Wednesday 24 February 2010

43 Belgrave Square SW1

Belgrave Square, built between 1826 and 1837, represents the exact point at which the elegant and exacting architecture of the Adam brothers, Nash and Soane started to decline into Victorian showiness.
The architect George Basevi, Soane's pupil, created a superb composition of balanced terraces and mansions at the corners. But where Nash had allowed nothing to indicate that the palatial terraces of Regent's Park are actually individual houses, Basevi gives each house a porch which distracts the eye from the big picture. And Nash placed his terraces on private driveways, giving them a seclusion and perspective that Basevi's lack because they sit right on the street.
But the most telling indication that standards are slipping is the sculpture. Compared with Regent's Park, these ladies are coarse and heavy, with hands like bunches of bananas. The arms of the putti on the balustrade look like salamis. Of course, they may have been repaired or restored, but even so.

Friday 19 February 2010

1 Wigmore Street W1

For years I have secretly loved this putti orchestra, and felt ashamed. It is everything that modern art critics despise - representational, cutesy and the worst sort of fake - a 20th century pastiche of the Georgian style.
But now I find that it is by Art Deco hero Gilbert Bayes, so it's OK to admire it!
The second surprise is that Bayes used his usual concrete and not the stucco that I had assumed, though they are covered in so many layers of paint it is impossible to see.
It seems that the orchestra and the pair of ladies on either side of the door date from 1925 when John Brinsmead & Co, the piano makers, converted it into a showroom. Brinsmead had gone bust in 1920 after the workers went on strike and had been bought by rivals Cramer, who clearly wanted to make what had been the side of the house into something grander.

They are unusual for Bayes. Did he do them under the influence of Rex Whistler, who was just beginning to make waves at the time, or for a bit of fun, or because he needed the money?

Tuesday 16 February 2010

Portland Place W1

I usually try and avoid Portland Place because I always get angry and depressed. It was one of London's finest streets, laid out by the Adam brothers in 1776 and incorporated by Nash into his magnificent royal road from Carlton House to Regent's Park. Now only bits remain here and there. The way this block of flats chops off the left bay of Nos 59-61, leaving a mutilated pediment and pilaster, is a monument to developer greed and supine authority. And it is right opposite the Royal Institute of British Architects. Nurse! my pills!

Sunday 14 February 2010

Royal Institute of British Architects, Portland Place W1

The side elevation of the RIBA on Weymouth Street is enlivened by Sir Christopher Wren surrounded by representative figures of the Artisan, the Painter, the Sculptor and the Mechanic. They were carved by Bainbridge Copnall.
The Artisan

The Painter
The arrangement is an unconscious revelation of the way architecture works.
The Great Man is surrounded by his backup team, unnamed even when they are great artists in their own right. This has got out of hand recently, with 'starchitects' hogging the media with their team lost in obscurity.
The Mechanic
The Sculptor

Funnily enough, though, Wren himself has been suffering from the reverse effect recently with a nasty tendency for attention-seeking critics to claim that his assistant Hawksmoor was a finer architect but has been ignored by history because of his working class origins. This is pure snobbery, enabling the critic to show his superior taste by dismissing the architect everyone knows in favour of one that a tiny minority has even heard of. And it is nonsense.

Friday 12 February 2010

Royal Institute of British Architects, Portland Place W1

The figure at the centre of the RIBA's Portland Place facade is Architectural Aspiration, by E. Bainbridge Copnal. The Architect stands in a model village with specimens of Western styles of architecture, from ancient Greek through Renaissance classical to Gothic. He looks up, shielding his eyes, looking at some magnficent dome.
Copnal also did the figures round the side, of which more anon.

Wednesday 10 February 2010

Royal Institute of British Architects, Portland Place W1

The RIBA is a building with rich layers of irony.
It is both forward looking and reactionary, a simple modernist cuboid but clad in stone, and it is devoted to architecture but helps destroy one of Europe's finest architectural compositions.
Even the sculpture looks rather old-fashioned - international modernism already had its hands firmly round the throat of the architectural establishment in 1932 when the competition to build it was won by Guy Wornum. Fortunately, the carved figures are of the highest quality.
Nottingham-born James Woodford did the man and woman that stand on pylons on either side of the front door with its magnificent bronze doors, also by Woodford. They look admiringly up at the central figure of Architectural Aspiration, of which more later.

Friday 5 February 2010

Norway House, Cockspur Street SW1

I'm a rowing nut as well as an architecture buff, so this pushes both my buttons. I love the fact that it seems to show a boat being rowed in opposite directions. L.F. Roselieb (aka Roslyn) was responsible for the other carvings on the facade but I suspect this was done by a jobbing mason.

Tuesday 2 February 2010

54 Harley Street W1

Sometimes quite ordinary houses sport just one lively and interesting detail that makes the whole thing come alive. At 54 Harley Street, a solemn neo-Georgian house built for one of the consultants that infest the street to this day, the keystone over the front door is carved with this lovely mermaid. She holds a trident in one hand and twirls her hair seductively with the other. Her tail curls round and round itself - it must be the longest mertail ever.
The house was designed by Niven and Wigglesworth in 1904, so the sculptor may be Albert Hodge or his assistant Charles Doman.