Friday 27 January 2012

Derry and Toms, Kensington High Street W8

The apertures between C.H. Mabey's bas-relief panels and down the dramatic verticals of the lift shafts are covered with grilles created by Walter Gilbert, designer of the great gates of Buckingham Palace and the classical figures on the RSA, cousin of Sir Alfred Gilbert (the Eros man) and father of Donald (carver of one of the figures on the New Adelphi).
The smaller grilles mainly depict bats and squirrels, for some reason. Other motifs are birds and signs of the zodiac.
Walter Gilbert also designed a rather lovely set of bronze friezes featuring exotic birds, but their setting over the shop's doors means they are partly obscured by signs and the lights cause terrible reflections. What is the listing system for if it doesn't force owners of historic buildings to arrange things so they can be photographed effectively? Action now!

Wednesday 11 January 2012

Derry and Toms, Derry Street W8

The Derry Street facade of Derry and Toms continues the wonderful line of bas reliefs by Charles Mabey, described in the post on the Kensington High Street facade.
From left to right, the series continues with more artistic pursuits. Above, printers bash out the Derry and Toms annual Christmas gift catalogue. Right, silversmiths decorate urns.
Above, potters throw and decorate a pot. Right, builders mix and pour concrete. It's an odd coupling - the potters get respect for their art, good money and it's inside work with no heavy lifting. For the builders it is the complete opposite.
At this point, Charles Mabey seems to have run out of ideas, time or money (or any combination of these essential elements of any artistic project).
We have been here before, on the other side of the building.
Above, bricklayers wearing traditional bricklayers' flat caps. Below, lumberjacks wearing something that is nothing like the hats lumberjacks used to wear in films of the great outdoors.
Pilot and mechanic
At last, a trade that was entirely new when Derry and Toms was built, although the plane with its open cockpit, fixed undercarriage and manual starting (chocks away, Ginger!) already give the image a nostalgic, primeval atmosphere.
Dispatch department?
It is not entirely clear what the guys below are doing. They seem to be baling something, wool perhaps? The worker with his back to us is tending some sort of machine while his mate is hauling a huge bag away.

Postmen heave sacks of mail here, perhaps sending out the catalogues that were being printed further round the building.
And another new trade - motor mechanics work on a rather grand automobile with an early 'cherished plate' DT 1932.
Cherished plates go right back to the early days of motoring. A popular joke in 1914 was:
Motor mechanic
"What does the Kaiser have on his number plate?" "2L."
"And what does the Crown Prince have on his number plate? 2L2!"
They don't write them like that any more, thank heavens.

Road menders
The last pair of bas-reliefs by Charles Mabey are reprises of subjects he has visited before.
Perhaps he didn't care so much because they are round the back.
Top is another couple of men digging a hole in the road. Below, a pair of brickies clad the steel frame.
Despite the repetitions, this set of images must be one of London's least known masterpieces. I certainly never appreciated them until I managed to look at them closely by the wonder of telephoto and digital imaging.

Tuesday 3 January 2012

Derry and Toms, Kensington High Street W8

Once upon a time, most of Kensington High Street was Barker's. Even Derry and Toms was a branch of Barker's, despite being right next door.
Barker's was one of those operations that grew by gobbling up all the neighbours, and at one point it covered a vast area from the north side of Kensington Square to the High Street. Derry and Toms was one of the victims, and in the 1920s it needed a new store to replace the rabbit-warren of properties it had acquired over the decades. Barker's resident architect, Bernard George, designed a facade of Beaux Art proportions but Art Deco detail. The inside was designed on the latest American principles with huge floor spaces held up by columns at regular intervals. Construction began in 1929.
The frieze at the top contains a line of no fewer than 29 bas-reliefs depicting trades associated with construction, transport and the materials sold in the shop. They are by Charles Henry Mabey Junior, the last of one of the family firms that used to dominate architectural sculpture.
It seems a shame they are so far away from the ground - you really need binoculars to see them and photographing them is difficult. They must have looked very impressive in the drawings George presented to the Barker's board, however.
Identifying the trades is a matter of guesswork, because I have been unable to find a definitive list.
Indian cotton was a big line in Derry and Toms. If these reliefs are a true reflection of the trade, the cotton was picked and spun by women but the men seem to be 'supervising'.
Ghandi was campaigning against the cotton trade at the time, pointing out that cotton grown and picked in India would be shipped to Britain for spinning and weaving, to be shipped back to India for sale to the rich. Almost all of the wages and profit was made and spent in Britain.
Indian cotton pickers
These reliefs show a different angle - the cotton is being spun and woven in India (the guy on the right is examining a sample of cloth) and sold to rich people in London. Still, I'm willing to bet that most of the profit went to Derry and Toms.

Derry and Toms was an early example of the American store system of big open interiors with the lifts and stairs at the edges. This was made possible by a steel frame, as being built by the workers above. Note absence of safety harnesses, hard hats or safety glasses.
Below, a joiner and his mate trim a panel with a plane.

More images of workers on the Derry and Toms building. Above, masons prepare a massive bit of cornice for hoisting into position. Below, a block of stone is levered into place.
Wool was a major material for Derry and Toms, and here are some sheepshearers getting the raw material. They are using electric clippers, but the artist has simplified them so they look more like combs with hoses attached. It is probably in Australia.

The image below would be instantly nixed by the PR department these days. It shows trappers skinning a bear they have just shot, probably in Canada.
The panels at the eastern end of the main front of Derry and Toms show work on what would today be called 'infrastructure'. Two men wield pneumatic drills (above) without the benefit of ear defenders - yesterday's heroes, today's deaf old gits. The workers below seem to have a much safer job, although I'm not sure exactly what it is. Assembling a transformer, perhaps? Or is it a boiler?

For the eastern facade, see Derry Street. A separate post deals with the ironwork by Walter Gilbert.