Saturday, April 06th 2013
What is the connection between the art of the Newlyn and St Ives artists of the 19th and early 20th century and designer and doyen of the Arts and Crafts movement, William Morris? None that I know of, other than that these two exhibitions were at opposite ends of today’s ramble and thus came to be assembled under a common heading.
We took a bus to the Strand and got off opposite the Victorian edifice of the Royal Courts of Justice. You can visit this august institution and we keep meaning to do so but have not so far got around to it. So much to do, so little time to do it in!
We had breakfast, our first in a newish chain of cafes called Apostrophe (motto: “A fusion of expertly made coffee and authentic food in a cosmopolitan environment”), and took a look at a nearby pub called the George. The Web site’s About page is disarmingly honest about the pub’s origins, telling us that the original George (whether named after King George III or the establishment’s owner, is not known) was opened as a coffee house in 1723 and became a pub only later. With commendable honesty, it goes on to say “Although the design of the building appears to be 18th century it is in fact late Victorian, even the reproduction half-timbered façade. The work was commissioned by the then owner and entrepreneur Frederick Stanley in the late 1890s, following a popular Victorian trend of imitating the timbered style of several centuries earlier.” If only other faux ancient pubs were as honest! (And churches too…) In view of this, we can surely allow them a little touch of fantasy: “Allegedly the headless ghost of a cavalier haunts the cellar.”
We went next to see another coffee shop (then called the Grecian) turned pub. The Devereux stands in a picturesque and twisting lane called Devereux Court. Where does this, presumably Norman, name come from? Nearby Essex Street gives us a clue: the pub stands on a site once occupied by the house of Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex.
The Earl of Essex maintains a presence still for his bust decorates the façade of the pub and beneath it there is what is said to be the oldest inscription in London, reading “DEVEREUX COURT, 1676”. (An alternative view is that the engravings on Cleopatra’s Needle are the oldest.) If the Devereux, like the George, has a ghost, it might well be the Earl bemoaning his fall from grace. He became a favourite of Queen Elizabeth I but managed to annoy her on a number of occasions and was finally executed in the Tower of London as a traitor in 1601 – a lesson to all those tempted to flirt with power. The Devereux, listed Grade II, was built around 1676 and converted into a pub in 1843.
On the corner of Devereux Court with Essex Road stands a Victorian building dated 1892. It is decorated with elaborate figured tiling. The panels beside the doors each feature a face with a gaping mouth. Why? If I were to hazard a guess I would suggest that these mouths once allowed passage to pipes bringing gas to lamps that were once here but are no longer to be seen. Most of the buildings around here bear names that include the word “Chambers”. In other words, they provide office space for court lawyers and barristers, handy for the nearby Royal Courts of Justice.
Walk along Essex Street, pass through the archway at the end and descend the steps, and you come to Temple Place, once an exclusive residential area facing Victoria Embankment Gardens. It was to the famous 2 Temple Place that we had come, to see the exhibition. Today, this house is worth visiting both for its own sake – the interior is both novel and beautiful – and for the exhibitions that are held there. The exhibition was entitled Amongst Heroes: the artist in working Cornwall, and shows the works of painters from the period 1880 to 1920 showing the work and lives of the Cornish fishermen and their families. Admission is free but photography is not allowed, so I cannot show you anything of the interior of the building.
This elaborate building was built in 1895 for William Waldorf Astor, later Viscount Astor, as his home. It was sited on land reclaimed from the building of the Victoria Embankment. Modern for its time, the house is still attractive for us today and contains many details that were new and revolutionary. One of these details is to be seen on one of the lamp stands at the foot of the steps leading up to the front door. At first sight, the decorative elements seem to be a pair of conventional Classical putti, but then one notices what they are holding: each is holding a new-fangled telephone! 2 Temple Place was one of the first private residences in London to have the telephone installed.
After visiting the exhibition, we walked along the Victoria Embankment for a while where the benches are on platforms to allow a view over the embankment walls.
I was rather taken by the cast iron supports in the form of kneeling but laden camels. They seem very patient, which is just as well as they have been in place since 1877. Why camels? Perhaps they refer to a time when cargoes came to London via the Thames from all over the world, or perhaps they allude to the Imperial Camel Corps Memorial nearby. Whatever their allusions they are sympathetically modelled and very decorative.
We caught a bus onward to our next destination and changed at Tottenham. Here we spotted a couple of objects of interest though they were partially obscured by road works. The first was the Old Well, which is actually a pump, not a well with a bucket. It was dug in 1791 and paid for by Thomas Smith, Lord of the Manor of Tottenham. The water, however, became contaminated and the pump was taken out of use in 1883.
Tottenham High Cross stands on the site of a medieval wayside cross which was rebuilt in brick around 1600 by one Dean Wood. In 1809, local residents raised funds to have it renovated in its current form.
Another bus brought us to Walthamstow and the William Morris Gallery sited in Lloyd Park. William Morris was a designer, artist, writer and social activist and is associated with the Arts and Crafts movement and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. His influence on design was profound and still evokes interest today.
