Saturday, February 8th 2014
Today was another dull day of the sort we have had far too many of just recently, though the sun did put in an appearance later and it was at least not raining. We had no definite plan, but allowed buses and circumstances to carry us along.
The bus dropped us off in Piccadilly, one of London’s best known shopping streets. Opposite us was Burlington House, home to the Royal Academy and a number of learned societies. Beside it is what is perhaps the most famous shopping arcade of them all, the Burlington Arcade.
The Arcade opened in 1819 and was built by Lord George Cavendish, who lived in Burlington House. A well know story states that he had the arcade built to stop passers-by throwing oyster shells and other rubbish into his garden but I rather think he had a more serious purpose in mind! An upper storey was added in 1911, which is when the arms of Lord Chesham, the arcade’s owner at that time, were placed above the entrance. The 40 or so shops lining the arcade are small and boutique-like and provide – at least, so I imagine – a pleasant retail experience for people who do not have to worry about mundane things such as the price of the goods they purchase. The robust gateposts may have been installed to avoid a repetition of an event that occurred in 1964: a Jaguar Mark X was driven down the arcade, conveying masked raiders who attacked the premises of the Goldsmiths and Silversmiths Association, and escaped with jewellery valued at £35,000, never to be caught.
While all retail centres have some sort of security, the Burlington Arcade is among the few still to employ uniformed beadles, dressed in old-fashioned frock coats and top hats.
In the latter years of the 18th century, for those happy folk with money to spend and a reputation to enhance, shopping became less of a necessary chore and more of a social activity – something to do and to be seen doing1. It soon occurred to entrepreneurs that shoppers would appreciate a shopping environment where they were protected from the weather and from the noise and mud of the streets. This period, and particularly the 19th century, saw the appearance of bazaars, arcades and, ultimately, the department store.
While the Burlington Arcade is world famous, it is not alone in Piccadilly. A little further towards Piccadilly Circus, on the other side of the road, is the Piccadilly Arcade. Smaller than its rival, with about 16 shops, it is a relative upstart, having been built in 1909. Arguably, though, it concedes nothing to the Burlington in the exclusivity of its merchandise.
We walked through the arcade into Jermyn Street and there saw the sculpture of Beau Brummell. George Bryan Brummell enjoyed his heyday in the Regency Period when he became what we would today call a “style guru”. He claimed it took him 5 hours each day to dress but, contrary to what is often thought, there was nothing ostentatious or flamboyant about the styles he promulgated. His brilliant career, alas, ended in poverty and insanity. In fear of debtors’ prison because of his unpaid gambling debts, in 1816 Beau fled to France where he eked out a difficult existence, first in Calais and then in Caen, where he was given a job in the consulate. When the consulate closed, Brummell was left destitute and the walls of the prison finally closed around him. He died, insane from syphilis, in Le Bon Sauveur Asylum, Caen, in 1840. Irena Sedlecka’s sculpture recalls the Regency Beau in his prime and its inscription claims that “[his] connections with Court, clubs and tailoring embody the spirit of St James’s past and present”.
This area is called St James’s after the parish church of St James’s, Piccadilly. Henry Jermyn, 1st Earl of St Albans developed the land and provided it with a church designed by Sir Christopher Wren and consecrated in 1684. Titled folk moved into the new and elegant housing and the area acquired a prestige that it has hardly lost even today. Though time and the slings and arrows of modernity have had their effects, much of the original fabric still remains.
Across the road from the church, for example, at number 89 Jermyn Street, is Floris, reputed to be the oldest perfume company in Britain and second oldest in the world. The founder, Juan Famenius Floris, established his business here in 1730 in a house built the late 17th century, though rebuilt in the early 19th. With its shop interior dating from the Great Exhibition of 1851, the establishment is today a Grade II listed building. Said to have been patronized by Ian Fleming, Floris is mentioned in several of his James Bond novels.
Connecting Piccadilly and Jermyn Street is a relatively small arcade, called Princes Arcade. Though it fits much the same pattern as the others and you might be tempted to think that it shares their vintage, it is in fact a relative latecomer though the building in which it resides dates from the late Victorian period. The arcade itself was created in the 20th century, opening in 1933.
We walked down Duke of York Street to St James’s Square. This is one of the several squares that were built in the late 17th century on land acquired by Henry Jermyn by lease from the King. Built on four sides around a central garden, it was quickly inhabited by titled families and the occasional ambassador. In many cases, the garden within a square will have reverted to the local council and become a public area but a few, like that of St. James’s Square, have remained private, accessible only to residents who possess a key to the gate.
In one corner of the square is an early 18th-century house that was once the home of Lord and Lady Astor. The blue plaque, affixed by English Heritage, reminds us that Lady Astor (1879-1964) was the “First woman to sit in Parliament”.
While many of the houses in the square remain true to the elegance of the original plan, there lurks a monster that breaks the pattern and stands out like the proverbial sore thumb despite its one saving grace.
In the 1670s, one Edward Shaw bought a site from Lord Cavendish, the developer, and proceeded to built a brick house on it. The building remained a private dwelling, passing through the hands of various owners and undergoing various alterations, until 1852, when it became, first, a club, and then the premises of the Copyhold, Inclosure and Tithe Commission, later known as the Board and Ministry of Agriculture, which vacated it in 1922. In 1929 an application was made to rebuild the property as a bank with flats above. This was agreed to by the London County Council but the plan never materialized. In 1932, a new application was made, this one to build an office block 100 feet high, breaching the existing height limit of 80 feet. Despite the objections of the neighbours, in a move reminiscent of the Boris Johnson brigandage of our own era, permission was granted. Buchanan House is the result. Though it might not be out of place in some other environments and might even be preferred to some of the monstrosities foisted on us since, it is clearly out of place here, and responds more to greed for profit than to considerations of taste and sympathy for the environment.
The above mentioned “saving grace” is the five reliefs across the front of the building. These represent “Cries of London” (itinerant vendors and artisans who announced their presence by means of characteristic calls or cries) and are by Newbury Abbot Trent. They are full of charming details, such as the boy watching the knife grinder who has taken a bite out of his sandwich and the young lad holding up a coin to the costermonger who is too busy calling out his wares to notice him. I doubt whether the “monster” will be demolished in the near future but, if ever it is, I hope these panels will be preserved.
The parchment held by the town crier reads “Oyez Oyez Take Notice This Building was erected in the year 1933 Messrs Alfred & David Ospalak being the architects thereof”. (Architects apparently do not use punctuation.)
We left St James’s Square with a final envious glance over the locked gate at the garden where “GVLIELMVS III” sits in lively stillness upon his bronze steed. This man is otherwise known as William of Orange, William the Third of England and Second of the Netherlands, who replaced the Catholic James II in what Protestants would call the “Glorious Revolution” of 1688.
There is a popular but unfounded belief that in equestrian statues, the position of the horse’s legs indicate the manner in which the rider died. If the horse is rearing with both forelegs off the ground, for example, it is claimed that the rider died in battle, and if, as here, the horse has one foreleg raised, this is said to mean that the rider died off the battle field but in consequence of wounds sustained thereon. King William, however, died of pneumonia following a broken collar bone caused by a fall from his horse which, it is said, stumbled into a mole’s burrow, a circumstance thereafter celebrated by Jacobites in their toast to “the little gentleman in the black velvet waistcoat”.
I captured in passing this face decorating a door arch and am no longer sure where I found it. Faces are a common form of architectural decoration and there is an immense variety of styles from the stylized to the naturalistic. This face looks very natural and makes me wonder whether the sculptor copied it from life or drew it from his imagination. Is it someone the artist knew and perhaps loved?
Thus we came to our fourth and last arcade, the Royal Opera Arcade. This is in fact the oldest of the four, being London’s first. It was designed by no less an architect than John Nash and built in 1818, beating the Burlington Arcade by one year. Circular skylights help illuminate the fairly narrow arcade whose design set the pattern for those that followed it.
One of the establishments in the Royal Opera Arcade is the gallery of artist Stephen Wiltshire. We went inside to look at the sketches and paintings on display. “Stephen Wiltshire is an artist who draws and paints detailed cityscapes. He has a particular talent for drawing lifelike, accurate representations of cities, sometimes after having only observed them briefly” (From the Website).
We made our way along Pall Mall towards Trafalgar Square and I took the above photo as we went. The slender steeple is that of St Martin-in-the-Fields while the dome on the left belongs to the National Gallery. We were heading towards the National Portrait Gallery whose entrance is round to the left where you see the red bus. The NPG has a number of attractions, not least the cafe in the basement where they serve tea and coffee and other goodies such as cake. Oh, and don’t forget the art!
