Sunday 23 December 2012

Mansion House, Bank EC2

The pediment of George Dance the Elder's Mansion House was carved by Robert Taylor, whose father Robert Snr was one of the masons on the building. This led to inevitable but apparently unjustified accusations of inside influence when he got the job.
Taylor's composition is unusual for its date in a very admirable portrayal of the City as prospering through peace rather than conquest. As an 'explanation' on a contemporary engraving has it: "...their general Design is to exhibit LONDON Triumphant, not in military Atchievements, but in the necessary and social Arts of Trade and Commerce, which are the true Arts of Life."
The central figure is a female personification of the City trampling Envy beneath her feet. She holds a shield with the City's arms on it in one hand and a wand of office (a vindicta or Praetorian wand) in the other. She wears a towered hat identifying her with Cybele, the mother-goddess of Rome, the imperial city that London's city fathers desired to emulate.
To her right, a small boy carries the symbols of authority and independence including the fasces and a pileus or cap of liberty. He seems to be holding the City's sword by the blade, so tears before bedtime I think.
At the left, Old Father Thames holds an urn from which the river springs eternal, and the rudder of a ship that looms behind. A swan and an anchor appear at his feet.
The group on the right represent the trade that made London, in the words of the explanation, "the Chief Emporium in the Universe". A female offers London the fruits from a cornucopia, and two boys bring goods in bales, barrels and bags. They are accompanied by a stork, which is apparently the bird of commerce and also " its singular Affection to its Parents, it is a lively representation of the Citizens of LONDON, whose Duty, Industry, Love to their Constitution, and Zeal for their Privileges, accord an inexhaustible Supply to their Common Mother."
That is an image that today's greedy bankers would do well to adopt.

Wednesday 12 December 2012

125 Pall Mall SW1

Egyptian motifs on London buildings often betray a date just after the discovery of Tutankhamun's tomb in 1922, but this pharaoh was carved in 1912 to decorate an office block by Smee & Houchin.
The florid, copper-clad dome above is topped by a weathervane in the form of a rather attractive if bluff-bowed cutter. Apparently it is connected to a weather gauge in the offices below so they could always tell which way the wind was blowing.

Wednesday 5 December 2012

Buchanan House, St James's Square SW1

A costermonger sells fruit to a gaggle of children, the girls keeping a sharp eye on the money
being proffered by the younger of their brothers. Difficult to say what the fruit is - melon?
Buchanan House is dreadful really, the first modern building to break the Georgian skyline of St James's Square in a truly greedy way. The architecture makes the offence even worse by adopting a bland Queen Anne style, as if that could somehow make it fit in.
An organ grinder with his monkey.
They look at each other rather affectionately,
as if they are friends making music together.
It was opened in 1934 by Lord Astor, whose very grand town house was right next door (now it is the Naval and Military). He was rather gracious considering he had had to put up with two years construction and complete overshadowing of his garden to the south. "I only hope," he said, "you will not despise your old-fashioned and dingy friends, who still remain in the square. We will try not to be a nuisance."
What a doormat. No wonder the developers screwed him. He even made a little joke about being introduced at functions as 'the grandfather or husband of Lady Astor'.
A town crier announces:
"Oyez, Oyez
Take Notice
This Building
 was erected
 in the year 1933
Alfred and David Ospalak
being the Architects
A young woman sells lavender
 from a trug, assisted by her little girl.

But at least the architects had the good taste to employ Newbury Trent to carve a selection of Cries of London on the first floor. They are extremely charming in the neo-Georgian taste made popular by Rex Whistler.

A knife grinder pedaling away at his grindstone, putting an edge on a frighteningly large carving knife and occasionally whetting the stone from an urn mounted over it. The whole caboodle is mounted on wheels so it can be pushed from pitch to pitch. A small boy looks on, munching on a sandwich. His boiler suit is a bit of an anachronism, surely.

Wednesday 21 November 2012

Allington House, 150 Victoria Street SW1

The old Allington House was a dull commercial office block enlivened by these endangered species by San Francisco-based Barry Baldwin, so it was very ironic when they came near to extinction themselves when it was demolished by developer Land Securities.
The excellent Peter Berthoud, London guide and blogger, mounted a campaign to save them and at the last minute the developer decided to remove them for future use rather than just prizing them off the wall and dumping them in a skip.
The building was only put up in 1997. I have to confess that I'm not a big fan of Baldwin's work. It is a bit coarse and literal and poorly-composed for me. But it is good they are saved.
Baldwin's only other work in London is the series of heads and an arch with more animals at Grand Buildings in Trafalgar Square. And who commissioned Barry to execute them? Land Securities!

