Tag Archives: London art

He has been here and fired a gun

For years we had a very large print on our living room wall by London’s greatest artist, and arguably Britain’s too.

But let’s go back nearly 200 years to 1832 and Somerset House, the former home of the Royal Academy. There John Constable who a decade ago had painted an image, later to adorn every biscuit tin at Christmas, with an idiot getting his waggon stuck in a pond as a boy and dog look on incredulously.

The previous year Constable had had a row with a fellow Academician over him replacing Caligula’s Palace and Bridge with his own chocolate boxy view of a large grey church.

Now, in the gallery of the Royal Academy, before the exhibition commencement, Constable was putting the finishing touches to Opening of Waterloo Bridge, a painting he had worked on for a decade.

I know little about painting, but a few rules I understand. There comes a time when a piece of work becomes overworked, the secret is knowing when to stop. Also, every painting needs a ‘hero’, a point of light, colour or interest to which the eye is drawn before examining the rest of the canvas. This hero should be positioned along the ‘golden ratio’ a point where the eye naturally alights. Numerous mathematical formulae calculate where this falls, but unless you are a master draftsman like Tracy Emin, it’s two-thirds down and one-third across to you and me.

Opening of Waterloo Bridge by John Constable

So here at the Royal Academy is Constable fiddling around with his masterpiece in the last days before public viewing when in shambles the very painter he had argued with this time last year, and whose painting now hung next to his own.

Joseph Mallord William Turner was the antithesis of John Constable. At 56 and only a year older, not that you’d know it, his personal hygiene needed attention, wearing a battered stovepipe hat, an old shiny black coat, and holding a umbrella-cum-swordstick. A large nose, protruding chin and remarkably short, this irascible old man, born in Covent Garden had lost none of his Cockney accent, but he was so confident of his genius he had proclaimed: “I am the great lion of the day”, modesty certainly wasn’t his forte.

Turner stood behind Constable for a time, walked away and returned with his palette and brushes. Walking up to his simple grey seascape, without hesitation added a daub of red, slightly bigger than a coin in the middle of the grey sea, and then left.

Helvoetsluys by JMW Turner

Fellow Academician, C. R. Leslie entered the room and observed how ‘the intensity of the red lead, was made more vivid by the coolness of Turner’s picture…causing Constable’s to look weak’.

Constable exclaimed, “He has been here, and fired a gun”.

Turner didn’t bother to come back for nearly two days, and then, in the last moments that were allowed for painting, shaped the red blob into a buoy.

That simple blob of paint was a bullet across his rival’s bows, showing that less is more. It also goes to explain why every year we have the Turner Prize awarded to the most innovative artists of the day, and not the Constable Prize.

Featured image: Keelmen Heaving in Coals by Moonlight, 1835 by Joseph Mallord William Turner


Hidden from view, the Centre Point fountains

There cannot be many post-war buildings which have stoked up as much controversy as Centre Point. Designed by Richard Seifert this brutalist building was completed in 1966 and at 398ft was the second-highest in London.

[T]HE CONTROVERSY did not stop at its uncompromising design as the building remained empty long after its completion. Centre Point’s developer, Harry Hyams, sat on a rising asset as its capital appreciation far outweighed the rental income with the added bonus that the un-let office block did not attract rates.

The fountains, nestled at the windy base of this building, caused by the downdraft as the wind hits its upper floors, once stood a blue mosaic lined pool with five triple-tined-Y-shaped fountains.

Operators of these fountains had an idiosyncratic approach to when they should be turned on. On hot summer evenings, girls waiting for the Astoria to open would sit on the fountain’s parameter wall staring at an empty pool safe in the knowledge they would remain dry. On windy winter nights, aided by the downdraft from 35 storeys above them, hapless pedestrians walking past would get soaked.

Wonky pyramids

Now where these iconic Grade II listed fountains once stood stands the gleaming new station for CrossRail, with its two wonky glass pyramids which the designers describe as crystal sculptural forms. Apparently, the fountains were removed to make way for the ventilation shafts for the new enlarged ticket hall, Transport for London refused to return the fountains to their original location because it was ‘simply not relevant to put something back that does not function.’

