Archive for October, 2011

Tower by Nigel JonesAs you know, our logo is the Tower. The perfect representation of London history, I reckon. Along with Westminster Hall, it’s the oldest standing building we have. So here was a welcome opportunity to read this new book on the subject, and build on my quite frankly sketchy knowledge of the place.

Tower is a history for the general reader and Nigel Jones has trodden a well-worn path, obviously. But unless you are deeply familiar with the Tower of London’s history, this is the book for you. It is breezy, exciting and despite much grim subject matter, often humorous. The author demonstrates that the history of the Tower is not only the history of London, but the history of post-Norman England. Power holders and power seekers from all parts of the country lived and and often enough died at the Tower. So the book, by default, is also a history of England. For the amateur historian (especially), the web of relationships, alliances, intrigue and betrayal in the pursuit of power – particularly from the Wars of the Roses through to the late 18th Century – is almost impossible fully to grasp. Tower goes a long way to solving this problem.

Many think of the Tower of London as synonymous the Norman White Tower. Some, I believe, consider the White Tower and the Bloody Tower to be the same building. Most do realise that the complex actually comprises many towers, but nonetheless may still think that enemies of the state were all banged up in the White Tower and also that the crown jewels are kept there. This book succeeds in banishing these misconceptions. One of the pleasures of reading it is constantly to reference the illustrated map on the front and back end-papers to figure out where the action is actually taking place.

tower of london

The common perception of the Tower of London is that of grim dungeons, torture and death. In fact, many of its prisoners lived very comfortably, mingled with visitors and friends, and were permitted to roam the complex with relative freedom. But overall, these were the exceptions. Most of the stories related here are savage, sad and traumatic in the extreme.  Tower not only reinforces the perception, but reminds one how unremittingly cruel and violent our history has been.

Subject matter which spans the ages are treated in separate chapters, the menagerie and the mint, for example. But my favourite has to be the chapter Great Escapes, a welcome light diversion after so much bloodiness. Most attempts are littered with blunders and miscalculations, almost all ultimately unsuccessful. They have all the usual ingredients: filed bars, makeshift ropes, shinning down sewer pipes, disguise as a woman, prisoner-visitor switcheroo, secret correspondence, invisible ink, bribing the screws, and so on. No 20th Century movie escape caper uses methods not tried before at the Tower. The story of lovers Arabella Stuart and William Seymour was only half successful, the outcome therefore heartbreaking. The tale of the resourceful Edmund Nevill involving three almost successful breaks for freedom is as hilarious as it is uplifting and at least had a happy ending insofar as he lived to tell it, albeit in exile.

You’ll be relieved to know that Tower is not all about ravens and beefeaters. It is not, really, even so much about the building. It is, rather, the story of the people who occupied it: traitors, martyrs, kings, queens, lords and princes; heroes and cowards; soldiers and officials; poets, writers, politicians. You didn’t really count if you hadn’t spent time there in whatever capacity. Nigel Jones tells their story with panache. Tower is as entertaining as it is informative.

Totally coincidentally, Nigel Jones is talking at the History of London festival with Leo Hollis on 23 November in Kensington, an evening which London Historians is co-sponsoring. Bonus!

Tower. An Epic History of the Tower of London by Nigel Jones (2011), 456pp, is published by Hutchinson. Cover price is £20.00, but available for considerably less.

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Afternoon Yomp

Yesterday afternoon’s project was to replenish our leaflets at some of our august institutions, including Museum of London, National Portrait Gallery and the Foundling Museum. For various reasons, I left home later than planned and forgot my A-Z. It was a glorious warm and sunny afternoon, so once in town, I was disinclined to travel further Underground – what a waste. This meant hard yomping against the clock without a map. I’m pleased to report that my street savvy has come on leaps and bounds the past year or so: didn’t get lost, didn’t ask directions. I managed to fire off some snaps.

I have loads of pictures of St Paul’s. But none of it being strafed by a blimp.

St Paul'sOne of our members drew my attention to a 3D model of London at the Building Centre in Store Street. This institution promotes (as far as I can tell in the short time I had there) London city planning and British architecture. The model is large and comprehensive, running from beyond the Thames Barrier in the east to Wandworth in the west. I think the main point of it is to show the route of Crossrail. Whatever, it’s an amazing thing. A churlish quibble on my part might be that it has no contours, but that would be a Big Ask, as they say on sports programmes.

the building centrethe building centrethe building centrethe building centreAs a Brentford boy, I was a bit miffed that the panel for Hounslow is tiny in relation to our neighbours’ in Ealing. Hounslow abuts a huge stretch of the Thames and eclipses Ealing in many departments, as my article in Londonist this week clearly demonstrates. (Note to Ealing readers: we love Ealing too – Pitzhanger Manor tomorrow!).

the building centreRoute march from Store Street to Broadcasting House, great view of the BT Tower.

