Symbols & Secrets

Walking the City of London

Category: Art Deco

Art Deco in the City

I used to often confuse Art Deco and Art Nouveau – probably because they both begin with the word ‘art’. I had to get my head around this properly when I decided to write this blog and therefore searched for a simple explanation.

The one I like best is that Art Nouveau tends to be flowing and flowery whereas Art Deco tends to be sharp and streamlined.  Both designs evolved as a result of the culture of the times – Nouveau influenced by the industrial revolution and Deco by the First World War.

Here are some of my Art Deco favourites.

Every now and then when I headed off to meetings in the East end of the City I would walk past the magnificent, undulating and symmetrical Ibex House at 42-47 Minories. Built in 1937, it is clad in black and beige faience and, apparently, has the longest strip windows in London. When it opened you could rent space for 6 shillings (30 new pence) per square foot – which included the cost of cleaning.

 

Ibex House, Minories – view from Portsoken Street

I often feel a bit nostalgic walking down Fleet Street. I well remember its heyday when lorries trundled past carrying gigantic rolls of paper and you could hear the presses rumbling into the night producing the next day’s print news. Sadly, it was also the home of the notorious so-called ‘Spanish Customs’, restrictive practices which eventually left the industry open to brutal modernisation and, finally, total relocation.

The former Daily Express building in Fleet Street (1932) has a black facade with rounded corners in vitrolite with clear glass and chromium strips and, in my view, looks quite futuristic even today. The newspaper moved out in 1989 and the current owners are investment bankers Goldman Sachs. The foyer is stunning but currently hidden from view behind curtains – come on, Goldman’s, draw back those curtains and let us mere mortals have a peep!

120 Fleet Street – Architects Ellis and Clarke and later Sir Evan Owen Williams

 

Facade detail

 

The foyer, currently hidden from the street

The former Daily Telegraph  building at 141 Fleet street is another Art Deco masterpiece (also owned by Goldman Sachs). It is meant to be overwhelming and certainly succeeds with its giant fluted columns topped with carved Egyptian capitals.

Daily Telegraph building 1928 by Elcock and Sutcliffe with Thomas Tait (who studied under Charles Rennie Mackintosh)

Just above street level, Twin Mercuries head off to distribute news around the Empire with the sun rising over the centre of the hemisphere which is, of course, England. Apparently the carver, Arthur Oakley, shortly afterwards became a monk specialising in religious ornaments.

Relief of twin Mercuries by Arthur Oakley

 

This clock above the entrance is a delight

Florin Court , designed by Guy Morgan and Partners and opened in 1936, is famous now as the fictional ‘Whitehaven Mansions’ home of Hercule Poirot. It’s in Charterhouse Square and originally boasted squash courts, a dining room and a cocktail bar. Nowadays, there’s a gym, a spa and a wi-fi area.

Which room is Miss Lemon’s office?

I have two favourites – Fox Umbrellas and the ship’s prow in Bury Street.

Fox Umbrellas at 118 London Wall was constructed in 1937 on the ground floor of an early 19th century terraced house. It is by the shopfitting firm E. Pollard & Company and has a vitrolite front along with curved non-reflective glass (an American invention for which Pollard held the English patent).  According to the blog London’s Historic Shops and Markets, this ‘invisible’ glass, which was was very expensive, allowed passers-by to see much further into the shop and made the stock on display more visible at a time when interior lighting was duller and less sharp than today. It works by using a steeply curved concave glass to deflect light towards matt black ‘baffles’. Pollards installed the same type of glass at Simpsons of Piccadilly, where it is still in place today (the store is now a Waterstones).

 

Fox’s before it became a wine bar

Fox’s today – you can see the unique curved glass

Lovely detail on the door

Pop in for a glass of wine – many of the original features have been preserved.

For the Art Deco ship’s prow, first find Holland House in Bury Street just opposite the Gherkin and the subject of my earlier blog, Ship Ahoy. Walk around to the south east corner of the building, step back and admire this brave vessel plunging through the waves towards you, the funnel smoking impressively. It’s a granite structure by the Dutch artist J. Mendes da Costa and reflects the company’s main business of shipping.
I love this story about the ship’s positioning.
Apparently the company owner, Helene Kröller-Müller, had wished to buy the whole of the Bury Street corner, but had been thwarted by the adjacent owners who refused to sell. As a consequence, Holland House is broken into two sections, and it has been suggested that the aggressive prow of the ship was intended to ‘cock a snook’ at the neighbours.

The ship’s prow with the Gherkin in the background

 

City Angels (and a few devils)

Having had a lot of fun seeking out cherubs for an earlier blog I decided to go in search of angels.

Above the door of St Michael Cornhill is the warrior Archangel Michael ‘disputing with Satan’. It was carved by John Birnie Philip when the church was remodelled in 1858-1860.

No question as to who is winning this battle

Outside the church is another sculpture of Michael brandishing a flaming sword. It is a bronze memorial to the 170 out of the 2,130 men of this parish who enrolled for military service in the First World War and died as a result.

