Wednesday 23 December 2015

Temple Bar Memorial, Fleet Street EC4

The authority of the City of London extended beyond the old walls at many places, known as the Liberties. The entrances to the Liberties were controlled by guard points originally just a bar resting on two posts.
Gradually they became more elaborate and gained other functions such as the display of the heads of traitors and other malefactors.
The grandest bar of all was the one on the ceremonial route between the Palace of Westminster and St Pauls, which was regularly used by the monarch on national events. It became known as Temple Bar after the Templar's round church close by.
In 1670 a new bar was built in stone as part of the reconstruction programme after the Great Fire. In Victorian times however it was seen as gloomy reminder of times gone by and an obstruction to traffic. It was after much soul-searching removed stone by stone and ended up in the park of a grand house in Hertfordshire. In 2004 it was re-erected near to St Pauls.
Many felt the bar should not be replaced at all, especially as the road is particularly narrow at that point. Many proposals were made including one by George Street, who was designing the Royal Courts of Justice to the north of the site, who envisaged a gothic style bridge for judges to cross from the Temple. Other ideas included raising the old Temple Bar on a new arch, and making a traffic circus round it. The refusal of Child's Bank on the other side of the road to release land scuppered all these plans.
The design was eventually given to Horace Jones, architect of Tower Bridge, who created a slender column intended to allow traffic to flow more freely.
There is something about public sculpture that provokes Times letter writers to apoplexy, and this project was the subject of a particularly entertaining row. Everything from the continued traffic obstruction, lax organisation, shenanigans on the committee and, of course, the cost were gleefully attacked.
Particular vilification was directed at the figure on top, London's symbolic dragon as modeled by Charles Birch. For some reason many correspondents seem to think it is a griffin which of course it is not (a griffin has the body of a lion with the head and wings of an eagle: a dragon is a winged serpent.) It was booed by the crowd when the memorial was unveiled in 1880.
In today's eyes, however, the memorial is a typical piece of fussy, sentimental and overblown Victoriana.
The memorial is covered in carving. On the south side is a statue of Queen Victoria by her favourite sculptor, Joseph Boehm - she had dropped hints to the Lord Mayor, apparently. On the north side stands the Prince of Wales (later Edward VII), also by Boehm.
The slender east and west sides have portrait heads of the Lord Mayor, Sir Francis Truscott, and the Prince of Wales's eldest son Prince Albert Victor, known as Eddy. Eddy died of the 'flu in 1892 at the age of just 28. Lurid tales began to circulate painting him as a depraved epileptic moron, creating a rich legacy of TV documentaries on the 'secret shame of the Victorian royal family.'
The columns on the corners are elaborately carved with symbols of the arts (including busts of Homer and Chaucer), science, peace and war.
At ground level are three charming bronzes showing the Queen visiting the City.
The one on the south side shows Queen Victoria's Progress to the Guildhall in 1837, by Charles Mabey. The little lad kneeling at the door of the State Coach is the head Grecian of Christ's Hospital school, delivering a Loyal Address.
On the north side is Queen Victoria and the Prince and Princess of Wales going to St Paul's in 1872, by Charles Kelsey. They were giving thanks for the recovery of the Prince from an attack of typhus occasioned by the appalling state of the mains water supply at Sandringham.
On the east is my favourite, the one at the top of this post, showing the old Temple Bar disappearing behind curtains drawn by Time and Fortune. It is also by Mabey.

Sunday 20 December 2015

Lamb Memorial, Giltspur Street EC1

Charles Lamb, the man who was Elia, went to school at Christ's Hospital when it was still housed in the old Greyfriars monastery in Newgate Street. He is portrayed in this memorial by Sir William Reynolds-Stephens in school uniform. Sir William also designed the aedicule in his typical magpie 'bit of this, bit of that' style.
The monument was made to celebrate the centenary of the essayist's death in 1834. It was originally mounted on the wall of Wren's Christchurch, next to the old school, but was transferred here in 1962 when the church was restored as a ruin after its near destruction in the blitz.
When the memorial was proposed, The Times said that a bust was the most appropriate form as it would avoid the need to show Lamb's "slight, spare figure, his spindle legs," in the words of a contemporary essay in the Gentleman's Magazine. His head, in contrast, was 'worthy of Aristotle' according to his friend Leigh Hunt.

