Tuesday 18 May 2010

Britannia House, OId Bailey EC4

Britannia House was built in 1912 as the offices of the London, Chatham and Dover Railway, whose terminus at Holborn Viaduct is right behind. It was designed by an obscure architect called Arthur Usher.
In those days, railway companies were also shipping companies, mainly operating ferries that worked to the railway timetable. The trend was started by Brunel who designed the Great Britain as a transatlantic extension of the GWR. So over the front door of Britannia house, Usher placed personifications of Rail and Sea Travel. The name of the sculptor is lost, unfortunately.
On the left, a girl in a winged helmet holds a steam loco. A wheel pokes out behind.

On the right, a man holds an anchor with one hand and the rather ornately carved stem of a boat with the other.

Friday 14 May 2010

1 -10 Holborn Viaduct EC1

The restoration of the old Spiers and Pond's Hotel in Holborn Viaduct shows just how boring and mechanical architectural sculpture had become in late Victorian times.
When it was built in 1874 to the designs of Evans Cronk, the hotel was high tech inside (the first London hotel with electric light) and French Renaissance style outside. It was covered with carving, done by one of the many firms of architectural sculptors in London at the time.
The hotel closed by 1900 and became offices. It was nicely restored in the 1980s by Rolfe Judd Group Practice, who cleaned all the stonework. One of the keystones on a ground floor arch was evidently beyond repair and was replaced.
See the contrast with the original keystone on the other arch. The old one (below) is a face from history that the carver produced as that day's task. Competent but lifeless. The new one (top) is lovely - a portrait of a real woman, taken from life. Anyone got her phone number?

Sunday 2 May 2010

Liberty & Co, Regent Street W1

The architecture of Liberty & Co's famous store represents a seismic shift in attitude in one building. The Regent Street facade was designed in 1914 and is Imperial Edwardian in style. For obvious reasons, the building was not actually built until 1925, by which time the English were yearning for a return to innocence, a pre-technological golden age when people lived in half-timbered thatched cottages, drank good honest ale and there were no machine guns, barbed wire or aerial bombardment. It was the age when a million fake-timbered semi-Ds spread over the country. So the extension round the back was actually made in the Tudor style, using timbers from two real old men'o'war. It is almost unbelievable that the same architects, Hall and Hall, designed both parts of the store.
The fake Tudor shop is famous world-wide but hardly anybody looks up at the Regent Street facade nowadays. But the sculpture, called Britannia with the Wealth of East and West, is excellent.
The central group was modelled by Charles Doman and the ends by Thomas Clapperton. The whole thing was carved by G. Hardie and Son at their yard in Shepherd's Bush.
Doman had been assistant to Albert Hodge, and spent several years after Hodge's death in 1919 finishing off his master's projects, mainly the sculpture on the Port of London Authority in the City.
Britannia is surrounded by the peoples of the Empire, whites on her right hand and other races on her left, including a stunning black girl with a palm frond.
Clapperton was a Scot who despite living most of his professional life in London carved many icons of Scottishness including the Flodden memorial, the Sir Walter Scott Memorial in Galashiels and the statue of Robert the Bruce at the entrance to Edinburgh Castle.
His depiction of the Wealth of the West starts on the extreme left with a sailing ship being moored by beefy dockers heaving on cables. A woman and her child wait on the dock. Next, a merchant shows a buyer a sample of a product in an urn, by the light of a torch hanging on the wall behind. The buyer is clutching his chin in an expression of scepticism that I have never seen immortalised in stone before.
Further along women prepare bundles and sacks of produce for shipping, and two superb horses and a team of men heave a chariot laden with goods.
From the extreme right, porcelain and silks are loaded on a sampan, overseen by a Chinese merchant with a scimitar (Liberty had made his reputation importing Chinese and Japanese luxury goods). Next, somewhere in Araby, camels are being loaded. Note the charming figure of a woman with a pot on her head and a baby under her arm - multitasking as women do the world over.
A magnificent woman with an ostrich-feather sunshade looks on as a man ties up a bale of fabric, and merchants load what looks like a couple of balks of exotic hardwood on a man's back. An elephant kneels to be loaded up with India's fabled riches.
A final somewhat eccentric touch is provided by a pair of figures looking over the parapet above.
It is a wonderfully rewarding composition and worth bringing binoculars to see.