Sunday 29 November 2009

Saville Theatre, Shaftesbury Avenue WC2 (now Odeon Covent Garden)

No pageant called Drama through the Ages could omit a Shakespeare section, not in London anyway, and Gilbert Bayes included some of the most famous Bardic parts here. First is Hamlet. Is that a portrait of John Geilgud, whose Hamlet was getting rave reviews at the time?
Next is Lady Macbeth, out-damned-spotting with a lamp. Sybil Thorndyke was appearing in the role at the time, but this actress doesn't have her chin.
From Midsummer Night's Dream, Titania sits on the back of a cart while Puck plays with puppets on a string. Bottom holds his head up high, but oddly separated from the others by Henry V, possibly a portrait of Lewis Casson, Sybil Thorndyke's husband, who had appeared in the role in 1928.

Saturday 28 November 2009

Saville Theatre, Shaftesbury Avenue WC2 (now Odeon Covent Garden)

Gilbert Bayes had a wonderful eye for animals. Look at the way these horses stretch and strain against the control of the charioteers in the 'Imperial Rome' section of the frieze.
When Bayes was designing the frieze, the 1925 silent movie Ben Hur was huge, and this must be a representation of that. However, the charioteer does not look much like star Ramon Novarro, though the plump governor type on the right, holding his helmet, might well be Francis X Bushman as Mesalla.
This is my favourite bit - a Bacchanalia. The Bacchante dance naked with their goblets of wine held aloft, one of them being groped by an goatish old satyr. The girls are very 1930s, slim, lithe and in total contrast to the buxom women painted by Titian or Alma Tadema. Behind, that old drunk Silenus rides his mule, pushed by a fool in cap and bells who has been temporarily seconded from the next group....
....the Harlequinade. Harlequinades were inexplicably popular between the wars. Columbine dances, Pierrot looks mournful and Harlequin himself brandishes his comedy sword called a battachio, or slapstick, designed to create a satisfying thwack that could be heard in the rear circle when applied to anyone caught bending. He is followed by Clown holding one of his props, a string of sausages.

Wednesday 25 November 2009

Saville Theatre, Shaftesbury Avenue WC2 (now Odeon Covent Garden)

The Odeon Covent Garden wasn't an Odeon and has never been in Covent Garden: when it was built in 1931 it was the Saville Theatre in the parish of St Giles in the Fields. It became a cinema in 1970.
The dramatic Art Deco facade by T.P. Bennett has a frieze depicting Drama through the Ages, made in cast stone by Gilbert Bayes, one of the best sculptors of the period. He was responsible for the amazing merfirefighters on the London Fire Brigade HQ and lots of sculptured details for housing estates provided so the poor would have things of beauty as well as the rich.
It's difficult to interpret this pageant. Some seem to be simple historical scenes, others portrayals of actors of the early 20th century in famous roles.
On the main strip on the Shaftesbury Avenue side, Bayes starts in Medieval times with a man carrying a staff, which I think makes him the Lord Chamberlain, who in the 1930s was the official censor of plays in London and Westminster. The first Lord Chamberlain was appointed in 1485, which would fit in with the costume. Bayes was clearly concerned with the role of the Lord Chamberlain in censoring plays, as will become apparent later.
Next to him is a Minstrel, singing a roundelay to the lute.
A monk and a burgher represent the Chester Players. The Chester Mystery Plays were a distant memory in the 1930s, having been banned as Popish under Elizabeth I. Today's revivals started in the 1950s.
St George was a stock figure in medieval 'miracle' plays, which purported to tell the stories of the saints but were more usually based on pagan legends repackaged in Christian form. He kneels before an angel who crowns him with a laurel wreath. Behind him stands a winged boy holding arrows, the princess he saved, who holds the head of his horse, and a rather diminutive but aggressive-looking dragon.
On the other side of the main entrance (note how sympathetically the awning cuts off the feet of some of the figures) is a Greek Chorus, members of which hold the masks of Tragedy and Comedy. The kneeling figure at the front is holding a third mask of Staring Pensively Hoping One Looks Deep.They are led by the choryphaeus, holding a mirror.
The frieze takes a bit of a detour into popular entertainment at this point, with the arrival of Gladiators.
More later.

Saturday 21 November 2009

3-5 Bishopsgate EC2

When the Royal Bank of Scotland decided to build a grand City of London office in Bishopsgate in 1877, they knew they had to compete with the still-new National Provincial headquarters up the road.
So they brought in Thomas Chatfeild Clarke to design a suitably solid, bankly building and he commissioned the firm of F.G. Anstey of Regents Park to cover it with architectural sculpture.
F.G. Anstey was one of those large firms of carvers (others included Daymond, Seale and Aumonier) that covered Imperial London with stone heraldry, swags of fruit and busty classical ladies. Not a lot seems to be known about these firms except where one of their number managed to break out as an art sculptor like Gilbert Seale or Eric Aumonier.
The RBS facade consists of a grand arcade at ground level supported by Ionic columns, with giant Corinthian pilasters above. Anstey filled the spandrels of the arcade with chubby children representing the usual collection of Arts, Science and Commerce and, to be honest, they are not very good. Their cheeks are so round they look as though they are sucking two gobstoppers each.
At the extreme left is Architecture, two young classicists in front of a model of this very building.

