29 April 2022

Coal hole cover plates made by the Luxfer Company of Finsbury

Striding up Sackville Street earlier this week, cutting through from Piccadilly to Vigo Street, I happened upon these two unusual coal hole cover plates made by The Luxfer Company of 16 Hill Street, Finsbury (Clerkenwell), London EC.

I say 'interesting' because these two have keyholes in them, one having been subsequently filled in with a strange circular disc device. I would estimate that I have only ever spotted about ten coal hole cover plates with lockable elements within them, such as this other Luxfer example here outside 107 Gt Russell Street.

These 12-14" lids cover access holes used by coalmen to drop the black stuff directly into  bunkers/cellars below street level. Many others sport the words 'self-locking' although I am still at a loss as to how the self-locking mechanism worked. I mean, the cover plate with its tapered sides probably locked itself with a click once it was reinstalled, but surely some kind of mechanism was needed on the underside to release it pre being lifted to take delivery of the coal...? Answers and suggestions please!

The keyholes in cover plates/lids such as these are surely later additions to the original design being as they do not appear to be geometrically aligned in any way – note the difference in these two. I suggest the addition of locks was a kind of belt and braces system to foil would-be coal thieves, or super skinny child burglars gaining access to the basement area.

Lots more coal hole cover plates here in my previous posts, including some that have these bizarre keyholes within them.


UPDATE, 1st May 2022... 

Can you believe it... two days after I wrote the above... I stumbled on another plate with a keyhole that was new to me. This one is outside 21 Riding House Street, W1. It's unusually set within a small concrete panel complete with six lightwell/ventillation blocks that must've been added at the same time.  

I'll probably start noticing these all over the show from now on.

26 April 2022

The Good, The Bad and The Unfriendly – Van Gogh Portraits at The Courtauld Gallery

The Courthauld Gallery closed its doors in Autumn 2018 for a refit and rehang that took three years , reopening in November 202. As one of my favourite London galleries I was keen to return as it's an absolute delight, both for its interiors and the marvellous pieces that hang on its walls. Thereare so many very important works of art at the Courtauld. I used to love the quirky hanging, the feel that these rooms were old and special, the mix of different centuries in each room which contrasted the ever-changing styles throughout time. I later read that this was because the artworks had barely been moved since the gallery opened in the 1930s. How cool, I liked that.

Last week I went with my friend to see the collection of Van Gogh portraits – excellent – do go and see them as this now only has a fortnight left to run, ending 8th May. But note that this exhibition is on the top/3rd floor, accessed through the upper gallery of Impressionists art. On the day we visited we had to climb lot of stairs because the lift wasn't working. I was fine, but my friend was in the wars having recently twisted his back. When we finally reached the upper galleries and entered the Van Gogh rooms we saw an exhausted elderly tall man looking around for somewhere to sit and then asking a member of staff for a stool or something. She came back with one of those lightweight fold-up chairs on which he sat looking like a very uncomfortable fisherman, his knees almost reaching up to his ears. 

After enjoying Vincent's exuberant works, and spending quite a while debating whether he was left or right handed* we went for a wander around the adjacent main gallery rooms and immediately we both bemoaned the colour of the walls, especially in these rooms containing the Impressionsts' paintings, which are painted an insipid, almost nicotine-tinged, pale grey that does little to enhance the  paintings which were achieved in the glorious sunshine of the South of France, Paris and Tahiti. Surely here a deep dark blue 'feature wall' could have been implemented to lift and contrast the works within the space? Had it not been for the for the vaulted ceilings and glass above us, we would have assumed we were in any modern gallery anywhere in the world. There was no sense of personality, history or place.  Oh, and the flooring, replaced years ago with light colour solid wood, at first glance resembles cheap clip-together laminate flooring. Surely the enormous budget spent on this renovation could have stretched to a few tins of wood stain in a warmer teak/oak colour...? It just looks unfinished, complete with visible nails. The ramps installed at doorways using the same material seem to be makeshift, but they're not.

And so we made our way down to the ground floor, peeking in at each floor. The pale bland walls persist on all levels. I really did prefer the warmer earthy tones of the gallery pre-2018. Today, the much older works and religious pieces are crying out for at least a stone or terracotta ground to better enhance them. There is only one room that gives a sense of time and place and it's devoted to Vanessa Bell and her tiresome Bloomsbury cronies. 

