Wednesday 31 December 2014

Maya House, 144 Borough High Street SE1

Walls and Trumpets is an installation by the Israeli artist Ofra Zimbalista, erected in 2008 on a rather dreary office block dating from the 1970s by the look of it.
Blue figures are a recurring motif in Zimbalista's work. The figures are created by moulding real people in fibreglass, coloured with a blue pigment imported specially from Morocco where it is used in house paint.
The most famous collision between walls and trumpets is, of course, the Battle of Jericho. Does the artist want the walls of Maya House to come tumbling down? 

Monday 29 December 2014

Machine Gun Corps Memorial, Hyde Park Corner W1

The machine gun is the totemic weapon of the First World War, slaughtering men by the million as they struggled over the barbed wire and mud of noman's land.
How do you commemorate the memory of the men who pulled the trigger? They also served, they also died. They also were brave. But their weapon was a barbaric killing machine.
The people who commissioned the Machine Gun Corps memorial did what must have seemed the right thing by commissioning the leading sculptor Francis Derwent Wood to create a top quality work. His statue of David is outstanding - noble and heroic but thoughtful and gentle, without aggression or posturing.
David holds the massive two-handed sword of Goliath, having just beheaded the giant with it. He is flanked by a pair of realistically-modelled Vickers guns, silent, barrels pointing down, bedecked with wreaths. The discarded helmets and coats of the gunners lie below.
It is the biblical verse on the plinth that gives one pause. From 1 Samuel 18 vii, it reads: "Saul hath slain his thousands, and David his ten thousands."
When the memorial was unveiled in 1925 there was outrage, many condemning it as glorifying war. Letters were written to The Times and questions asked in Parliament.
When a road widening scheme necessitated its removal in 1945 from its original position in Grosvenor Place, it took nearly 20 years before it was re-erected. 
Derwent Wood himself served as a medical orderly in the trenches and later designed prosthetic masks for burns victims, so he was entirely aware of the nature of the conflict. His aim was to point out the solitary position of the machine gunners in their positions forward of the rest of the army facing the tide of the assault. Despite the carnage they inflicted, the machine gunners themselves faced the worst casualties of any unit at about thirty percent, gaining the nickname 'The Suicide Club.'
Perhaps something more abstract would, in retrospect, have been safer. And a less inflamatory biblical verse. But Derwent Wood's David remains a fine work of art.

Sunday 28 December 2014

Wellington Arch, Apsley Way W1

The Quadriga on the Wellington Arch must be one of the last major celebrations of victory before the carnage of the First World War stripped away our delusions about the glory of war.
Erected in 1912, the group depicts the winged goddess Victoria riding a four-horse chariot, also symbolic of triumph. It is by Adrian Jones, the army vet who made a dramatic career change to become the foremost sculptor of horses in the Edwardian era.
The horses leap and rear with tremendous vitality, and the boy driver (modelled on the son of Lord Michelham, who donated funds for the statue) leans forward excitedly with the reins. The model for Victoria was Beatrice Stewart, who also sat for Sargent, Augustus John and others (and later was the young Patrick Leigh Fermour's longsuffering landlady).
There seems to have been a move to rebrand the statue as 'Peace descending on the Quadriga of War' but it is no such thing - Victoria and her Greek equivalent Nike flew around battlefields dishing out laurel wreaths to heros, not trying to bring reconciliation and harmony like some UN arbitration committee.
The statue was erected in memory of King Edward VII, who had (when Prince of Wales) been impressed by a plaster sculpture of a quadriga entitled 'Triumph' by Adrian Jones at the Royal Academy exhibition in 1891.
The history of the Wellington Arch is a text book account of the egomania, vendettas and political expediencies that often form the background to public sculpture projects.
The arch was designed by Decimus Burton in 1825 as a northern gateway to Buckingham Palace, standing right opposite the grand entrance to Hyde Park next to Apsley House. The original design was much more heavily ornamented and had a quadriga on top, but most of the folderols were axed by the committee brought in to control the stratospheric costs of the Prince Regent's expansion of his new palace.
For years the arch had nothing on top, until a cabal of top politicians led by the Duke of Rutland finagled the Wellington Memorial Committee into agreeing to a monster equestrian statue of their hero to be placed on it. The idea was that it was diagonally opposite the Duke's London home so it would be nice for the old boy to look out on it.
The statue was designed by the Duke of Rutland's protegee Matthew Cotes Wyatt. When it was put in place in 1846 it was greeted with jeers, partly because its size was completely out of scale with the arch but mainly because it was hideous. Attempts to remove it were, however, blocked by the Duke who threatened to resign all his public appointments if it was touched. Even Queen Victoria backed off.
Eventually, after the Duke's death, the arch itself came to be seen as a traffic obstruction and in 1883-5 it was moved to its current site. The statue was taken to Aldershot where it would be better appreciated.
Once again controversy raged over a replacement, eventually satisfactorily resolved with the Quadriga we see today.