Thursday 8 November 2012

Royal Automobile Club, Pall Mall SW1

The Royal Automobile Club is the last and the largest of the clubs in Pall Mall, built in 1908 by Mewes and Davis, architects of Ritz hotels around the world and many ocean liners. Clearly, clubs were moving away from being meeting places for like-minded men to luxury accommodation for the loaded.
The pediment over the grand entrance of the RAC contains a charming group by the French sculptor Ferdinand Faivre, a graduate of the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris.
At the centre, a motherly figure holds a torch aloft to light the way for a winged cherub at the wheel of a motor car. Pevsner rather sniffily dismisses it as 'primitive' but in 1908 it would have been fairly state of the art. The Ford Model T was launched in that year, after all.
Three cherubic motor mechanics play with parts and tools on either side. It looks as though the motor is broken down in the woods somewhere (note the oak tree behind the lady). This would have been a very familiar occurrence in 1908, when very few journeys were completed without a puncture at the very least.
It would not, however, have been acceptable for ladies, however allegorical, to bare their all at the side of the road or for chauffeurs, however cherubic, to wave their willies from the driving seat.

Friday 19 October 2012

Lord's Cricket Ground, St John's Wood NW8

This is one of the most prominent sculptures in London but nobody notices it. Something to do with its position on a nightmare roundabout where both drivers and pedestrians are concentrating on not getting killed rather than admiring the surroundings.
It is a relief by Gilbert Bayes showing sportsmen and the tools of their trades. Cricketers are at the centre, naturally enough, where a batsman and a bowler admire the surprisingly tiny Ashes trophy. Next to them is an athlete toweling himself off - an excuse for a nude.
Other sports are represented by (left to right) tennis players, golfers, footballers, a rower and swimmers. The relief was done in 1934 so although there is a woman golfer, tennis player and swimmer but no females in the other sports.
The figures are wonderfully formed, honed athletes rather than the muscle-bound god that Hodge put on the PLA building, featured in a recent post.
That famous line from Sir Henry Newbolt's Vitai Lampada, "Play up, play up, and play the game" runs above the group. More than anything in Kipling it summarises what was nasty about Imperial England - conformist, hectoring, class-ridden and sentimental.

Thursday 11 October 2012

Old St Pancras Church House, Crowndale Road NW1

The cult of St Pancras was brought to England with St Augustine, who carried relics of the martyr in his baggage. St Pancras Old Church is said to be one of the oldest places of Christian worship in England, which explains how the name of this early Roman martyr came to be so common in London, a place he had no association with whatsoever.
The church itself is right next to the station, so it was rather isolated from the community after the railway took over much of the land for marshalling yards in the later Victorian period. This must have been part of the motivation for building this charming mission hall to the north of the church in 1896 to the designs of C.R. Baker King.
The figure of the saint over the door was carved by Harry Hems (1842-1916), an eccentric and excitable sculptor who had made his home in Exeter after winning a commission to work on the Royal Albert Memorial Museum there. He was known for refusing to pay what he described as the iniquitous demands of the Inland Revenue, and preparing the catalogues of the resulting forced sales of his works himself. The lots he selected included the crowbar used by the bailiffs, and three "second-hand tombstones (slightly damaged) ... suitable for the graves of Income Tax Commissioners or other Revenue Officials". The publicity did him no harm at all.
His statue of St Pancras shows the 14 year old boy in a toga and carrying a bible and a martyr's palm - he was beheaded for defying the Emperor Diocletian. St Pancras is the patron saint of children and his aid is invoked in cases of cramps, headaches, false witness and perjury.

Thursday 4 October 2012

10 Trinity Square EC3

10 Trinity Square was old-fashioned when it was built in 1922 to the designs of the Imperial architect Sir Edwin Cooper.
It was the headquarters of the mighty Port of London Authority, which we now look back on as somehow eternal but was established as late as 1909 to bring order to the cut-throat competition between the privately-owned dock and wharf companies.
Like County Hall, where Cooper had been runner-up in the competition for the design, the First World War delayed construction and when completed it was an Edwardian building in the Art Deco age.
Cooper had commissioned his favourite sculptor, Albert Hodge, to create massive symbolic figures for the PLA building. He had created sketch models of three groups including this monumental figure of Father Thames when he suddenly died in 1917, at the age of just 42. His assistant Charles Doman executed Hodge's designs and added two of his own.
Father Thames has a truly memorable flowing beard and is something of a body-builder ('muscles like penny rolls' as R.L. Stevenson put it). He stands on an anchor and holds a trident, his free hand pointing downriver towards the sea.

