Thursday, 30 October 2008

Tony Sarg

Between 1912 and 1914 Tony Sarg (1880 – 1942) designed over 30 posters for London Transport, more than half were based on birds-eye views of crowd scenes in which a vast number of tiny animated figures were observed and recorded enjoying the pleasures of city life. When war broke out he relocated to the USA and developed a new career as a master puppeteer while continuing to illustrate the occasional book for children. In the mid 1920’s he produced a series of drawings in which he applied the visual idiom of his London studies to the city of New York. In 1927 twenty-four such drawings were published in picture book format with the title Up & Down New York.

This book was reissued last year in a facsimile edition and could serve as a master-class in the art of portraying the modern city. Sarg’s artfully chosen city landmarks are populated by turbulent teeming crowds that surge to and fro in frenzied motion. A happy combination of a gestural drawing style and a precise spatial framework conveys to perfection the energy and dynamism of the world’s first great metropolis. These images bring the city to life in the same way that the covers of The New Yorker (launched 2 years earlier in 1925) so often do. A small selection here with a focus on transport and outdoor advertising plus a timely observation of stock market panic.

Wednesday, 29 October 2008

Devonshire Blue

It sounds like a cheese but in this instance it’s a shade of blue that must be applied to all woodwork on homes on the Chatsworth Estate. Edensor (pronounced Enzor) is an estate village just off the road from Rowsley to Chatsworth in Derbyshire. It was developed in 1838-40 when the 6th. Duke of Devonshire could no longer tolerate the sight of the old village of Edensor from the windows of Chatsworth House and dispatched Joseph Paxton to find a new site to which it could be moved. All the residents were employees of the Chatsworth Estate and the generous housing provision in the rebuilt village suggests that most of them occupied senior positions within the hierarchy. These are unlikely homes for agricultural labourers.

What makes estate villages different is that they possess a singularity of vision that most other villages do not. Organic growth is replaced by centralised planning. The quality of vision does not have to be especially elevated to be interesting but in this instance there is an emphasis on good design to appreciate. From what I can find out Paxton’s involvement went no further than selecting the site and advising on the layout. There was a policy of applying a wide variety of architectural styles to the individual houses but the only named architect I could find reference to was Sir Jeffery Wyattville who was employed in designing the two gate lodges - an Italianate villa and an English lodge.

The parish church (St Peter’s) was built 30 years later in 1870 on the site of a ruined Norman original to a design by Sir George Gilbert Scott. It has an elevated position and a prominent spire that give it a towering presence in the village. The body of Joseph Paxton was buried in the graveyard. JFK visited briefly in 1963 to pay his respects to his elder sister who is buried there. There are three such villages in this corner of Derbyshire and all sport Devonshire Blue in defiance of the English tradition of asserting individuality by choosing the least appropriate colours in which to paint your property. Curiously when these houses come on to the open market they are much sought after because the application of a house colour creates a sense of homogeneity and exclusivity. There’s an undertone of paternalism about the project and the master/servant relationship is implicit in every course of bricks. The quality that lingers in the imagination is the artificiality of the experience. There’s an absence of disorder, a lack of clutter and an imposed street-plan rather than one that has evolved.

Friday, 24 October 2008

County Arcade

A recent trip to Leeds provided an opportunity to sample the Italianate opulence of this late Victorian temple of commerce. The architect was the prolific designer of theatres, Frank Matcham. A profusion of polished, reflective and decorative chromatic surfaces imparts an emphatically theatrical quality to the arcade. In spirit, it feels like an intimate small scale version of Milan’s great Galleria and an Italian influence can be detected in the provision of three glazed domes, the extensive use of Siena marble and a decorative scheme that employed richly coloured mosaics and ceramic detailing in Burmantofts faience. The whole scheme combines into a dazzling and sumptuous setting in which to shop for luxury items.

Interest in Matcham’s work revived in the 1970’s after decades of neglect and the County Arcade was lovingly restored at great expense to its former glory in the early 1990’s. This involved rebuilding all but 6 of the original mahogany shop fronts. The deep perspectives are enhanced by the overhead repetition of beautifully decorated cast iron ribs and globe lighting pendants descending from ironwork braziers. While it may well be the case that the citizens of Leeds have not created an artistic and intellectual narrative around their arcades as happened in Paris, they can at least take satisfaction in the fact that no surviving passage couvert surpasses the decorative splendour of the County Arcade.

Wednesday, 22 October 2008

36 Jamaica Street

It’s curious how certain unremarkable images can haunt the imagination for decades becoming lodged in some remote cranial recess. An image of this building has fascinated me since I first came across it when studying A level History of Architecture many years ago. It seemed to represent a tangible link between Victorian technological ingenuity and the austere geometry of Modernism. The affinity with Paxton’s Crystal Palace led to the glazed facade that must have looked quite extraordinary when the building was completed in 1856. Prefabricated cast iron sections made it all possible and enabled the interior to be flooded with natural light. Even on a day of Glaswegian rain, the sight did not disappoint. The subtle sense of interval and proportion that guided the structural elements in the design combine with the wealth of ornamental surface detailing constrained within the structure to create a richly satisfying visual experience.

