Tuesday 24 December 2013

Cubitt Steps, Canary Wharf E14

The Canary Wharf website says this 1995 sculpture by Giles Penny has "a monumental presence and narrative sculptural language," but fails to mention what the language actually means. I think it embodies the vacant pointlessness of the wage slaves' lunch hour after the sandwiches are finished but before guilt drives them back into the office. Also that strange awkward pose the English adopt when forced to sit too close to someone they don't know.
Giles Penny is a painter-turned-sculptor who produces a lot of corporate art - you will find his work at headquarters buildings, apartment blocks and shopping malls around the country.

Monday 23 December 2013

West India Avenue, Canary Wharf E14

Giles Penny is a painter-turned-sculptor who produces a lot of corporate art - you will find his work at headquarters buildings, apartment blocks and shopping malls around the country.
Man with Arms Open is typical, a human figure reduced to a pose, but a flamboyant, good humoured pose. It was erected in 1999.

Saturday 21 December 2013

Columbia Courtyard, Canary Wharf E14

We tend to think of the statue of Ozymandias as just the legs, but Shelley mentions his face too:
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Centurione I by Polish sculptor Igor Mitoraj could just be that shattered visage, though he doesn't have a sneer of cold command, more an expression of slight regret.
Researching this, I discovered to my delight that Shelley's famous sonnet was the outcome of a sonnet-writing contest with his friend, a novelist, parodist, poet and stockbrocker called Horace Smith. Smith's sonnet concludes with a very pertinent warning, considering the current surroundings of Centurione I:
We wonder,—and some Hunter may express
Wonder like ours, when thro' the wilderness
Where London stood, holding the Wolf in chace,
He meets some fragment huge, and stops to guess
What powerful but unrecorded race
Once dwelt in that annihilated place.

Wednesday 18 December 2013

Wellington Monument, Hyde Park, W1

The colossal figure of Achilles (18ft high) was erected in 1822 to "Arthur Duke of Wellington and his brave companions in arms", funded by a subscriptions from women. It was made by Richard Westmacott (later Sir Richard), who cast the statue in his own foundry at Pimlico from cannon captured in various of Wellington's campaigns.
Although it was based on impeccable classical precedents including the Borghese Gladiator and the Quirinal Horse Tamers, and the Iron Duke's gentlemanly attributes were modestly covered with a fig leaf, it was London's first nude sculpture and caused a bit of a ruckus. Critics also hated the implication that Wellington was some sort of superhero.
George Cruikshank was particularly savage, publishing a satirical print entitled Backside & front view of the ladies fancy-man, Paddy Carey, The line at the top reads: "This Brazen Image was erected by the Ladies, in honor of Paddy Carey O' Killus, Esq. their Man O'Metal!!!"
The statue wears Wellington boots, and the man himself is shown looking on, sticking his bum out like the statue. 

Tuesday 3 December 2013

The Princess Royal Nurses Home, Guilford Street WC1

The Hospital for Sick Children in Great Ormond Street was largely rebuilt by architects Hall, Easton and Robertson in the 1930s, starting with the nurses' home in 1933.
Over the doorway, Eric Aumonier created a bas relief sculpture of Hygeia flanked by the nine muses.
Hygiea was the daughter of Asclepius, the demi-god of medicine, and she is almost invariably depicted feeding her father's wise snake from a bowl of healing balm.
Eric Aumonier came from a dynasty of architectural sculptors founded by his grandfather William. He studied at the Central School of Arts and Crafts and initially joined the family firm but left in the lat 1920s to strike out on his own. His work starts in the Art Deco but by the 1950s had become much more International Modern.
(Thanks to Nick Baldwin, archivist at Great Ormond Street Hospital, and Peter Kent of the RIBA Library for their help).
The Muses, from left to right:

Melpomene, Muse of Tragedy, with the Mask of Tragedy.

Polymnia, Muse of Hymnody. "Polymnia, nursingmother of the dance, waved her arms, and sketched in the air an image of a soundless voice, speaking with hands and moving eyes in a graphic picture of silence full of meaning." (Dionysiaca)

Clio, Muse of History, clutching a scroll.

Erato, Muse of Lyric Poetry, including love poems. Often shown with a lyre - is that a lyre behind her and to her right?

Urania, Muse of Astronomy and Universal Love, holding her rod and celestial globe.

Calliope, Muse of Epic Poetry and Homer's inspiration. She is usually depicted with a writing tablet but here seems to be holding a staff or musical instrument.