Tuesday 25 September 2012

Sir John Cass Institute, 31 Jewry Street EC3

This powerful, vigorous figure striding purposefully out of his niche high over Jewry Street is Sir John Cass (1661-1718), alderman, sheriff and MP for the City of London.
As a merchant he amassed considerable wealth and left most of it to a foundation for education that still prospers today.
The statue is a copy of a life-size figure in lead created by the brilliant Louis-Francois Roubiliac (1702-1762) who was born in Lyon but made his home in London from 1730. It is a baroque masterpiece, full of life and movement.
The original was kept in the Sir John Cass primary school in the East End. Recently it was restored by Rupert Harris and moved to the Guildhall where it would also be safer and more accessible to the public. At the same time, several copies were made in fibreglass with lead powder impregnated into the surface.
Coincidentally, the 1898 Cass Institute (by A.W. Cooksey) had an empty niche over the entrance of exactly the right size, and one of the copies was placed in it. It looks as though it had always been there.

The new copy of Roubiliac's statue attracts all the attention now, but the other carving on the entrance bay rewards a look.
On either side of the statue are Baroque-style swags of impedimenta associated with education, art on the left and science on the right. It is all very practical, with lots of tools including an artist's palette and maulstick, sculptor's tools, T-squares, globe, telescope, gears and pinions, pincers and a retort.
Supporting the arch over the front steps are heads of boy and girl pupils surrounded by fruit. No attempt is made to make them look antique, even though they wear traditional charity school headgear. Very charming.

Wednesday 12 September 2012

190-195 Piccadilly W1

190-195 Piccadilly was built as a gallery, headquarters and club for the Royal Institute of Painters in Water Colours. The Royal Academy just down the street was too elevated to admit watercolourists, regarding oils as the only acceptable medium for art.
Unfortunately, the watercolourists were just as cliquey and two societies emerged, the Society of Painters in Water Colours (known as the Old Society) and the New Society of Painters in Water Colours.
The two were at war for centuries and still don't talk. The Old Society (now the Royal Watercolour Society) is in trendy Bankside and the New Society (now the Royal Institute) shares premises in the Mall.
For nearly a century, however, the RI was the much more richly housed, in the prominent building designed by E.R. Robson and ornamented with sculpture by Edward Onslow Ford.
Ford was largely self-taught, though he did study on the Continent. He specialised in portrait sculpture, so it is a particular gift that the front of the RI features a series of his busts of prominent watercolourists. I have only heard of one of them, which I suspect is due to a combination of the continuing prejudice against painters in water colours and my own stupendous ignorance.
David Cox (1783-1859). Who? Apparently, he was once regarded as rivaled only by Constable for his depictions of cloudscapes. I really must look at some of his pictures.
Peter De Wint (1784 - 1849) was trained as an engraver and painted in both oils and watercolours. He is particularly known for pictures of Lincoln, done on visits to his in-laws. 
George Barret Jr (1767 - 1842), the son of the Irish painter George Barret Sr, was the Stakhanov of watercolours, never missing a Royal Watercolour Society exhibition in the 38 years from its founding in 1804. He started with views of the Thames Valley, moving later to romantic imaginary landscapes after the manner of Claude. 
William Henry Hunt (1790 - 1864) was one of the founders of English water colour painting, developing a wide range of techniques admired by Ruskin. 
Paul Sandby (1731 - 1809) was a splendid example of the close relationship of water colour painting with soldiering. He started life as a draughtsman with the Board of Ordnance making maps, and began painting landscapes when he was surveying the Scottish Highlands. Later he rose to become Chief Drawing Master at the Royal Military Academy at Woolwich. All army officers (including my father) were expected to be able to produce a credible watercolour landscape for intelligence purposes. I suppose they do it with their mobile phones these days, sadly.
Thomas Girtin (1775 - 1802) was a childhood friend of Turner, the teenage pair getting jobs colouring prints. He is credited with inventing English Romantic watercolour painting. 
John Robert Cozens (1752 - 1797) travelled on the Continent with the notable mad person William Beckford, and sadly ended up in Bethlem himself, where he died. His paintings were dramatic and primitive in execution, but Constable himself called him 'the greatest genius that ever touched landscape.'
And finally, a name I recognise. Turner. The man. The greatest watercolourist of them all, and indeed one of the greatest artists of all time in any medium. 

