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.