We went to hear Vanessa Redgrave read a selection of letters by Vanessa Bell to mark her move from London to Charleston a hundred years ago. The letters to Roger Fry, her sister Virginia and her lover Duncan Grant conveyed the pleasures and privations of their early years at Charleston in the closing years of the First World War, the birth of her daughter Angelica by Duncan Grant, the eating of grouse by T.S. Eliot and her reading of The Waves, the tragedy of the death of her oldest son Julian in the Spanish Civil War and the marriage of her daughter Angelica to Bunny Garnett, her father’s former lover. Charleston was both creative and incestuous. Redgrave’s reading conveyed the anguish of what happened there.
I was wandering along Piccadilly last week thinking that it is a while since I have done an architectural post (not quite true, I know) and have been meaning to find out more about J.C. Cording & Co. whose flamboyant brass lettering announces their shop. The history of the shop is, as I guessed, interesting: first established in 1839 on the Strand for the supply of waterproofs, they moved to Piccadilly in 1877. When the street was widened, Cordings resisted and kept their original façade. It’s now owned by Eric Clapton. Oddly, I can’t find out anything about the building which is omitted by Pevsner:-
I went to Westminster Cathedral to attend the afternoon high mass in honour of Tom Phillips’s new mosaics in the Chapel of St. George the Martyr which commemorate the English Martyrs – and not just to attend the Mass, but to see the work itself. It’s very in character, part of the Cathedral’s commitment to commissioning mosaics from contemporary artists, including Tom and Leonard McComb:-
I also hadn’t seen, which I should have done, the very fine carving by Eric Gill, his last work, of Christ Triumphant in the same chapel:-
Since it is a beautiful sunny lunchtime, I called in at St. Andrew-by-the-Wardrobe (once called St. Andrew juxta Baynard Castle) just along the road from Blackfriars Station. It was Wren’s last church, chatacteristically simple in design, built in the 1690s, but completely gutted on the night of 29 December 1940. It was surprisingly sympathetically reconstructed in the 1960s with a pulpit and font which came from St. Matthew, Friday Street:-
I have now been sent an image of a watercolour of the new Unilever House, as done by James Lomax Simpson, its original architect and (unusually for an architect) a Board member of Lever Brothers. It’s dated 1929. Note the Lux wagon parked outside:-
With kind permission from Unilever Plc, from an original held in Unilever Archives
I started the day with a meeting with the Head of Records of Unilever who gave me a booklet about the history of Unilever House. It was built on the site of the gardens of Bridewell Palace, which, in 1553, was given to the City of London as a workhouse. In the early nineteenth century, there was a gasworks between Bridewell Prison and the river. The gasworks closed in 1873 and De Keyser’s Hotel opened on the site the following year to serve continental travellers from Blackfriars Station. The hotel was in turn requisitioned in the first world war as the headquarters of the Royal Flying Corps and was acquired as the headquarters of Lever Bros. in 1924. But the hotel was inadequate to the task and the old building was demolished in 1930, the year that Unilever was established, to make way for the new company headquarters.
I have only just discovered that Anthony Bryer, my first cousin by marriage, died on Saturday. He was a big figure in my childhood – teaching at Birmingham University, living in Harborne, a deeply erudite Byzantinist and great authority on Trebizond. Each year he organised an International Symposium of Byzantine Studies which was a mixture of scholarship and showbiz and was mistrusted by the profession for the same reason that Steven Runciman was mistrusted for being too worldly. We spent Christmas 1976 with him in Dumbarton Oaks, alone with a fridge full of frozen food and twisted cigars which he had bought in the local supermarket. Bryer, as he was always known in the family, was much in my mind as I read the Runciman biography as he is quoted as a friendly critic of Runciman’s more esoteric Byzantine scholarship.
It’s probably a benefit to Hastings that it is so hard to get to, although there has been talk about upgrading the line for as long as I remember. It means that it has retained a great deal of its seaside shabbiness – the peeling stucco in Wellington Square and the junk shops in the Old Town. I like it:-
I went down to the Jerwood Gallery for lunch because I wanted to see its exhibition of 100 Modern British Artists which shows off the best of two collections of Modern British Art, the Jerwood and the Ingram. I was pleased to see that there is a policy of indicating whether or not the artists were RAs and that the great majority were – Dod Procter as well as Laura Knight, Glyn Philpot, William Roberts, the landscape artists of the 1950s, John Aldridge, Tristram Hillier (a very good artist represented by a particularly memorable Crucifixion) and Richard Eurich, through to Carel Weight, the now too forgotten guru of the RCA, and Mary Fedden. There is a presumption, fostered by the Bloomsbury Group and not helped by Alfred Munnings, that the RA in the mid-twentieth century was hopelessly reactionary, but this exhibition does much to refute this, showing a great deal of work influenced by surrealism and social realism, as well as the neo-romantics.
I have been mourning the possible closure of Walsall Art Gallery, which was one of the great beacons of cultural revival in the late 1990s, made possible by the lottery, one of the first works by Adam Caruso and Peter St. John, invented and presided over by Peter Jenkinson, bringing art out of major metropolitan areas into ex-industrial towns. I remember travelling to it on a small branch line from Birmingham with a group of Japanese tourists and admiring its stately entrance hall and upstairs galleries. So what has gone wrong ?