Friday 24 October 2014

Hyde Park, London WC2

The Joy of Life is by T.B. (Thomas Bayliss) Huxley-Jones and was created in 1963.
It was the last work commissioned by the Constance Fund, a sum of money set aside by the painter and patron of art Sigismund Goetze to form a memorial to his wife Constance. As it turned out, he died first and the fund was administered by Constance until her death in 1951.
The fund was set up for "the encouragement of Ideal Sculpture and its setting for Parks and Public Places in conjunction with the settings and surroundings"; had a rather odd committee structure, set up by Goetze, consisting of "three sculptors, an architect, a horticulturalist and a few laymen." When a site was found, a competition was held offering five prizes of £50 and £1,500 to the winner.
"The Joy of Life" is a great work, full of both joy and life. The four children playing in the spray are particularly charming.

Monday 13 October 2014

Royal Geographical Society, Lowther Lodge, Kensington Gore SW7

The figures of two great explorers enliven the blank wall of the Royal Geographic Society's lecture hall, Ernest Shackleton and David Livingstone. Sir Ernest Shackleton's reputation today is based on a very British failure. The aim of his 1914 polar expedition was to cross Antarctica, but his ship Endeavour was crushed in the pack ice and it was his leadership in extracting his crew without losing a man that has made him a cult figure. He is portrayed in full cold-weather gear in the 1932 statue by Charles Sargeant Jagger, It is a very characteristic Jagger piece - very statuesque, full-frontal. The only movement is subtly suggested by one foot being slightly in front of the other, and he holds one hand behind his back. There is an interesting photo of his assistants working on the full-size work for the foundry from the maquette.
Dr David Livingstone's search for the source of the Nile and his meeting with Stanley earned him mythic status in his lifetime and throughout the imperial period, but today he is regarded more cautiously. He was as much a missionary as a scientist, and he opened the interior of Africa to colonial rule. But he is ultimately redeemed by the fact that he really loved both the place and its people. Livingstone's statue was created in 1953 by T.B. Huxley-Jones. It is a much livelier pose, as you might expect from the creator of all those fountains with writhing figures. The good doctor leans on his cane, cradling his Bible in his other hand, his coat over his arm.

Friday 10 October 2014

Lower Grosvenor Gardens SW1

The French sculptor Georges Malissard was noted for his statues of horses, often shown with jockeys, polo players, soldiers and, in the case of Albert of the Belgians, royalty.This is a copy of his portrait of the charger Bengali, Marshal Foch up. Ferdinand Foch was one of the few generals of genius in the First World War, and became three times a marshal, of France (naturally), Britain (Field Marshal in 1919) and Poland (in 1923).
The statue was erected in 1930. The 1928 original (below) is in Cassel, Foch's headquarters at the battle of Ypres,

