Monday, 27 December 2010

Cumberland Hotel, Oxford Street W1

The massive Cumberland Hotel behind Marble Arch was built for J. Lyons in 1930 at the height of the Art Deco mania for everything Egyptian sparked off by the discovery of King Tut's tomb. Lyons's in-house architect, F.J. Wills, decorated the facade with giant Egyptian figures and created a very odd new order of columns with bulls' heads on the capitals.
A rather nice little detail is that the Egyptians have different expressions on their faces, one having a rather twinkly smile. You need binos or, in my case, a long lens to see that from street level, of course.

Saturday, 18 December 2010

34-36 High Holborn WC1

 The Artist as Hephaestus (1987) could be by no-one but Eduardo Paolozzi, a perfect example of his brutalist style, looking as though the work had been sawn into sections and then carelessly reassembled with all the bits slightly out of alignment.
Hephaestus was the Greek equivalent of Vulcan. He was a sort of divine Q, supplying all the Gods with their gadgets. He made Hermes's winged helmet and sandals, Aegis's breastplate, Eros's bow and arrows and Helios's chariot.
Paolozzi portrays himself holding a number of strange-looking objects. Are they mystical machines such as Hephaestus might have knocked up for his divine clients? They look a bit like impedimenta from a foundry, perhaps items associated with the lost wax process Paolozzi used so extensively.
Paolozzi suggests the Hephaestus's lameness by making one leg slightly shorter than the other and  moulding his left foot as though it is fused to the block under it.

Friday, 10 December 2010

27 Southampton Street WC2

27 Southampton Street dates from 1707  but its main interest is, unusually, the plaque over the front door put up in 1900 to commemorate the residency of the actor, impressario and Shakespeare idoliser David Garrick.for nearly 30 years.
The plaque is unusual on several counts. Firstly, its quality and cost (it is cast bronze). Secondly, unlike most plaques it is the work of a top-flight sculptor, Henry Fehr. And thirdly, it was paid for by the freeholder, the Duke of Bedford, who was not known for his generosity. He even got his personal architect, Charles Fitzroy Doll, to sketch out the design.
A bust of Garrick circled with a laurel wreath stands on a plinth with the inscription. On either side stand two Muses, helpfully labeled. Less helpfully for today's Londoners, the labels are in Greek, but one of the advantages of a scientific education is a working knowledge of the Greek alphabet so I was able after only a bit of head-scratching to identify them as Melpomene (left) and Thalia (right).
Melpomene, the Muse of Tragedy, holds her dagger in her right hand. She traditionally also carries a club but Fehr clearly thought that would be rather unladylike so she holds a slim, elegant mace with a crown hanging round it instead.
Thalia holds the mask of comedy and a shepherdess's crook. Both are sad and pensive

Thursday, 2 December 2010

Former Catesby's Store, 64-67 Tottenham Court Road W1

The top end of Tottenham Court Road was the place where the super-rich of Edwardian London furnished their houses, trooping round Heals, Maples and Catesby's, the latter being where they bought carpets for upstairs and linoleum for downstairs. The area was so expensive that the plutocratic Baron de Rothschild could quite seriously justify his passion for buying antique French furniture by saying "it's cheaper than going to Maples."
In 1904 Edward Catesby rebuilt his store in a flamboyant Free Renaissance with Arts and Crafts touches. The architect was Henry A. Whitburn, whose initials appear like very polite grafitti behind the dragon in the tippy-top gable at the centre of his facade.
Catesby's initial appears much more ornately carved and prominently positioned, but as he was paying for it I suppose that was fair dos.
My absolute favourite sculptures are the storks under the bow windows on the fourth floor. They have the ungainliness of Martin pottery birds, with those faintly ridiculous beaks and spindly legs.

Saturday, 20 November 2010

Minerva House, North Crescent WC1

The Minerva Motor Company was a Belgian luxury marque that once had a reputation as high as Rolls Royce or Mercedes.
This ad appeared in 1905 ad in the Ashburton Guardian - note the car's top speed of 'up to 25 miles per hour and the added inducement 'Purchasers taught to drive free of charge'. I bet you got what you paid for.
The price of £176 equates roughly to £15,000 now, which seems cheap for a top quality car but you didn't get many of the features we take for granted today. Such as a roof, for example.
The Minerva Motor Company built a swanky headquarters and repair shop just off the Tottenham Court Road in 1912 which was rather bad timing. Minerva survived the First World War by building armoured cars, as Rolls Royce did.
Their London HQ was designed by George Vernon and decorated with a statue of Minerva. Regretably, there does not seem to be any record of the sculptor. Even more regretably, the architect placed Minerva in front of a window which now looks extremely tawdry. As a final indignity, the landscaped park she used to look out on was destroyed in 1941 when the lifts were installed for government bomb shelters. The unsightly structures are still there.

Sunday, 14 November 2010

Covent Garden Market WC2

The charming allegorical group stands on the east end of the Charles Fowler's Market House of 1828. Two women support Cupid, who stands on a plinth. One holds a laurel wreath over his head as the other adjusts a swag of flowers and fruit around a cornucopia. The material is the famous artificial stone made by Mrs Coade at her factory in Lambeth. The modeller was R.W. Sievers, about whom I have been able to discover nothing.

