22 December 2023

Youth by William Dudeney – a lovely statue near Gough Square

Outside the door of  Pemberton House, 6 East Harding Street, between Gunpowder Square and Gough Square, there is a lovely sculptural piece of a young man casually perched on one knee.

I can find no marks on it at all; no date, no signature. The chunky athletic build is typical of the 1930s – rather Eric Gill-ish or Edward Bainbridge Copnall-like, or he might even be a Jacob Epstein creation. 

I had occasionally made attempts to find out more, specifically to ascertain who sculpted this piece and to clarify whether this building was constructed in the 1930s or the 1950s, made all the more confusing seeing as there is no mention of 'Pemberton' House' in the 1939 directory shown here, although it might have already been a whole block by then and perhaps the name of Pemberton House might have been later applied when it was converted and repurposed to recognise Pemberton Row at the end of E Harding St. 
A sculpted panel at the top of the building showing a representation of the printing industry bears the dates 1476-1956, though this doesn't actually confirm that 1956 is the date of the building – especially as the strip containing those dates looks to be a later addition. 
I wondered if it the building might have been constructed by Eyre & Spottiswoode, an interesting18th century printing company that, as you can see, also had a club in the same block/building. Whether the club was for all members of staff of just for the directors, I don't know. It might well have been a sports facility and this would tie in with this young man's athletic features. 

So back to the young man – it turns out that until today, I hade been searching using the wrong keywords, not using the name 'Pemberton' – basically, I hadn't looked very hard because all the info I needed is on Chris's excellent Ornamental Passions and has been there since 2012! 

He is called 'Youth' and was carved by William Dudeney, commissioned in 1955 by The Starmer Group, a company started by this man, that by the mid-1950s had acquired this site as their HQ, though this doesn't clarify when the building was constructed or when the name Pemberton was applied to it.
I am therefore assuming the name change happened quite recently when the block was converted to residential use. Any further info welcome. Incidentally, a furnished one bedroom flat starts at about £530 per week, which seems cheap to me considering the location. 

Read about another of William Dudeney's printer-related sculptures here  – and notice how one of the figures in that group is holding a printing block that containing Dudeney's name (with letters reversed) – clever. 

20 December 2023

Theobald's Road ghostsign – a family business?

On the East-facing wall at the corner of King's Mews on the side of No.12 Theobald's Road, there are remnants of a painted advertisement.

It's clear that this wall was once completely slathered in lettering, but thus far, all I have managed to decipher is the word FAMILY (at the extreme left, directly above the horizontal) followed by another word starting with a small cap S. The sign is tough one to photograph. It's not always visible, by which I mean, on most days it's barely noticeable at all. I have tried messing about in Photoshop but no matter which way I blast it, I can't make it any clearer: 

I had an idea that the old postal directories might help and give me a 'ping' moment. But I am still flummoxed. Also, signs on walls do not necessarily advertise the services available in that particular property and I think this might be an example of an adjacent business paying to advertise on this prime site. 

To illustrate my point, I'm here including three excerpts that show this stretch of Theobald's Road in 1899, 1915 and 1939:

Perhaps this was an ad for one the many solicitors along that terrace who specialised in family law? Or the sign could well have advertised the corner shop opposite; the 1915 confectioner or the 1939 Italian refreshment rooms? By the way, look how many businesses are listed with offices at No.12 in 1939.

Another idea is that this advertisement directed the reader to a business at the other end of Kings Mews in Northington Street, previously Little James Street. Again, I'm showing listings for 1899, 1915 and 1939:

As you can see, this back street has been an ever-changing mix of small shops, tradesmen and manufactories. I can get lost in listings like this especially when I see names or businesses that I recognise from elsewhere, and I particularly like how in this 40-year period we see horse-powered transport and coach-building evolve into the era of motor cars. 

If you do manage to decipher anything else on that wall, please do let me know.