Terpsichore, Muse of Dance. Usually shown sitting down, accompanying the dancers on the lyre, but here shown joyously dancing herself.

Euterpe, Muse of Music. Usually shown with a double flute but Aumonier depicts her with cymbals.

Thalia, Muse of Comedy and Idyllic Poetry. The happy one, with the mask of comedy.

Friday 29 November 2013

143 Fleet Street EC4

Mary Queen of Scots House was built in 1905 for a Scottish insurance company. The statue was the idea of one of the developers, Sir John Tollemache Sinclair, Bart, MP, who was a big fan of the ill-fated lady.
The architect was one R.M. Roe, who concocted a facade as frilly as a doily with lashings of French Flamboyant tracery. Sadly, the carver of the statue is unknown.
The image seems to be the only outside memorial of Mary, which lead to recent demands for a statue to be erected in Scotland. Ironically, it stands just along the road from a figure of her nemesis, Elizabeth I.

Sunday 24 November 2013

Union Street SE1

When he was just 12 years old, Charles Dickens had to go to work in a blacking factory because his father had been imprisoned in the Marshalsea for debt. His route home from work took him over Blackfriars Bridge into Southwark "down that turning in the Blackfriars Road which has Rowland Hill’s chapel on one side, and the likeness of a golden dog licking a golden pot over a shop door on the other," as he wrote in his autobiography.
The original dog was made of pine with an iron pot. The shop was an ironmonger selling, among other things, kitchen items such as pots, pans and everything needed to build a fire, including cast iron firebacks and the wrought iron supports for the logs, known as fire dogs. So the sign is a bit of a rebus or architectural pun.
The ironmongers also used the design on its range of 'coal plates', the circular cast iron covers for the chutes that punctuated all Victorian pavements, allowing the coal men to pour their loads directly into coal cellars in front of every house.
Dickens made the sign famous, so when the shop was demolished in 1932 it was taken to the Cuming Museum. To celebrate his bicentenary in 2013, a replica carved in elm by Mike Painter was erected on the original site. Trendily, the sign has its own Twitter feed.

Tuesday 19 November 2013

61 Kings Cross Road WC1

This oddity seems to be all that is left of Bagnigge House, in the 17th century the country home, it is said, of Nell Gwynne. It became resort for Londoners, later becoming famous as Bagnigge Wells when mineral springs were discovered, where "both the chalybeate and purging waters are in the greatest perfection ever known, and may be drank at 3d. each person, or delivered at the pump-room at 8d. per gallon. They are recommended by the most eminent physicians for various disorders," as the proprietor bragged.
Bagnigge House was next to the "Pinder a Wakefield", a famous inn. A pinder was the keeper of a pound where stray animals were held, and the Pinder of Wakefield was the truculent hero who bested Robin Hood, Will Scarlet and Little John in a sword fight.
The place declined sadly in Victorian times and was built over in the 1850s. The plaque used to stand on a garden entrance.

Thursday 7 November 2013

58 Grafton Way W1

The Venezualan patriot Francisco de Miranda lived at 58 Grafton Way from 1802 to 1810, during which time it became a hotbed of South American revolutionary fervour where all the famous names from Bolivar down met and plotted.
In 1810 Miranda returned to Venezuala and became its first revolutionary leader, only to be deposed by a Spanish counter-attack. On his way to be evacuated by a British warship he was handed over to the Spanish authorities by, ironically, Bolivar. Miranda died in prison a few years later.
The statue is a copy of one made in 1895 by the Venezualan sculptor Rafael de la Cova. It was put in position in 1990 after the restoration of the house as a cultural centre.

Saturday 2 November 2013

Thomas More Square E1

The Swedish sculptor Carl Milles (1875-1955) began creating angel musicians in 1918 on the death of his closest friend, the composer Emil Sjögren in 1918. The original Angel Musician with Flute was a memorial statue, but it was followed by angels with trumpet, tuba, panpipe and clarinet. They stand, singly and in small bands, in gardens mainly in Sweden and the US, where Milles was a teacher for many years. His naked figures often offended delicate American sensibilities - he used to say that he had a 'fig-leaf maker on retainer'.
Milles worked for a while in the studio of Auguste Rodin. When he left he feared being written-off as a mere imitator of the great man, so he deliberately struck out on his own path to create figures that seem to fly or float, supported by discrete steel pillars.
This one was placed in Thomas More Square when it was built in 1991, unveiled by art collector and modern architecture fan Lord Palumbo.
If you like this charming figure, you can buy an official, 59cm high copy cast in bronze by one of the foundries that Milles himself used, from the Millesgarden, the sculptor's summer home and lifetime project. A bargain at 19,000 krone (£1,850 approx).