“Founded in 1856, the aim of the National Portrait Gallery, London is ‘to promote through the medium of portraits the appreciation and understanding of the men and women who have made and are making British history and culture, and … to promote the appreciation and understanding of portraiture in all media’” (From the Website).
In addition to the permanent collection, there is a programme of visiting exhibitions. Photography is allowed in the permanent collection though it may be disallowed for individual works. For example, in the above photo, in the room at the end, you can just see a sculpture of a pair of figures. This is a work by William Theed of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, wearing Anglo-Saxon dress and its label informs us that we may not photograph it “for copyright reasons” (probably because it belongs to the present Queen). This is a fairly grownup approach and we should perhaps welcome it though, as I tend to photograph the art first and the label only afterwards, it meant that I had already taken several photographs before I realized I was not supposed to. I have kept the photos but can’t show them to you.
The sculpture shows the pair dressed as Anglo-Saxons. Albert stands in manly pose with one foot upon a sword lying on the ground. Nestled against his left side, the much shorter Victoria has her face turned upwards towards Albert’s and gazes devotedly into his eyes. Such a subordinate position hardly befits the Queen who rules the British Empire and was no doubt intended for family viewing only. The royal pair seem to have had something of a passion for having their portraits painted or sculpted while wearing antique costumes.
There are many brilliant paintings in the NPG and one can spend hours gazing at them, but there is also sculpture and, much as I love a good painting, I found myself in a sculpture mood today. There is too much in this gallery to see everything at one go, so I concentrated on a few pieces that particularly appealed to me. For example, I was intrigued by Ford’s bust of the famous actor Sir Henry Irving (1838-1905) because he seemed to look questioningly at me as though trying to work out why I was photographing him. The lady in the background who is apparently watching us with amusement is Lady Colin Campbell (1858-1911), painted by Giovanni Boldini.
I like this portrait bust of Florence Nightingale because it gives you a straightforward honest impression of the real woman. Her characterization as “The Lady with the Lamp”, though justified, tends to obscure as much as it reveals. Yes, Nightingale was a courageous practitioner of the arts and skills of nursing in military hospitals during the Crimean War but she was also a woman of intellectual prowess who virtually founded the profession of nursing as it is known and practised today. She was a strong character who was not averse to making a nuisance of herself and bullying politicians in pursuit of her goals. She stands out in the historical landscape as one to whom all of us owe a debt of gratitude.
To be honest, I had never heard of Albert Ball, despite there being a public monument dedicated to him in Nottingham of which this sculpture is a model. Ball (1896-1917), who was born in Nottingham, joined the Royal Flying Corps (predecessor of the Royal Air Force) and was posted to France in 1916. Flying bareheaded and without goggles, he shot down 43 enemy aircraft and a Zeppelin, finally being killed in action on May 7th 1917. My horror of war cannot suppress my wonder at the skill and bravery of this man who – almost inevitably, it seems – met his end in action.
I have a fondness for John Betjeman, both the poet and the quirky but remarkable man – among whose many achievements was his role in saving St Pancras Station from the vandals who would have destroyed it. I like this bust of him by Angela Conner for the way it conveys an “up close” impression of the living and breathing man, the Poet Laureate whose verse and TV presentations endeared him to his generation and beyond.
Yes, I did say I was in a sculpture mood but I am including a painting nonetheless. Radclyffe Hall (1880-1943) is, I am sorry to admit, something of a new discovery for me. If you too do not know Hall, you may be unsure as to whether the portrait is that of a man or a woman. Hall was female but said she felt that she was a man trapped in a woman’s body. At a time when such behaviour was considered scandalous, she dressed in men’s clothes and preferred to be called by the name John, which was given her by her female lover, Mabel Batten. Hall wrote novels and poetry and her best known work is probably the novel The Well of Loneliness, published in 1928, and banned by an intolerant establishment, just as Lady Chatterley’s Lover would be years later. Unlike the latter, however, Hall’s narrative is not sexually explicit and could not be slated as obscene. Just the fact that it deals with lesbianism was enough to condemn it. I am currently reading it and though I have not yet progressed very far, I am very impressed with it.
I took a photo of this impressive set of representatives and that august body, the Great and the Good. I didn’t stop to record their identities and naming them is left as an exercise to the reader 🙂 Just to get you started, Charles Darwin is third from left on the top shelf. (Sorry, no prizes!)
1For a masterly portrayal of 19th-century shopping as a passion and a way of upstaging rivals, see Emile Zola’s Au Bonheur des Dames.