Back in the foyer, we looked for the gift shop. But where was it? You will recall that the gift shop used to be immediately to the left as you entered the Somerset House complex off The Strand – this space is now a café. We asked the young female greeter with a touch screen where the shop was. She pointed to a long thin sign on the wall that tells us what's on each level and right at the bottom it says 'shop' with an arrow pointing down to the left/right. Er, yes, "but where?" we asked. Without an attempt at a smile she gesticulated us to the Information/Tickets vestibule (which has a big sign above it!) and from there we descended another flight of stairs which took us into a thin underground corridor. I almost walked past the door to the shop which is in a recess on the left. Turns out the shop is vast, much bigger than before and bpacked full of lovely things. Yet we were only two of five people in there, one of whom was a member of staff. We walked all the way to the other end of the shop only to find that there was no other way out and we had to go all the way back again to that narrow door. 

Back in the foyer the joyless female took it very personally when I quereied the location the hidden shop and how they thought they were going to sell anything from that space when it couldn't be seen/found. She evidently took it personally and suggested we could buy online! Eh?! Amused by this response, and also confused how a person who is acting as a customer-facing infomation point couldn't mamanage to communicate in a civil manner, I decided to put my overly jolly hat on and also tell her how disappointed I was, as a visitor for decades, that walls of the galleries had been painted such bland colours. She as good as shrugged. I doubt my feedback wehent any further.

Later, I googled reviews of the gallery's renovation and reconfiguration and found that nearly all the critics seem to have rewritten almost the same thing– how it's now chronological as you go make your way up the building, is a marvellous improvement, that the new cloor and use of light illumates the classical architecture, that the paintings 'sing' against the bright walls. Eh? Really? To my mind, slapping the same colour all over everything enhances nothing in particular.

It's clear to me, having received pre-press packs by galleries prior to preview days myself, that most of these critics had simply just re-hashed the promo information sent to them in much the same way as we were encourged to do in English classes back when I was 12 years old. you know, re-write this in your ownn words, etc. I noticed that only a couple of those reviews made any specific references that lead me to believe that they had indeed been to the gallery themselves and scrutinised it in any way personally. 

No pics – go and check it out yourself, but note that it used to look like this.

Further feedback... 

The café restaurant to the left as you enter the couryard serves bland overpriced food on unstable tables and has a stupid ordering and payment process. I had a sort of warm chicken, bacon and salad sandwich. It was toasted only on one side, barely any chicken, soggy bacon (eurgh), half a small lettuse leafand perhaps two slices of tomato. My friends halloumi and avocado wrap was as bland as the gallery wlls. Luckily, there is a Gregg's a few doors along(!) plus the usual big names and a couple of curry houses. Actually, I'd recommend the LSE canteen on the other side of Alwych, which is excellent value.

There are three large sculptures at the rear of the courtyard that look a bit War Of the Worlds. I could see that they were something to do with the recycled plastics, akin to monsters of the future. I went to find out more about them but couldn't find any info panels so I went inside the northern reception space and asked the chattering ladies at the desk. "Hello!' I said, all jolly, "I wonder if you could tell me about those large sculptures outside, only I can't find anything out there". The silver-haired woman with an accent from across the pond looked at me blankly as if I was speaking another language and informed me in a matter-of-fact manner that there were people out there with clipboards who could explain. As per the young girl in the foyer, she also didn't crack a smile, and I wondered if this was part of the training. Or, perhaps they are automotons. I said it was strange that I hadn't seen anybody out there especially as I had been wandering about for about 5mins quite plainly on the hunt for something. This provoked no response – even those self-service tills at Tescos issue pleasantries!  I moved to the sofas to readjust my clothing and a man who was passing through and had heard the exchange told me there was indeed an info panel out there on the eastern side. So I returns to the silver-haired desk robot and endeavoured to pass this news back her/it should the info be of use going forward. Again the blank stare, as if I was the mad one. Oh well. 

