Wednesday, 30 April 2008

Albertopolis Part Two

The second stage of our exploration of Albertopolis brings us to the Gothic Revival extravaganza that is the Albert Memorial. Designed by George Gilbert Scott, it serves as a lavish expression of a singular monarchical obsession with commemorating the life and legacy of the late Prince Consort. Scott had the additional responsibility of co-ordinating the large team of sculptors, designers and craft workers. A gilded statue of a many times life-size Prince Albert is seated beneath a gilded canopy supported on marble pillars and surmounted by a pediment and spire and a profusion of ornamental detail. Two groups of four figure sculptures surround the canopy, the inner group representing the industrial arts and science, the outer group representing Europe, Asia, Africa and America. The entire ensemble is a perfect distillation of High Victorian values of dignity and respect, industry and effort, scholarship and discovery overlaid with an imperial narrative of subjection and colonisation. British History Online has a very detailed history of the commissioning process.

It is pleasing that the memorial is free of military associations. Religious piety and virtue don’t get much of a look in, which is equally refreshing. Contemporary critics were quick to take offence at this. The Times commented that Prince Albert’s life was being celebrated for the wrong reasons (his contribution to the arts and sciences) and should more properly have been honoured for his ‘princely ... example of purity of life'. There’s little doubt that the relentless aggregation of ornament was a major contributory factor in the mid-Twentieth Century abhorrence of all things Victorian and the first signs of this rejection were to be found at the time of its completion when a writer in The Pall Mall Gazette dismissed it as ‘organic nullity disguised beneath superficial exuberance’.

Time moves on and each generation experiences the memorial within a different historical context. There is no denying how resplendent it looks after many years of restoration and there are many ways to respond to it. It can be seen as a glorious relic of a distant but fascinating imperial past; product of an age of apparent certainties. Distance has the effect of lending a note of the exotic, especially in the sculptural groups created in an era of very different cultural sensibilities. At the very least, it remains an extraordinary convergence of decorative skills, assembled and combined with an almost reckless sense of confidence.

Tuesday, 29 April 2008

Albertopolis Part One

A short walk through Albertopolis from South Kensington station to Hyde Park remains one of London’s more diverting attractions. The concentration of institutions devoted to conservation, scholarship and learning is unique in the city and the highest ideals of the Victorian era have shaped the buildings and infrastructure. Albertopolis has a lineage that goes back to the Great Exhibition of 1851 being constructed on land that was acquired with the proceeds of the exhibition. there is even a concealed alignment linking the central portal of the Natural History Museum with the Albert Memorial almost half a mile to the north in Hyde Park.

Alfred Waterhouse’s terracotta clad Natural History Museum is the finest and most distinctive of all the great institutional buildings with a wealth of architectural ornament and an abundance of modelled and moulded representations of the natural world. Like most great Victorian structures, it offers two levels of interpretation, the first being mass, volume and profile – the big picture, and secondly, the surface detail, the application of ornament on such a vast scale that the building can literally be read from start to finish like a work of reference. Even the presence of numerous coachloads of visitors cannot detract from the pleasure of a leisurely inspection of the elevations; the scale of the building and the generosity of its plot can effortlessly minimise their impact.

Many of Waterhouse’s drawings for decorative features have survived and form the subject of a published study by Colin Cunningham, “The Terracotta Designs of Alfred Waterhouse”. Remarkably, Waterhouse’s designs are to be found not only in the prominent areas of the building on corbels and capitals, parapets, arches and columns but in many of the least visible areas such as air-bricks and soffits. An enormous menagerie of living creatures memorialised in clay and embedded in meshes of natural forms from the world of plants is scattered across every surface. Repetition of geometric forms and the use of poly-chromed clay and brickwork add to the effect. Virtually no aspect of the building is ornament-free and the result is spectacular but indigestible. This is architecture as narrative, where the function of the building dictates an all-embracing decorative scheme of mind-bending complexity.

For me, the second highlight of Albertopolis is the spectacular street scene created by Richard Norman Shaw’s Albert Mansions apartment blocks of 1879 to 1886. These predominantly red brick structures of 8 or 9 storeys are at their most impressive where their facades curve to partially encircle the Albert Hall. The sense of verticality is unusual for London where the horizontal more often prevails and the eerie silence of the almost deserted streets offers an experience rarely enjoyed in such a hyper-active and noisy city. The gables, balconies and sash windows all contribute to the sense of quality. Glimpses of the Albert Hall serve as reminders of the Victorian passion for narrative facades. Terracotta inscriptions enfold the building in a typically Victorian blend of piety of expression and assertion of imperial power. The final image below is of the Albert Memorial reflected in the glazing of the Albert Hall.

Wednesday, 23 April 2008

Post-Imperial Advertising

Today’s images are, with th exception of the Ovaltine ad in monochrome, from Times of India Annuals of the 1950’s. They reflect the post-colonial realities and for the first time, the indigenous consumer takes priority. It’s interesting to note how Ovaltine progressed from a convalescent drink designed to bring relief to the weary colonial administrator, enervated by the exigencies of life in the tropics, to a soothing bedtime drink for the hard working Indian populace. The cosmetic products on offer hint at an Asian sensuality, especially in the case of Afghan Snow where a decidedly risqué image was deployed. There is irony in the repeated use of the word ‘discrimination’ given that the same word defined political discourse in Britain around the subject of racism in the 1950’s and 1960’s.

Monday, 21 April 2008

More Imperial Advertising

This is a follow-up to a posting on August 18th. last year. These images are from Times of India Annuals of the 1930’s. The products on offer reflect the concerns of the colonial consumer with an emphasis on personal grooming, refrigeration and gardening. Many products are indigenous but some are imported and although, as will be shown in later postings, some advertisers adapted their UK marketing techniques to appeal to both coloniser and the colonised, there were many others who simply reproduced their UK campaigns with minimal revision. What we see here is the blueprint for the comfortable colonial life complete with obedient smiling servants. Plus a cut-out and keep ad for use in the event that you should become a crack marksman in the art of tiger shooting.

Thursday, 17 April 2008

David Watkin and Clara Schumann

Since his death in February, I have been reading the second volume of David Watkin’s autobiography which goes by the chirpy title, “Was Clara Schumann a Fag Hag?” This was his last labour of love, the printed copies being delivered only weeks before his death. The book has an episodic structure and the opening chapters on the early years and the entry into film-making are substantially the same as the material in volume one, the similarly interrogative, “Why is there only one word for Thesaurus?” As such, it tends to read as an expanded version of its predecessor although it’s none the worse for that.

The pleasure in reading this book is to hear again the author’s voice as he relates his vast fund of scandalous and wickedly funny anecdotes. Apparently born with an instinct to constantly go against the grain, his descriptions of growing up in a prosperous, boring and sober minded family are especially amusing. As a child, the offer to give up attending church for Lent could hardly be better devised to offend the Catholic sensibility of his parents. There is a disarming sense of modesty in the refusal to inflate his cinematic achievements or to paint himself in a flattering light.

He was proud of his ability to sleep soundly through the frenzied activity of a film set and we are quickly convinced that arrogance played no part in this practice despite the notoriety it brought him. He explains it as simply a practical way of arranging his time and conserving resources. In a way, it is emblematic of a certain kind of Englishness that seems to be on the verge of extinction in which an apparent air of utter nonchalance conceals an intense drive for perfectionism. Perhaps it develops from the notion that to display the serious minded demeanour popularly associated with high professional standards is no more than an exercise in bad manners or, even worse, a device for the concealment of mediocrity.

His inventive approach to cinematography and his unorthodox innovations already have their place in the history of cinema. What this book achieves is something he held to be of even greater importance, it seals his achievement of a rich and full life, consistently lived well and always with great good humour and relish for the absurd. For more on David Watkin, please visit

Monday, 14 April 2008

Postcards of the Day No. 14 and 15

Two fine early 20th. century colour cards of Parisian landmarks at Porte Saint-Denis and Porte Saint-Martin. These monumental triumphal arches were put in place to glorify the military victories of Louis XVI in the latter part of the 17th. century. In 1848 the area was the scene of working class insurrection and in 1855, Queen Victoria became the last monarch to pass through the arch of Porte St-Denis on the occasion of her visit to the Exposition Universelle. Today their lack of depth and constrained position within the street grid gives them an incongruous air. Both out of scale with their surroundings yet curiously insubstantial when compared with the Arc de Triomphe with its massive bulk surrounded by the vast acreage of the Place de l’Étoile. The advertising kiosks, the hand painted signage, the news kiosks and the vintage forms of transport provide a wealth of period detail. This area is today a fascinating border zone where many different aspects of the modern city exist cheek by jowl. A short walk to the west will bring you to the Bd Haussmann and ‘les grands magasins’, to the east is Place de la République, the gateway to traditional working class Paris. North of Porte St-Martin is the Bd de Strasbourg, a street lined with businesses almost exclusively catering to minority communities, and the great railway termini, Gare de l’Est and Gare du Nord. The Bd de Sébastopol runs south to les Halles, Châtelet and the rue de Rivoli. The 2 photographs were taken last December and show the triumphal arches looking in fine condition.