Saturday, May 16th 2015
Our main business today was to visit an exhibition of sculpture which I will describe later. We started off with a little ramble around Holborn.
Like most of the older parts of London that have not fallen too disastrously into the hands of greedy ‘developers’, Holborn possesses a mixture of wide roads and narrow lanes and passages. One of the latter is called Gate Street, narrow enough in part of its length to be pedestrian only. A principal inhabitant of the street is the Ship Tavern, difficult to photograph because of the closeness of its neighbours.
The tavern dates its foundation from 1549 but must have been rebuilt since then. It boasts a complex history which includes its use in the 18th century as a Masonic Lodge and in Tudor times as a secret venue for the celebration of the Catholic mass, then proscribed. For a fuller, if somewhat lurid, account of its history, see the pub’s Web site history page.
In the broad and very busy thoroughfare called High Holborn, at numbers 114-115 to be precise, stands the tall façade of Kingsgate House. The architect, Arthur Keen, has tried to make an elegant form out of the awkwardly narrow shape and has succeeded to a certain degree. When was Kingsgate House built? The answer is carved in stone though you might easily miss it. Above the rightmost second-floor window, there is a roundel bearing the date ‘1903’. High up and flanking the top storey, are two sculpted figures. Owing to the name of the building, you might guess that they are kings, but which ones?
The one on the right is the easier to identify: history buffs will soon recognize the bearded Edward VII, son of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. Edward came to the throne on the death of his mother in 1901, the same year in which building of this Baptist church complex began, making it one of the first Edwardian buildings. And the second figure, standing like the other member of a pair of bookends holding the top floor together? That is the first King Edward, who lived from 1239 to 1307 and spent much of his reign (from 1272) ferociously subduing the Welsh and the Scots, for which prowess he was given the nickname Hammer of the Scots. He also set up the chain of 12 Eleanor Crosses that mark the places where the cortege carrying the body of his wife Eleanor from Lincoln to London, rested overnight.
This two-storey building on the corner of Macklin Street and Newton Street attracted my attention with its compact yet harmonious styling. It seems to be called Wimbledon House and is presumably residential but that is all I know about it. Was it perhaps a school or an almshouse? I don’t know but perhaps I shall discover more later. (No, I don’t know the reason for the ladder, either.)
This mid-19th-century red-brick building is officially called 24 & 25 Macklin Street though its main frontage is in Stukeley Street. Today converted to accommodate offices, it was originally the local morgue. It’s a pretty piece of work, though, and English Heritage also thinks so, as witness their award of a Grade II listing.
This might be thought to be an old hospital or even an apartment block, though the large window at the top gives pause for thought. Between the second and third floors a panel bears the names ‘LAVERS AND BARRAUD’. Nathaniel Wood Lavers and Francis Philip Barraud were makers of stained glass and originally employed by James Powell and Sons. They formed their own business in 1855, when their names were attached to the building, and Nathaniel Westlake joined them in 1868 as an artist designer and partner. They were very successful, attracting from English Heritage the accolade ‘Lavers and Barrauld were very reputable manufacturers of Gothic Revival stained glass’. The building itself has been deemed worthy of a Grade II listing. The Barraud family were descended from a Huguenot family of makers of clocks and watches.
We are now in Covent Garden, rather than Holborn, and in Endell Street, along from the stained glass studio, is this pub, the Cross Keys, with its elaborately decorated front. It is Victorian, dating from 1849 and has received a Grade II listing. It also has a place in my own personal mythology because, when I left my job in the bookshop, my colleagues brought me here for a farewell drink and I forgot my umbrella. Next day I came back and enquired for it but the barman denied all knowledge of any umbrellas. Well, it was quite a nice one.
This is a famous view of a famous building: looking along Great Queen Street to Freemasons Hall, one of the country’s best known Freemasons’ Lodges and HQ of the United Grand Lodge of England. Fitting the building onto an irregularly shaped site was a triumph for architects H.V. Ashley and Winton Newman. Built over the 7-year period 1927-33, the hall has a Grade II* listing. Its interior is said to be magnificent to be magnificent but I have not so far had the opportunity to see it for myself. Many people will know the hall for its role in a certain TV series but more of that anon.
