Thursday 27 October 2011

South Bank Lion, Westminster Bridge Road SE1

Everyone loves the South Bank Lion, but few realise it was created to advertise beer. It was modelled by William Woodington in 1837 for the Red Lion Brewery, demolished to make way for the Royal Festival Hall. The lion was saved on the personal intervention of George V and placed next to Waterloo Station, subsequently being moved in the 1960s its current, more prominent site on the approach to Westminster Bridge. It looks as though it has been here for ever, the surface of the Coade stone as crisp today as it was when it was cast despite the removal of the red paint that it was originally coated with.

Wednesday 26 October 2011

County Hall, Jubilee Gardens SE1

'Care of the Sick' or 'Healing'
The sculpture on the Jubilee Gardens facade of County Hall were supplied by Alfred Hardiman after the architect, Ralph Knott, lost patience with the original artist Ernest Cole.
The figures represent 'Open Spaces' and 'Education', both very important topics at a time when large tracts of London were industrial dynamos and children were supposed to be going to work not mucking about in the park.
The unusually dramatic, even hysterical, controversy over the County Hall sculpture, outlined in the entries for Cole's work on the Riverside Walk frontage, drew to a close in harmony largely due to Hardiman's diplomatic skills. Ironically, he was himself to become in the 1930s the centre of a much greater national storm over his memorial to Earl Haig in Whitehall, with one former general describing it as 'a travesty of the Elgin marbles' in a letter to The Times.
'Child Education'

Tuesday 25 October 2011

County Hall, Belvedere Road SE1

The Hero by Cole
The figures on the Belvedere Road facade of County Hall are either side of the fault line between artists, Ernest Cole and Alfred Hardiman.
Town Planning by Hardiman
Cole, the original contractor, was sacked in 1921 for busting deadlines and generally obstreperous behaviour and replaced by Hardiman, just back from studying in Rome where he been deeply impressed by Etruscan art and early Greek sculpture.
Cole's last figure, The Hero or 'Hero Figure' is an archer. As usual, Cole left no explanation of any intended symbolism or message. Presumably he represents society's plans and aims for a better future. His hairstyle and moustache are strangely 1960s.
Hardiman, in contrast, returns to the Victorian tradition of figurative, aspiring sculpture illustrating the work of local authorities. His figure is Town Planning, a strong, determined, far-sighted man holding a giant pair of dividers over an unformed rock, ready to be carved into a new city. It was erected in 1926.

Saturday 22 October 2011

County Hall, Westminster Bridge Road SE1

Untitled Group - said to be 'Benevolence and Humanity'
Sculpture commissioned by local authorities usually depicts either local history (such as Middlesex Guildhall or Wandsworth Town Hall) or aspirations like Social Justice, Welfare, Health etc (see Southwark Health Centre). Working in the aftermath of the First World War, Ernest Cole broke the rules so comprehensively in his work at County Hall that even his supporters found it difficult to classify or even identify his subjects.
Cole was already in trouble for failure to meet deadlines and his position on the County Hall team was in doubt.
The politicians were frankly bemused. In 1920 Alderman Cotton tabled a series of questions for debate, including "Are the figures unclothed as a protest against the monstrous price of clothes?...Do their positions, crowded on precarious perches outside the windows, indicate the lack of housing accommodation?"
The untitled group on Westminster Bridge Road attracted his particular ire: "The two muscular citizens have such despairing looks on their faces they appear to be preparing to hurl a bomb at the Houses of Parliament."
Cole never gave the group a title, but in the draft response to the Alderman's questions the management team called them 'Benevolence and Humanity'. They certainly don't look very benevolent, and the extraordinary globes they carry support writhing bodies in very odd attitudes. They do look a bit like ornate hand grenades.
The other group on the Westminster Bridge Road facade, 'World Beyond', is supposed to represent humanity supporting the world. Three shrugged, downward-looking, muscular men hold a globe surrounded by symbols of uncertain import. On top, a pair of bronze figures adopt painfully grotesque poses. For a symbol of a forward-looking local authority, it is deeply pessimistic.
Alderman Cotton never got his debate but the tide was clearly turning against Cole, who was later sacked. 
'World Beyond'