Monday 27 August 2012

Cavendish Square W1

This equestrian statue of the Duke of Cumberland is not all it seems. It is made of soap, and will in the course of the next year gradually wash away before our eyes.
South Korean artist Meekyoung Shin created the figure, a replica of a statue that stood on the plinth from 1770 to 1868 when it was removed apparently because the public had got very queezy about the Duke's war record. His total victory over Bonny Prince Charlie at Culloden was marred by orders to release the dragoons to mow down the fleeing Highlanders. In England, a new variety of garden flower was named Sweet William in his honour. North of the border it is known as Stinking Billy.
It will be interesting to see how the statue erodes. Meekyoung Shin is, appropriately, sponsored by trendy soap makers Lush.
Cavendish Square is also currently home to Solo II by Naomi Press, the Polish-born, Zimbabwe-raised, South Africa-trained, London-based sculptor. The abstract shape in mirror-finished stainless steel, reflects Press's early obsession with ballet. For me, it reflects far too much - the reflections in the steel confuse and dilute the image.
Part of the Cultural Olympics, Solo II will go in September so now is a good time to visit Cavendish Square, both to get the Butcher before his features start blurring and to take in the Press piece.

Tuesday 14 August 2012

15 Trinity Square, London EC3

This noble bird lords it over the former headquarters of the General Steam Navigation Company, built in 1908 by Edward Blakeway I'Anson, though it is possible it may have landed when an extra storey or two were added in 1931.
The GSNC was Britain's most prominent shipping line for years but never had the romance of Cunard or P&O because it specialised in short routes to north-west Europe. So its badge, a globe, was something of a hyperbole.
The globe on the building needs a bit of a clean, too. It gives the unfortunate impression that the eagle has a bit of a gippy tummy, possibly the result of eating in the pub that now occupies the GSNC's grand Freight Hall on the ground floor.

Wednesday 1 August 2012

Pemberton House, Pemberton Row EC4

This muscular, indeed almost muscle-bound figure is a printer. I met a few printers in the dying days of Fleet Street and frankly none were at all like this. Too much indulgence in late night beer and meat pies.
But I mustn't carp. It is a beautiful sculpture, Youth,  by Wilfred Dudeney, commissioned in 1955 to stand in front of the headquarters of the Starmer Group, owners of local newspapers across the north country.
Dudeney was an academic and teacher, and this statue is a lovely example of the figurative tradition advanced by modern influences. It is hard to imagine what Henry Moore or Elizabeth Frink might have said about it.
When Wilfred Dudeney carved this coat of arms to go on the new Fleet Street HQ of a provincial newspaper group in 1956, he cannot have predicted that the story of printing there was almost at an end.
The figure on the left is probably Caxton, but they may both be representative printers.
On the ground behind Caxton is a typecase, which in those days would have held both capitals and minuscule letters. Only later did compositors get tired of faffing about sorting out the letters and stored them in separate cases, one for the capitals and another, the lower case, for the minuscules.
Nowadays we still call minuscule letters 'lower case', correctly, but it is WRONG, yes TOTALLY WRONG, to refer to capitals as 'upper case'.
I don't know why this annoys me so much.
The world these carvings represent has vanished totally. The printers have disappeared and the newspapers are fast following them down the plughole of destiny. Pemberton House itself has been converted into flats for bankers and lawyers. We live in degenerate times.

Friday 27 July 2012

Guildhall, Basinghall Street EC2

The bit of the Guildhall that faces onto Basinghall Street was built in 1870 as the library by Sir Horace Jones, architect of Tower Bridge, which it strongly resembles. Jones placed three niches in the facade that were later filled with statues of Queens of England by J.W. Seale of Lambeth.
The figures are representative rather than realistic. Anne is portrayed as a beauty with a wasp waist when in reality she was so short and fat that when she died she had to be buried in a cubic coffin. Even Victoria, who was in her fifties at the time, is shown as a young woman.
Elizabeth I has unfortunately suffered damage to her hands and may have been holding regalia, possibly a sceptre in contrast to the orbs held by Anne and Victoria.
J.W. Seale was the progenitor of one of the sculpting dynasties that dominated the London architectural sculpture market until it collapse under the onset of International Modernism in the 1950s. Others included G.W. Seale and Gilbert Seale.

Friday 20 July 2012

BUPA House, Bury Street W1

This enormous sculpture by Peter Randall-Page stands outside the headquarters of the private healthcare giant BUPA in Bloomsbury. The medical connection makes its title, Beneath the Skin (1991), a little sinister, making one think of some horrible larva burrowing away. Or a major organ in need of surgery at one of BUPA's luxury hospitals.
Actually I like it a lot. It has proportion, shape and presence. The polished surface of the Kilkenny marble is fantastic, although the top has been over-polished by the bottoms of tourists resting on their way to the British Museum round the corner.
The black-and-white pattern in the background is also by Randall-Page, entitled Chain of Events (1996). It is in black granite inlaid into Portland stone.
Beneath the Skin is a good example of Randall-Page's early organic style, using natural shapes to create memorable images. Now he has moved on, investigating the way nature uses simple mathematical relationships such as the Fibonacci series to create complex structures like sunflowers or pine nuts. There is much more on his website.