 

A close-up of the inscription

The sculpture (by R R Goulden) was described in the Builder magazine as follows

St Michael with the flaming sword stands steadfast above the quarreling beasts which typify war, and are sliding slowly, but surely, from their previous paramount position. Life, in the shape of young children, rises with increasing confidence under the protection of the champion of right.

 

Do go into the church, it’s a serene place to visit with very attractive pews and stained glass.

Of particular note on the left is the Churchwarden’s pew which shows St Michael thrusting a lance into the mouth of a truly evil-looking devil. It’s a work by the eminent wood carver William Gibbs Rogers (1792-1875).

The carving on the church wardens pew showing St Michael driving a spear into the devil’s mouth..

 

 

A close-up of the devil’s face on the churchwarden’s pew.

When you come out of the church turn right and you will find that Cornhill is seriously infested with devils.

It’s a blogger’s dilemma when one encounters what seems to be an apocryphal explanation for something one is researching. I have taken the decision that it’s OK to publish if, firstly, I make the nature of the story clear and, secondly, if it could just about be true, and thirdly if it’s a great story!

What follows seems to me to meet all the criteria.

As I walked along Cornhill one day I glanced up and saw these rather sinister figures silhouetted against the sky…

Closer inspection shows them to be devils, and rather angry and malevolent ones too …

They look down on St Peter upon Cornhill and are known as the Cornhill Devils. The story goes that, when plans were submitted for the late Victorian building next to the church, the rector noticed that they impinged slightly on church land and lodged a strong objection. Everything had to literally go back to the drawing board at great inconvenience and expense. The terracotta devils looking down on the entrance to the church are said to be the architect’s revenge with the lowest devil bearing some resemblance to the cleric himself.

If this resembles the rector he must have been a pretty ugly guy!

Onward now towards the Tower of London via Hart Street.

Two trumpeting spandrel angels face one another over the doors of St Olave, Hart Street.

North door, St Olave

You can read more about this historic church in my earlier blog Samuel Pepys and his ‘own church’.

This angel by the door of All Hallows by the Tower holds a shield bearing the cross of St Andrew. Above is the crossed sword emblem of the Diocese of London.

All Hallows by the Tower, north door

Fleet street is always great to visit given the vast range of subjects to explore.

Inside the door of St Dunstan in the West, Fleet Street…

Angels holding a commemorative plaque to the original architect (1830-1832) John Shaw. On his death the work was continued by his son, also John

The plaque reads:

The foundation stone of this Church was laid on the 27th day of July 1831 and consecrated to the worship of Almighty God on the 31st day of January 1833: John Shaw, Architect who died July 30th 1832, the 12th day after its external completion, and in the 57th year of his age. To his memory this tablet is here placed by the Inhabitants of this Parish.

Ever since one of my earliest blogs, Philanthropic Fountains, I have a bit of  a ‘thing’ about drinking fountains so I shall digress from angels momentarily.

Just outside St Dunstan’s is this pretty but sadly timeworn fountain designed by John Shaw junior. The inscription is really hard to read but I believe it says …

The gift of Sir James Duke Bart MP ald. of this ward

The fear of the Lord is the fountain of life

Elected Lord Mayor 1848

MP London 1849

Fountain detail

An Art Deco trumpeting angel called The Herald graces 85 Fleet Street. The sculpture is by William Reid Dick and was unveiled by Sir Edwin Lutyens himself on 10 July 1939. The Times stated that The Herald was

Sending forth through her trumpet the news gathered from all corners of the Earth …

The Herald

And finally to St Bartholomew the Great via St Paul’s Cathedral.

Emily Young FRBS is one of the country’s foremost stone sculptors and you can enjoy her work in the form of Angels I to V in the courtyard beside St Paul’s Cathedral. I never tire of looking at them.

 

And finally some more classical angels at the church of St Bartholomew the Great …

They support the coat of arms of the founding patron King Henry I (reigned 1100-1135)

 

City Animals 2

Animals are everywhere in the City and, after some really nice feedback on my previous City Animals blog, I have decided to put together another selection.

First up is this magnificent leaping fox. It appears on the exquisite Grade II listed Art Deco shopfront of the Fox company, who manufactured and repaired umbrellas. Mr Fox opened his first shop in the City in 1868 but this shop dates from 1935. You can still purchase a classy Fox umbrella if you go to their website, but the shop is now a wine bar.

Fox and Company Limited, ‘Recovers’ and ‘Repairs’, 118 London Wall, EC2

It’s easy to understand why lion heads have been chosen to adorn so many late Victorian and early 20th Century buildings. They are fierce, brave, noble, the king of the beasts and, of course, immediately recognisable as a symbol of Great Britain in the heyday of Empire.

Grrrrr …. just look at those teeth and claws. Entrance to Salisbury House, London Wall

Once surrounded by the throbbing printing presses of Fleet Street newspapers, Gough Square is today a quiet haven off the noisy main road. Now known as Dr Johnson’s House, 17 Gough Square was built by one Richard Gough, a City wool merchant, at the end of the seventeenth century. It is the only survivor from a larger development and Dr Johnson lived here from 1748 to 1759 whilst compiling his famous disctionary.