Thursday 9 October 2014

Lower Grosvenor Gardens SW1

An Alien has landed next to Victoria station, and no-one is taking a blind bit of notice.
The sculpture, entitled Alien, was plonked in place (well, that's what it looks like. Of course I am sure it was done with care and full compliance with all relevant H&S regs) in 2013 for a two-year period. It deserves a permanent place.
For the sculptor, David Breuer-Weil, the word 'alien' has several meanings:
“I have always been fascinated by the idea that we are not alone, that a massive Alien might suddenly land on earth. I wanted to capture the sense of wonder and shock that such an arrival would generate. Every new work of art is an Alien, an unexpected arrival. But I also think that an extra-terrestrial being would look like us, but perhaps much larger or smaller. However, the title Alien also suggests something quite different: the difficulty of being an outsider. My father arrived in England from Vienna with his parents as refugees in 1938. My grandfather was interred as an enemy “Alien”, a great paradox given the reasons he had to leave Austria, something that my family often spoke about. Sometimes immigrants hide their true identity beneath the surface, like this sculpture. Many of my works, both paintings and sculptures, explore the theme of belonging or alienation. But with this work I wanted to use a vast, breathing human form to express the profound feelings associated with these themes. And I needed the massive scale to portray the intensity of these emotions.”
(from the Victoria Business Improvement District website. BID was behind the placement of the sculpture)

Saturday 6 September 2014

St Paul's Churchyard EC4

Becket depicts the Archbishop in the agony of death, his right hand extended as if to ward off the blows of his knightly assassins. The plinth is stepped to recall the steps into the choir of Canterbury Cathedral.
This memorable image was created in 1970 as part of the commemorations of the saint's martyrdom by Bainbridge Copnall, who was living near Canterbury at the time. It is rather unclear why it was not bought for Canterbury but ended up next to St Pauls in 1973.
The material looks like bronze but is in fact resin coloured to look like bronze, a process pioneered by Copnall himself.
Unfortunately, the weakness of the material was exposed in the hurricane of 1987 when a cherry tree fell on it and did considerable damage. Luckily, a former student of Copnall's, Patrick Crouch, was able to restore it.

Saturday 9 August 2014

Bath House Lofts, 19 Spa Road SE16

This extraordinary Greek Revival building looks as though it was built in the 1820s (think British Museum) but was in fact built in the 1920s. The architect, Henry Tansley, was also responsible for the Moderne/Art Deco Health Centre close by - clearly a man who could turn his hand to any style.
It was built as an annexe to the even grander Victorian Town Hall next door, sadly destroyed in the blitz. 
Inside, there is an amazingly opulent oval entrance hall and palatial staircase, featuring veined marbles of the highest quality. Tansley was able to achieve this on a council budget by buying the stonework from a nobleman's town house in Park Lane that had been demolished. 
There must have been a feeling that at last the working man was benefiting from the finer things in life that the upper classes were no longer able to afford. 
Now, however, the borough has been swamped by the London Borough of Southwark and the local politicians and their bureaucrats have moved out. And, with a superb irony, the building has been converted into loft apartments with price tags starting at just under a million. It's the rich, as the song says, what gets the pleasure.

Thursday 7 August 2014

Bermondsey Health Centre, Grange Road SE1

Bermondsey Health Centre is a classic Moderne style building with Art Deco flourishes (look at those vertical streaks of glass to either side). It was built in 1936 by Henry Tansley, who also designed the Town Hall on the other side of Spa Gardens in a Greek Revival style that could not be a greater contrast.
The Family Group on the facade was carved by Allan Howes, a follower of Eric Gill. A mother holds her baby on her arm while patting the head of her little boy. A charming, rather majestic and unsentimental group.

Wednesday 6 August 2014

Alaska Factory, Grange Road SE1

The Alaska Factory was the place where seal skins from Antarctica, Canada and Alaska were unhaired, dressed and dyed for making into waterproof coats, mittens, hats and trousers for explorers, soldiers and the fashionably dressed alike.
The gateway with its charming capstone carved with a seal was built as part of the original factory in 1869. By the 20th century, however, the seal population declined due to overhunting and the company, C.W. Martin, moved into other furs. For a time they made the bearskins for the Guards and in WWII they produced thousands of the iconic sheepskin pilot's jackets.
The factory building behind was rebuilt in 1927 by Wallis, Gilbert and Partners, masters of Art Deco. It is now converted into flats.

