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.