17 Gough Square

Nearby, Johnson’s most famous cat, Hodge, is remembered by this attractive bronze by John Bickley which was unveiled by the Lord Mayor, no less, in 1997. Hodge sits atop a copy of the dictionary and alongside a pair of empty oyster shells. Oysters were very affordable then and Johnson would buy them for Hodge himself. James Boswell, in his Life of Johnson, explained why:

I never shall forget the indulgence with which he treated Hodge, his cat: for whom he himself used to go out and buy oysters, lest the servants having that trouble should take a dislike to the poor creature

People occasionally put coins in the shell for luck and every now and then Hodge is given a smart bow tie of pink lawyers’ ribbon.

‘A very fine cat, a very fine cat indeed’, said Johnson

And from a famous cat to mysterious mice. Nibbling a piece of cheese, they add charm to a building in Philpot Lane off Eastcheap and have been described (rather nicely, I think) as London’s smallest sculpture. Even though they have been repainted they are still a bit hard to find – so I am not saying precisely where they are, and hopefully you will enjoy looking for them. One theory is that the builders in 1862 were pestered by mice who persistently ransacked their lunch packs, so they left this little informal tribute. Another is that they commemorate a man who died during the construction of the nearby Monument to the Great Fire. Mice had eaten his lunch, but he accused a fellow worker by mistake, and fell to his death in the fight that followed. As to the true story behind the little rodents, your guess is as good as mine.

The Philpot Lane mice

And now another cat.

Hanging signs were once a major feature of London’s streets and were encouraged by Charles I in order to help people find their way around at a time when many could not read. Needless to say, they became immensely popular with businesses, and proliferated to such an extent that they posed a threat to life and limb in times of storm and windy weather. When, in 1718, one brought about the collapse of an entire building frontage and killed four people it was obvious something had to be done. Nonetheless but it was not until 1762 that businesses were forced to remove them and fix them to shopfronts instead – just as we see today. The Cat and Fiddle sign in Lombard Street harks back to a tavern of that name but was only erected in 1902, along with other replicas, to celebrate the coronation of Edward VII.

At the sign of the ‘Cat-a-Fiddling’ Lombard Street

And finally, this stunning black horse is part of the 2017 ‘Sculpture in the City’ project. It is at the corner of Bishopsgate and Wormwood Street,

‘The Black Horse’ (2015) by Mark Wallinger

Ship Ahoy!

I really like The Gherkin a.k.a. 30 St Mary Axe and it’s interesting to recall that when it was completed in 2003 it dominated that part of the City. Now it’s sad to see soaring new office developments beginning to surround it so it’s unique shape is gradually being hidden from view. When it was finished it was for a while informally known as The Swiss Re building, after the company that commissioned it for their London headquarters, but some wag said it looked like ‘an erotic gherkin’ and the description stuck. It’s probably a shame for the company that their award-winning building had its name hijacked like this, even though they no longer own it.

Ship’s prow in Bury Street

Anyway, you may be wondering what the connection is with the magnificent Art Deco ship’s prow in the photograph above. Bear with me.

The Gherkin is built on the site of the old Baltic Exchange, which was eventually demolished as a result of an IRA bomb in 1992. The clearing of the area to provide an open space around the Gherkin opened up for the first time a new view of Holland House in Bury Street. This was at one time one of the narrowest streets in the City but the west side was demolished to open up the Gherkin ‘piazzetta’ (the name for a little piazza, I’m told). So the Holland House architect originally designed the building to be viewed obliquely.

Holland House with the Gherkin reflected in its windows

Holland House is fascinating for a number of reasons. For example, it was built in 1916 right in the middle of the First World War and the year of the Somme. The Dutch company Wm. H. Müller who commissioned it were big in shipping, steel and mining. In its feature on the building, the journal Building Design comments as follows: ‘The company thrived in the neutrality of the Netherlands … and there were scarcely any British clients who could, or would, invest in such a large city building. The glazed terracotta bricks (made in Delft) were sent to London in the firm’s ships and given priority over other cargoes’. It is also the only building in London by Hendrik Petrus Bertage, the foremost Dutch architect of the 20th Century and is one of the first in London to have a steel framed structure.
But what about the ship!
Walk around to the south east corner of the building, step back and admire this brave vessel plunging through the waves towards you, the funnel smoking impressively. It’s a granite structure by the Dutch artist J. Mendes da Costa and reflects the company’s main business of shipping.
I love this story about the ship’s positioning.
Apparently the company owner, Helene Kröller-Müller, had wished to buy the whole of the Bury Street corner, but had been thwarted by the adjacent owners who refused to sell. As a consequence, Holland House is broken into two sections, and it has been suggested that the aggressive prow of the ship was intended to ‘cock a snook’ at the neighbours.

The ship’s prow with the Gherkin in the background

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