And so I went outside and read the A-board. I finally noticed a young woman with a clip board hovering around at the north side. I stood and waited, thinking she would wander over. Nope. So I stood or paced in an inquistive manner, adopting a series of poses that screamed 'confused' involving scratching my head or chin whilst furrowing my brow and looking from the boar to the sculptures a lot. But, although I was the only person looking at these things, she didn't see me for a full 7 minutes. Yes, I timed it. She then wandered round to the west side, seemed to stare at the paving a lot, and then disppeared into a doorway on that side. 

Basically, it's easier to find the info on their website. And perhaps the woman at the desk can't use the internet. Also, I don't think the plastic elements used in those sculptures are recycled... they all look freshly-manufactured to me.

*some of his paintings are most surely mirror images but others contradict that. I deduce that he was right-handed.

22 April 2022

Circles of delight in WC2

Last week whilst ambling from Piccadilly to Holborn via Long Acre, admiring the architecture and generally enjoing the sunshine, I happened upon this lovely hexagonal mark in the doorway of one of the businesses opposite Freemasons Hall.

It reads, 20 Great Queen Street, Covent Garden. 

Cool huh?! 

It appeals to me on many levels; geometry, typography and graphic design.

I am not sure who installed it/ how long it's been there.

It is set into the very front of the metal strip that runs across the doorway of No.20, to the left of Walker Slater menswear shop (at No.19) shown here  from Google Streeview:


20 April 2022

Criminal loss of curved Art Deco windows at Balenciaga, New Bond Street

I am often to be heard talking about how surprising it is that many of the marvellously constructed and well-embellished buildings along Old/New Bond Street are not listed at least Grade II. This, I assumed/hoped was because the kind of companies who trade here are aware and proud of the beautiful buildings in which their products were being sold and they simply look after the heritage they inherit. Indeed, one only has to look at the excellent revamp by Victoria's Secret at the northern end of New Bond Street, where many of the modern shopfittings installed a decade ago were cleverly created with modern products to appear as if they have been there since the 1930s. The outside of that building is stunning, never mind that gorgeous glass staircase inside.  

But this post is about what I believe is criminal damage/wanton destruction at 24-25 New Bond St, on the corner of Conduit Street, where beautiful, possibly unique, curved windows at ground level that meandered in and out of the supporting columns as a wavy curtain of glass, shown above (Google Streetview screengrab) are no longer there.  

This building used to be home to C. J. Lytle Ltd, as shown by this marvellously evocative pic from 1948. More recently, until 2020, this was a branch of Russell & Bromley who made excellent use of the undulating glass as shown above. When R&B moved out, the street level windows were individually covered, as shown in my pic below from Feb2021. Phew, I thought, they'll be fine.

Then Balenciaga took over the building and installed bigger bright green hoardings around the curtilage (I love that word!) as shown here in June2021. I continued to naively assume that this was to protect the lovely windows, that they were simply performing a bit of TLC behind there. I mean, who would remove what surely must be some of the best curved glass in London? 

But last Easter weekend, whilst walking past, leading a guided tour, I stopped in my tracks, exclaimed, "No!" and then had to explain to the group why I was so shocked, even though this was not the subject of the walk on that day.

The gorgeous curves and undulations have been removed and replaced. The windows are now flat and rectangular and the columns have been boxed in. Balenciaga are so proud of their new boxy space that on their website here they call this 'a treat' – I call it a 'blandification' and I think Villanelle, that character in BBC's Killing Eve who has been pictured sporting Balenciaga's expensive boots, would call this renovation "BORE-RING!"

It's amazing that Balenciaga didn't go the whole hog and install chickenshop-style UPVC doors and windows as this is barely a step up from that. I am so upset. But you understood that paragraphs ago(!).

It occured to be that the gorgeous glass curves were very similar to other excellent shop fronts created and installed by Pollards such as here and I was hoping that when those greeen hoardings came down I might be able to fins one of Pollards patent marks embedded in the metal edges. But now that's not possible. And, to add insult to injury, I was convinced that I had taken some good close-up photos of those curved windows a while back when R&B was still trading and these I could include as slides for one of my online talks about Art Deco buildings, but now, frustrtaingly, I now cannot find them. Let's hope they show up and I simply didn't get around to naming the files.

