Tuesday 29 June 2010

8 Cavendish Square W1

 8 Cavendish Square was built in 1930s as the London branch of Manchester-based textile firm Tootal, famous for their paisley pattern and polka dot fabrics in synthetic fibres.
The architect was W.A. Lewis, the man who created the standard Marks & Spencer branch, with L.G. Pearson of Adams, Holden and Pearson as consultant.
Four bas reliefs of birds adorn the facade - from right to left a pelican, a swan, a barnyard cockerell and an eagle. I have been unable to find out either designer or carver, but W.A. Lewis employed the London firm of architectural sculptors A.T. Bradford on the nearby and contemporanous flaghip emporium of M&S in Oxford Street, so perhaps it was them.

Tuesday 22 June 2010

Central Criminal Court, Old Bailey EC4

Three bas-reliefs by Alfred Turner appear in the central portico of the Old Bailey. Turner was another sculptor with long-standing associations with the architect E.W. Mountford, but it seems that he may have got the commission via Frederick Pomeroy, who may have felt himself unable to take on all the sculpture for the building.
The panels are said to illustrate the quotation from Psalm 72 on the entablature: "Defend the children of the poor and punish the wrong-doer".
The central panel, however, seems to have little to do with retributive justice. An angel representing the Earth and the peoples thereof holds and armillary sphere and points down towards the building's main entrance. She is flanked by Spring sowing seed from a basket and Autumn holding a sickle and a sheaf of wheat.
The left panel is much more relevant - a mightily-muscled angel with drawn sword defends a woman and her children.
The right panel is a bit confusing. A even more muscly man with a truly heroic sword brandishes the decapitated head of Medusa, while behind him lies the corpse of a huge dragon. His shield is held by a buxom lass in what looks like a chain mail bra. She is looking adoringly in his direction - if he plays his cards right, he luck is in tonight.
The iconography is baffling, however. Is this guy Perseus, Siefried or St George? Turner was a big Wagner fan, according to Philip Ward-Jackson in Public Sculpture of the City of London, which explains the woman's Brunnhilde outfit, but the intended import of the piece seems to be unrecorded.

Sunday 20 June 2010

Central Criminal Court, Old Bailey EC4

These voluptuous beauties adorn the roofline pediments of Mountford's masterpiece. They were also carved by Frederick Pomeroy, but apparently they are not identified in the drawings. The figure on the north pediment (above) holds a sword in her right hand and a book in her left, open at pages marked VI and VIII. There does not appear to be any writing on the pages, but if the numbers are Commandments they would prohibit murder and stealing respectively, which would seem appropriate. But why isn't the IX Commandment included? There has been a formidable amount of bearing false witness in the Old Bailey over the last century. Coveting (the X Commandment) was not illegal in 1906 but in today's frenzy to ban everything it probably is now. Of course, if you exchanged covetous remarks with a friend in the pub, that would be conspiracy, a serious felony.
The figure on the south pediment (below) has a couple of closed ledgers and a quill pen. Presumably these are everyone's criminal records, closed and unalterable for final consulation at the Day of Judgement.

Friday 18 June 2010

Central Criminal Court, Old Bailey EC4

The bronze figure of Justice stands on her dome, gleaming in her sheath of gold leaf, her outstretched arms holding her sword and balance. But no blindfold - the idea that justice is blind actually derives from 16th century satires on corrupt and incompetent judges, including a woodcut by Durer showing Justice being blindfolded by a fool. It is very curious how the original jibe morphed into the noble figure of Justice blind to riches, power or outside appearances.
The sculptor was Frederick W. Pomeroy, a Londoner had worked closely with the architect Edward Mountford on buildings such as Sheffield Town Hall. The 1905 commission for the Central Criminal Court gave both men the chance to produce one of London's most instantly recognisable images.
Mountford decided at the last moment that Pomeroy's design was too small for the prominent position, and ordered him to make it a good deal bigger. Unfortunately, that meant the structure underneath had to be beefed up at an extra cost of £267 4s 5d, which Mountford had to explain in a letter to the committee in charge of the building.
Pomeroy also had to change his design for the allegorical figures over the main entrance. The original drawings show the figures of Fortitude, Truth and the Recording Angel inside the arched pediment, but the committee wanted the arms of the City of London there so the statues were bumped up to their slightly precarious seat on top.
The Recording Angel is a rather sinister figure writing on a scroll spread over her knees, her face shadowed by a huge cowl. On her left, Fortitude has a sword (for war) and a dove (for peace). To her right, Truth looks in a mirror.