Tuesday, 2 November 2010

Old Middlesex Sessions House, Clerkenwell Green EC1

Middlesex built its court house in a rather dreary, industrial area on the northern edge of Georgian London, so it must have stood out considerably when it was newly built amid the workshops and factories of Clerkenwell in 1779. The architect was Thomas Rogers, the county surveyor.
The good burghers clearly decided to push the boat out and got Joseph Nollekens to carve the panels on the facade. He was probably the most famous sculptor in England at that time - when he had become a member of the Royal Academy just seven years before, his diploma had been signed personally by King George III. A bust of the King appears over the central window.
To the monarch's right is Justice, seated and correctly wearing no blindfold. She holds a drawn sword in her left hand and scales with her right.
On the left sits Mercy, her sword sheathed and holding a sceptre with a dove of peace perching on the crown.

Nollekens was the London-born son of a Dutch painter, and was said to have been abundantly naturally talented but rather dim. He made an enormous sum of money when he went to Rome on a study tour and found a lucrative market sculpting souvenir busts of visiting English notables, including David Garrick and Laurence Sterne. He also bought fragments of Roman sculpture and added all the missing limbs to sell to credulous collectors as perfect specimens.
The court house pediment is filled with the arms of Middlesex, probably not by Nollekens. The three weapons are usually described by tour guides as scimitars but they are actually seaxes, the notched sword of the Anglo-Saxon warrior.
They also appear on the arms of Essex. The shield is surrounded by a luxuriant growth of oak, the tree of Middlesex, and laurel.

Sunday, 24 October 2010

219 Oxford Street W1

The Festival of Britain spawned a mass of art, music and literature, but nothing as curious as these three plaques on an anonymous shop/office block in Oxford Street.
The architects, Ronald Ward and Partners, clearly felt the need to acknowledge the Festival even though they were not involved and Oxford Street is miles away from the site. Perhaps they wanted to associate the building with the sense of a new beginning that the Festival projected - 219 Oxford Street was apparently the first new commercial building to go up in London after war's end. Ironically, by the time it was complete most of the Festival buildings had already been cleared by the incoming Churchill government, which regarded them as too socialist.
According to City of Westminster archives the sculptor is unknown.
The plaques show (above) the Dome of Discovery and the Skylon, with a clutter of navigational paraphenalia; (middle) the Festival plaque by Abram Games with the date; and (below) the Festival Hall, the old shot tower with the curious 'radio beacon' that was put on top for the duration and a clutter of musical impedimenta.
I remember my father pointing out the shot tower as we walked over Hungerford Bridge on our way to a Robert Mayer Childrens' Concert about 1960, raging at the announcement it was to be demolished. It came down in 1961 to make way for the Queen Elizabeth Hall.

Saturday, 16 October 2010

London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, Keppel Street WC1

I am all for appropriate decoration on the facades of our great institutions, such as the figure of Justice on the Old Bailey or the statue of Cromwell outside the Houses of Parliament. But the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine might have crossed a line with the gilded bronze sculptures on its balconies.

Fruit fl
Sensitive people might get the heebijeebies.
Most of the creepy-crawlies are unpleasant but not generally lethal, like the flea or the bedbug.
Fruit flies are almost completely harmless and are even contributing mightily to medical knowledge because of their position as study species of choice for scientists.
Even the cobra does not kill many because it is too large to survive in competition with housing estates and roads.
The rat is more of a hygiene problem than a mass-murderer. Bubonic plague, spread by a parasite on the brown rat, has not been significant for years.
There are two real killers here, however.
The Anopheles mosquito spreads malaria and the Culex mosquito distributes Nile fever and a number of other nasty diseases round the tropics.
Biodiversity notwithstanding, I for one wouldn't weep if they went extinct tomorrow. 
Culex mosquito

Anopheles mosquito

I am indebted to Emma Golding, assistant archivist at the LSHTM, for identifying the creatures.

Friday, 15 October 2010

London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, Keppel Street WC1

The London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine was built in 1926 by P. Morley Horder and Verner O. Rees, with a huge budget from the Rockefeller Foundation. It was designed in a stripped-down classical style - where the entablature would be has a band carved by Alan Howes with the names of famous medical men.
Over the front door is a stone version of the School's seal, designed by Allan Wyon. It shows Apollo and his sister Artemis riding in the sun-god's chariot.
Both deities were associated with medicine. Apollo was god of prophecy, music and medicine and Artemis combined roles as goddess of hunting and chastity with that of comforter of women in childbirth.
The palm behind recalls their birth on the island of Delos, when a palm tree sprang up miraculously to give shade to their mother Leto in her labour.
The seal also includes the caduceus or snake-entwined rod of Asclepius, god of medicine and Apollo's son, but the sculptor has replaced it with four snakes writhing dramatically on either side.
Was this the work of Howes or Wyon himself? The sunburst behind the seal would be typical of Wyon - take a look at his East Wind on the London Underground building.
One odd thing - Artemis is holding the reins as Apollo aims his bow. A woman driving a man? Never happens in real life.