Friday 1 August 2014

Spirit of Soho, Broadwick Street W1

Spirit of Soho was created by a bunch of community activists in 1991 to try and brighten up Carnaby Street, which had sunk from its 1960s hub-of-hip status to dreary alley of tourist tat. And very successfully too.
St Anne, dedicatee of the parish church, is shown as a flame-haired, bare-shouldered beauty very different from her usual portrayal in religious art which shows the mother of Mary with her head and shoulders covered in a cowl like a nun.
St Anne spreads out her skirt to reveal a map of Soho with all the main landmarks. One either side are panels depicting, from top left to bottom right, a film animator (note the film cans making a Mickey Mouse hat); a variety show at the London Palladium; the fashion trade; Carnaby Street with a stilt walker; Soho's cosmopolitan restaurants and Ronnie Scott's, with famous jazzmen.
The crowd along the bottom is of Soho worthies - there is a list on the information plaque.
When the clock strikes the hour there is a little show, so subtle it is easy to miss.

Wednesday 30 July 2014

Royal Academy, Burlington House, Piccadilly W1

Burlington House is a bit of a pudding, really, as you might expect from a government project. The Georgian palace of the amateur architect Lord Burlington was bought in 1854 to house various academic institutions that were cluttering up Somerset House and Marlborough House, which were needed for bureaucrats.
There was a scheme for intensive redevelopment including shops but public protests put a stop to that. Instead Sidney Smirke was employed in 1872 to convert it for the Royal Academy, adding another storey to the original facade by Colen Campbell. Its most prominent feature is a row of niches containing statues of artistic heroes by some of the best Victorian sculptors.
From left to right, they are
Phidias, by Joseph Durham ARA. The greatest sculptor of classical times, creator of the statue of Zeus at Olympia and the chryselephantine image of Athena in the Parthenon, is depicted bald as Greek writers always maintained, holding a panel carved with a hero taming a stallion.
Leonardo da Vinci, by Edward Stephens ARA. The famously bearded artist holds a brush and palette.
John Flaxman RA by Henry Weekes RA. Flaxman's funerary monuments abound in churches from St Pauls (Nelson) to humble parish churches everywhere. His most notable achievement, however, was to direct British sculpture towards the Classical Greek model under the influence of the Elgin marbles.
Raphael, by Henry Weekes. Another brush'n'palette pose.
In the middle is Michelangelo, by William Calder Marshal, currently hidden behind an ad for the Summer Show. Continuing left to right:
Titian by William Calder Marshall RA, a Scottish sculptor also famous for gooily sentimental works such as First Whisper of Love.
Sir Joshua Reynolds and Sir Christopher Wren, both by Edward Stephens.
William of Wykeham, not an artist but a bishop who administered building works for 14th century monarchs. By Joseph Durham.
The forecourt is all about Reynolds, appropriately as its founder, first president and despot for more than twenty years. The 1929 statue  is by Alfred Drury, who had a strong line in historical portrait sculpture including Richard Hooker (Exeter) and Elizabeth Fry in the Old Bailey. Pevsner calls it 'bijou' but I think it captures the slight figure but energetic and intellectual nature of the man.
Even the trendy waterspouts in the paving installed in 1999 are arranged according to Reynolds' horoscope.

Friday 25 July 2014

21 John Street WC1

It would be easy to dismiss 21 John Street as just another example of developer greed, sticking rudely above the elegant Georgian roofscape, but the standard of the architecture just about redeems it. The designer was Dennis Harrington, it was completed in 1938 and the style is pure Moderne.
The statues on attached pylons on either side of the main entrance are other redeeming features. Nude women hold an hour glass (left) and a magic square and astrolabe (right).
The items would indicate the offices were intended for a company with interests in navigation or instrumentation, but the block was built on spec so it would seem they were either chosen on a whim or simply because they were a standard design available from one of the big firms of architectural sculptors (I have so far been unable to establish who supplied them).
There was a lot of interest in magic squares at the time. This one is the pattern made famous by Durer - practically any combination of four numbers adds up to 34. There is another one on the NatWest Bank in the City.