Tuesday 15 June 2010

11-14 Cavendish Square W1

The houses on the north side of Cavendish Square are the legacy of the plutocratic James Brydges, Duke of Chandos, who owned the land and projected a very grand town house there. Unfortunately he lost a bundle on the South Sea Bubble and it was never built. Eventually a speculative builder created a pair of small villas on the site. It is a bit of an unsatisfying composition - the space between the two gives the impression of opening onto something really impressive but it never led to anything more than stables, a turning circle for coaches and laundries.
In the 19th century, Nos 11, 12 and 13 had become a convent with a tunnel underneath the road.
After bomb damage in WW2, the sisters commissioned the architect Louis Osman to restore the houses and create a bridge between the two. He approached Jacob Epstein for a Virgin and Child that would 'levitate' above the arch. He also specified that it should be cast in lead, which the sisters had rather a lot of, from the bombed roof of Nos 11-12.
Then there was a bit of a crisis, by which I mean a hell of a row. Osman had failed to inform the Mother Superior that the sculptor was, not to put too fine a point on it, Jewish. She only found out when the Arts Council congratulated her on her 'innovative choice of artist'. She freaked out and withdrew the commission. It took gallons of soft soap and Osman's offer to resign before the commission was reinstated, and even then Epstein had to appear before the nuns to be lectured on the significance of his own work.
The piece was finally unveiled in 1953.
Possibly because of the unintended last-minute intervention of the Mother Superior, the piece is one of Epstein's most accessible works. Mary looks down on her son as he looks out on us with arms outspread in blessing. Both are dressed in robes that wind round them - are they clothes or winding sheets?

Friday 11 June 2010

Royal British Society of Sculptors, 108 Old Brompton Road SW7

It had to come eventually, I suppose. This blog has finally had to shoot a sculpture in video, and has realised it must get a tripod if this sort of thing is to spread.
It is a light work by Michael Dan Archer installed on the RBS building, together with a large stone with a hole in it. The works will be on display until September 10.
Both artworks symbolise lots of stuff, according to ArtRabbit:
"Archer, his material, his stone, stands not for a nature we can be at home in, but for the stasis of death and the blind permanence of the earth. (Neil Fox, University of Essex)
Michael Dan Archer describes his practice as dealing with materials ranging from massiveness and density of stone to the transcendence and intensity of light. The RBS sculpture forecourt will feature two works by Archer, one an Untitled work made of stone examines symbolism and the idea of portals that deal with transformation, crossing of borders and entry into other worlds and realities. The second sculpture, Beacon is a light piece which deals with intensity of the visual experience, the psychological or spiritual role of light in our consciousness. On occasion both these concepts collide and stimulate a visual conversation of ideas, thoughts and associations."
Which just goes to show that artists should banned from keyboards. They really can't express a thought in English, poor loves, and should stick with the visuals.
The RBS forecourt is adorned with an odd little memento, a lion by Alfred Stevens that was widely admired when he designed it in the 1850s as a cast iron topknot for a line of railings in front of the British Museum. They were later removed and some of the lions re-used in the Stevens' Wellington monument in St Paul's cathedral.
Next to it is a sentimental figure of Bambi that could come from many a garden centre.

