Sunday, 18 September 2011

18-21 Northumberland Avenue WC2

Citadines Trafalgar Square is one of that curious new species of property speculation, the apart-hotel. The idea is that you buy a suite in it, so when you are in residence you get all the services of a top hotel and when you aren't they rent it out. Sounds like a recipe for the hotel to offload the capital risk onto investors and charge them an arm and a leg for services too - brilliant!
The building was created for a nobler purpose, as the headquarters of the Royal Commonwealth Society. Originally it was "a meeting place for gentlemen interested in colonial and Indian affairs" but has morphed into an educational charity. These days it perches in the Commonwealth Club along the road at No 25.
Built in 1934 to a dull design of Sir Herbert Baker, it features a pair of nude men supporting the balcony over the main entrance. These are much better, dynamic and forceful, the weight of the balcony held by the arms resting on the knees. Could they be pictures of Wheeler's favorite model, Tony Assirati?
As a bonus, the keystone over the door features a pair of merlions, mythical creatures that crop up in Etruscan and Indian art as well as Western heraldry. They appear in the arms of the East India Company and the cities of Great Yarmouth and Manilla.
In the 1960s the merlion was adopted as the symbol of the Singapore Tourist Board and nowadays it is protected by law in that country.
India and south east Asia are represented by the Star of India
with a lotus flower at its centre, Ceylon with an elephant and 
Burma with a peacock.  Baker did not list the Buddhist Stupa 
or the garlanded ox.
As well as the portal guardians by Sir Charles Wheeler, the former Royal Commonwealth Society building is decorated with six roundels containing emblems of its various peoples. At the time (1934) it was the Royal Empire Society, created to foster the idea of a new empire on Roman lines with citizenship available to all but the British at the top (naturally).
The symbolism is explained by the architect, Sir Herbert Baker, in a revealing article "Symbolic Constellation of the Empire", that he wrote for United Empire, the journal of the society. He discusses in detail a set of roundels in wood inside the building, which repeat most of the symbols on the facade.
In the absence of a full set of official heraldry, Baker had to make it up as he went along. He remarks dryly that if he had had to wait for the Colonial Office and the College of Arms the building would never be complete.
The roundels were carved by Joseph Armitage, who also worked with Baker on South Africa House and war graves in Flanders. The next year he would go on to design the National Trust's famous oak leaf symbol.
Canada is given a new symbol, a cross with maple leaves and maple seed pods in the middle, overlain with symbols of the main immigrant groups, the English, Scots, Irish and French. The natives don't get a look-in. The cod represent the Newfoundland fisheries, already under threat from over-fishing, and the full-rigged sailing ship is heading back from the West Indies.
Africa, with the stars of the Southern Cross. A winged springbok for South Africa. The source of the Nile is shown between what looks like the pyramids but in fact is intended to be Ptolemy's Mountains of the Moon. The soapstone birds are 'column sentinels' at Great Zimbabwe. Baker describes the heads as 'two types of natives, the more backward Negroid type and that with a blend of northern blood and civilization'. In 1934 racism was not just for Germans, clearly.
Britain includes England, Scotland, Wales and also Ireland, despite Ireland having been independent for more than ten years by the time the building was erected. The cross is for Malta and the rock is Gibraltar.
The Southern Cross (again) with a Wattle for Australia. The Palm Tree is for the islands of the Eastern Sea including Borneo, and the anchor is for the Naval Ports of Hong Kong and Singapore.
Oceania is represented by  the Southern Cross around the Silver Fern of New Zealand. The shells  and lateen-rigged boats are Polynesia and Melanesia.
Many thanks to Rachel Rowe, archivist of the RCS archive at Cambridge University, and Ruth Craggs, author of a very helpful article on the history of Commonwealth buildings.


LondonRemembers said...

You mean Sir Charles Thomas Wheeler, that Wheeler, don't you? Hope so, because I've just updated LondoRemembers accordingly, with a link to here, of course. Keep finding lovely sculptures and sharing them!

Chris Partridge said...

Yes indeed. Not to be confused with the BBC journo, he of the lined face and wild hair.
Thanks for the endorsement!