Next is Painting, with a muscular nude model behind wrestling not very convincingly with a python.

Commerce and Communications holds a bag of gold in one hand and Mercury's staff in the other.

Astronomy is looking down the wrong end of the telescope, the duffer.

Justice's scales are broken, unfortunately, and she poses next to an array of judicial instruments including a sword, axe and pincers, all of which would be regarded with deep disapproval by Amnesty International.

Agriculture has a sheaf of wheat, a sickle and a plough.

Music holds a pipe organ that is much smaller than the lyre that floats extremely awkwardly behind. I have included a couple of the heads on the keystones to show how much better they are - presumably they came out of Anstey's standard catalogue so his carvers knew how they were meant to come out.
Finally a couple of young fellows find solace in Religion, with flames of the Holy Spirit floating about.

Saturday 14 November 2009

Croydon Public Library, Katharine Street CR9

Under the balustrade of the Braithwaite Hall is the usual line of portrait busts of the great and good, so familiar a feature of Victorian libraries. Most are the uncontroversially admirable like Shakespeare and Newton, though Croydon might have been slightly edgy in including Darwin, whose monkey theory was still dynamite in 1892, and Locke, the Enlightenment philosopher whose theories of the social contract so influenced the American revolutionaries.On the other hand, it is inexplicable why John Tillotson, a now-forgotten 17th century divine, should be absolutely in the centre. Perhaps he did great things for Croydon when he was Archbishop of Canterbury in the 1690s, but otherwise he seems to be notable solely for being a reasonable sort of bloke who steered the C of E through the turbulent waters of the Glorious Revolution.
In the absence of any evidence to the contrary, I assume they are the work of Edwin Roscoe Mullins, who carved the allegorical groups below, though they may have been a bit off-the-shelf for him. Perhaps they were supplied by the Aumonier Studio who did the heraldic work in the porch.
Left: The astronomer Edmund Halley, the mathematician, physicist and alchemist Sir Isaac Newton, and John Napier, inventor of logarithms, Napier's Bones and the decimal point.
Left of centre: Lawyer and pioneer of the scientific method Francis Bacon, philospher John Locke, and evoloutionist Charles Darwin.
Centre: Novelist Sir Walter Scott, Archbishop John Tillotson, historian and politician Lord Macaulay.
Right of centre: Chaucer, Shakspere (sic), Lord Tennyson.
Right: Architect Sir Christopher Wren, composer Henry Purcell, painter Sir Joshua Reynolds PRA.

Monday 9 November 2009

Croydon Public Library, Katharine Street CR9

The Braithwaite Hall above Croydon library is adorned with as much symbolic sculpture as could reasonably be fitted in, commissioned from Edwin Roscoe Mullins, a Londoner who studied at the Royal Academy and then in Vienna where he shared a studio with Onslow Ford.
The representative figures continue the theme of untilitarian service. From left to right, they are Health, Study, Religion, Recreation and Music, all helpfully labeled.
I particularly like Health. She holds a snake, the traditional symbol of healthcare, completely ignoring the way it is slithering over her lap. Her other hand holds a smoking censer.
On her right, a small girl is watched by her mother as she drinks from a public fountain. On her left, workmen lay the drains.
Education is represented by a number of lads from the Whitgift School, one being tutored by the Archbishop (I think).
Am I reading too much into this, or are the figures surrounding the allegorical female figure a bit subversive? The languid posture of the boy on the left, leaning on his mother's shoulder, radiates boredom and disbelief. On the right, Mother seems to be almost forcing her son onto his knees to pray.

 Recreation. Dancing for the girls and bloody cricket for the lads. So predictable.
Finally, Music is represented by St Cecilia with her organ, a violinist and cello on the left and a trio of choirboys on the right.

Friday 6 November 2009

Croydon Town Hall, Katharine Street CR9

Eric Aumonier, sculptor of one of the invisible winds on 55 Broadway, came from a dynasty of architectural carvers founded by his grandfather William, who started the Aumonier Studio just off the Tottenham Court Road in 1876.

So it must have been Grandad who supplied the ornamental stonework for Croydon Town Office, built in 1892.
Croydon Town Hall is an uneasy mix of the pompous and prosaic. The enormous brick and stone building housing the Corporation Offices is a hymn to the civic grandeur of the new borough, but the heraldry over the porch is devoted to everyday priorities: policing, drains and municipal amenity areas.Even the borough's motto, Sanitate Crescamus ('May We Grow in Health') is strangely uninspiring, especially compared with neighbouring Wallington's Per Ardua ad Summa ('Through Difficulties to the Heights') or Carshalton's Animo ad Fide ('By Courage and Faith').
So the scrolls round the front door are labelled Education, Protection, Justice, Order, Sanitation and Recreation. It is all a bit Daily Mail.

Monday 2 November 2009

London Underground, 55 Broadway SW1

Two of the Winds are not visible from street level, although you can get a sidelong glimpse of Eric Gill's East Wind from beside the bins down a rather unpleasant alley.
So here are a couple of shots from London Transport's archive, showing Gill's East Wind (above) and Eric Aumonier's South Wind (below) when the building was first unveiled.