Friday 11 December 2015

SOE Memorial, Lambeth Palace Road SE1

The memorial to the Special Operations Executive is topped by a bust of the woman who epitomises the bravery, skill and suffering of the agents tasked to 'set Europe ablaze'. Most of them were tortured and executed.
Violette Szabo was one of the most admired by her comrades in arms, said to be fearless. She died in Ravensbruck aged just 23.
The sculpture is by Karen Newman, a no-nonsense realist who worked for over 20 years at Madame Tussaud's making waxworks of figures from Jimi Hendrix to the Duke of Edinburgh. Her Szabo is serious, determined and lovely.
Newman seems to have cornered the market in lady resistance fighters, having also portrayed Noor Inayat Khan and Nancy Wake.

Sunday 6 December 2015

Kagyu Samye Dzong London, Spa Road SE16

Bermondsey Public Library, now a centre for Buddhist study and meditation, was built in 1890 to the designs of John Johnson ("Little to recommend it" - Pevsner).
It was opened by the banker, Liberal politician, polymath and philanthropist Sir John Lubbock (later Lord Avebury). In his speech he was quoted as saying: ‘It was rather sad to think that when people spoke of a public-house they always thought of a place for the sale of drink. He was glad that all through London public houses were now rising up for the supply – not of alcohol, but of literature.’ 
Which is rather a contrast with his famous remark: "Earth and sky, woods and fields, lakes and rivers, the mountain and the sea, are excellent schoolmasters, and teach some of us more than we can ever learn from books."
But I digress.
The building is scattered with the usual vaguely aspirational sculpture you find on Victorian libraries. The entrance is marked by a mansard-roofed tower with allegorical figures. The woman on the left holds a book, so probably represents modern learning, whereas the bearded gent on the right holds a scroll and has an owl at his feet so I imagine exemplifies classical knowledge.
The coat of arms, a lion with a bishop's crozier and mitre, is of Bermondsey Abbey, hijacked by the Borough Council.
The keystones over the windows have portrait heads of suitably reverential figures including Shakespeare, Milton and Homer. The other two are so worn they look like nothing more than a pair of stockinged robbers holding up the local Coop. One of them has a necktie and coat so must be fairly modern - perhaps Keats or Byron. The other is female, judging by the necklace. Jane Austen, perhaps?

Friday 4 December 2015

Mile End Waste, Mile End Road E1

William Booth, founder of the Salvation Army, began his mission as an independent preacher in 1865 on a rough area of common land known as Mile End Wastes, where he set up a tent and preached a gospel of forgiveness for all.
Today, Booth is commemorated by two statues in locality, but it is easy to forget that at the time he was only one of many - about 500 charities were working to alleviate poverty and eradicate sin in the East End. It was Booth's dynamism and his brilliant realisation that military ideas of esprit de corps could be adapted for God's purposes that set him apart.
The bronze bust, erected in 1927 opposite the Blind Beggar where he famously preached, shows Booth in full fig as General, complete with gold braid, epaulettes and insignia of office. It is by George Edward Wade and was cast at the Morris Art Bronze Foundry.
Wade, the son of a clergyman, was a self-taught sculptor who rejected experiment and just went for a good likeness. As a gentleman and a reliable pair of hands, he built up a lucrative practice immortalising the upper classes from Queen Victoria and Earl Haig down.
The Morris Art Foundry, one of the ancestors of today's Morris Singer Bronze Foundry, was founded in Lambeth by William Morris in 1921. No, not that William Morris, though apparently our Bill made no strenuous efforts to dispel the assumption that the firm had connections to the great designer, writer and socialist.