Thursday 10 June 2010

11 Chelsea Park Gardens, SW3

Chelsea Park Gardens is a hymn to the Queen Anne style as revived in the 1880s by such architects as Norman Shaw, but was actually built just before and just after the first world war so it was a bit retro even then.
Above the door of No 11 is this charming bas relief of two early religious recluses, dated 1938. St Anthony feeds the friendly pig who had originally been sent by the devil to persecute him but was won over by the saint's refusal to retaliate with violence. St Gertrude plays with her mice - apparently she was concerned for poor souls in purgatory who were often portrayed as mice (as a result, of course, St Gertrude is today the patron saint of cats).
I have been unable to discover why the stone was placed over the door, or who carved it. Was the house a Catholic retreat or something? All information gratefully received.

Wednesday 9 June 2010

Walmer Castle, Seymour Place W1

This blue plaque is something of a mystery - why would a woman and a philanthropist live above a pub in a not particularly nice area of London?
The answer is that Emma Cons was not a philanthropist and the Walmer Castle was not a pub.
Cons had no money of her own, but she had a huge talent for prising the stuff out of those that had. When she lived in Marylebone she was working as a rent collector in the flats for the deserving poor built by the enormously wealthy Octavia Hill. Later, she moved to Lambeth where she established the South London Dwellings Company, also founding Morley College with funding from Bristol millionaire Samuel Morley.
As a single lady, Cons would never have lodged above a common beer house, but the Walmer Castle was built as a Coffee Tavern, a place that would have the same facilities and social function as a pub but without the liquor. It later became a Temperance Hotel.
I love the depiction of Walmer Castle, which bears only a passing resemblance to the real thing. It is as if the carver had never seen it himself, but got a friend who had been there on his hols to describe it to him.

Wednesday 2 June 2010

Nomura House, St Martin's-le-Grand EC1 (cont)

When Nomura House was redeveloped in 1988, the middle was scooped out entirely and rebuilt behind Sir Henry Tanner's Victorian facade. The architects were Fitzroy Robinson Partnership, a company with a rare sympathy for old buildings. The only change visible from the streets is the mansard roof that conceals an extra couple of floors.
On the western facade, Fitzroy Robinson let their hair down a little by adding a couple of unicorns holding  bundles of what seem to be palm leaves and some fat little cherubs playing in the drapery round an oeuil-de-boeuf. Difficult to see why, as they are so high up they cannot be seen from the pavement without a telescope.

Tuesday 1 June 2010

Nomura House, St Martin's-le-Grand EC1

St Martin's-le-Grand was a tourist attraction in the19th century. Crowds used to gather to watch the mail coaches roar out of the old General Post Office, galloping off to deliver letters and parcels all over the country.
By the end of the century, the complex covered where the BT Centre is now, buildings to the west on the site of the original Charterhouse School (1907) and the North Range, built in 1889 to 95 and converted for investment bank Nomura in 1987.
Both were designed by a bureaucratic architect called Sir Henry Tanner of the Office of Works and are rather pompous and dull, but Nomura House features some entertaining and rather good sculpture.
Big arched windows form the centrepiece of the east and west facades. In the spandrels recline two classical male figures, naked to the waist. One is writing a letter and the other is reading it.
Henry Raikes MP - PMG 1886-91
The keystones of the entrances on the east and west sides have portrait heads of two Postmasters General. On the east is Henry Raikes MP, who commissioned the building, and Arnold Morley MP who opened it.
Raikes is notable only for being one of the first British politicians to have his voice recorded for posterity, by Thomas Edison's British agent.
Arnold Morley MP - PMG 1892-95
Morley has gone down in history for a staggeringly wrong assessment of the market potential of a new technology. In in 1895 he told the House of Commons: "There is a great distinction between telephone companies and gas and water companies. Gas and water are requisites for every inhabitant in a district, but the telephone cannot, and never will be, an advantage which can be enjoyed by large masses of the working classes."
Wrong and sneering. Brilliant.
I am indebted to Zoe van Well at the British Postal Museum for identifying the portraits. She also tells me that there are portrait heads on the insides of the arches as well, one of which is said to be that of the architect, Sir Henry Tanner.