Northington Street is still today an interesting little street. The motor garages and public houses are still evident albeit converted for residential use and Cockpit Yard is today Cockpit Studios, a hub for designer makers. Well worth a detour if you are visiting the nearby Charles Dickens Museum

15 December 2023

The Imperial Hotel Russell Square – James Bond-tastic

There's a 1960's era hotel facing Russell Square that I absolutely Love love love. I've been concerned about it for decades now. It's in that 'too new to be treasured, not old enough to be saved' zone especially as many people jump on the bandwagon about on about awful it is and how it replaced a huge bit of Edwardian OTT. Indeed that 'To The Turkish Baths' sign in the pavement harks back to that long-gone previous building. Oh yawn. People just don't use their eyes! 

Well, I love it. Check out the extended orange letters (Microgramma? Eurostile?) the vertical stripes of gold mosaic interspersed with fine pebbled concrete, the windows that let in extra light due to being angled, how the design continues through the drive-way and into the courtyard at the rear which leads to a fountain in the same design and an enclosed area containing elements saved from the old hotel.

Bloomsbury has a few other hotels like this, but The Imperial is the King of them all. Yet trying to find info online about this 1960's James Bond gem is proving to be an uphill struggle. I can't even find the name of architect. Instead, all I find is moans and groans and violins about what's gone before. 

Last year, June 2022, when I checked in on the building, there was no sign of the statues said to be saved from the old building and arranged around a wall at the rear. However, the galleon weather vane, the clock and bells were still there, and the sign for the closed casino. I took some photos and a uniformed man came out and told me to stop. I'd assumed the hotel was empty but it seems it was being used as temporary homes for Ukranian refugees. That's nice.

Earlier this month, Dec2023, I was ambling past when I noticed that new hoardings were around the hotel at ground level announcing renovations were underway, to be revealed in Spring 2025. Eek! That's a long way off and who knows what blandification could occur here seeing as what happened behind Debenhams when a totally unique car park from this era was completely destroyed. Where is façadism when you really need it?

I raced round the the back of The Imperial and found the main building was fenced off and looked to be empty. The pic above right shows a small grey quadrant at the bottom left. I'm sad to report that was where the fountain was. And here's how it looked in June:

And looking back out to the street, towards Russell Square:

Some lovely, simple but effective, blue tiles are visible just above that traffic cone. They arestill there. I say are in the sense of three weeks ago. I hope they get saved or, at least, repurposed:

I need to find out what's happening at this site. I really hope they are going to make something of this zigzag magnificence rather than just destroy it and replace it with another faceless, uninteresting glass blob. OK, so people might miss the old Gothic pile, but there are plenty of similar hotels of that era still standing, and at least here the old fusty spires were replaced with something innovative and of it's time. And groovy too. There really is nothing comparable I can think of, except perhaps the Seifert towers and the Hilton Hotel.

Do let me know if you have any further info.

7 December 2023

Lyndie Wright's puppets – until Sunday December 10th

Whoops – I should have done this days ago but I have been knocked sideways by a horrible bug. Cough, sniff, snort! But enough about me – this is to let you know that the wonderfully creative Lyndie Wright has, for a short period, turned her workshop into a museum to showcase the delightful puppets she has made since moving into this space in the 1960s. Find out more here.

When I visited last Sunday afternoon, I was entranced by the little people and animals all around me. I kept thinking I was ready to leave but then, I'd spot something I hadn't previously noticed, such as a cat under a table, a demon on a high shelf, a beautifully sewn leather hand or a finely painted face. The whole place is a delight. Yes a delight. Shall I say 'delight' again?! 

Many of the pieces you might recognise from movies or similar. And then there's the workshop itself. I do love a creative/shed environment and Lyndie's workspace  shows its ever-evolving history in well-worn wood, benches, vices and clamps, and little drawers full of useful things. 

I urge you to pop in and say hello. It's open Noon–7pm until Sunday 10th. You'll find it next to The Little Angel Theatre in Dagmar Passage behind St Mary's Islington. 