Wednesday 2 December 2015

Millbank SW1

Enzo Plazzotta based his statue Jete on David Wall, famous as creator of the role of Crown Prince Rudolf in Mayerling, the youngest ever Siegfried in Swan Lake and as frequent partner to Margot Fonteyn. He was also the youngest ever Principal Dancer at the Royal Ballet.
The statue was created in 1975 when Wall was only 29 and is a typical subject for Plazzotta, who also created images of Fonteyn, Nadia Nerina, and Antony Dowell.
Plazzotta was born near Venice and studied in Milan until the outbreak of war, when he became a partisan leader around Lake Maggiore. When peace came, he was commissioned by the Italian Committee of Liberation to make a pair of statuettes for presentation to the British Special Forces to commemorate their successful partnership. He came to London to present them personally, liked the place and stayed.
His commitment to classicism brought him derision from the modernist art establishment in the swinging sixties, naturally, especially his fascination with freezing fast moving subjects in bronze. He had the last laugh, however, discovering a lucrative market modelling racehorses for rich owners.

Tuesday 1 December 2015

Pimlico Garden and Shrubbery, SW1

The Helmsman stands motionless at the stern of his boat, holding the tiller. He is completely nude except for an Evil Empire Style helmet.
The work, cast in bronze, was made by Andre Wallace and installed in 1998. It was paid for by Berkeley Homes, the quid pro quo for planning permission for a nearby housing development. It won an open competition judged, appropriately, by local councillors, the developers, local people and the Lord Mayor of Westminster.

Sunday 29 November 2015

Moreton Street SW1

Andre Wallace's Girl on Roller Skates whizzes along a bench in a short pedestrianised section of Moreton Street. She is a stylish and rather adorable example of planning gain - the council forced the developers of the block of flats behind her to pay for her as a condition of permission to build. In the event, this caused a short delay in her arrival because she was commissioned in 2008 just as the world financial crisis hit, delaying construction. She finally rolled into place in 2010.
The figure is a fine example of Wallace's style, smooth and rounded but recognisably derived from the Art Deco influenced 1930s. Look at that hair blowing out behind her in a perfectly airstreamed shape.

Thursday 19 November 2015

Lincoln's Inn Fields WC2

Camdonian is a work in sheet steel sprayed in bronze by Barry Flanagan. Its date, 1980, is a critical one in Flanagan's career, marking the time he took up making the bouncy bronze hares for which he is now best known.
Flanagan had previously been one of the main exponents of post-minimalism, the idea that sculptural shapes are a function of materials and can be created by any process whatever. Carl Andre's pile of bricks (sorry, Equivalent VIII) is the most notorious example. Flanagan went even further, causing materials to create their own sculpture by hanging bags of sand or throwing ropes on the ground.
So when he started casting nice, popular, rather jolly statues of hares he was denounced as an apostate by the modernist elite.
However, Camdonian represents a strand in Flanagan's creative output that runs throughout his career. The last sheet steel cutout he made was in 2006, only shortly before he died, using Cor-Ten steel, now the material of choice for any architect aiming at winning the Stirling Prize.
Fun Fact: Flanagan used to tour the Continent in a Rolls Royce towing an Airstream caravan. Now, that's style.

Saturday 14 November 2015

The Foundling Museum, Brunswick Square WC1

The face of Thomas Coram dominates the streetscape outside the Foundling Museum and the headquarters of the children's charity that bears his name, and so it should for the old sea captain changed the way Britain treated children. In the 18th century, illegitimate children were being killed at birth in alarming numbers and those that survived could expect a lifetime living under the stigma.
Coram established the Foundling Hospital (primarily a place of hospitality rather than a medical facility, though it soon became involved in treating diseases of childhood) to receive babies no questions asked. At one point a basket was hung outside the door where women could leave newborns they could not bring up.
In the 1920s it was decided to relocate the Hospital to the countryside, in Hertfordshire, and the magnficent Georgian buildings were demolished. A new headquarters for the charity was built in its place, designed in a restrained neo-Georgian style by JM Sheppard and Partners.
A bust of a young-looking Coram is set over the front door, sculpted by David Evans, who presumably also supplied the charming plaques of cherubs.
The building now contains the Foundling Museum which charts the history of the charity and displays the amazing works donated by the artists who supported it, including Hogarth, Gainsborough and Reynolds. The charity, now called simply Coram, has a new building next door, with a 1963 statue of the great man in front.The sculptor, William MacMillan, has more or less recreated the Hogarth portrait in bronze, showing him seated, wearing a greatcoat, holding the Hospital's charter in his right hand and a pair of gloves in his left, as if he was just off on another of his relentless fund-raising expeditions.