Tuesday 29 October 2013

Oxford and Cambridge University Club, 71 Pall Mall SW1

Apollo and Minerva  Presiding
The Oxford and Cambridge University Club was built in 1835 by brothers Sir Robert and Sidney Smirke, with terracotta-colour panels designed by their father, the painter Robert Smirke. They were executed by the architectural sculptor William Nicholl.
On completion in 1838, the club was described by The Gentleman's Magazine as a "magnificent accession to the architectural ornaments of the metropolis." In its description, derived from The Civil Engineer and Architect's Journal, it states:
The bas reliefs in the panels above the windows of the principal floor require particular notice.They are executed in Roman cement by Mr W.G. Nicholl from designs by R. Smirke Esq. R.A. and are intended to illustrate those exalted labours of the mind, which it is peculiar province of the Universities to foster and promote. In the centre panel, Minerva and Apollo preside on Parnassus; a female figure personifying the river Helicon pours from an urn source sacred to the God of verse, and the Muses surround them at the foot the Mount. In one of the panels Homer is represented singing to a warrior, a female and a youth; in other is Virgil, reciting his Georgics to group of peasants. The four other panels represent Milton reciting his verses to his daughter, inspired by a superior agency hovering over him; Shakespeare attended by Tragedy and Comedy; Newton explaining his system; and Bacon recommending his philosophy.
The choice of the modern mind-labourers seems a little invidious for a club intended for the alumni of both universities - Bacon, Milton and Newton were all Cambridge men, and Shakespeare, sad to say, was not fostered or promoted by any university at all. The fact that the founding committee was chaired by Lord Palmerston (St Johns College, Cambridge, 1803-06) can have been mere coincidence.
Homer Sings
Virgil Recites
Milton Inspired

Shakespeare Attended
Newton Explains
Bacon Recommends

Saturday 26 October 2013

39-40 Lombard Street EC3

Buy-to-let is nothing new - this building was funded by the City Offices Company, an investment vehicle, in 1866. 
To attract a better class of tenant, the block is clad from top to toe in Italianate stone carving to remind people that Lombard Street was named after the grand Italian bankers who kick-started London as a financial centre back in the late middle ages.
The architects were the Francis brothers, the carvers were from the firm of F.G. Anstey. It must have been all hands to the pump for a couple of years for a contract that size.
Above the corner door, a pair of allegorical women representing prosperity and commerce support a shield with the cross and sword of the City. One holds a bale of wool and a sheaf of corn, the other a roll of material and a shield.
The keystone of the arch over the door is a rather grand looking king.

Friday 25 October 2013

20 Grafton Street W1

The large map-like stone plaque next to the door of the Camper & Nicholson yacht shop in Mayfair was made in 2006 by the Iceland-born but London-based artist Gudrun Sigridur Haraldsdottir, who "creates scalable, multi sensual, site-specific, public and private art pieces, installations and designs," according to her website.
The pattern is taken from the plan of the site and its history, as explained in a brass plate inset in it:
"Inspired by the street plan and the new façade's form and rhythm, the piece appears as an archaeological investigation, an erosion of the façade, carefully carving away layer after layer of history, revealing the fossil imprints and lingering shadows of a medieval orchard, the site's earliest identity.
The present sun casts a shadow of the canopy, aligning different levels and plan forms of the site's evolution through history, searching for the relationship between past and present time."
Unfortunately, the photograph fails to capture the effect of the sun's rays through the glass canopy because they were taken at dusk, but there are lots of images here.
I do like the letters of the address running down the left hand side, so distorted and buried in the surface you can barely make them out.

Thursday 17 October 2013

National Hospital for Neurology, Queen Square WC1

Above the doors at each end of the 1937 extension of the National Hospital for Neurology are low relief panels by A.J.J. Ayres, tutor of Sir Anthony Caro.
On the right, a pair of hands emerge from the sun to proffer a rod of Asclepius, a snake wrapped round a staff, to a reclining woman. 
The symbolism is very rich. The sun indicates Apollo, who was also god of healing. Asclepius's snake is usually shown in a stiff formal pose but here it is writhing and the woman is patting its head - all a bit odd.
On the left-hand doorway, a bunsen burner heats a retort, with a lot of test tubes and scales, just like the stinks lab at school. An open book has a quotation from the 19th century American reformer, abolitionist and educationalist Horace Mann. A hand turns the page, and it is easy to miss that the hand emerges from a cloud and is therefore, presumably, God's.