4 December 2023

Sad loss of Lidstone butchers ghostsign at South Woodford

I have only just found out about the overpainting of the lovely hand-painted sign that advertised Lidstone Ltd's chain of butchers, a few minutes from South Woodford tube station, here on the corner of Daisy Road. The pic here is a screenshot from that link.

The dry cleaner shown in the pic has gone and the new owners have been renovating the premises, converting it into a café – like we need more of those! Hence, a hand-painted sign that was uncovered back in 2015, having been previously been protected by a boxed ad, preserved for multiple decades, has been obliterated in a matter of hours by a business that will struggle to compete in a bean-soaked saturated market and may well be gone in a year. 

Heathens! The Lidstone sign had, for the past eight years become a much-loved local treasure. Indeed, my friend who lives near here insisted on taking me to see it. It's very doubtful that the locals will be using or even promoting this new café – the new proprietors have clearly shot themselves in the foot.  If they really needed to conceal the old sign, could they not have installed a boxed panel over the top of it? This would have again preserved the old sign whilst providing a flat surface on which they could have painted their own branding. Today, if you go there, you will find the whole wall has been painted brick red. The local paper has written about it, but, as per at that article makes clear, the sign was not a historically listed item. The new owners are simply making use of a space that is now theirs. And this is the nature of these things. 

Consider, for instance, that if you look closely at the image above, a screengrab from google from just after the sign was uncovered, it's clear that the Lidstone sign had already been overpainted with another sign that had larger letter forms within a blue border (hints at the bottom right). I can make out the words LARGEST at middle left, but not much more. Although this might well have been a subsequent Lidstone ad.

So what have we lost? 

The sign appears to date from the period 1910-14 when Lidstone's had a shop at this location and the branches shown on the ad were also listed within the Kelly's Post Office directory of that time. It shows their head office at 75&76 Park Street, Regents Park, NW1 (having moved the office from Bucklersbury in The City of London), with outlets across London, listed in lovely script letterform within three panels at the bottom, the first two panels shown above. The third panel right listed outlets in Highgate Rd, Finchley Rd, Mill Hill and Chislehurst in Kent. The London directory for 1914, shows not only these Lidstone Ltd addresses, but also other butcher shops in the name of Lidstone, so it's fair to assume that these others were probably part of the wider Lidstone family.

I have also discovered a butcher by the name of Lidstone trading at 70 Fore Street, Kingsbridge, Devon, since the 1830s. The shop closed in 2017 but the company name can be seen forged in metal above the shop. This might be the same family, some of whom later relocated to the bright lights and deep pockets of London – the earliest reference I have yet found of Lidstone butchers here in London is in the 1891 directory which shows their shops in the very well-to-do areas around Kensington:

Today, you can find, what I believe to be the (now) only remaining physical reference of this company in London, here above their 1890's Thurloe Place shop, a stone's throw from South Kensington station.

UPDATE 20Dec2023: 
My aforementioned friend who lives round the corner from this sign has sent me this pic showing that the Lidstone ad has be reinstated. By which I mean it’s been repainted and this now makes it a pastiche of the original. Sorry to sound like a moaning Minnie but I don’t like it when signs are touched up or repainted as this loses all the other layers. It makes it no longer a ghost(ed) sign. We’ve now completely lost the hints of large letters that I make ref to above and, unless an information panel is installed to explain the relevance of this new version, then I really cannot see the point. I’d have preferred it if the new tenants had created a new sign for their own company at this site. 

There are other ghost signs to admire at South Woodford – let's hope we don't lose these too...

At the other end of the terrace to the Lidstone sign, there's a multi-layered sign that was also uncovered in 2015. Today, it's easy to see 'J. S. Soundy's / drapery & millinery' but, if you look closely, you'll see that there's another name in larger letters across the top of those two lines. For a very short time back in 2007 when the boxed ad that covered it was being revised, it showed that A. C. Pain had taken over this business with the bottom line reading 'drapery & millinery establishment'. 