Friday 21 October 2011

County Hall, Riverside Walk SE1

"River Thames" by Ernest Cole
County Hall was London's alternative parliament over the water. In the great war between right and left in the 1980s the Greater London Council under 'Red' Ken Livingstone set itself up in opposition to Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who responded by brutally executing it and ordering the building to be converted into tourist facilities, the political equivalent of planting the soil with salt.
The facades, however, remain just as they were, with a fascinating array of sculpture that tells a story of artistic ambition, personal frailty, political interference and furious debates over taste and aesthetics.
The building was designed as the home of the London County Council in 1908 by architect Ralph Knott, who chose a rising star of sculpture, Ernest Cole, to produce a series of aspiring figures for the main elevations. Cole was only 24, straight out of the South Kensington Art School, where his work had been noticed by Charles Ricketts and others. So commissioning him with a major sequence of works was a brave gamble.
"Creation of Eve" by Cole
Untitled Group by Cole
Construction started in 1912, so it was 1915 by the time Cole's sculptures were required. He started at a rush, completing five groups and most of a sixth in just 18 months despite having joined the army, which left only weekends for art. Most of the actual carving was done by his assistant Peter Induni.
At this point disaster struck. Cole was sent to the Western Front.
The artistic establishment was aghast that a talent of such promise was being put in harm's way and pressure was applied to transfer him to the much safer Intelligence Corps.
'Recreation' or 'Open Spaces' by Hardiman
In that capacity he was sent to America. On the way met a widowed lawyer called Laurie Manly and fell in love. Laurie decided Cole was a modern artistic genius ranking with Epstein and would devote her life to protecting his interests. Cole rejected his old friends such as Ricketts and struck out into abstract art. Ricketts said he had "gone over to the enemy."
After the war, Cole resumed work but he was a changed man. He had lost his drive and failed to meet deadlines, and he needed more money to cope with post-war inflation. Requests for extra payments were backed up by furious letters from his lawyer wife.
In nearly two years he finished the incomplete group and provided only one more, which he carved without having supplied Knott with a plaster maquette for approval. Knott rejected it as unsuitable.
A major row ensued. Members of the LCC were getting worried about the escalating costs and many dismissed Cole's completed works as incomprehensible modern rubbish. 
Knott counter-attacked by getting a group of luminaries including the poet and art critic Laurence Binyon (of We will Remember Them fame) to rally round in Cole's defence. For this, he was rewarded with a letter from Mrs Cole accusing him of having spent the war in safety in London drawing two salaries while her husband was defending his country.
By this time things had broken down irretrievably and the contract was terminated. The Coles retreated to a bungalow near Canterbury, rarely leaving except for a brief period at the beginning of the second world war when they were interned because of their open admiration for Mussolini and the Fascists.
To complete the project, Knott and the LCC brought in Alfred Hardiman, who was much easier to work with and whose images were more accessible for politicians and the public, as shown by the northernmost sculpture on the river frontage, 'Recreation'.

Tuesday 11 October 2011

Colet Court, Hammersmith Road W6

John Colet was the Dean of St Pauls in the 16th century. A friend of Erasmus and a member of the reformist tendency in the Catholic Church, he founded St Paul's School and endowed it with a large part of the fortune he inherited from his City merchant father (he had no family - as an ordained priest he was celibate and all 21 of his siblings had died).
In the late 19th century the school had decamped to Hammersmith and was housed in a magnificent building by the great Alfred Waterhouse. The junior school, named after Colet despite the fact that it was actually founded by one Samuel Bewsher in 1881 was housed in a building across the road, designed in 1890 by architect W.H. Spaull of Oswestry. In 1968 the schools moved to their current campus in Barnes and the Waterhouse building was scandalously demolished except for the High Master's House. Colet Court was converted into offices.
A bust of the Dean is positioned at the centre of the facade, but for me the most charming part of the building is the skyline with its fancy Tudor chimneys and terracotta falcon.