BT TowerI am not one of life’s demonstrators, really. The last stuff I did was anti-Mugabe action outside Zimbabwe House in the early 2000s (still going strong most weekends, incidentally). Final duty of the day was to front up at the demonstration at Broadcasting House against cuts to local radio, specifically in our case, BBC Radio London. My favourites are Danny Baker and Robert Elms who between them steward the afternoon slots Monday – Friday. Danny, aka “Candyman”, is one of this country’s best radio broadcasters, in my opinion – an opinion not shared by all, but hey – possibly a Marmite thing. Robert is the station’s main champion of London history. His own knowledge is prodigious and he has some fascinating guests – authors, architects, curators, all sorts. Quite few members of London Historians too, as it happens, including little ol’ me on one occasion quite recently. I’ve also been on the Sunny and Shay slot on a Saturday evening a few times. So it’s a loyalty thing, partially. But for me, the main argument for BBC Radio London in particular – quite apart from its quality – is that it covers a catchment area that must include over 10 million people. So it is a special case.

I was a bit concerned that on the Facebook group for the demo only seven of us had clicked “Attending”. By ten to six there were only about a dozen of us in situ. Oh dear. But in the event, there must have been well over 100, some with placards. Our leader is someone known only to me as “John the Cabby”, in the nomenclature of radio phone-ins. It was all very jolly, everyone seemed to be committed and determined. There appeared to be quite a lot of media in attendance, but – surprise surprise – no politicians, local or otherwise. The organisers promise further demos.

bbc radio londonbbc radio londonbbc radio londonbbc radio london

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Haven’t done one of these for a bit. More funnies from the New Punch Library featuring early 20C cartoons.

Mr Punch in London Town

OFFICIAL FOR DOLE (calls on means test). How much have you got in the bank? APPLICANT Ten thousand pounds. OFFICIAL. Don't be silly. APPLICANT. Well, you started it. by GL Stampa.

Here’s a fine example of the wonderful economy and clean lines of Fougasse (Kenneth Bird) who was the first cartoonist to become editor of Punch.

Mr Punch in London Town.

"My good man. Can you only play one tune?" "Ain't one enough?" by Fougasse

Mr Punch in London Town

MAGISTRATE. So you acknowledge having stolen the overcoat. Anything more to say? PRISONER. Yes, your honour. I had to have the sleeves re-lined. by Gunning King.

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The British Library has launched a new blog called Untold Lives. Their posts are fascinating and they post frequently. 
A 17th Century Prison Doorway in Westminster
by Ian Visits
A Bridge Too Far by Shakespeare’s England
A Clerkenwell Miscellany by sketchesbyboz
Book Review: The Music Trade in Georgian England by Georgian London
11 Blows on His Buttocks by Shakespeare’s England
The Architectural Photography of Bedford Lemere & Co by Building Storeys
S is for Shelter by Caroline’s Miscellany
Deptford Ubiquarians by Caroline’s Miscellany
Whitechapel: gallery art, street art by Silver Tiger
The Victorian Pawnbroking Trade by the Victorianist
The History of Music Halls… by Virtual Victorian
The Victorian Artist GF Watts [a favourite of mine] by Virtual Victorian
Heads of the People by Lee Jackson
A Night Out in Victorian Soho by Lee Jackson
Thomas Cobham and the Ridolfi Plot by Mathew Lyons
Who’s to blame for the Shakespeare authorship controversy? by Mathew Lyons
Famous Londoners – Simon of Sudbury by Exploring London

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Whatever happened to pipes? My previous post shows Ruskin Spear with one and a few weeks ago, Clement Attlee. The 20th Century rooms at the National Portrait Gallery display dozens of their subjects clutching the briar: both sitter and artist clearly thought it an essential ingredient of a fellow’s persona. Recalling my school days, I reckon at least 10 out of the 30 or so teaching staff partook. A pipe gives one maturity and gravitas, you see – the sign of a deep thinker. Bill Bailey always brandishes an imaginary pipe when conveying this. That’s why so many young men took up the pipe in their 6th form year or if not then, certainly as a year 1 undergraduate. I know I did. And yet today, you see virtually nobody smoking a pipe and if you do, the chap will invariably be quite ancient – a throwback, indeed, to a lost age. You may well say this is a jolly good thing: I think it’s a pity.

evelyn waugh

Put out more pipes. Evelyn Waugh, as a young fogey.

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ruskin spear

© National Portrait Gallery

The National Portrait Gallery is my favourite art gallery in London. No matter how many times you go, there is always something you may not have paid attention to before which makes you go: Wow. Yesterday afternoon it was the portrait by Ruskin Spear of his fellow dauber, Francis Bacon.

I noticed that Spear was born in 1911. Hence, this year is the centenary of this most talented of 20th Century painters, and a good ol’ London boy to boot.

