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