockwise from top left) the St George's cross and sword of the City of London; the dolphins and martlets of Brighton; the star and crescent of Portsmouth; and the rather curious lionships of the Cinque Ports - 'three lions passant guardant conjoined with as many ships' hulls,' as the heralds put it.
Many years ago I went round Portsmouth Dockyard with David Lloyd, editor of the Hampshire Pevsner, and he bemoaned the fact that the City of Portsmouth was putting its new coat of arms on all its letterheads. "Just as every other council is junking their Victorian coats of arms and replacing them with trendy logos, Portsmouth, which has a genuinely medieval logo in the star and crescent, is replacing it with a Victorian coat of arms," he said.

Tuesday 6 October 2009

Royal Society of Arts, John Adam Street WC2

When Robert and James Adam designed the home of the Royal Society of Arts in 1772, they drew the facade with statues on the pediment and decorative plaques on the walls but these got left off in an eighteenth century economy drive.
For more than two centuries the building looked like this ----->
To celebrate the bicentenary, the RSA decided to complete the decoration. I have to thank Rob Baker and Rebecca Short of the RSA's Archive and Library for the following information.
In 1980 two casts of an 18th century roundel depicting Priam's appeal to Achilles for the body of Hector were placed on the front wall. The King of Troy kneels before the iron-willed warrior, grasping his wrist as he pleads for the return of his son's body, while Achilles makes a gesture of refusal. Behind, an old man points to the heavens, reminding the hero that the Gods have approved Priam's request. It is an affecting scene.
It was not until later that the facade was finally completed by the addition of the statues. Rob Baker writes:
"The statues were commissioned by Sebastian de Ferranti, a former Vice President of the RSA. They were made by Plowden and Smith, and put up in 1994.
The figure of Minerva, representing arts, is holding a shield bearing the Gorgon's head and a spear. The figure of Ceres, representing agriculture, is holding a young oak tree, symbolising an early interest in agriculture by the Society. By her feet is a harpoon for catching whales, an invention and industry encouraged by the Society at that time. The other figure, representing manufactures and commerce, is carrying English broad cloth to rocky shores."
 For the RSA's Strand frontage, click here.

Monday 5 October 2009

Supreme Court, Parliament Square SW1

The Supreme Court judges have sworn themselves in and have started work in the old Middlesex Guildhall, so here is one last curiosity from the building. Round the back is set a gateway from the old House of Correction or Bridewell in Tothill Fields, which was demolished to make way for Westminster Cathedral.
The stone above is inscribed with the date 1655 and states:
"Here are several Sorts of Work
For the Poor of this Parish...
and for such as will Beg and
Live Idle in this City and Liberty
of Westminster."

Bridewells, named after the original in the City of London, were places where the unemployed, unemployable and simply workshy were forced to pick oakum or walk a treadmill in grim, gloomy silence. They must have been unspeakable.
The old gateway was installed here by the GLC in 1969, hence the rather stuck-on appearance.

Friday 2 October 2009

Croydon College, Park Lane CR0

It is difficult to believe that Fairfield Halls and Croydon College were built within ten years of each other by the same firm of architects. Fairfield Halls (1960) is entirely modernistic, the characteristic 1960s concrete frame with primary colour infills. Croydon College (1953) is classically-proportioned, in brick and stone under copper roofs. But both were designed by Robert Atkinson and Partners.
Pevsner (in the latest edition by Bridget Cherry) is harsh on the College building. "Depressingly conventional," she says. About the Fairfield Halls she writes: "Infinitely more acceptable than the same architects' technical college."
But time has dealt vastly differently with the two buildings. Fairfield Halls today looks tired and tawdry. The College looks smart and loved, its brickwork bright and its stonework crisp.
Perhaps Croydon spends more money on education than entertainment, but it certainly looks as though traditional materials wear better over the long term.
Unfortunately, the pair of sculptures on the wing on either side of the facade may be bright and crisp but they are distinctly second-rate. They even resort to labelling the subjects in letters a mile high: MINERVA and VULCAN, representing the college's twin foundations, Art and Technology.
Minerva is clad in full armour, as expected in the goddess of warriors, but her lower end is cased in a pair of slacks - very 1950s. She carries an olive branch.
Vulcan wears a warrior's helmet but is evidently hard at work at his forge, which makes him look as though he is wearing welder's mask. The flames seem to have got out of control too.

Thursday 1 October 2009

J. Wippell & Co, Tufton Street SW1

Wippell's wonderfully camp ecclesiastical requisites shop is at Anglican Central, right behind Church House and the Abbey. To a casual glance it looks as though it might be almost as old as Wippell's itself, which dates back to 1834 when Joseph Wippell bought a drapery business in Exeter. But look closer and the odd mix of Regency elegance and Arts and Crafts whimsy becomes clear, and indeed it was built in 1929 by architect SS Yeo.
On either side of the entrance are two delightful figures in low relief, carved into the wood, representing Wippell's twin businesses in church furnishings and priestly garments.
On the right is a Roman mason, carrying a Corinthian capital in one hand and his tools in the other. On the left is a spinster with her distaff and spindle.