Ruskin Spear, RA was born on 30 June 1911 in Hammersmith. He won a scholarship to the Hammersmith School of Art at the age of 15 and a few years later another to the Royal College of Art. He was most influenced by Walter Sickert and the Camden Town Group. His career took off after his diploma show at the Royal College in 1934 although it was some time before he had his first one man show, in 1951. He was elected to the Royal Academy in 1954 and awarded the CBE in 1979. Spear taught at his alma mater, the Royal College of Art between 1948 and 1975, having taught previously at the Croydon College of Art.

Although an accomplished landscape and cityscape painter, Ruskin Spear is best remembered as a portrait artist. In addition to the noteworthies featured here, he also captured in oils Laurence Olivier, Lord Grade, Lord Hailsham and many others. He loved to hone his skills by painting, drawing, sketching the locals in the Hammersmith area, particularly in pubs: he was partial to a pint.

The pictures featured here clearly demonstrate the key attribute of the modern portrait master: the ability not just to do a good likeness, but to capture the essence of the subject’s character, not only as it actually is, but also as the public perceives it to be. Wilson is shifty, secretive; Bacon is scary and troubled; both are inscrutible.

ruskin spear

Francis Bacon (1984) © The National Portrait Gallery.

Ruskin Spear

Harold Wilson (1974). © The National Portrait Gallery.

The portrait of Sid James is particularly delightful, a quite recent acquisition by the NPG. James’ squishy comic face (described by somebody as a deflated leather football) is a gift to any portrait painter, so you feel that Spear has answered the directive to do something different. And here he has portrayed the comic actor in black and white on the telly as the TV viewer would experience him in his front room. Perspective is completely abandoned, giving the work a totally 2D feel. Here Spear has used collage in a pleasing way: not too much, not too little – just right. Painted in 1962, it strongly evokes the pre-Beatles brown world of post-war Britain. James is depicted amusingly, but funny in a sad way, confused and uncertain, again a reflection of the times. Masterly.

ruskin spear

Sid James (1962) © Estate of Ruskin Spear / Bridgeman Art Library http://www.bridgeman.co.uk

Spear suffered from polio from a youth and was wheelchair-bound much of the time. He died on 17 January 1990.

I am indebted to the National Portrait Gallery for their kind permission to use these superb images.

Portraits by Ruskin Spear in the National Portrait Gallery collection.
Portraits of Ruskin Spear in the National Portrait Gallery collection.
Portrait of the Week (Guardian, 2001).
Desert Island Disks. Spear was featured in 1973. Note bizarre selection of Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band. His son happened to be a band member!
Google Images.

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It’s taken me over 20 years to get around to shooting the magnificent art deco industrial buildings on my own doorstep. But I had to wait until the light was just so. Like this afternoon.

The stretch of the Great West Road which they flank is known as the Golden Mile and we Brentfordians are rightly proud of them. They were built more or less in the decade from the late 1920s to the late 1930s. The legendary Art Deco specialists Wallis, Gilbert and Partners loom large. Many of the buildings were erected by American manufacturers who needed to establish UK bases to get around trade tariffs. On the north side of the road we have the brick Gillette building which dominated the area until the massive Glaxo SmithKline steel and glass complex was raised in recent years. Gillette moved their manufacturing to Poland in 2006. The building is currently disused.

On the south, partially opposite GSK we have three classic units along a stretch of several hundred yards, all cream/white. These were at one time counterbalanced by the legendary Firestone factory opposite, on the north side. Tragically, this building was hurredly demolished by developers over a weekend in 1980 before the authorities could get it listed. All that remains are some forlorn Art Deco lamposts at the west gate. Unbelievably, the rather fetching central gate was torn down in 2004 to make way for extra parking.

If you’d like to visit these lovely structures, I recommend you park in PC World car park (in West Cross complex, where Firestone was), or take a short walk from Brentford or Syon Lane mainline stations.

I have omitted Wallis House (old Beechams building), further to the east next to the M4 flyover. Also Wallis, Gilbert & Partners, c1940. Picture here.

Brentford Golden Mile

Gillette Building, Sir Bannister Flight Fletcher, 1936-37.

Brentford Golden Mile

Gillette Building

Brentford Golden Mile

Westlink House, former Pyrene (fire extinguishers) Building, Wallis, Gilbert & Partners, 1930

Brentford Golden Mile

Westlink House

Brentford Golden Mile

Art Decaux! JC Decaux building, formerly HQ of Currys, 1936.

Brentford Golden Mile

JC Decaux building

Brentford Golden Mile

Former HQ of Coty Cosmetics, Wallis, Gilbert & Partners, 1932

Brentford Golden Mile

Old Coty Cosmetics building

Brentford Golden Mile

This lamp post is a surviving reminder of the Firestone factory, destroyed in 1980.

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