Saturday, 6 September 2014

St Paul's Churchyard EC4

Becket depicts the Archbishop in the agony of death, his right hand extended as if to ward off the blows of his knightly assassins. The plinth is stepped to recall the steps into the choir of Canterbury Cathedral.
This memorable image was created in 1970 as part of the commemorations of the saint's martyrdom by Bainbridge Copnall, who was living near Canterbury at the time. It is rather unclear why it was not bought for Canterbury but ended up next to St Pauls in 1973.
The material looks like bronze but is in fact resin coloured to look like bronze, a process pioneered by Copnall himself.
Unfortunately, the weakness of the material was exposed in the hurricane of 1987 when a cherry tree fell on it and did considerable damage. Luckily, a former student of Copnall's, Patrick Crouch, was able to restore it.

Thursday, 14 August 2014

Guy's Hospital, St Thomas Street SE1

John Keats trained as a surgeon-apothecary at Guy's Hospital but was so disgusted by the bloody work of a sawbones in the era before anaesthetics that he turned to poetry instead.
This charming memorial was created by Stuart Williamson in 2007 in memory of DR Robert Knight, a doctor at Guy's and prominent Keats fan.
Keats sits holding a notebook, looking out as if in the act of creation. He sits in a niche that was installed on Old London Bridge in 1758 when the old houses were swept away, only to be removed themselves when the whole bridge was rebuilt.
Williamson specialises in portrait sculpture, including Tussaud-style wax figures for museums.
During the war, the British Council used to send academics to the troops to deliver improving lectures. A sergeant-major in Egypt, the story goes, announced to his men: "This afternoon, a professor is going to give you a lecture about Keats, though I don't suppose any of you iggerant bastards knows what a Keat is."

Saturday, 9 August 2014

Bath House Lofts, 19 Spa Road SE16

This extraordinary Greek Revival building looks as though it was built in the 1820s (think British Museum) but was in fact built in the 1920s. The architect, Henry Tansley, was also responsible for the Moderne/Art Deco Health Centre close by - clearly a man who could turn his hand to any style.
It was built as an annexe to the even grander Victorian Town Hall next door, sadly destroyed in the blitz. 
Inside, there is an amazingly opulent oval entrance hall and palatial staircase, featuring veined marbles of the highest quality. Tansley was able to achieve this on a council budget by buying the stonework from a nobleman's town house in Park Lane that had been demolished. 
There must have been a feeling that at last the working man was benefiting from the finer things in life that the upper classes were no longer able to afford. 
Now, however, the borough has been swamped by the London Borough of Southwark and the local politicians and their bureaucrats have moved out. And, with a superb irony, the building has been converted into loft apartments with price tags starting at just under a million. It's the rich, as the song says, what gets the pleasure.

Thursday, 7 August 2014

Bermondsey Health Centre, Grange Road SE1

Bermondsey Health Centre is a classic Moderne style building with Art Deco flourishes (look at those vertical streaks of glass to either side). It was built in 1936 by Henry Tansley, who also designed the Town Hall on the other side of Spa Gardens in a Greek Revival style that could not be a greater contrast.
The Family Group on the facade was carved by Allan Howes, a follower of Eric Gill. A mother holds her baby on her arm while patting the head of her little boy. A charming, rather majestic and unsentimental group.

Wednesday, 6 August 2014

Alaska Factory, Grange Road SE1

The Alaska Factory was the place where seal skins from Antarctica, Canada and Alaska were unhaired, dressed and dyed for making into waterproof coats, mittens, hats and trousers for explorers, soldiers and the fashionably dressed alike.
The gateway with its charming capstone carved with a seal was built as part of the original factory in 1869. By the 20th century, however, the seal population declined due to overhunting and the company, C.W. Martin, moved into other furs. For a time they made the bearskins for the Guards and in WWII they produced thousands of the iconic sheepskin pilot's jackets.
The factory building behind was rebuilt in 1927 by Wallis, Gilbert and Partners, masters of Art Deco. It is now converted into flats.

Friday, 1 August 2014

Spirit of Soho, Broadwick Street W1

Spirit of Soho was created by a bunch of community activists in 1991 to try and brighten up Carnaby Street, which had sunk from its 1960s hub-of-hip status to dreary alley of tourist tat. And very successfully too.
St Anne, dedicatee of the parish church, is shown as a flame-haired, bare-shouldered beauty very different from her usual portrayal in religious art which shows the mother of Mary with her head and shoulders covered in a cowl like a nun.
St Anne spreads out her skirt to reveal a map of Soho with all the main landmarks. One either side are panels depicting, from top left to bottom right, a film animator (note the film cans making a Mickey Mouse hat); a variety show at the London Palladium; the fashion trade; Carnaby Street with a stilt walker; Soho's cosmopolitan restaurants and Ronnie Scott's, with famous jazzmen.
The crowd along the bottom is of Soho worthies - there is a list on the information plaque.
When the clock strikes the hour there is a little show, so subtle it is easy to miss.

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.