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.