Sunday, 15 May 2016

London art nouveau: A Tube-walk

Michelin House

I discovered this wonderful "walk" on the London Cycling Campaign website and decided that it would make the ideal way to spend my birthday, having re-sequenced the route and worked out a combination of underground and walking to make it work. Maybe not everybody would agree. I am heading this post with Michelin House, which was planned as the end and culmination and certainly delivered.

We started however at the Horniman Museum in Forest Hill in SE23. We had a challenging time getting there, having to resort to the dreaded "rail replacement bus", but when we arrived we knew it had not all been in vain. It was founded by Frederick John Horniman, a Victorian tea trader and philanthropist, who first used his house to exhibit his vast collection of specimens and artifacts gathered on his travels and then had the house demolished to make way for a purpose-built museum.

It was the work of Charles Harrison Townsend (1851-1928), sometimes described as an Arts and Crafts architect, but to my mind stylistically art nouveau. The Museum was the third of his three great buildings and dates from 1898-1901. Pevsner says it is "no doubt one of the boldest public buildings of its date in Britain".

The building is distinguished by the lovely mosaic designed by Robert Anning Bell, telling the story of humanity, no less. The exterior is embellished with swirling flower and tree forms, like any art nouveau building in Paris. These are at their most expressive on the tower. (The building on the left in the picture above is an extension of 1911, also by Townsend but entirely devoid of decoration.)

Round the back is this wonderful conservatory. It came originally from the Horniman family home at Coombe Cliffe in Croydon, and dates from the 1890s. It's definitely not art nouveau, but it deserves inclusion for its elegance.

We now headed to Whitechapel where we found the Whitechapel Art Gallery. This dates from 1895-99 and was also opened in 1901. Pevsner describes it as "quite an epoch-making building" and "as original as any Art Nouveau on the continent". In 2009 it was extended to incorporate the former public library next door.

At first I thought that the gold decoration on the upper third of the facade was a return to something original which had been lost, but it turns out to be the Tree of Life by Rachel Whiteread, one of the major commissions of the London 2012 Festival. This area of the facade was apparently intended to house a frieze, but the money ran out. I think it is a wonderful addition to the building and, for me, the use of gold evokes the almost exactly contemporary Vienna Secession Building.

A short walk took us to Bishopsgate to see Townsend's third celebrated building, the earliest of the three (1892-4): the Bishopsgate Institute. The same foliage patterns which were so evident in the Horniman Museum are immediately apparent. Pevsner has similar words for this one too: "one of the most original buildings of the date in London". It is not, however, as dramatic as the other two.

A tube ride to St Pauls and a short walk through old streets with modern buildings brought us to the Black Friar pub at 174 Queen Victoria Street, near Blackfriars station. It built in 1905 on the site of a Dominican friary and was designed by architect H. Fuller-Clark and decorated by the artist Henry Poole. From the outside it is a fairly typical street corner Edwardian pub - but you do wonder what happened to the street that it was on the corner of. It was of course redeveloped and it seems that the Black Friar only survived demolition after a campaign led by Sir John Betjeman.

Inside, however, there is a feast of decoration, nowhere more so than in the back bar, now table service only, where there is a simply wonderful barrel vaulted ceiling covered with mosaics and Black Friars.

Over a door in the main bar I spotted this exquisite butterfly.

From Blackfriars we took the Tube to Sloane Square and as we were heading towards Hans Road, we spotted this rather lovely tower on the right - the tower of Cadogan Hall. Surely this was about the same vintage as the art nouveau buildings on our walk? It turns out that it was built as a Christian Scientist church in 1907 to the design of Robert Fellowes Chisholm in the Byzantine Revival style. It has relatively recently become London's newest concert hall.

When we reached Hans Road we found our target, this pair of houses by Charles Francis Annesley Voysey. They are pleasing proto-modern houses, but plainly have nothing to do with art nouveau. I can't now remember how they made their way onto our route - but I am glad to have seen them nonetheless.

Certainly on the list was Harrods Food Hall across the road. The shop was built between 1894 and 1905 and the food hall was the work of W J Neatby, who was chief designer for Royal Doulton before working independently. Neatby was also responsible for the extraordinary art nouveau facade of the Edward Everard Printing works in Bristol and the Fox and Anchor in Charterhouse St, Clerkenwell. (The Fox and Anchor belongs in this walk, but we saw it last year.)

The Food Hall is pretty extraordinary - these ovals with birds caught my eye - but overall I was strangely disappointed.

We now headed along Walton Place and Walton St towards Michelin House. We were struck by the unusual facade of this church, St Saviours. Not art nouveau, but it couldn't be ignored. It turns out to be by George Basevi and dates from 1838-40.

Here is Michelin House again, now Bibendum restaurant and oyster bar. It was opened in 1909, so a bit later than most of what we have seen today, and was designed by a Michelin employee, François Espinasse. It is, too say the least, very eye-catching and no doubt this was what was intended.

It is a wonderful building and some of the tiles and ceramic details are stunning.

We naturally completed an excellent day with a meal in the Oyster Bar.

Conditions: quite bright and warm.

Distance: hard to judge.

Rating: 5 stars. A truly memorable experience.

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