Monday 14 July 2014

Ludgate House, Fleet Street EC4

Ludgate House, the north-west quadrant of Ludgate Circus, was built in 1872 as the headquarters of Thomas Cook the travel agents.
But this charming huddle of winged merboys on the top was not in the original design - it seems to have been added when the building was extended up Fleet Street in 1906.
The rest of the extension matches the original design (by Horace Gundry), even to the ornately carved lintels on the windows with their exotic faces intended to convey the incredibly rich variety of the human race that might be observed on a foreign tour. Actually, all the faces look very similar, a classically beautiful, very Grecian face, with an incredibly rich variety of exotic headdress.
Only the rather jolly Chinaman stands out as a real personality.
At the attic level, an entertaining group of touristic cherubs represent travel round the world. At top right, cherubic travel agents make an inventory. Navigators plot courses both celestially and terrestrially. Sailors bring in a cruise dinghy, and fat little weather cherubs ride the Sun's chariot, one brandishing a thunderbolt.
Even the doorways are guarded by chubby little chappies representing travel over the globe.

Thursday 10 July 2014

Sidney Estate, Somers Town N1

The Princess and the Swineherd. The Swineherd is a prince in disguise (natch). Whoever put their finger in the smoke from his magic stewpot could smell what was being cooked in every house in the town, so of course the princess wanted it enough to pay the swineherd's outrageous price of ten kisses. It all ended badly.
The Sidney Estate is a fine example of the idealistic Christian socialism of the early 20th century. It was built by the St Pancras House Improvement Society in the decade from 1929. It was going to be a 'miniature garden city', with a large central court, assembly room and nursery school with rooftop garden.
The assembly room was never built and today the estate looks rather like hundreds of others except for the ceramic lunettes of fairy tales, designed by Gilbert Bayes and made by Doulton.
The Sleeping Beauty with Prince, flanked by what appear to be a leopard and a mastiff.
The Goosegirl (although she looks more like a Swangirl). A princess is sent to a foreign land to marry the prince, but on the way her maid forces her to swap places. On arrival, the princess is given a job tending  the geese while her false maid gets ready for the wedding, but luckily the imposture is discovered and the maid is thrown into a cask studded with sharp nails and dragged round the streets by four horses until she is dead, so all's well that ends well. 
The Little Mermaid, who saves a prince from drowning and falls in love. Unfortunately he loves someone else so she throws herself back in the sea and turns into foam. Makes Splash look like sentimental tosh.
In the central courtyard, the fairy tale theme continues but with the addition of this figure of St George, rather gleefully slaying the dragon. On the other hand, the dragon seems to be taking the lance under his arm so perhaps it is all a stage show.
The magnificent clock in the central courtyard shows the seasons, spring at the bottom left with bulbs, then summer with cherries and garlands of flowers; autumn with a sheaf of wheat and a sickle and winter, fully dressed and warming himself in front of a brazier.
 The south-facing entrance court in front of St Nicholas' Flats was filled with posts for washing lines, the central one with a ceramic Christmas tree and the others with ships. St Nicholas is, of course, Father Christmas and also the patron saint of sailors. All the original finials disappeared and have been replaced with replicas.
The estate was originally called the Sidney Street Estate after the road that disappeared when it was built. Just as well really as if it had survived it would only be confused with Sidney Street, Shoreditch, location of the famous siege.

The arch between St Anthony's
Flats and St Francis' House
 has a statue that I originally
assumed was St Francis but is
 actually St Anthony of Padua.
My personal favourite

Thursday 26 June 2014

Fen Court EC3

This remarkable piece of 2007, Gilt of Cain, is a collaboration between the sculptor Michael Visocchi and the poet Lemn Sissay to mark the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the Atlantic slave trade.
The granite columns are shaped to resemble sugar cane, the product most slaves were taken from Africa to the Caribbean to grow and process into sugar. Before them is a podium with a short flight of steps.
This arrangement has a dual purpose. In one sense, they can be viewed as a pulpit and a congregation of abolitionists, recalling the role of the church in the abolitionist cause. A deliberate reference is to the Rev. John Newton, author of Amazing Grace and inspirer of William Wilberforce, who was rector of nearby St Mary Woolnoth.
In contrast, the group can be seen as a crowd of slaves in front of the auctioneer's desk.