Thursday 3 October 2013

71-73 Cornhill EC3

A line of turbanned Persians look down on Cornhill from the top floor of the old Union Bank of Australia, built in 1896 by the architect Gaymour Cuthbert.
The figures stand in place of columns and are known as atlantes, after the Greek god Atlas who was condemned by Zeus to support the sky on his shoulders for all eternity.
The sculptor was Henry Pegram, one of the supporters of the New Sculpture that promoted a naturalistic portrayal of the human form in contrast to the neo-classical conventions of the Georgians and early Victorians. The name had been coined by the critic Edmund Gosse in an essay in the Art Journal just two years before the Persians were commissioned. See how the figures are exerting all their power to hold up the architrave above, with muscles tensed and breath held.
There are three models, one a youth, one in his prime and one full of years. Each is repeated but not symmetrically for some reason.
Shortly after completing the work, Pegram was brought in to provide another pair of Persians for the doorway of Drapers' Hall in nearby Throgmorton Street.

Friday 27 September 2013

The Drill Hall, Chenies Street WC1

Soldiers used to look like soldiers in Victorian times, when they had an empire to subdue. 
The Drill Hall was designed in 1882 for the Bloomsbury Rifles by Samuel Knight, a captain in the regiment. It is appropriately military in style, with a tower topped by play-battlements. 
But the details that give most pleasure are the soldiers heads under the drip mouldings over the windows. A stirring display of military headgear and martial face-fungus.The fearsome warrior pictured above is clearly bound for some hot country - as the building was under construction the news was all of the British invasion of Egypt.
All the heads are different, showing the enormous variety of military uniforms of the day. Such a contrast with the drab utilitarianism of the universal beret of today.
Note how the heads become smaller (and therefore cheaper) the further up the building they are. 

Sunday 22 September 2013

The Plaza, 116-122 Oxford Street W1

This vital, swirling image on an Oxford Street palace of commerce was inspired by the prima ballerina Darcy Bussell. Dancer with Ribbon was made in 1997 by the sculptor Michael Rizzello.
Rizzello nearly became a professional singer before deciding for sculpture, and sang at work to the end of his life (though never in the presence of a sitter). He was a regular attender at the Royal Opera House and Glyndbourne.
Movement is a frequent element in Rizzello's work, a difficult trick to pull off in bronze. His statue of Lloyd George in Cardiff, for example, shows the Welsh Wizard punching the air in a podium gesture he was noted for.
The building itself was originally Bourne and Hollingworth, the department store, erected in 1925 to the designs of Slater and Moberly. The interior has been totally rebuilt twice, most recently in 1996 when Dancer with Ribbon was commissioned.

Friday 20 September 2013

The Nadler, Carlisle Street W1

Artists are rarely blessed with the gift of words, which is why they communicate through images, but Hew Locke is an exception. He describes the giantess he placed in 2013 over the entrance to the Nadler simply and clearly:
“Selene is named for the Greek goddess of the moon and of magic. I was commissioned to create a sculpture representing Sleep. I wanted to make a classical statue with a contemporary twist, and was keen to create a statue of a black woman, rare in London. The statue is informed by Art Nouveau, Victorian fairy paintings (especially those of Atkinson Grimshaw), and by the sight of a group of tall, glamorous drag queens parading down the road in Soho at three o'clock one afternoon. She is a powerful goddess reworked for today’s London - a dream-weaver and magical protector.
"Selene floats at the centre of a galaxy of stars, offering garlands representing magical potions associated with sleep and love. Referencing Theatreland, I have included belladonna (a plant proposed as being that creating Juliet's deep-sleep in Romeo and Juliet) and pansies (used as a love potion in A Midsummers Night's Dream). Two different night-blooming flowers known as 'Queen of the Night' - one a type of cactus, the other a type of jasmine - are joined by winged masks of the Greek personification of sleep, Hypnos. She also holds night-blooming dragon fruit flowers, this particular variety is named the 'David Bowie', and references Ziggy Stardust's associations with Soho".
There is an excellent video showing the casting here.
The building is by Robert Adam, and features his characteristic modern take on classical architectural elements. His practice also designed the Richard Green Gallery in New Bond Street, with a frieze by Alexander Stoddart whose explanation of his work is, shall we say, a little more discursive and flowery than Locke's.