Wednesday, 29 July 2015

Moorfields Eye Hospital, City Road EC1


This small sculpture stands over the entrance to the 1833 extension to the famous Moorfields Eye Hospital.
It represents the story of the blind man Bartimaeus, who was begging by the side of the road from Jericho as Jesus passed by.
On hearing who was near, Bartimaeus began to make a fuss, calling for Jesus to have mercy. One of the perceptive little details that so often crop up in the Gospels is that the bystanders tried to get him to stop being such a nuisance, "but he cried the more a great deal, Thou son of David, have mercy on me."
In the sculpture, Jesus stands over Bartimaeus with his fingers touching his eyes. In the Gospel story, he asks "What wilt thou that I should do unto thee?", to which the blind man said "Domine, ut videam (Lord, that I might receive my sight)."
Christ then memorably says "Go thy way; thy faith hath made thee whole."
The sculptor, the deeply religious Eric Gill, gets the scene slightly wrong, I feel. It looks as though Jesus is applying a healing touch to the blind man, when actually he cured himself.

Thursday, 2 July 2015

Green Park SW1

I suspect that most of the tourists heading towards Buckingham Palace from Green Park station assume that the Diana fountain is a memorial to the notorious princess of the same name, but in fact she was created in 1954 by Estcourt "Jim" Clack.
Known as Diana of the Treetops, the goddess of the hunt and the forest is depicted spurring her greyhound off to a mark, the dog's leash swinging round in her hand. It is a figure full of energy, spinning as the dog springs away.
The statue was originally placed in the middle of the park where no-one ever passed, so in 2011 she was moved to her current location as part of the rebuilding of the tube station. At the same time she was restored and the flowers she stands on gilded to exotic effect.
The granite fountains beneath include a ground level drinking fountain for dogs, a considerate touch.
Jim Clack's only other work in London is the Dickens memorial plaque in Marylebone Road.

Tuesday, 30 June 2015

Riverside Walk Gardens, Millbank SW1

Locking Pieces is unmistakably by Henry Moore. Created in 1963, this version was presented by the sculptor to the Tate in 1978, who lent it to Westminster City Council to enliven a rather dreary triangle of riverside embankment created by the way the street has to veer inland to allow room for the roundabout at the end of Vauxhall Bridge.
Here's what Moore himself said to Alan Wilkinson in 1980:
"At one time I was playing with a couple of pebbles that I’d picked up, because behind my far field is a gravel pit and there are thousands of shapes and forms and one only has to go out there and I can find twenty new little ideas if I wish, immediately. Anyhow, I was playing with two pebbles which I found like that and somehow or other they got locked together and I couldn’t get them undone and I wondered how they got into position and it was like a clenched fist being tightly … Anyhow, eventually I did get it to [separate]; by turning and lifting, one piece came off the other. This gave one the idea of making two forms which would do that and later I called it ‘Locking Piece’ because they lock together."
I like the simple, unpretentious language, that of a child almost. So much more direct than the art-speak used by many graduates of university art departments.

Sunday, 28 June 2015

Park Lane W1

Dunamis was created in 2013 by the Lebanese-born, London-based sculptor Bushra Fakhoury.
According to the artist “It symbolizes human struggle to achieve excellence, pushing boundaries to make the impossible possible. We need to prioritise, work positively, and relentlessly towards reaching our goals, and dreams. Holding the elephant in a high position gives homage to the traits that we share and gradually forget, such as family ties, solidarity, compassion and cooperation. The ‘pointy hat’ represents the knowledge and power through the ages. We may not have the extraordinary memory of the elephant, but we need to remember to support the survival of the endangered species."
Dunamis in ancient Greek philosophy is the contrast between potentiality and actuality, as developed by Aristotle. Things have potentiality that is realised by change, thus achieving actuality. Or something like that. It is all a bit airy-fairy but was important in medieval theology, only being more or less abandoned when Newton's laws of motion put the whole thing in mathematical terms. Dunamis now survives in the word 'dynamic'.