Plus, there is a vertical panel on the left/street side that also has multiple layers of paint which could at some point be lost to us being as it is easily reached, but it's doubtful that the wide sign will be overpainted any time soon as it is too high up to access without the aid of costly scaffolding. 

And, finally, there's the lovely low relief sign that's only visible for the station platform – THE RAILWAY COFFEE TAVERN can be seen on the side of this Victorian building which now offers yoga and face treatments, but no coffee. But hey, you'll be able to get a hot drink just up the road where Lidstone's used to be – don't you dare!

1 December 2023

If Not Now, When at The Saatchi Gallery

Those of you know me well will know I roll my eyes and sigh every time I hear there's a women's thing on. Hence why I wasn't going to bother with this show at the Saatchi until 22 Jan 2024. Ah, but I'm always up for a free tour, so I went along and was pleasantly surprised by the content of this show. By which I mean the quality of the work, the ideas, the execution, not the 'what it is to be a woman' stuff, which I can never understand unless you also have had experience of being a man and can compare the two!

The show emphasises how women have struggled to be seen and heard in the art world throughout the decades, specifically since the 1960s. As you can see from my pics here, there's an emphasis on childbirth, body parts and restrictive clothing. I am still confused as to whether these women are boasting or complaining (a question I often ask when someone tells me they have a hangover after a big night or had to do [paid] overtime!). 
I probably find it hard to empathise because I have always worked in a male-dominated world, first for my father at his upholstery shop, dealing directly with sometimes stroppy customers as well as his boisterous friends in the pub, and then in the world of advertising and print where the air was often blue – if you didn't give back as good as you were given, or manage the situation there and then, then you'd simply fail. Don't be a mouse etc. I recall one print rep who was particularly colourful with his language. He was asked by my male colleague to tone it down. The fella assumed the reason was because I was there. He looked at me and said "oh yeah, mustn't swear, there's C*** here" – Unbelievable! Nobody laughed. We were all gobsmacked by him. He certainly didn't win any work for his company.
You might think idiots like that rep are made up creations for 1980's movies and dramas, but no, these characters were common and banter like that was considered amusing, if only to their peer group. I used to sometimes deliver items for print to the newspaper offices on Fleet Street and the uncouth things that were said to me because I was an 18-yr old blue-eyed blonde, beggared belief. Even at the time I thought these men were pathetic, all trying to outdo each other to be the biggest, rudest, puffed shirt. I wondered if there was a prize for who could say the F-word the most times in one sentence. Bless em! It must be hard being a man sometimes; competing with other men, jostling for attention, rutting and strutting and guzzling pints. here's an idea – the Saatchi could put on a show for men who feel they aren't powerful in today's world; my wife doesn't understand me; she thinks I'm an idiot, etc

But back to the ladies. I researched this females in art thing early last year whilst pulling together an online talk about women who are commemorated by statues in London; Nightingale, Seacole, Pankhurst, Cavell etc. I noticed that most of the memorials were created by male artists which seemed odd, and rather ironic. So I started 'collecting' women sculptors across London, expecting there to be a just a handful, and the list keeps getting longer. It's worth considering that many of the female artists whose work adorns our streets were active well before WW2 and I'm not sure they'd like to be considered as hampered by their sex. 

For example, and just picking a few ladies that come immediately to mind, we have Kathleen Scott near Carlton Terrace, Liz Frink and Irene Sedlecka in Mayfair, Karin Jonzen and Cristina Iglesias in The City, Barbara Hepworth in Oxford Street, Gillian Wearing in Parliament Square, Maggi Hambling in Charing Cross and Emily Young all over the place! 

I really should reinstate that talk, but I still need to work out how to condense it into one hour. Ditto the walking tours designed as three distinct routes, but I keep getting distracted. For instance, it's taken me ages just to write this blog post. I often say that I need about seven parallel universes just to finish all the stuff I've started, let alone walk the walks, read the books, and see other things myself.