Saturday 7 November 2015

Bow Quarter, Fairfield Road E3

Noah's Ark was the symbol of Bryant and May's safety matches, for a hundred years the best-selling match in Britain. Their factory in Bow started production in the 1850s and was soon producing more than two million matches a year.
The aim of the Quaker founders and the Swedish engineers who advised on production was to build a model factory with good working conditions and proper precautions to mitigate the effects of phosphorus on the workers (the infamous 'phossy jaw'). Eventually, however, simply being better than the alternative (making matches at home on piece work rates with no safety precautions at all) was no longer acceptable and in 1888 Annie Besant organised the famous match girls' strike, the success of which led to better conditions for all workers.
The factory closed in 1979 and was converted into a gated community.
Noah's Ark is above the gate of a charming redbrick cottage built as an office for the company directors.
A bay window overlooks the entrance gates so the management could keep an eye on latecomers. Below the windows are terracotta high reliefs of a tiger burning bright and a torch remaining alight despite being inverted. The slogan is Ex Luce Lucellum - A Profit from Light. The reference is to a a couple of lines from a poem in Latin that I have been unable to source: "Lucifer aggrediens ex luce haurire lucellum/ Incidit in tenebras; lex nova fumus erat.” (Lucifer approaches to draw a glint of light/ Falls into darkness; The new law was smoke).
The tag was originally applied to the 18th century window tax and was revived in a parliamentary debate about a proposed tax on the old Lucifer matches that Bryant and May hoped to make obsolete.
On the other side of the gate, the clock is flanked by coats of arms in stone, one displaying a lighthouse and a ship, another Bryant and May trade mark. It is repeated in the spandrel of the window above.

Thursday 5 November 2015

St Barnabas Bethnal Green, Roman Road E3

The 1865 church of St Barnabas was almost destroyed by bombing in WW2 and reconstructed within the north and south walls by Anthony Lewis. These symbols of the four Evangelists were carved about 1957 by Don Potter, a pupil of Eric Gill who taught sculpture and pottery at Bryanston School.
Potter was given his original break through the unusual mechanism of the Scouts. He became a Wolf Cub in 1910 and as a teenager began to carve, producing Scout stuff like totem poles. In the 1920s he came to the notice of Baden-Powell himself, who recognised his talent and offered him many commissions. He even camped in the grounds of B-P's country house in Hampshire, scrounging fallen 1,000 year old oaks as raw material.
Potter's Evangelists are more spirited than the average depiction. If you have forgotten your iconography, they are (clockwise from top left) the winged lion of Mark, the winged ox of Luke, the winged man of Matthew and the eagle (also winged, naturally) of John.

