Sunday, April 5th 2015
Having spent the day out of town yesterday, we took things easy this morning, treating ourselves to a leisurely breakfast at Pret before dragging the shopping trolley round to Sainsbury’s. The shopping done, we returned home to put it all away and consider our next move.
By the time we had considered, time was getting on. More precisely, lunchtime was getting on. So we jumped on a bus and soon found ourselves in Wigmore Street and reading the menu of Comptoir Libanais. Many Lebanese dishes are suitable for vegetarians and we had no difficulty in choosing our lunch.
After lunch we plunged into deepest Mayfair and in due course found ourselves admiring this obviously ecclesiastical building on the corner of Duke Street and Weighhouse Street. It turns out that it was designed by Alfred Waterhouse in 1891 and was intended as a Congregational church called King’s Weigh House for reasons that I won’t go into but that you can discover if you so wish by consulting this Wikipedia page. The Congregationalists sold it in 1967 to the Ukrainian Catholic community who renamed it the Ukrainian Catholic Cathedral of the Holy Family in Exile. More about its story here.
However, something even more interesting (to me, at least) lies across the road. To explain what it is, let’s begin with a picture.
Opposite the church was a large doorway, one of a pair, which I shall come to later, flanked on either side by steep steps. Whatever they led to was obviously public so we climbed the stairs to take a look. The above picture shows, in part, what we found: a sort of suspended park. It is paved but supplied with planters to add greenery and a park-like feel, and benches. But why would anyone construct a park like this, on the first floor, as it were?
I could not guess the purpose and reason for the doors and the suspended park and had to research the matter on returning home. As usual, the Web made it easy to find the answer and in particular, Wikipedia’s Brown Hart Gardens article which furnishes the following succinct explanation:
The gardens began life as the Duke Street Gardens where a communal garden was laid for what were then working class dwellings in Brown Street and Hart Street.
In 1902 the building of the Duke Street Electricity Substation led to the removal of the street level gardens. The substation was completed in 1905 to the design of C. Stanley Peach in a Baroque style from Portland stone featuring a pavilion and steps at either end, a balustrade and Diocletian windows along the sides to light the galleries of the engine rooms, and deep basements.
In order to compensate local residents for the loss of the old communal garden, the Duke of Westminster insisted that a paved Italian garden featuring trees in tubs be placed on top of the substation.
We next found ourselves at Marble Arch, this name designating both the Arch itself and the district in which it finds itself. Passing this way after our last visit to Paris (see Paris 2008), I jokingly remarked to Tigger that this famous landmark looked like an architect’s model for the Arc de Triomphe. In fact, the opposite is true. When John Nash designed the Arch in 1828, as the intended forecourt entrance to Buckingham Palace, he looked to the Arc de Triomphe for inspiration. In 1851, the supposed gate was moved to what was then the north-east corner of Hyde Park. Since then, the piece of land containing the Arch has become separated from the park, leaving our Arch like an orphan stranded on an island surrounded with ever- busy roads.
Despite this relative isolation, the small park beset by the roar of traffic is quite popular and there are always plenty of people here, strolling, standing chatting, sitting on benches, lolling on the grass or, as above, feeding the pigeons. Since the feeding of pigeons has been banned from Trafalgar Square, Marble Arch seems to have taken over its role to judge from the number of avian diners ready to gather at the toss of a crust.
The above broader view of Marble Arch and its park shows what is for me and for many people, the island’s favourite inhabitant, the giant sculpture of a horse’s head. Below is a closer view and if you click on it, you will see a slideshow of the sculpture from various angles.
This remarkable piece – remarkable, I think, for its beauty as much as for its size – represents a horse taking a drink. Only the head is present but I think the observer’s mind imagines the whole horse and, if it were present, what a sight that would be! The sculpture has become part of the scenery and people sit on the plinth or run around it and play games beside it. Though this can be annoying for the photographer trying to obtain a clear view of the sculpture, it is also pleasing because it means that Still Water has become a familiar and accepted part of the scene.
From Marble Arch, we walked down Park Lane. This famous thoroughfare is a dual carriageway whose two streams of traffic are separated by a long, narrow strip of parkland. As far as I know, the public are not prohibited from entering this parkland but, because you need to cross one or other of two busy roads to reach it, you are usually alone there once you arrive. This parkland is crossed at intervals by roads and beside one of these, Upper Brook Street, a large sculpture has been installed.
It is the Animals in War Memorial by David Backhouse and was unveiled in November 2004 as part of the programme of events in remembrance of the First World War. The memorial consists of a curving wall with a gap in it. There is a pair of animals on either side of the wall.
The memorial stands on sloping ground and the implied movement of the two pairs of animals is uphill. On the lower side of the wall, the two animals are heavily laden and look tired and dejected.
On the upper side – having made the transition through the gap, we suppose – the animals, here represented by a horse and a dog, are free and unburdened. The horse seems to be galloping joyfully though the dog is looking back as though waiting for someone or for instructions. Is he looking for his handler, killed in action?
I must admit to ambiguous feelings about this monument. I think the use of animals in war is a crime and I can find nothing noble in it. The animals that “served” in war were used and exploited in a cause they could not understand and subjected to horrendous suffering and death. If nothing else, the memorial should stand as a blot on the human conscience for our abuse of other species.
Memorials, we tell ourselves, exist so that we may honour those who suffered and gave their lives for a cause. A memorial represents our grief and our gratitude. But it can serve a less noble purpose, allowing us to think that, having built a memorial and conducted some ceremony in front of it, we have paid our debt to the dead and can now get on with our lives. I must admit to seeing something of that hypocrisy in the symbolism of this monument with its implications of the animals moving from the stress of war to freedom and happiness. Many real animals never made that transition but ended their lives in agony in the mud of the battlefield. Not that you’d guess that from looking at this memorial.
Our third sculpture was also on the central strip of Park Lane, further down at Stanhope Gate, and was installed by the Halcyon Gallery.
This shiny metal sculpture by Lorenzo Quinn is a reinterpretation of the familiar yin-yang symbol (for example, see here). It is entitled Harmony and was installed as a public sculpture by the Halcyon Gallery for a period of six months “and is part of the Westminster City Council public sculpture initiative, in cooperation with Transport for London” (see this page).
The two symbols usually appear tightly conjoined to express the Chinese philosophical contention of the inseparability and mutual balancing nature of yin and yang but here the artist has separated them and turned the flat forms into three-dimensional physical objects capable of supporting two seated human figures, a male below and a female above. Each of the figures holds a globe in their hands which are resting on their drawn-up knees. There is a little bit of trickery here because the smooth slippery surfaces would not in reality support a pair of seated figures as comfortably as shown. Considerable muscle tension would be required to hold those positions on that surface. I suppose, though, that I should not be so picky and should simply admire what is a harmonious configuration. In these times when we are besieged with non-representational and “abstract” forms, it is a relief to meet a sculpture which shows clearly what it is about and unashamedly depicts the human form. Hurrah for Lorenzo Quinn!
That ended today’s expedition and Harmony lightened my mood after the conflicting emotions aroused by the Animals in War Memorial. That, of course, is what art is about. Art should please and entertain us but it should also shock us and even offend us in order to make us think and to shake us out of our comfortable but often dim-witted assumptions.