Kingsway and Aldwych - some early 20th Century sculpture

Sculpture by Benjamin Clemens on Africa House, Kingsway, 1922.

Kingsway was a new road of the 1900s, and contains a series of large stone-faced buildings at the underground station end, with progressive replacement by more ugly things going southwards. The architectural partnership of Trehearne and Norman designed several of them. Architectural sculptural interest is from the early 20th century, then, and includes half a dozen groups, including attributable work by LF Roslyn and Gilbert Seale. At the end Kengsway meets the middle of Aldwych, a semicircle of a road off the Strand. Aldwych is also dates from the turn of the century, and has some 1900 architectural sculpture, as well as the more modern statues on Bush House.

Kingsway

We start at the station, and before going left, briefly go right into Southampton Row, because by the first street off it, called Catton Street, is a statue of John Bunyan on the face of a building, most likely in terra cotta. A pleasantly-faced work by the always interesting Richard Garbe, dating from 1953.

John Bunyan, by Richard Garbe.

Turning back, the classical portico almost opposite the station bears a pair of slight semidraped stone figures, which I have not identified. Leftwards, a few paces along on the station side, needing to be seen from the other side of the road, is Africa House. It is essentially a massive oblong block, with the central third treated as a portico. The actual arched entrance is only of ground floor height, with 6 storeys above it, but above to left and right are stone lions, then above, pillars running from 2nd to 5th floor height, then a blocky and massive pedimental sculptural group, then two further storeys and some small crest in the shape of a shell. The two lions, couchant, are very severe, and firmly date the building in the early 1920s. The tops of the pillars bear African faces of various types. The sculptural group, a low pyramidal composition, is too high up to be seen from a good angle even on such a wide road. It contains three main figures, two subsidiary ones, and various animals. The central figure, a seated female, with oversize Corinthian crest and sword, and a round shield from which the design has been worn away. Possibly a Britannia, rather ugly. On the left hand side, two Arabic men, seated and standing, a lion, seated camel and stretched out crocodile, with reeds behind - see picture at top of page. To the right hand side, a black man carrying tusks, a seated colonial loading a gun, the head of an elephant, probably dead, a standing wildebeest and a snake, all among tall grasses. Suitably exotic. The sculptor was a certain Benjamin Clemens.

One of two girls, block next to Parker Street.

Opposite is Parker Street. The building on its right hand corner has a pair of crouched girls, with swirling cloaks, above the corner entrance. The building on the left hand corner and occupying the whole block through to Great Queen Street, is Kingsway House (1906, by Sykes), with a series of projecting balconies held up by alternating pairs of mermaids and mermen, more properly grotesques, in that their tails are more decorative flourishes than fishlike in nature. Engaging.

On the left, opposite is Remnant Street, and on the right hand corner of this is Imperial Buildings (1913, Trehearne and Norman again). Above its two entrances are two pairs of figures, signed by LF Roslyn, 1914, a male and female to each pair, flanking a shield with IB of Imperial Buildings and some small motif. One pair apparently symbolises work and commerce (man with hammer, girl cradling an ocean liner). The other pair signifies the Empire (Roman soldier with full armour, shield and sword) and perhaps learning semidraped girl with a feather for writing). All in stone, good work, especially the Roman. Round the corner, a lion’s head higher up.

L.F. Roslyn's sculpture for Imperial House, Kingsway.

Keeping on the right hand side of Kingsway, a couple of minutes along, on the corner of Kemble Street, is Leeds Building Society, no. 40 or 41. the sculptural decoration consists of good swirly-tailed mermaid and merman above the corner entrance, with little Roman-style dolphins between. The group is signed by Gilbert Seale and Son, sculptors, and Gibson, Sopwith and Gordon architects. There is a cupola high up over the corner, and round the corner, a couple of winged cherubic heads of a type favoured by Gilbert Seale.

Merman, by Gilbert Seale, Leeds Building Soc.

A couple of minutes leads to the end of road, in the middle of Aldwych – facing down Kingsway is Bush House (completed 1930s, by the American architects Corbett and Helmle), with the American sculptor Malvina Hoffman’s statues of England and America above tree level.

Aldwych

A turn leftwards goes quickly to the London School of Economics – see the walk along the Strand. But turning right, on the corner of Drury Lane is the Aldwych Theatre, by Phipps. High up on each of the Aldwych and Drury Lane frontages are triangular compositions of three figures, with musical and theatrical accoutrements. Much other decoration by way of garlands and wreaths in stone.

Peacock motif on India House, Aldwych.

Directly opposite is India House, with little coloured roundels of animals and simple rather heraldic designs, including a peacock, elephant with howdah, camels and pyramids, St George in front of a castle and so forth. The principal entrance has a pair of elephant based pillars, big cats on top, and elephants too form supporting brackets for the two main window pillars. But somehow all this looks rather lost on the vast bulk of this building.

Architecture panel, by Emil Fuchs, Waldorf Hotel, Aldwych.

Opposite, next to Aldwych theatre is the big Waldorf Hotel (architect Marshall Mackenzie, 1907-8) – eight storeys high, very wide. Giant ionic pillars stretch over three floors, and about 15 square panels of cherubs separated by small windows are above. Above this frieze are big pots on a balustrade, before the two attic levels are reach. The cherubs form clever, busy groups, engaged in sculpture, music, dance, architecture and so on, but why oh why cherubs?. He was Emil Fuchs, an Austrian, and there is some other work by him in England, including a very art nouveau angel in the Royal Mausoleum, Windsor.

Next along from the Waldorf is the Strand Theatre (seemingly now calling itself the Novello Theatre), similar to the Aldwych one and by the same architect, but with more by way of sculptural decoration on the upper floors. On each of the two frontages are 6 groups each of a girl and a cherub in alto relievo. The pediment above has a central lunette, flanked by figures of Comedy, Tragedy, and several cherubs holding garlands. Up at the top several fully articulated standing statues stand round the curved corner, consisting of girls representative of Poetry, again Tragedy and Comedy, and Music, all in soft stone and rather weathered.

Back on the India House side, flanking it is a courtyard with a modern statue, and then number 326, Marconi House, the former Gaiety Restaurant, attached to the long-gone Gaiety Theatre, by Richard Norman Shaw. The building is at the time of writing being completely demolished, while retaining the important façade, currently unviewable. Important to us, because very high up it bears sculptural friezes by the elusive Hibbert Binney, a series of standing figures of Arts and Crafts girls. Bearing the motto ‘War to Uphold the Right to Peace’, War has sword and shield, the central figure (‘to uphold’) has a most symbolic pose and hairstyle and clothes with long sleeves – she is Justice with sword and scales. Peace has palm fronds, and nice plaited hair. Trumpetters, four on one side, three on the other, complete the series. And famous heroines, Olivia, Portia and Beatrice in a group, and a second group of Ophelia, Cleopatra and Juliet. Excellent stuff.

Cleopatra, by Hibbert Binney, in Aldwych.

Thus ends the walk at the Strand, by Lancaster Place which goes alongside the Inland Revenue side of Somerset House, to the river and Embankment and Waterloo Bridge, or rightwards along the Strand to Charing Cross and Trafalgar Square, or left towards Fleet Street and thence to St Paul's.

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