Tuesday 3 November 2015

Bow House (former Poplar Town Hall), Bow Road E3

It is easy to overlook the mosaic under the canopy of the old Poplar Town Hall. It was designed in 1937 by David Evans, who also provided the carved workmen on the frieze round the curved corner of the building (architect: Clifford Culpin).
The front of the canopy features symbols of Art, Science, Music and Literature on the front, round the arms of the Borough of Poplar (now, of course, one of the Tower Hamlets).
Under the canopy is a panorama of the Thames and its trades, with cranes, barges and a single-stack liner. Imports are clearly important in the docks, but apart from the generic 'Empire Produce' the only named commodities are sugar and wine, perhaps because they were particularly prized by the notoriously light-fingered dockers. I love the Thames barge and the full-rigged clipper ship on the right.
The figures represent a carpenter, a welder, the architect, a stonemason and a labourer, done in the Socialist Realist style that Evans specialised in.
Poplar Council had become famous in the 1920s when it withheld payments to the London County Council for such things as the police, in favour of social benefits. The councillors were all jailed, but the outcry spurred reforms.
According to the English Heritage listing document:
This dramatic incident had an impact on the design of the Town Hall commissioned by the Council over a decade later. The building was funded by a loan from the Ministry of Health and the LCC, on the basis that consolidating all council services in a single building would improve efficiency, and it was considered insupportable that money should be lavished on a grand expression of municipal pride, as was common in town hall architecture of the era. Culpin recounted the details of the commission at the laying of the foundation stone in 1937: 'there was to be no extraneous ornament on the building, that by its mass and proportions and by its flowing lines it should stand or fall, and I am bold enough to say that this is the first town hall in this country to be erected in the modern style'. The proposed design was criticised for its austerity, however. Alderman Key, at the opening ceremony a year later, answered the detractors: '[if] the building were in reality a super factory transferred from Slough or the Great West Road ... what of it? In so far as a factory was a place where worthily by the work of man's head and hands the desires of his heart could be made living and fruitful that was what they wanted ... this should have been a veritable palace of the people had not Poplar been so poor, but here it is, a worthy workshop for the worker's welfare.'

Friday 30 October 2015

Richmond Theatre, The Green TW9

The classical lady with the wardrobe malfunction on the front of Frank Matcham's theatre is Euterpe, 'Giver of Delight', the muse either of music or lyric poetry depending on your preferred myth. She carries an aulos or double flute, the instrument she invented (or not, again depending on your source).
The figure was modelled by John Broad and supplied by Doulton in Lambeth, who supplied another copy for Matcham's Hackney Empire.
Broad modelled Euterpe again for the Apollo pub in Tottenham Court Road, the statue ending up in St George's Gardens.
The rest of the terracotta work on the facade was supplied by the Hathern Station Brick and Terra Cotta Company, including this mischievously satirical face.

Thursday 29 October 2015

Terrace Gardens, Richmond SW13

Terrace Gardens contain two distinguished works of art. At the bottom of the hill close to the river stands a statue of Old Father Thames, a 1775 copy in Coade stone of an original by John Bacon the Elder. The god reclines on a block of stone, a floral wreath on his head, pouring the river waters out of a jar. It is a fairly standard classical production of the sort Bacon excelled in - there are other copies at Ham House and Somerset House.
At the top of the hill is a pond that used to surround a cast iron fountain that was taken away for salvage in WW2 (although rumours persist that, being difficult to recycle, it was in fact dumped in the river). To fill the space, in 1952 the sculptor Allan Howes presented the borough with a statue of Aphrodite that had been exhibited at the Royal Academy. Although Howes lived in Hammersmith, his wife was born in Richmond.
The Goddess of Love, uncompromisingly nude, sits on the head of a dolphin carrying a conch. Her robustly-proportioned body is built up of simple, almost geometrical shapes.
This being the 1950s, it caused a storm.The Richmond and Twickenham Times ran no fewer than 84 letters describing her as an insult to the female form and calling for schoolchildren to be banned from looking at her. One letter sneeringly described her as 'Bulbous Betty', a nickname that, of course, stuck.
Another correspondent wrote: "The sculpture is as disturbing to gentlemen as Father Thames is to maidens," though what evidence he had for that assertion is unknown.
The council voted for her removal, but eventually the will of the tolerant but non-local-paper-letter-writing majority prevailed and she remains to delight us still.
But even the official plaque in front of her describes her as Bulbous Betty, poor girl.

Saturday 24 October 2015

Former Cooperative Store, 161 Bow Road E3

The skep, a beehive made of straw, was a powerful symbol of harmony in the workplace for early utopians such as Robert Owen and the founders of the Co-operative movement.
Technically, the design was already obsolete in 1919 when this shop was built by the surveyor to the Stratford Co-operative Society, HE Tufton. Its lack of an internal structure for the honeycomb made it difficult to extract the honey, and the process often killed all the bees. But it looks pretty. The fence behind and the flowers growing up beneath add a rustic touch.