Admission to the gallery is free and photography is allowed. A lot of the exhibits, however, are in glass cases and reflections on the glass make these unsuitable subjects for photos so I avoided them in favour of free-standing exhibits.
In the vestibule, the visitor is greeted by a bust of William Morris, made by Henry Charles Fehr, a sculptor renowned for his war memorials featuring the angel of victory.
A broad and well-proportioned staircase with a carpet made to a William Morris design leads to the first floor where the main exhibition is to be found.
William Morris and his associates produced a dizzying array of articles. Emphasis was on good design and hand crafting, the artist usually completing all stages from design to finished product personally, so as to guarantee that the work turned out as intended. They therefore needed to learn the traditional skills such as carpentry, metal work and stained glass making.
Stained glass was a medium in which Morris and his associates excelled. It allowed them to explore their fanciful vision of the medieval period and to express stories which they internalized and reproduced in new ways. Work such as this was expensive and the irony was not lost on Morris, who later became a committed socialist and lecturer on social reform, that only the wealthy could afford to buy what he produced.
Morris designed jewellery, curtains, wall paper and carpets, many of his designs still being reproduced and used today. In line with their love of medieval themes, Morris and his fellow artists produced tapestries and wall hangings. These provided scope for human figures, luxuriant vegetation and animals. The one above alludes the Ovid’s version of the story of the enchantress Circe who transformed King Picus into a woodpecker and trapped him in a forest.
Morris first became known to the public as a writer and, given his interest in all forms of art including the art of story-telling, it was natural that he would eventually turn to the production of fine books, founding the Kelmscott Press. He sought to make his books things of beauty and took his inspiration from medieval manuscripts. Their influence can, I think, be seen in the above work.
Burne-Jones designed a set of wall hangings for the art scholar and critic John Ruskin, based on Geoffrey Chaucer’s poem The Legend of Good Women. This one represents the Roman heroine Thisbe, holding the sword with which she commits suicide after the death of her lover Pyramus. The hanging holds another interest for people interested in William Morris and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood because the figure is modelled on Jane Burden, who later became William Morris’s wife and the lover of Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Possibly employed originally as a servant, Jane came to the notice of this group of artists who invited her to sit for them as a model. She thus appears in various roles in their paintings, stained glass and tapestries, acting as a sort of unifying factor between them. When looking at their works it is fun to pick out Jane when she appears.
As we left the William Morris Gallery, I spotted a Hindu Temple in nearby Bedford Road. It is called the Sri Katpaga Vinayagar Temple and features a pair of representations of the god Ganesh.
Ganesh, or Ganesha or Ganapati, is one of the more recognizable Hindu gods because he has the head of an elephant and the body of a portly man. His origins seem to go back to Vedic times and so it is no surprise to find that the theology and meanings associated with this personality are complex, appear in different versions and are sometimes contradictory. He is worshipped today by many people as the Remover of Obstacles, someone to appeal to as a facilitator of one’s projects. Ganesh is usually associated with the mouse or the rat (accounts differ as to which it is). It is said that Ganesh takes the mouse, the humblest creature in the universe, as his vehicle, to show that he has conquered vanity. He is often pictured standing or riding on a mouse or with mice scurrying near his feet.
There are at least two stories explaining how Ganesh came to have an elephant’s head on a human body. The most common tells how, in the absence of her husband Shiva, the goddess Parvati created a son to protect her. When Shiva returned and found his access to Parvati barred by this stranger, he struck off his head in anger. On learning that he had decapitated his son, Shiva ordered a search for a head but only the head of an elephant was available. Placing this upon his son’s shoulders, Shiva restored him to life. Images of Ganesh are accompanied by a rich iconography and he holds important symbols of his attributes in his six hands.
From Hindu temple to Muslim mosque: we caught a bus to Stoke Newington and alighted near this rather handsome building, the Aziziye Camii, a mosque for the local Turkish community. As well as being a place of worship, it also includes shops on the ground floor.
We had come here for supper. We had already been to the Evin Cafe Restaurant several times before and found it good each time. We were not disappointed this time, either. (So often, restaurants are good the first couple of times you try them then after that, for some strange reason, they go downhill. It is good to find one that maintains its high standard.)
The food is “Mediterranean”, a fictitious category that means different things in different places. Here it seems to mean light dishes in the Greek and Turkish tradition. We had a Vegetarian Meze selection that was both tasty and filling. I would describe the interior decor as functional, but the atmosphere is informal and relaxed, more like that of a students’ bar or a club house, and I suspect that Evin does act as a club house for the local Turkish community. A telling detail: ask for a cup of tea and it is made in a pot, not with the dreaded tea bag.
As we left Evin, I noticed that there was what looked like a lively market in Colvestone Crescent, but I was feeling too tired by now to want to dive in and investigate.
We passed along Ashwin Street where we found this old factory once belonging to Reeves and Sons Ltd, manufacturers of art materials. I don’t know when Reeves ceased using it but it is nice that it still survives, used for other purposes.
Cat lovers may spot the black feline lurking in the lower right corner of the photo. He did respond when we spoke to him but he was more interested in chewing stalks of grass growing from between the brickwork.