The Centre Point fountains were the work of German artist Jupp Dermbach-Mayen who built the fountains at his Swiss Cottage studio in 1963. The fountains, inspired according to Mireille Burton, the artist’s daughter, by designs he had seen at Alhambra, Grenada in Spain, were of different heights and were installed in a blue mosaic pool beneath the Centre Point tower. An integral part of the overall Centre Point design; the ‘Y’ flower shape of the fountains reflected the same ‘Y’ form as the pre-cast concrete inverted and faceted external mullions of the tower block above. The Twentieth Century Society claims the removal of them was symptomatic of a wider problem of post-war art being separated from its architectural context.

Public campaign

When the fountains’ removal was threatened, a public campaign was launched in 2009 to find them a new home. Various locations were suggested including Whitestone Pond in Hampstead where Dernbach-Mayen had been resident. Finally, however, through the intervention of the artist’s daughter and her husband the fountains were given to the Architectural Association. They are now being restored and will be installed at the site of the Association’s school for rural architecture at Hooke Park in Dorset, whether the fountains will be available for the public to view, and positioned in a blue-tiled pool remains to be seen.

Those infamously-sporadic concrete flower fountains will be missed, though . . .

Epstein’s door knob

Built above St. James’s Park Station in 1929 it was London’s first skyscraper and hailed as a masterpiece.

Except for one not so small detail which stuck out as unacceptable.

The greatest sculptors of the day worked in situ to decorate the building: Henry Moore, Eric Gill and to stand erect over the door canopy Jacob Epstein carved ‘Night’ and ‘Day’ to catch the public’s eye.

[C]HARLES HOLDEN DESIGNED THE BUILDING and had collaborated with Epstein before on the British Medical Association’s building in the Strand (now Zimbabwe House) which had caused a mighty outrage at the time, but these figures kept their full manhood’s for a time. Later in the 1930s a gentleman pedestrian was struck on the head by a falling stone phallus from one of the statues, and the other statues then were also rendered eunuchs to prevent similar mishaps.

Holden’s client for 55 Broadway was the legendary Frank Pick the man who did more to create today’s Underground than any other.

Naked abomination

When Epstein’s two figures were exposed there was a storm of reactionary fury, with newspaper leader columns advising men not to let their wives and daughters see these abominations. For ‘Night’ showed a naked muscular man sat with his legs apart and his hands in perhaps not the most appropriate position topped off with a self-satisfied smile on his face. His naked son is looking at his father but sculpted in profile allowing his penis to remain visible. Surely if he wanted a hug from Dad he would be facing away from the public? But Epstein was always a cocky character.

The protests were predictable, white paint was thrown over it, which no sooner had it been cleaned off, tar was ejaculated from a spray gun and was it not for the timely intervention of a police officer, a coating of feathers would have followed.

Frank Pick put the debate of the penis into his own hands, so to speak, and threatened to resign if its removal found favour with his superiors.

Overzealous depiction of manhood

Claims that the poor boy’s willy needed overzealous circumcision because rain ran down it and formed a perfect arc of water on to any hapless lady walking below – insert inappropriate innuendo – a compromise was agreed by reducing the affronting appendage by one-and-a-half inches. Just how public sensibilities were assuaged by this length was never revealed, but as James Bond once said it’s not good going off half-cocked.

At the time the whittled willy seemed to keep the public happy but now badly weathered and discoloured with streaks of dirt and will need a brisk rub down before future buyers of 55 Broadway will be satisfied with their purchase.

A version of this post was published by CabbieBlog on 5th November 2013

Peel House

Back in the mid-1980’s, when I was on the Knowledge, Peel House was nothing more than one of several Metropolitan Police section houses, providing accommodation for serving officers, that were supposedly favoured by Mr. Miller on an appearance. I never did get asked a police section house on my appearances and it was only whilst researching this article that I realised how important Peel House was to the Met.

[N]AMED, OF COURSE, after the founder of the Metropolitan Police, Sir Robert Peel, Peel House itself was not built until 1907, six decades after the death of the eponymous founder. It was here that all Metropolitan Police cadets were trained before they were let loose on the streets of London. This continued until the opening of Hendon Police College, or Peel Centre, in 1974.