It's a huge loss when cleverly-designed bespoke elements like this are renovated or removed completely. A similar example can be found at No.1 New Bond Street at the Ralph Lauren flagship store, a building that resembles a Byzantine-style palace which, in 1939, was home to The National Provincial Bank, F.W.Woolworths, CondeNast publishing, and offices of the aformentioned C.J.Lytle advertising before they moved to the Balenciaga site later that year. Today the Ralph Lauren store sports plate glass at street level but here's a link to how it used to look in 1955. I do not know when the ground floor windows were altered, although many buildings of this type suffered blandifications in the 1960s and 1970s in an attempt to remove what was then seen as fussy embellishements. A similar thing occured at the Louis Vuitton store, on the corner of Clifford Street but, on the plus side, LV must be commended for a revamp a few years ago when they altered the lower external façade to echo the designs within the upper floors, which is marvellous.

I can only hope that the curved glass windows have been repurposed elsewhere. If I find out more, I will add to this post.

11 April 2022

Little letters at low level

Has anyone else ever spotted this on the streets of this fair city?

Only, I have showed the image above to many London historians, guides and friends, and, despite the letters shown, which sit on a half inch metal rod just off the pavement, only a couple of people have ever worked out what it means and therefore where it might be. 

And when I explain what it stands for, almost everyone says something like "oh, my god, how have I never noticed that myself?!"

Here's a wider view. It's street-facing, in front of a very well-known historic establishment:

Have you got it yet?

It's Ye Old Cheshire Cheese, 145 Fleet Street, EC4. See it on a reprospective Google Streetview here.

5 April 2022

Owen & Thomas, linen drapers, 376-378 Bethnal Green Road, E2


I took a quick snap of this when I spotted this last year, but being as that was a very dull day and there was some scaffolding covering half of the wall, I am here showing a screengrab from Google Streetview.

It's a simple sign for Edward Owen and William Thomas who were trading here 100 years ago. Thus far I can only confirm the two Welsh linen drapers here in the period 1910-15, and I understand that they also had another shop in Battersea. I am also informed that a younger Williams brother was running this shop in 1926. 

You can bet that this shop was much more attractive than those that front the businesses along this busy market street today. Oh to be able to time travel to get glimple of the gilded shop fronts and window dislpays of old. Sigh.

4 April 2022

Another shop fascia reveal – this time at 237 Upper Street, opposite The Union Chapel

So there I was, leading a guided walk down Upper Street last Thursday 31st March. The subject was 'Islington's Golden Mile – drapery, corsetry and fancy goods' all about how this busy thoroughfare used to be lined with beautifully gilded shop fascias, curved glass and the like. 

I positioned the group twixt the two parts of Compton Terrace Gardens, intending to talk about the tall early C19th Georgian buildings along this stretch, and long-gone emporiums that once filled the lower parts. I looked across the street and noticed a newly-uncovered shop sign three doors north of Laycock Street, where once was a lurid green sign, see right. Wow! What a nice surprise. I had to explain to the group that this was the first time I'd seen and I was sure I hadn't spotted in that past week.

The gilded letters tell is this was (? high class?) F. Horn & Sons, furniture stores and, having checked, I can tell you that the Horns were at this address for a short time from/around 1910, having taken over a site previously occupied by Harry Joel, fruiterer, part of what had been Whittards hosiery store at 237-238 (the Whittards evidently contracting rather than expanding at this time). In 1915 the Horns are shown at 236-237, which includes the shop to the left.

If you look at bottom right you'll see the signwriter's name which reads, Clang & Sons, 239 Goswell Road. This is very intruiging – I might be going word-blind here looking through all these old directores, but I cannot find a reference of any signwriters at that Goswell Rd address, or any Clangs or C.Langs in that profession during the period 1910–15. Very strange. There is a chance, being as there is no number on the sign, that the Horns brought their expensive gilded sign with them when they moved here from elsewhere. I cannot say how long the Horns traded at this address as I don't have enough reference to hand. 

The later sign painted over the top looks to be interwar era when the shop is again offering fresh produce, as is shown by the script, Highbury Fruiterer. This could be, perhaps, John Oliver listed here as a fruiterer in 1939.

As, ever, do let me know if you have any further info.  Here's nother pic: