May 4th 2015
Tigger is on holiday from work this week, so we will be able to get out and about a bit more than usual. Is it a “staycation”? Yes and no. It’s a vacation and we staying at home but we intend it to be a fairly relaxed time, compared with our usual staycations. Today’s jaunt started in Leicester Square and ended in Portland Place. Why Portland Place? I’ll tell you when we get there, though the title contains a clue.
Leicester Square is in the heart of London’s theatreland and, as you spin on your heel, you see around you more theatres than you can shake a stick – or a camera – at. One of these is the handsome Gielgud Theatre, currently offering The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time, surely one of the longest titles to be squeezed onto theatre hoardings for quite some time.
This stately building first opened in 1906 under the name of The Hicks Theatre, after Seymour Hicks, the playwright and theatre manager who commissioned it. This name lasted only three years, being replaced in 1909 by The Globe Theatre, by its new owner, American impresario, Charles Frohman. This name fared better, lasting 88 years until 1994 when, to avoid confusion with the Shakespeare Globe Theatre, it was renamed in honour of the famous actor John Gielgud.
Just a few seconds’ walk along Shaftesbury Avenue is a theatre with sunshine in its name, so to speak, though Apollo was also the god of music, appropriate because this theatre was designed as a musical theatre. It opened in February 1901 and, owing to the death of Queen Victoria in the preceding month, is the first theatre to be opened in the Edwardian era.
This is Rupert Court, part of the area’s 18th-century development and comprised a mixture of residential and retail premises. It was originally called George Court, presumably after King George III, the then reigning monarch, but I have no idea when and why the name was changed. What’s special about it?Nothing much, really, except that it is typical of the courts, lanes and alleys that survive between the main thoroughfares.
Where there is talk of theatre there is bound to be mention of Shakespeare. Dominating Leicester Square itself is a fountain whose centrepiece is a stature of the author of Romeo and Juliet. The statue (I don’t know about the fountain) is the work of Giovanni Fontana (c.1821-1893) who was born in Italy but was naturalized British in 1871.
The sculpture is a reworking of the memorial to Shakespeare in Westminster Abbey’s Poets’ Corner (for example, see here), which was the work of the Flemish sculptor, Peter Scheemakers (1691-1781). It would have been carved some time before the square opened in 1874. Whatever the artistic merits of the sculpture, the pigeons find it a useful vantage point for spying out the local area.
Shining whitely in the sunshine, the Queen’s House displays a Portland stone façade in French Renaissance style. Then named the Queen’s Hotel, it opened in 1899 and was, by all accounts, a luxurious establishment. Since those halcyon days, alterations have been applied and the building put to mixed use. Despite a change of name to Queen’s House, it is again a hotel, run by the Premier Inn chain. The company describes it as a ‘no frills hotel’, though you will have to pay around £180 a night for a single room.
The mechanized equivalent of the theatre is the cinema. in 1893, Daly’s Theatre opened on this site and continued in business until September 1937 when it closed. It was sold to Warner Brothers who promptly demolished it and built a cinema in its stead. The Warner Theatre, as it was called, was itself demolished in 1980, except for the façade, which was incorporated into a new cinema forming part of the Warner Village Cinema chain. In 2003, the chain was bought by Vue who continue to run the cinemas under its own brand name.
Ignoring the inevitably garish publicity material and brand name, I think the façade is actually quite classy and its Art Deco heritage is proclaimed by the two reliefs. By Edward Bainbridge Copnal (1903-1973), they represent Sight and Sound but I do not know which is which.
This extensive structure started as the Hippodrome Theatre. It was designed by the famous theatre architect, Frank Matcham, and opened in 1900, just at the end of the Victorian era. In the gable halfway along, you might be able to make out the words CRANBOURN MANSIONS. Accounts are a little vague on the subject but it seems to be the case that part of the building was a ‘gentlemen’s apartment block’ – hence the ‘mansions’ tag. I believe there were also retail units on the ground floor but how the building was apportioned between theatre, apartments and shops, I do not know.
The Hippodrome theatre survived until the 1950s and then closed. In 1958, the interior was demolished and Bernard Delfont’s nightclub, Talk of the Town installed. A number of clubs under different owners succeeded one another and the building briefly (2008-9) recovered its persona as a theatre under the name La Clique. In 2009, the establishment was again taken over by new owners and became the Hippodrome Casino. Theatre has again abandoned the site unless you count the 180-seat cabaret.
We passed through Trafalgar Square, where I took this photo of Nelson’s Column or The Nelson Monument, as it is properly named, and the statue of General Sir Charles Napier. The column was completed between 1839 and 1842 but I have not found a definite reference to the date of Baily’s statue. It was presumably done around the same period.
There are a number of permanent sculptures in Trafalgar Square, such as those photographed above, each standing on its own support or plinth. Curiously, one plinth has been left empty since the building of the square. It was supposed to be occupied by an equestrian statue of William IV but this never materialized. The empty platform has come to be known as the Fourth Plinth and has more recently found a new use.
This use is to serve as a display point for a succession of works of contemporary art, usually commissioned specially for the plinth. These works, being contemporary and often controversial, contrast – not to say clash – marvellously with the unified and somewhat conventional environment of the square. The current incumbent of the plinth is not all there. By that I mean that the figure, entitled Gift Horse, is indeed a horse but present only as a skeleton. That’s not all, though. The artist has added a message to the work and this is what exercises the minds of people who worry about such things. The message involves the ribbon attached to the skeleton’s front legs. It displays the ticker of the London Stock Exchange. I’m sure that’s terribly serious and thought-provoking and says something wonderfully ironic about our contemporary world but it goes right over my head. I’m happy to stick with the horse as a horse, albeit skeletal. (Click on the image to see a slide show.) This City A.M. article shows previous works that have occupied the plinth.
And so on to The Mall, that broad, straight road that leads to Buckingham Palace. The Trafalgar Square end is entered and exited through an extraordinary gate. Curved in form, it has three central arches, though only the left and right arches are used for traffic. Originally attached to the then Admiralty Building, it was given the appropriate name of Admiralty Arch. It was intended as Edward VII’s commemoration of his mother Queen Victoria but whatever its origins, it is a remarkable structure and justly famous. (The above picture is a stitched composite of several photos and as a result the perspective looks slightly exaggerated to the eye. I rather like this, however, as it gives an impression of the scale of the building. It is best viewed by clicking on the image to see a larger version.)
We progressed into St James’s Park and walked beside the lake. It was a warm and sunny day, so we sat on a bench for a while and watched the waterfowl. The lake was crowded with birds and the path with people, many of them were anxious to feed the ducks, geese, coots, moorhens and any other birds that happened by. The birds were fully complicit in this plan and gathered along the edge of the water to receive their tributes.
This cooperative performance produces the unusual sight shown above. You would never normally see so many coots so close together. Coots are very territorial and tend to chase away other coots that trespass on their territory. I’ve seen them even go for larger birds such as ducks. The fact that so many tolerate being together in a small space must be explained by the easy availability of food.
That is not to say that there were no disputes at all. Every now and again there would be a flurry as a male coot decided to chase what he perceived as an interloper. The head of the pursuing coot is stretched forward and this is an aggressive posture meaning “I’m coming for you!” Happily, these threats rarely result in a physical clash between the opponents. It’s enough for the interloper to be chased far enough away for the chaser to be satisfied.
I spent a while photographing the birds and show four examples above. (Put the cursor on a photo to see the name of the bird.)
After that pleasant interlude, we took to the streets once more, heading in leisurely fashion towards our next intended destination. We passed a couple of famous landmarks along the way, the first being All Souls Church, Langham Place, which was designed by John Nash and consecrated in 1824.
The second was the Art Deco Broadcasting House, purpose-built for the BBC. It was designed by George Val Myer and completed in the early 1930s shortly after the first scheduled radio broadcasts had been made. Myer likened his design to that of an ocean liner and one can see some similarity. The decorative sculpture and its artist, Eric Gill, caused controversy from the outset and this still continues. To start with, Gill carved the sculptures in place, poised on scaffolding. He was accused of being indecorously dressed, causing embarrassment and annoyance to passers-by.
Over the door is the now famous sculpture showing Prospero holding Ariel. Originally, Ariel had a rather larger male appendage and Gill was told to reduce its size. One story has it that when there was rain, the organ acted as a conduit for water, dribbling it onto passers-by.
Worse was to come. Eric Gill has been accused of sexually abusing children and his reputation as an artist has suffered accordingly. There are repeated calls for his sculptures, especially that of Prospero holding Ariel, to be removed from Broadcasting House. On the positive side, this has provoked a debate on the question of whether an artist’s behaviour in life should influence our opinion of his art. Should the sins of the artist be visited on his works?
We had come to Portland Place to visit the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) and more particularly, their exhibition Mackintosh Architecture.
Charles Rennie Mackintosh (1868-1928) was a talented architect who produced a set of unique designs, both on the scale of whole buildings and on the smaller scale of decorative details and furniture. Whereas other architectural styles tend soon to be classified as ‘of their’ era and to be superseded by new schools and movements, for many people, Mackintosh’s designs are as valid today as when he created them.
Admission to the exhibition is free and photography is allowed (without flash). However, as much of the exhibition consists of pictures and plans, I took very few photos. There were a couple of things that tempted me, though.
In a display case was a set of models. These were architect’s models of houses designed by Mackintosh that had never been built. Each was quite unique and no two were the same or even similar.
This one was Tigger’s favourite and I could imagine us living very happily in a full-sized version of it!
There is perhaps something a little sad in contemplating houses that never came into being, stillborn houses, as it were. On the other hand, I recalled that at least one house, not built in Mackintosh’s lifetime, has been brought into being – his House for a Art Lover. So perhaps one of more of these models will one day be turned into real dwellings.
The other item that attracted me photographically was the above architect’s drawing of the Scotland Street School in Glasgow. Mackintosh designed the school and it was built between 1903 and 1906. Demographic changes led to the school’s closure in 1979 and the Glasgow City Council had the happy idea of turning it into a museum. As the Museum’s Web page says, ‘The building is a must see for Mackintosh fans, as a fantastic example of his architectural style. With many features built into the stonework and staircases, there is something to admire around every corner!’ We certainly enjoyed our visit (see Glasgow 2012 – Day 12) and found it admirable both aesthetically and in practical terms.
The Mackintosh exhibition was a high note on which to end today’s ramble. The evident interest still being shown in this architect’s unique style gives me hope that the current vogue for ugly novelty will end and that a new architecture will emerge that enhances our living environment instead of degrading it.