Thursday, 18 June 2015

Tate Britain, Millbank SW1

The Rescue of Andromeda was the 'look at me - I've arrived' work of Henry Fehr, modelled in plaster in 1893 when he was an assistant to Thomas Brock and exhibited at the Royal Academy.
Lord Leighton, who had produced an acclaimed painting of the subject (left), encouraged Fehr to cast the work in bronze. That version was purchased for the nation under the Chantrey Bequest.
Andromeda was chained to the rock for the delectation of Cetus, a ravening sea monster sent by Poseidon to punish her mother Cassiopeia, who had unwisely claimed her daughter was more beautiful than Poseidon's attendents, the Nereids.
Happily, who should pass by but Perseus, wearing the borrowed helmet and sandals of Mercury and holding the head of Medusa. Mercury's helmet confers invisibility and Medusa's head turns anyone who looks at it into stone, but Perseus scorns these advantages and simply stabs the monster to death. They got married and lived happily ever after.
Fehr's take on the myth is unusual. Conventionally, she is shown standing with her wrists chained behind her so both the monster and us art lovers get a good view of what's on offer.
Fehr's Andromeda is lying on the rock with the monster on top - it's as close to rape as could be depicted in art in the late Victorian period. But because it is a classical subject it seems to have raised no eyebrows at all.
Another unusual aspect is the beauty of the head of Medusa - no serpent-haired harridan she.
The statue was originally placed inside the gallery but was moved to its position to the right of the main entrance in 1911, apparently to balance the similarly-sized Dirce to the left.
Fehr was outraged. He wrote to the Tate's director Charles Aitken: "It was never designed to be placed among and swamped by heavy masonry it is quite an injury to my work. Many times I have been complimented by judges of Art – and among them personally by Lord Leighton, Alfred Gilbert and Sir John Millais and others; at present many have said it is a shame to have placed a statue of this description in its present position."
He obviously didn't rate Sir Charles Lawes-Wittewronge's Dirce either, calling it in a later letter "a group of a heavy description which mine is distinctly not."


Wednesday, 17 June 2015

Tate Britain, Millbank SW1

Dirce's niece Antiope was one of the many Ancient Greek women impregnated by Zeus. She gave birth to twins, Amphion and Zethus, who were abandoned in a cave to be brought up by a shepherd when Antiope was brought back to the family by force. Dirce treated the fallen girl abominably, eventually forcing her to flee to the very cave where her sons were by then grown up men. Dirce followed her, whereupon the young men tied her to the horns of a very furious bull and she was killed.
This charming classical tale is caught in this active sculpture of 1906 by Sir Charles Lawes-Wittewronge Bt. It was his master-work, exhibited at the Royal Academy and followed up by an enormous marble version for the Franco-British Exhibition of 1908. The bronze was donated by his widow in 1911 and is placed outside the Tate because it is too big to go in any of the rooms, apparently. The marble version is in the grounds of the former family estate in Hertfordshire.
It is not in a very satisfactory position, really. The composition is clearly made to be seen from all angles, with the young murderers and the unfortunate aunt at each corner of a triangle with the bull in the middle, so its location abutting the side wall of the gallery's portico does not do it justice.
Lawes-Wittewronge was an aristocrat and athlete who changed his name from simply Lawes when he inherited the baronetcy, to honour an ancestor. He was made bankrupt after unwisely suggesting in print that rival sculptor Richard Belt was devoid of talent and that all the artistic merit of his works was provided by foreign assistants smuggled in and out of his studio by night.

Friday, 12 June 2015

Park Lane W1

The great poet sits silent upon a peak, pensive, with his beloved Newfoundland dog Boatswain staring lovingly up from his side, in this monumental statue of 1880 by Richard Charles Belt.
The plinth, a monstrous 57 ton block of red and white marble, was donated by the Greek government in recognition of Byron's service in the cause of independence.
Belt was an assistant in the studio of the sculptor John Foley, later moving to one of Foley's pupils, Charles Lawes and going solo in 1875. He won a competition for the Byron Monument in 1879.
After the unveiling, however, Lawes alleged in the pages of Vanity Fair that Belt used foreign assistants to create all his work including the Byron statue. Belt sued for libel and won, bankrupting Lawes in the process (but don't be too distressed: Lawes later copped a huge inheritance).
Today, sadly, the statue is almost inaccessible in the centre of one of the busiest roundabouts in London. The poet is barely able to hear his own thoughts above the traffic noise.