The design of the patented iron-work structure was the work of R McConnell. John Baird was responsible for the delicate ornamental scheme. For most of its existence it operated as a furniture warehouse, initially under the name of J Gardner, until 1985 when it was taken over by Martin & Frost of Edinburgh. After extensive refurbishment it opened as a J D Wetherspoon pub in August 2000. Another step in the evolution of the Wetherspoon chain as custodian of the nation’s architectural heritage.

Saturday, 4 October 2008

Hard Travellin’

The mighty turbines of rhetoric that produce this avalanche of trivia are slowly grinding to a halt. Google maps have been printed, bags are packed and the car filled with fuel. Everything is in place for a speedy departure in the direction of Yorkshire and Scotland in pursuit of arcane imagery and useless information. As usual, we’ll be equipped with a plentiful supply of out of date guidebooks. We may be sometime.

Friday, 3 October 2008

All Gold

Exciting news from the British Museum where a statue of Kate Moss, entitled Siren and made from gold by Marc Quinn has just been unveiled. Read what The Times has to say about it. The museum could not be a more appropriate location for this momentous event given its function as the storehouse of all that is finest in human creativity. Nobody can now accuse the museum of holding itself aloof from contemporary celebrity culture. As for Mr Quinn, his reputation for stunning creative leaps of the imagination that overturn all our preconceptions is surely unchallengeable. Kate Moss, with her sober and reflective lifestyle, her friendly and approachable manner, her modesty and her disdain for material values, gets nothing less than she richly deserves.

It’s an idle presumption to imagine that this artistic triumph could be improved upon but a modest proposal might not be entirely out of order. In 1961 Piero Manzoni produced, signed and numbered 90 tins each containing 30 gms of merda d’artista (artist’s shit) and offered them for sale in return for a sum equivalent to an equal weight of gold at that day’s prices. If the gold statue were melted down, the proceeds could be spent acquiring all the surviving tins. The tins could be opened and Mr Quinn, with due regard for Health and Safety, could model the contents into a new likeness of Ms Moss. Finally, there’s an opportunity for Ms Moss to make her contribution to the creative cycle by providing some of her own faeces to refill the empty tins. There would be no shortage of galleries willing to exhibit the results and Ms Moss would have the satisfaction of being a fully engaged member of the art community with a glittering future ahead of her.

Thursday, 2 October 2008

Tram Topics

Welcome to the second in an occasional series about trams – the last such posting was on the subject of Milan. There was a time in the early decades of the last century when the tram was the pre-eminent means of urban transport. In Britain it declined rapidly as the motor bus became the favoured choice. This did not happen to the same extent in mainland Europe where trams survive in numbers to the present day. These colour photographs, bought in a local antique market, come from the late 1960’s or 1970’s, a time when trams had long been banished from British streets where planners were hopelessly fixated on the dubious charm of the internal combustion engine.

The olive green vehicle in the uppermost image has a note on the back, Malmo, Sweden, Oct 1969, but none of the others have any information about where they were taken. The cream coloured tram appears to be in a French speaking city (Belgium?, Switzerland?) and the red and cream tram seems to be in a German speaking district. Any further information from someone more expert than myself in matters of identification would be very welcome.

Wednesday, 1 October 2008

Cut from the rock

Last Monday night BBC Radio 3 broadcast a programme in which the Classical sculptor, Alexander Stoddart, considered how the Mount Rushmore monument in South Dakota works as a sculpture. Stoddart expressed a low opinion of Gutzon Borglum’s sculptural competence but found that the power and scale of the setting of the monument enabled him to transcend his limitations on this occasion. There is symmetry in the way that this monument to America’s greatest presidents was inaugurated by Calvin Coolidge, recognised by many as the worst of American presidents. I read once that, as Washington was commemorated by a 555ft. obelisk, then Coolidge deserved nothing less than a 555ft. hole in the ground. The present incumbent may have an even stronger claim to this melancholy distinction and only 3 months remain in which he can fix his place in posterity. What is certain is that this monument has become an indispensable element in the Great American Iconography and that’s a good reason to display this postcard folder from 1949, some 8 years after completion of the project.

Blasting, drilling, wedging and chiseling went on for 14 years and the finished monument has some unique features including 22 inch projections around the iris of the presidential eyes to reflect light and produce an illusion of sparkle. Teddy Roosevelt’s spectacles present another very satisfying illusion by means of carved marks that define the form by the impact on the flesh above and below the eyes. As for scale, Borglum calculated that if the figures had been portrayed in their entirety they would have each been 450ft. in height.