In the City
Philip Ward-Jackson’s Public Sculpture of the City of London[*] is the seventh volume of Public Sculpture of Britain. It does for public sculpture (but not sculpture inside churches or galleries) what Simon Bradley and Nikolaus Pevsner do for the buildings the sculpture is on (or near) in The Buildings of England volume on The City of London. In a way it does more. While buildings have to be interesting in themselves to get into Pevsner, Ward-Jackson can put everything in. The small and anecdotal – the little bronze of Dr Johnson’s cat Hodge in Gough Square, for example – is given the same kind of attention as large allegorical figures celebrating power, commerce, fame and sacrifice.
With Ward-Jackson’s book in hand I walked about the empty City on a bank holiday Saturday. I had in mind a statement Eric Gill made in a lecture in 1937: ‘You cannot improve machine-made buildings by the addition of hand-made sculpture.’ Buildings with sculpture and sculptural decoration were still going up when he said that – he himself had done Prospero and Ariel on Broadcasting House – and direct carving, carving by the artist not by technicians mechanically copying a plaster original, was fashionable. In the same lecture Gill castigates architects and patrons for building in historical styles, but there was no need to do this. The new technology would soon win. So although I was going to look at sculpture on what he describes as ‘grand, swagger buildings with expensive-looking carving on them’, I was also interested in seeing how the sculpture made in the late 1980s and early 1990s for the Broadgate development was standing up. There you can see the consequences for sculpture of the choice that Gill reckoned to be inevitable: ‘Either,’ he said, ‘we must abandon our industrialism, and return to humane methods of working and building, or we must build industrial buildings’ (his italics).
The Chartered Accountants were a young professional organisation when, in 1888, they commissioned John Belcher to design their Institute on a site behind Moorgate. It is bordered by narrow streets – Great Swan Alley and Moorgate Place. The architect and the sculptor he commissioned, Hamo Thornycroft, were both members of the Art Workers’ Guild, and committed to the integration of art and architecture. Belcher’s ambitions for the sculpture on his building were great: ‘the exemplar was Michelangelo, but the analogies he drew were also with music and poetry . . . the rhythm of the placing of the sculptural element was of paramount importance.’ He finished up with about the most richly peopled façade in London. A frieze of ‘those varied interests which look to the Chartered Accountants for financial guidance and order’ runs round the building. Justice (a late suggestion by the sculptor) stands above the corner oriole and almost hides four accountants. The architectural elements are held together by sculptural decoration including winged terms and mermen. Correspondents to the Accountant might have their jokes (the frieze should ‘show a row of figures balancing themselves’), but it was still possible to present a profession symbolically without irony.
Compare it with Lutyens’s Britannic House of 1921-25. The architectural ornament is of that easy and delectable kind which mimics nature: the acanthus leaves of Corinthian capitals, garlands and trophies in the manner of Wren and Grinling Gibbons. There are standing figures by Francis Derwent Wood: a Britannia, an Indian water-carrier, a Persian dancing-girl – the building was the headquarters of the Anglo-Persian Oil Company, now BP. But these are widely spaced and stand alone, almost as anonymous in both style and subject as the decorative keystones over the deep-set windows by Broadbent and Sons. Just as polite 18th-century architecture can seem to accuse Hawksmoor’s heavy elements of roughness and lack of finesse, so this building with its wide expanses of plain Portland stone has a smooth, light competence which expresses a not quite credible confidence in late Imperial power with an effortless, even light-hearted aplomb quite different from the seriousness of the accountants’ Institute.
In the late decades of the 20th century sculpture finally lost its foothold on the City’s niche-free walls and landed with a thump in the forecourt or the atrium. Postmodern designs have hints of pilasters, friezes and capitals, but only in lego-like abbreviation. Hand carving no longer spreads like stone embroidery. Sculptures are now no more a statement of what goes on in a building than the flowers on the receptionist’s desk. Reading Ward-Jackson you follow the transition from the peopled wall to the free-standing but unloved sculptural statement, ‘the proverbial turd in the plaza’.
When the Broadgate development was being planned, the decision to include major pieces of sculpture was a gesture towards civility. There was no place for it on the buildings themselves: the real sculpture stands in the spaces between, which are far wider than Great Swan Alley, but also more gloomy when in shadow, like a river-bed in a canyon. This makes the forward moving figures in George Segal’s Rush Hour (not visible at the moment due to refurbishment) seem more oppressed than they need be, and Serra’s Fulcrum feel both very large and very constricted.
Some buildings once seemed to need sculpture: the accountants wanted to advertise modern responsibility, universal probity and solid prosperity; Britannic House to articulate late Imperial commercial confidence. Broadgate was a development in which the architecture could signify nothing specific about the occupants – they are only tenants – and sculpture which was integral to the buildings might embarrass in proportion to its eloquence or even its charm. Quite a lot of consumer research has been done into the effects of the sculpture there and critics have had their say. There is general agreement about Serra’s piece: it is large, heavy, perhaps threatening. But the conclusions drawn are various: on the one hand, it’s held to express ‘contempt for Broadgate’ and to imply that ‘the complex has only a limited future’; on the other, its ‘primitivising’ aspect is seen as ‘commendable’ in ‘this parvenu cityscape’. Much of the work in Ward-Jackson’s tally of City sculpture shares this tendency to be eloquent in ways that those who commissioned it, or even those who made it, could not have planned.
[*] Liverpool, 520pp., £67.50 and £32.50, February, 0853239673