For a while, Peel House became a section house before becoming empty for several years. It was then purchased by the Candy Brothers so that they could fulfill their contractual obligations by providing affordable housing in return for developing what became known as No 1, Hyde Park.

In 2010 Peel House was reopened, after being converted into 70 residential dwellings run by the Octavia Housing Trust. It was as I was driving past the building a couple of years ago that something caught my eye. Just to the left of the main entrance is a huge, 4.3m by 1.2m bronze panel depicting an all too common scene in Victorian London – a policeman wrestling with a runaway cab.

Stuart Smith, sculptor

I don’t know if the sculptor, Stuart Smith, had a particular episode in mind when he cast the bronze plaque, and as will be noted later, I think the scene is highly stylised. The scene depicts a hansom cabman, who is most probably drunk, with two terrified passengers, presumably a mother and her son. The cab is careering down the road, only to be brought to a stop by the brave actions of a policeman.

Unfortunately, such scenes were all too common, though the driver was not always drunk, the danger was the same. Sometimes, the drivers were not even at fault:

In 1838, just before the drivers were licensed for the first time (with a badge and bill), a cab horse managed to escape from its harness and began running wildly down the street. It hit an old lady called Pritchard, fatally injuring her. Although this case is different from a runaway cab, what is notable about it is that a deodand of 1s is put on the horse. A deodand was, in effect, the price put upon a murder weapon, whether it be a dagger, sword or gun or, as in this case, the horse. The owner of the horse would have had to pay the shilling (5p) to the Crown in order to regain possession of the horse. This was not the last instance of a deodand being used against a cab through this archaic law was abolished in 1862.

In 1841, as a driver was assisting his passenger with the luggage, the horse bolted, crashing through a rank of cabs at Kennington Cross before hitting and killing a 61-year-old woman. At her inquest, the jury pronounced that under no circumstances should a cab and horse be left unattended.

In 1842 a driver lost control of his cab as he drove down Waterloo Place. The horse continued and went down the Duke of York Steps – making a “tremendous leap, carrying part with it…” The unnamed driver was thrown and sustained serious injuries to his head. Fortunately, the passenger escaped unharmed. The horse, after being “apparently lifeless” made sufficient recovery to clamber back up to the top of the steps but, as the Morning Post reported, “it is supposed to be of little value”.

By 1846, William Birch was one of the largest cab proprietor’s in London, it would be his direct descendant, John Birch, who would develop the diesel taxi in 1952. Birch had just purchased a horse and was driving it home to Horseferry Road, when, just as he passed the House of Commons, the horse bolted. There were no passengers in the cab but as the horse careered down the road, it hit a post and was killed instantly. The sudden impact propelled Birch from his seat and he sustained serious injuries. It just so happened that the accident occurred outside the Westminster Medical School where Birch was taken. He later requested to go home but his injuries proved fatal and he died at home.

Plaque detail

A horse took fright as it was waiting outside Somerset House early in February 1849. The horse and cab drove off towards Charing Cross, the driver was unable to control the horse as the reins had snapped. The cab hit the front windows of The Globe Newspaper (whose later editor Colonel Armstrong, would establish the first cab shelters to stop cabmen waiting in pubs). The windows were smashed and the grating above the machine room was damaged. An actor, by the name of Serle, was then seriously injured, as was a youth who was standing nearby, and who was carried lifeless to the nearby Charing Cross hospital. Next to be destroyed was a jewellery shop, whose windows were smashed sending the display in all direction. Several people were injured here but the owners of the shop, fearful no doubt of losing their stock which had been cast everywhere, refused any help to the injured. They were instead assisted by the owner of a nearby cigar shop. Further on, a woman was struck, breaking her arm in two places. The cab eventually came to a halt after striking a lamp post – the severity of which caused one of the shafts to enters the horse’s chest. “And the horse” reported the Daily News, “which was a fine, spirited animal, being thus rendered useless, was conveyed to a knacker’s and speedily placed out of its miseries. What became of the cabman, none of the accounts which have reached us state.”

