Saturday, May 5th 2012
As we are planning an out-of-town trip tomorrow, today was going to be an in-town day. We started with breakfast at Bill’s in White Lion Street and then went off to cruise the aisles in Sainsbury’s to gather provisions for the week ahead. Having put away the groceries and rested from our labours (and drunk tea while checking up on the online world), we set out again, heading for an interesting part of North London known as the Barbican.
The Barbican takes its name from features of the City Wall that passed through this area. The wall was originally built by the Romans and subsequently maintained and modified in the Medieval period. The wall tower in the above photo is pictured from one of the walkways in the Barbican.
It is impossible to describe the Barbican in a few words. The term “Barbican Complex” is used to describe the whole, which is in turn divided into the Barbican Estate, the Barbican Centre and the Museum of London. The whole area was devastated in a German air attack in 1940, flattening all the buildings. It was eventually decided to rebuild, starting from scratch and incorporating substantial residential accommodation. After substantial planning had been completed (though plans were modified even as building went ahead) this work proceeded during the decade 1963 to 1973.
The accommodation is of two types. Firstly, there are three high-rise towers (see the second photo above). While their design is very much of the age in which they were made, why anyone would deliberately set out to create something as ugly and depressing as this is beyond me. What the flats are like inside, I do not know. I can only hope the interior makes up for the brutal exterior.
Secondly, there are terraces of apartments in serried rows, somewhat reminiscent of the structures made by hive insects, set around squares or open spaces. The London Encyclopaedia (by Weinbreb et al) describes them thus: “Strongly influenced by le Corbusier and built to a very high standard, it manages to be at the same time both forbidding and intriguing, with an appropriate hint of the fortress in its massive theatricality”. Quite.
To the uninitiated visitor, the Barbican seems a place of corridors leading you on distant perspectives and of sudden open spaces whose purpose may or may not be obvious.
In the open spaces, you may come across a shop or a cafe or maybe the odd art work.
In the corridors, you may meet blank walls or rows of small front doors.
Presumably, people live behind these doors though I have never seen anyone going in or out so that the atmosphere is like that of the film set or of a museum in which a model street has been created with nothing but blank walls behind the doors and windows. I am told that people enjoy living here and hope that is so. Maybe someone will invite me to visit and see for myself.
You can tell by comparing the this view of the church with the second photo above that we had walked around roughly three sides of the Barbican in order to reach the Barbican Centre, to which we were heading. St Giles Cripplegate is the Barbican’s parish church. It is often described as “the only surviving medieval church in the City of London”, though this is to interpret “surviving” somewhat loosely. The church may originally have been built in medieval times (1394) but since then it has suffered two fires (1545 and 1897) and was virtually destroyed in the air raid that flattened the neighbourhood in 1940. It was rebuilt according to the plans used in the restoration of 1545. The name has nothing to do with cripples but comes from an Anglo-Saxon word meaning “covered gate”. The church originally stood just outside the city wall.
Apart from the signposting, you hardly notice when you arrive at the Barbican Centre as the entrance is a rather understated affair. You could be going into council offices or the side door of a department store.
Hanging over one of the many wells between floors and just outside the Barbican Centre, is this art work. There was no plate describing it and I have as yet found no information about it. The masks suggest it is something to do with theatre and performance art.
In the vestibule is this smaller art work by Eli Ilan, entitled Gladiator. I will have to take the artist’s word for it as nothing about this tortured piece of metal suggests a gladiator to me. Then again, when did modern art ever make sense?
Inside the centre we came upon the welcome sight of the Barbican Public Library. It seemed well used too. I just hope it has not been too badly hit by expenditure cuts.
Our reason for coming to the Barbican today was to take a look at an exhibition there, Bauhaus, Art as Life. Although photography is allowed within the Barbican Centre (at least, no one has so far tried to stop us, though we did find ourselves being followed for a while by security person who seemed unnaturally interested in my camera pouch…), it was not allowed in the exhibition and so I cannot show you anything of this.
The Bauhaus is something I had often heard of without really knowing much about it or its putative importance. The exhibition was therefore interesting in an educational sense and the Bauhaus movement itself seems to have been a very brave and bold venture, despite changing course a couple of times in its short history. I liked the idea that crafts were practised as assiduously as art for its own sake, expression being given to this in the manufacture of furniture and household goods for sale which were both beautiful and practical.
Leaving the Barbican by the bridge over St John Street, we encountered this curiosity in the grounds. It is called “Mendelssohn’s Tree” and its story is told on a metal plate nearby:
Burnham Beeches was purchased by the Corporation of London on behalf of the nation in 1880. The forest was a favourite haunt of the composer Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy (1808-1847), during his visits to the area[. H]e used to sit under this tree gaining inspiration to write several works including some of the incidental music to “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”.
After the Barbican, we walked down to Smithfield and then to Snow Hill. I wish I could show you every we saw but that would require a book, not one of my blog posts. I will show you just a few of the items I noticed and the selection is quite idiosyncratic. The name Smithfield, incidentally, derives from the original name, Smoothfield, where in the Middle Ages a horse fair used to be held. It later became the site of London’s biggest meat market and a place of execution for traitors, heretics and people held in especial opprobrium by the authorities. For example, many Protestant martyrs were burnt at the stake here in the reign of Mary I.
I noticed, with some amusement, this figure in the window of a nearby Italian restaurant. It is a Classical figure in a typical Classical pose, i.e. naked. The management, perhaps feeling that their clientele might lose their appetite at the sight of an unclothed figure have draped it decorously with, of all things, the Italian flag.
We passed by the Priory Church of St Bartholomew the Great. This church, originally part of a priory, as its name suggests, possesses an important Norman interior. It escaped damage in the Great Fire of 1666 but has suffered some alteration, including some rebuilding after falling into disuse in the 18th century.
The Church was founded by Rahere, a favourite of Henry I, and so was the nearby St Bartholomew’s Hospital, now often referred to as St Barts. It was founded in 1102 and is still functioning 910 years later. Over the gate is a statue of Henry VIII who refounded the hospital in 1546, having previously closed it when he dissolved the monasteries. This façade, though, according to an inscription, dates from the first year of the reign of Queen Anne, 1702.
Inside the hospital grounds, we find another church, though not the first to be built here. This one is also named after the hospital’s patron saint but is called St Bartholomew the Less to distinguish it from St Bartholomew the Great. Originally built in the 15th century, it has endured repairs and rebuilding in the 18th and 19th centuries and again in the 20th to recover from war damage.
In West Smithfield, we came across an unusually large cattle trough. It has a drinking fountain for humans at either end and a central partition, indicating that it is two normal troughs end to end. It was made and installed by our old friends the Metropolitan Drinking Fountain & Cattle Trough Association and bears a dedication on the other side. This reads
IN MEMORY OF
FOR THE CITY OF LONDON.MAY 8.1881.
English Heritage considers the trough sufficiently interesting both aesthetically and historically to designate it a listed building.
The trough stands beside a small park or garden which was once part of the “Smoothfield” that gave the area its name. This makes a pleasant little haven in the midst of this now built-up area.
Just inside the garden is a drinking fountain for people and dogs, also by the MDF&CTA. This is more recent than the Victorian cattle trough but I do not know its date. It bears a plate giving the Association’s postal address as 426 Lewisham High Street but I do not believe the Association resides there today. Their Web site gives only an email address for contact.
The simple drinking fountain is completely upstaged by the four-basin monster in the centre of the garden, topped by a bronze figure sculpted by J.B. Philip and dated 1873. This is obviously a major installation, seeking to bring prestige to the area. It no longer functions (though many fountains and water features have been turned off in sympathy with the hosepipe ban) but is a listed (Grade II) building. The bronze was cast by founders Elkington & Co, a big firm in the Victorian period, established in Birmingham but with offices in other cities.
We turned up Snow Hill and off it runs the ancient and well trodden street called Cock Lane, about which many stories could be told. At the Snow Hill end is to be found the façade, decorated with handsome terra cotta work, of the London office of John J. Royle. Hailing from Manchester, Royle was a founder, engineer and prolific inventor of the late Victorian and early Edwardian periods. Ironically, he is best remembered today for a novelty item, namely the self-pouring teapot. This became extremely popular, a fact that is not difficult to understand when we recall that Victorian families were often large and that the family teapot would likewise be large and heavy to lift. The teapot incorporated a plunger mechanism which pumped tea out through the spout without the need to lift or even tip the pot.
John Royle’s office was in a building called the Saracen’s Head Building, named after an ancient and justly famed coaching inn which met its eventual doom under the demolition hammer in 1868. The Saracen’s Head Inn actually stood some yards further up the hill, on a site today occupied by a City of London Police station, a handsome 1926 edifice that has merited a Grade II listing. A square blue plaque at the entrance reminds us of its famous predecessor.
The area is dominated by two tall buildings, though these are of course not the only structures of interest in a neighbourhood as old and busy as this one. The first is the St Sepulchre-without-Newgate, the local church. Built in the 15th century on the site of an Anglo-Saxon church, it was gutted in the Great Fire and rebuilt in 1878. It is also called the Musicians’ Church and the ashes of Sir Henry Wood, founder of the Promenade Concerts, are buried here. Mementos of other famous musical personalities are also to be found here.
When the church was rebuilt, a watch house was added. This was set up to deter body snatchers, also known as “resurrectionists”. A shortage of bodies for dissection in the 18th and 19th centuries meant that grave robbers who specialized in disinterring freshly buried corpses did a brisk business. Those of Snow Hill found ready customers in the surgeons of the nearby St Barts Hospital. It is said that the stolen corpses were laid out on benches in a back room of the Fortune of War pub, as a sort of grisly display of merchandise, for perusal and purchase by visiting surgeons. The watch house was destroyed in a bombing raid in 1941 and rebuilt in 1962. The church itself emerged unscathed.
Beside the door of the watch house is a memorial to Charles Lamb, the writer, now mainly remembered for his essays written under the pen name, “Elia” and for Lambs’ Tales from Shakespeare, written in collaboration with his sister Mary. The plaque reads “PERHAPS THE MOST LOVED NAME IN ENGLISH LITERATURE WHO WAS A BLUE COAT BOY HERE FOR 7 YEARS”. I am not sure when the memorial was inaugurated but a second plate informs us that it was moved here in 1962 from its original location at Christchurch, Newgate Street, which stands near to the site of the Blue Coat School which Lamb attended.The Lambs also lived in Islington for a time. An account of the troubled life of Charles Lamb and his sister Mary can be found, inter alia, here.
Also attached to the church is an unusual drinking fountain. The top inscription tells us that it was the gift in 1859 of Sam Gurney M.P., son of the Quaker businessman and philanthropist of the same name. A second inscription states that the fountain was “The first Metropolitan public drinking fountain erected on Holborn Hill in 1859 and removed when the Viaduct was constructed 1867″. Sam Gurney and Edward Wakefield were the founders of the Metropolitan Drinking Fountain and Cattle Trough Association in 1859, and this is the Association’s first drinking fountain – an item of exceptional interest to the history of the Association and of London. It underlines not only the quest for clean drinking water (referred to above) but also the emerging humane concern for the welfare of animals used for transport and brought into the city for slaughter.
A third inscription says, a little abruptly, “REPLACE THE CUP”, and people seem to have taken note because two stout bronze cups, attached by chains, are still in place.
The other big building dominating the area is the Central Criminal Court, more commonly known as the Old Bailey, from the name of the street in which it resides. The original court building was erected next to Newgate Prison and developed in a series of building episodes until the end of the 19th century when it had become inadequate for its purpose and plans were drawn up for an entirely new courthouse. This was built in neo-Baroque style to a design by E.W. Mountford and opened in 1907, the old building and the adjoining Newgate Prison having been demolished.
People sometimes mistake the dome of the Old Bailey for that of St Paul’s Cathedral, especially from a distance when the statue with its outstretched arms may seem to resemble a cross. Justice is often, but not always, represented as a maiden wearing a blindfold to ensure that she dispenses justice equally to all without fear or favour. The gilded bronze representation atop the dome of the Old Bailey, sculpted by F.W. Pomeroy, is an example of one without a blindfold but with the usual accoutrements of sword and scales.
We were now turning to go home and a bus hove in sight but then I caught sight of the above Golden Boy. I had just seconds to snatch a photo but there were people standing in front of it. I waited as long as I dared and… they moved and… I got a quick photo and… ran for the bus.
So what had I photographed? First, I will tell you the story everybody tells. This concerns the Great Fire of 1666 that started in Pudding Lane and destroyed much of London. The story says that the flames eventually stopped here, on the corner of Cock Lane and Giltspur Street, making it a good spot for a monument to commemorate the Great Fire. In the meantime, some wild-eyed preacher had been ranting about the Fire being a punishment from God for the people’s sin of Gluttony – as proved by the fact that it started in Pudding Lane. What more fitting icon for a monument, then, than the figure of a portly naked infant representing Gluttony? The statue, made of wood and gilded, was affixed to the Fortune of War pub and when this was demolished, re-erected here, at what is known as Pye Corner, where the pub once stood. Under the feet of the statue are the words PUCKRIDGE FECIT (“Puckridge made [it]“), so we have the name of the sculptor and everything. Case closed.
Sorry, no, it just doesn’t add up, does it? Firstly, where did the fire stop? The fire covered a huge area around which we could describe a perimeter. Logically, where the first stopped would be the whole of that perimeter, not just a point at the junction of two streets. Next, do we really believe that the Corporation of London would accept as a memorial of so devastating and traumatic an event as the Great Fire a rather vulgar sculpture of a naked fat infant, no matter what wild-eyed preachers might be saying? And then fix it to a pub… We note in passing that though the figure is plump (as infants often are) it is not fat, let alone obese, and I doubt whether anyone would see it as an icon of Gluttony unless told that is what it was.
Next, the sculpture is not what it seems. For so great an event, you would surely expect the memorial to be freshly made for the purpose. I have not been able to examine the figure myself but I have heard that there are signs that it once possessed wings or, possibly, a cloak, and that these have been broken off. If it had wings, that would make it a common or garden cherub or putto, possibly one rescued from a demolished building or church (e.g. one destroyed in the Great Fire), not something made especially as a memorial. It is hard to see what relevance these accoutrements could have had to the Great Fire. It has also been said that the figure was originally painted in naturalistic colours and then gilded to spare Victorian sensibilities. How does the gilding of a naked figure do that? In any case, it is no longer possible to see whether it was once painted and my guess is that it was always gilded.
My theory is that someone found or rescued this cherub or putto or whatever it is, and attached it to the pub, perhaps for fun. Later, people invented spurious explanations for its meaning and its presence at that exact spot, none of which, taken together, make much sense. Perhaps someone somewhere has information on the supposed sculptor, Puckridge, and I guess, if the name isn’t as spurious as the rest of the tale, that he will turn out to be a maker of decorations for churches and public buildings, not an artist sculptor of the prestige required to be invited to make a memorial of one of London’s most frightful episodes of destruction until the Second World War.
They say you should not believe everything you read in the newspapers and I agree. Further, you should not believe everything you read in inscriptions carved on walls, no matter how authoritative they may seem to be. There is enough hard historical fact in our amazing city to keep us occupied and entertained for several lifetimes without having recourse to fairy tales and falsehoods.