There’s nothing historic or aesthetically interesting about this picture. I was captivated by the complexity of the structure, the play of light and shade and the grimy awfulness of it. You might claim that it is symbolic of the continual changes to the fabric of London, the never-ending renewal, rebuilding, destruction and alteration that precludes any concept of completion or a final design. Life continually disrupted by diverted transport and closed roads.
We were now beside the Thames in an area known as Millbank. Its name derives from an actual mill that once existed here, owned by Westminster Abbey. The skyline these days is dominated by a tall and not very prepossessing tower containing offices, called Millbank Tower. For whatever reason, this is considered a prestigious address and a number of well known institutions have accommodation here. More importantly, it is also the where we find one of the country’s most important art galleries.
The main road that runs along the Thames here is also called Millbank. It crosses the end of Lambeth Bridge and there meets Horseferry Road, creating a 4-branched junction. In the midst of the junction is a roundabout with a palm tree set in the middle of it. It looked rather like a cartoonist’s idea of a desert isle, needing only a man in ragged clothes sitting beneath the tree to complete the picture. (No prizes for guessing that the name of Horseferry Road comes from the fact that there once was a horse ferry across the river at this point which ran from ancient times until the 19th century when bridges rendered it redundant.)
The present Lambeth Bridge opened in 1932 and is very modern and robust. Not so its only predecessor, a suspension bridge that opened in 1862 and was never very successful, closing for safety reasons in 1910.
A good place from which to take photos of the bridge is Victoria Tower Gardens. This long, narrow park lies between the main road and the river. It offers a shady walk or somewhere to sit and daydream on a fine day such as this. The name comes from the nearby Victoria Tower at the south-west end of the Palace of Westminster.
On the north side of the road (the side away from the river), lies a large heap of a building called Thames House. It was built in 1928 as offices for ICI but since 1994 has been home to the UK’s legendary national security agency known as MI5.
I mentioned above that Freemasions Hall was used in a TV series. That series was called Spooks, and was about a government agency tasked with protecting Britain from attacks on her security. Its hi-tech headquarters, known as the Grid, resided at a secret location and whenever the exterior of this was shown, Freemasons Hall was used under the name ‘Thames House’. Above is the entrance of the real Thames House which is the real HQ of the secret service.
We were by now quite close to our destination (have you guessed what this is yet?) but decided to stop for lunch. We went to a branch of Pizza Express that is in a sort of precinct off Millbank. I don’t know its name. The skyline was now dominated by Millbank Tower and so I took yet another photo. More interestingly…
…we discovered this sculpture. It is by Michael Speller and it is called Momentum III, the sort of title that may be meaningful to the artist but unlikely to be so to anyone else. Click on the image to see other views of it.
And so we arrived at our destination that you may have realized was the Tate Britain art gallery. A couple of the more robust sculptures were sited outside. The more dramatic was this one, recreating an episode from one of the Greek myths, the rescue of Andromeda from the monster by the hero Perseus.
We had come to see a special exhibition of Victorian sculpture entitled Sculpture Victorious. I very much enjoyed it and some of the pieces were quite extraordinary but, unfortunately, photography was not allowed and I therefore cannot show you any pictures. It has been the habit of public and critics alike to dismiss Victorian art as sentimental twaddle or overworked heroic themes. That was always an unfair assessment and a number of recent books and exhibitions have helped restore the balance. The Victorian era is owed an honest reassessment and exhibitions like this one contribute to that as well as being instructive and enjoyable in their own right. Thus our day out ended on a high note.
Henry Fehr too was a sculptor in the Victorian tradition though he lived to 1940. Many of the finest memorials to the First World War are by him and that, I suspect, is how most people know him, if they know him at all. In this sculpture, Perseus is trouncing the monster whose upside-down head (symbolizing defeat) is resting on the naked body of his intended victim. In his left hand, Perseus carries the severed head of the Gorgon whom he had killed just before setting out on this new mission. Perseus saved Andromeda and married her and they lived happily after though life never runs entirely smoothl;y for a Greek hero. See here for the full story of Andromeda and Perseus.