Thursday 28 February 2013

Edinburgh Gate SW1

The Rush of Green was Jacob Epstein's last work, completed on the day he died in 1959 and cast in bronze posthumously.
It was commissioned to stand outside Bowater House, a monstrous headquarters block for a paper company, designed by Guy Morgan for developer Harold Samuel. The block was huge but cheaply finished and made no concessions to anyone at street level where the dominant accents were the entrances to service courtyards and underground car parks.
The building was controversial right from the start. Legend has it that the Brutalist architect Erno Goldfinger gave the pioneer of modernism, Mies van der Rohe, a lift in a taxi to take him to the RIBA to accept a gold medal, passing Bowater House on the way. He waved at it, saying "This is all your fault." Van der Rohe replied coldly: “I was not the architect of that building.’
Nobody complained when Bowater House was demolished in 2006, even though it was replaced by a block of flats that is just as greedy a development in its own way, designed to cram in as many apartments with a super-profitable view of the park as humanly possible. Richard Rogers Partnership were responsible, the clients being the Candy brothers.
The one element of the old building that survives is Epstein's group, despite the fact that it is generally regarded as very second rate. "An embarrassing decline from his work of a few years before," is Pevsner's verdict.
I think that is rather unfair. The family, Dad, Mum, Son and Dog, leap joyfully away from the noise and smells of the city to the open green spaces, urged on by Pan playing his pipes. It is a symphony of diagonals.
It is a pity they are now stuck in the middle of the road so they seems to be eternally jaywalking.

Tuesday 19 February 2013

Law Society, Chancery Lane WC2


The Law Society's building is a history of expansion as lawyers became the secret rulers of the universe in the course of the 19th and 20th centuries. The centre was built by Lewis Vulliamy in 1829. Wings were added on either side in 1848 and 1856, and in 1902 a big block to the north by one of the best architects of the early 20th century, Charles Holden.
Holden was in his late 20s when he created the austere block ornamented only by four allegorical figures of bare-breasted women by Charles Pibworth, who was just 24.
The figures on Chancery Lane represent Truth with a mirror and Justice with scales, sword and (erroneously) blindfold. They are severe, strong and clean-lined.

Pibworth's figures on the Carey Street front are of Mercy holding fruit including grapes and apples and Liberty wearing a Phrygian cap and carrying a sheathed sword.
Holden commissioned Pibworth almost immediately to work on Bristol Central Public Library where he designed a number of historical figures, but after that Holden turned to more avant garde sculptors, notably Epstein and Gill.
A shame really. Pibworth's figures have a nobility that graces the building.
The pride of lions on the railings at the front are incomers, brought here from the British Museum. They were the first castings of an image known in heraldry as lions sejant (lions sitting, something lions never do in nature), by Alfred Stevens (1817-1875), one of those artists who produced surprisingly little but had a massive influence on others. He is mainly remembered today for his conviction that a true artist can produce art in any medium.
The lions were created to decorate a line of posts outside the British Museum but they were later removed in some sort of pavement improvement programme. Some were placed round the Wellington monument and others on the railings in front of the Law Society building. The original model is outside the Royal British Society of Sculptors.
Yes, that is my bike.
The figure soon became a cliche of the garden ornament business. In Victorian times, the Covent Garden firm of Brucciani & Co. made bronze casts which were sold for 7s. 6d. each. Pilkington's Tile and Pottery Company and Carter & Co of Poole made earthenware versions around 1900.
The inexorable decay from new and vibrant art object to tired, reproduction-of-reproduction commercial tat is admirably chronicled by Peter Berthoud at Discovering London.

Tuesday 5 February 2013

125 Chancery Lane, WC2

It is an Argentinian cantina now, serving steak and vino rosso lunches to solicitor's clerks, but 125 Chancery Lane was built as a pub.
Because it was a Victorian pub the clues are all there, sculpted in stucco on the facade. Look at the great big bunches of grapes spewing out of the urns, and the vines running along under the architrave.
Even the pub's name is there in 3D - the Mitre. In medieval times, the London palaces of the bishops of Chichester and Lincoln stood along the eastern side of the street.
This attractive Italianate building was built in 1855 by George Legg, who also designed the King William IV in Grosvenor Road.