Holborn Hill no longer exists – the construction of Holborn Viaduct removed the need to traverse the valley caused by the river Fleet (now buried under Farringdon Street). On 30th June 1858, as Holborn Hill was crowded with “omnibuses, cabs and other vehicles, and the pavement with persons who had come out for an evening walk…” a cab was seen approaching Farringdon Street at full speed. “The driver was on the box” reported the Daily News, “but had not the slightest control over the animal, which dashed frantically down the hill amidst the shouts of alarmed spectators [shocked] at the inevitable catastrophe.” As the runaway cab approached St Andrews Church, it struck a phaeton (a private carriage), “The shock was terrific, and in one instant the body and shafts were seen with the horse in one part of the road, the hind wheels in another, and the poor driver at a distance from both.”

A policeman attempted to stop a runaway cab as it drove wildly down Kennington Park Road in September 1894. Despite the gallant attempt of the officer, the cab crashed, smashing a lamp and one of the shafts. The driver was thrown and sustained serious injuries to his head. His passenger, an actor, crawled out of the wreckage with bad cuts to his legs.

On 1st October 1897, the Daily News reported the following:

A PLUCKY CONSTABLE:- At midday yesterday there was a scene of great excitement in Queen Victoria Street. A cabman driving a hansom stopped to water his horse at the trough at the Baynard Castle. Leaving it unattended, the animal suddenly bolted, and dashed down Queen Victoria Street, scattering the foot passengers right and left. After going some hundred yards, City Constable 212 jumped on to the back seat, and, seizing the reins, managed to stop it just as it was running into a railway van, the sudden stoppage throwing him from the “dicky” into the roadway, where he was picked up severely shaken and bruised.”

This last episode shows that the bravery in stopping a runaway horse and cab was not singular to the Metropolitan Police – which brings us back to the plaque outside Peel House.

Centre stage is the policeman attempting to bring the cab to a halt and save the life of its passengers. He is wearing a top hat. The top hat was part of Met police uniform until it was replaced by the more familiar helmet in 1863. This, therefore, puts a later date on the scene; but hold on, look at the background. Sculptor Stuart Smith used “contemporary Frith photographs” to compile the scenery. At the top of the tableau, we can see the dome of St Pauls. Just above the cabman’s head, we can see the “scar across the face of St Paul’s”. This is the railway bridge that existed until the early 1990’s across Ludgate Hill. In an amazing instance of aesthetics over practicality, the bridge was removed and the railway line into Blackfriars station was rerouted under Ludgate Hill. The bridge was constructed in 1865 – two years after the last Metropolitan Police officer wore a top hat. Also, the alleged scene can only have taken place in Fleet Street (the railway bridge cannot be seen from the Strand) – Fleet Street is in the City of London, which has its own police force separate to the Met. It’s likely that sculptor Stuart Smith was more than aware of the geographic boundaries between the two police divisions, but, for reasons best known to himself – he has a Met police officer coming to the rescue of a woman and child within the City boundaries.

CabbieBlog-cabThis is not a sponsored post. Sean Farrell has written this Guest Post for CabbieBlog. Sean collects information about the history of the London cabbie and its ancient trade. If you have or require information, he can be contacted via the Contact Page.

Site Unseen: The Hive

Every month CabbieBlog hopes to show you a little gem of a building that you might have passed without noticing, in the past, they have ranged from a modernist car park; a penguin pool; to a Hanoverian gatehouse.

A thousand LED lights and 17,000 aluminium rods creates a unique sensory experience, accompanied by the sound of buzzing and controlled vibrations from an adjacent beehive hits you are you walk inside.

[T]his month’s unseen site is not visible from the road, in fact, you’ll have to park up and pay to enter Kew Gardens to experience this curiosity.

Walking across the glass floor and looking up [see featured image] you question is this art or natural science. When I visited it last year, judging from the children’s delight exploring this labyrinth of poles is was just fun.


For adults, it is all very disorientating looking up through the maze of rods, accompanied by flashing lights and a constant hum.

Surrounded by a wildflower meadow the artwork is worth the cost of admission to the gardens alone.