Friday 23 October 2015

Idea Store, Gladstone Place E3

The trendily-branded Idea Store was built as the Passmore Edwards Public Library in 1901, to a charming Queen Anne style design of Samuel Russell.
When the library was done over in 2007, the original front door was replaced by a new one further along leaving it looking somewhat redundant, but it is worth seeking out because it is surmounted by a flamboyant carving of a man and a woman in fanciful old-timey costumes holding up a shield with the Passmore Edwards name. 
The work is attributed to Henry Fehr, and indeed the flowing lines and almost Art Nouveau look are characteristic of him. As he was also Russell's favourite artist, the attribution seems pretty secure.

Wednesday 21 October 2015

Whitechapel Art Gallery, Whitechapel High Street E1

The front of the Whitechapel Art Gallery was a flat, unadorned wall for more than a century after it was completed in 1901.
As designed by Charles Harrison Townsend, it was going to frame an allegorical mosaic by Walter Crane but the philanthropists backing the project fell out and it was never executed. The only decoration was the interlocking foliage by Walter Aumonier.
In 2012, a new artwork called Tree of Life was commissioned from Rachel Whiteread as part of the Cultural Olympiad. She covered it with gold leaves, four central blocks providing a pivot for the design.
In 2007 the gallery expanded into the former Passmore Edwards Library (1892) next door, having reconstructed it internally and restored the facade, including the rather charming terracotta work includind a putto over the main window and friezes with cherubs, by E. Caldwell Spruce of Burmantofts Art Pottery in Leeds.
As a final touch, a weathervane by the Canadian artist Rodney Graham was popped on the tower. . Called Allegory of Folly, it depicts Erasmus reading his master work, In Praise of Folly, while riding backwards on a horse. There is a story that the great humanist wrote his famous attack on superstition while riding from Italy to London, but there is an alternative account that says he wrote it in a week at Sir Thomas More's house.
The figure is in fact Graham himself, dressed in Renaissance schmutter and clutching the Vancouver telephone directory. It is an idea he has played with before, in a windvane of himself riding a bicycle backwards.

Monday 19 October 2015

Trinity Hospital, Mile End Road E1

The lovely Trinity Hospital was built by the lights-and-buoys authority Trinity House in 1695, not for medical purposes but as almshouses for '28 decayed Masters and Commanders of Ships, or ye widows of such.'
The street facades are ornamented with highly detailed models of 42-gun warships of the 4th Rate. The ones you see today are fibreglass copies made when the almshouses were restored by the Greater London Council in the 1950s - the originals are now in the London Museum.
Carved in marble by Robert Jones, the ships are typical of the Stuart period with flamboyant decoration and big windows in the captain's cabin. The museum says: "The models are thought to be unique and of particular historical interest because they portray English warships of the late 17th century with great accuracy. Microscopic examination has shown that the ships have been painted black twice in the past (on one occasion to mark the death of Lord Nelson)."
Ships of the 4th Rate were not inferior in some way - the great Samuel Pepys as Secretary of the Navy had introduced the classification system both to determine if a ship was powerful enough to take part in pitched battles and also to determine the rate of pay of the crew. A ship of the 4th rate was, in Pepys's system, a ship-of-the-line mounting between 38 and 62 guns.
The models are larger than they look from the ground - more than 1.1m high and 1.2m long.
(Thanks to Hazel Forsyth at the London Museum)

Tuesday 8 September 2015

Albion Yard, Whitechapel Road E1

The Albion Brewery started as a simple brewhouse for the Blind Beggar pub next door. The ornate frontage was added in about 1902 by architects William Bradford and Sons, who included this dynamic and flowing panel depicting St George and the dragon.
The saint is shown riding bareback in the nude, an unusual state for a Roman soldier. The motto, Decus et Tutamen, started life as an inscription round coins to prevent clipping, the practice of removing just a bit of the precious metal in the hope that the person you passed it to wouldn't notice. It means 'an ornament and a safeguard' and it appears on many new pound coins even though they have no precious metal to make clipping worth the effort.
Sadly, even Pevsner was unable to discover who carved this little gem.