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.

Saturday 14 September 2013

Admiralty Arch SW1

Admiralty Arch is one end of the transformation of the Mall into a national monument to Queen Victoria, which also included the refacing of Buckingham Palace and the Victoria Memorial.
The sculptor for the project was Sir Thomas Brock, the man who produced more sculpture for Imperial London than almost anyone else but is now almost forgotten. As the most prominent, almost official, sculptor of the Victorian age he dropped out of favour when the very word 'Victorian' became a term of derision and somehow never came back when the architecture was rehabilitated.
Which is a shame as his figures have considerable strength and nobility.
The allegorical females on either side of Admiralty Arch were unveiled in 1911. They represent Navigation on the north side and Gunnery on the south.
Both wear billowing robes with what look like corsets underneath. Navigation holds a sextant. Gunnery wears a helmet and cradles a whacking great cannon in her lap, which must be dreadfully heavy though she seems to be unaware of its weight.

Monday 2 September 2013

Horniman Museum, 100 London Road SE23

You could make a bundle out of tea back in the days of Empire. Sir Thomas Lipton spent much of his enormous fortune on yachting ('like standing under a cold shower tearing up £20 notes', he famously observed) but Frederick Horniman spent his on objects collected on his many journeys round the world. The astonishing collection was finally housed in a great but relatively little-known museum and presented to the people of London.
The building was designed by Harrison Townsend and completed in 1901. The main accent of the frontage is provided by a huge mosaic by Robert Anning Bell, one of those multi-talented artists who produced great works in many mediums from stained glass to book illustrations.
The subject is Humanity in the House of Circumstance. Humanity at the centre is being clothed by Love and Hope. To his right stands Endurance, holding a sword and shield to equip him for the world. To Humanity's left are figures of Charity, a woman bearing figs and wine, Wisdom, a hoary old sage, and Meditation in a dark hood.
At the left hand end of the composition is the Gate of Life, with figures of Fine Art, Poetry and Music standing before it. At the other end is the Gate of Death, guarded by Resignation bearing a staff.
The picture is built up from nearly 120,000 little tiles called tesserae, applied by a team of women chosen for their nimble fingers. Despite their nimbleness, however, it took them ten months to complete.