Friday, 8 October 2010

Old Patent Office, Southampton Buildings WC2

I used to spend a good deal of my time in the Patent Office in another life a long time ago. Today the Patent Office is in Newport, Gwent, and the Victorian building has been converted into serviced office suites. 
The facade looking out onto the lovely little garden of Staple Inn was cheaply rebuilt after war damage and again in 2003, but this time they saw fit to reproduce the Victorian design in detail, something I thought was illegal under the Architecture That Makes A Statement For Our Time Regulations. It is particularly strange as it is right opposite Holborn Gate, an outstandingly boring Statement for 1965, which replaced the amazing Doulton phantasmogoria of Birkbeck Bank (right) in a scandalous demonstration of what can happen when greedy developers enlist modernist architects to defeat supine planning authorities.
The Patent Office developer, bless him, didn't just slavishly reproduce the old design but went a step further and created a memorial to the great Victorian inventor, author and founder of the Patent Office Library, Bennet Woodcroft. His head appears below the bow window at the centre where his name is carved in big letters. Woodcroft was fascinated by the history of invention, and when the South Kensington museums were founded he persuaded them to let him buy interesting industrial artifacts for display. It is solely due to him that such world-changing machines as James Watt's beam engine, the world's oldest steam locomotive Puffing Billy and Stevenson's Rocket are preserved. 

Saturday, 2 October 2010

Bush House, Aldwych WC2

Bush House looks quintessentially Imperial, a grandiloquent Edwardian Beaux Arts design. This impression is reinforced by its position between Australia House and India House. But it was an entirely American concept and design and wasn't constructed until 1923, when International Modernism stalked the land.
Designed by Helmle and Corbett of New York (Corbett had studied at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris), it was built by Irving T. Bush as a centre for merchants trading with America.
Once you know, its 100% USofA origins are obvious. Buildings like it are all over Washington DC - think Lincoln Memorial.
The figures standing on the entrance screen with the inscription 'Dedicated to the Friendship of English-speaking Peoples' were sculpted by Malvina Hoffman, a New Yorker who had moved to Paris to study with Rodin. Unfortunately Rodin was unaware of this, and she had to spend some time badgering him into it. On completion of her studies, he advised her to return to Manhattan and spend a year dissecting bodies at the School of Physicians and Surgeons, which gave her an unrivalled knowledge compared with most artists of what goes on under the skin. She also got involved with bronze founding and other skills that artists often leave to the craftsmen. Apparently, the sight of this little woman scuttling about with whacking great hammers and chisels six storeys above Aldwych attracted quite a lot of comment.
Her figures of Britain and American holding the Torch of Friendship over a Celtic-style altar thing are dramatic and evocative.
In one of the ironies that make wars so entertaining in retrospect, the Clasp of Friendship was blown apart by the blast from a German V1 in 1944, leaving the American waving a stump at the Brit for over 30 years. It was finally reinstated for the Silver Jubilee celebrations of Elizabeth II in 1977 by an American who worked for the Indiana Limestone Company and persuaded his employers to send a arm and a stonemason to attach it.

Monday, 27 September 2010

111 Strand WC2

This plain but quite elegant building was designed by Michael Squire & Partners in 2001, and constructed with load-bearing panels. The sculpture is by artists Langlands & Bell, who specialise in this sort of thing.
I like it. It is a map of the surrounding streets - the building itself is at the intersection of the second and third panels up. 
I've tried to match the pattern with a map and aerial photography from Google, but of course it is distorted by the camera angle from the street. Interestingly, the aerial photo fits the pattern much better than the map - perhaps the camera angle from the plane was similar.
The artists themselves describe the work as "a vector of cityscape. An axial section of the locality rising perpendicular to the ground in the form of a block and street plan in low relief. The city is upended and “re-presented” as a view from above on 5 storey's [sic] of the buildings [sic] facade."
More evidence that artists should let their work speak for itself - it is usually so much more articulate. 

Tuesday, 21 September 2010

Kingsgate House, 114-115 High Holborn WC1

You really have to crane your neck to see this extraordinary pair of statues perched right on the top of the Queen Anne style Kingsgate House. When they were placed there in about 1903 they represented the first and latest Edwards to sit on the throne of England, Edwards I and VII.
The building is in fact part of the Baptist Union complex in Southampton Row behind, designed by Arthur Keen. The statue of Bunyan on that building is by Richard Garbe, who indeed carved the two kings.
The choice of subject was no doubt prompted by the fact that Edward VII had just come to the throne. Comparing the new monarch to Edward I, a great warrior, Crusader, legal reformer and establisher of parliament, probably went down well.
The images will be totally familiar to anyone who went through an English education before about 1968. Edward I is dressed in chain mail, wears a sword and holds what appears to be a hammer, a reference to his nickname, Hammer of the Scots. Edward VII with his familiar beard holds the orb and sceptre. No sword, though he was a noted swordsman in his own inimitable way.