Without doubt one London’s finest modern sculptural masterpieces is perversely, also one of the most difficult to find, hidden away as it is in a beautiful green mosaic tiled (originally Carrera marble) and glass enclosed courtyard at the heart of one of London’s least known modern architectural gems.
The sculpture is easily one of Jacob Epstein’s most powerful works: A mother stands cradling her dead son, staring forlornly up into the sky, the look of pain and anguish clearly etched upon her face. The building is Congress House, the headquarters of the TUC, a building conceived in 1945, but not completed until 1957, and the story of these two modern masterpieces makes for quite an interesting read.
Congress House on Great Russell Street, just opposite the British Museum, was the result of a 1948 open competition, one of the first and largest post-war architectural competitions to be organised, and at a time when the likelihood of such a large, totally new structure being completed were severely limited by the restrictions and rationing of building materials.
The brief for the project, developed by the TUC over a number of years, had to address two key objectives: Firstly it was to provide a fitting memorial to those Trade Union members who had laid down their lives during the two World Wars, and secondly it was to provide high quality conference, education and meeting room facilities suitable for the progressive aspirations of the Union.
With over 170 entries submitted, choosing an outright winner was always going to be a challenge. All entries were put on public display, and though it’s not clear if the public had a say in the final choice (unlikely I would suggest in 1948), the eventual winner was announced by the RIBA as the (still) little known 35 year old English architect, David Du Rieu Aberdeen.
Du Rieu Aberdeen’s scheme had as its focus a large open courtyard surrounded on three sides by the offices, library and committee rooms that were key to the new building. The fourth side, against which the proposed memorial sculpture would stand, was the existing end wall of Sir Edwin Lutyens YWCA building, and which was protected by local building regulations. The floor of the courtyard was finished in a large, hexagonal segmented glazed structure, which also formed the ceiling of the below ground conference center and allowed light to flood into the subterranean spaces. Wherever possible materials were sourced (and often donated) from other trade unions and overseas labour organisations and included marble, polished granite and cedar, all of which added to the quality of the building and kept the costs within budget.
Getting the project started proved to be difficult. Narrow streets, height restrictions imposed by the historic nature of the site (previously a brewery and a warren of alleyways known as “The Rookery”), the protection afforded the adjacent Lutyens building and an understandably rather chaotic post war approach to redevelopment, resulted in a 5 year delay between Du Aberdeen’s appointment and works beginning on site. On the positive side, the delays did allow Du Rieu Aberdeen to work comprehensively through the scheme in detail, giving due consideration to all aspects of its design, especially key elements such as the feature main staircase, the glazed conference center roof and the composition of the external elevations.
The style of the building took its cues from a number of sources. The curving plan forms, pilotis (columns) and ribbon like exteriors of Le Corbusier’s modernism being the obvious one, but there are also hints of the more naturalistic interwar Scandinavian modernism of architects such as Gunnar Apsland and Alvo Aalto.
It’s no coincidence I might suggest, that the building shares similarities with the Royal Festival Hall, conceived as they were around the same time, 1947/48, and in a Post War atmosphere of optimism that allowed the younger members of the architectural profession opportunities to show what Modernism might begin to offer.
It is also undoubtedly true that the huge political will driving the success of the Festival of Britain, qresulted in the Royal Festival Hall being completed on time in 1951, i.e. some seven years before Congress House was officially opened, a success that arguably stole its limelight in the eyes of the public, forever relegating it to relative obscurity.
Jacob Epstein’s commission for the memorial sculpture came around 1955, two years after construction on the building had finally begun and is a masterful display of carving. The composition is loosely based on Michelangelo’s extraordinary Pietà at St. Peters Basilica in Rome, and with a scale (it stands almost 6 meters high on its pedestal) that leaves you in awe of the memorials presence. Epstein’s ability to manipulate solid stone to express human emotion and fragility almost leaves you speechless, creating a a wholly fitting and moving tribute to the sacrifice of the Unionist soldiers of the two wars.
In acknowledgement of the success of the project, in 1959 the RIBA awarded Du Rieu Aberdeen its prestigious Bronze Medal London Architecture Award and in March 1988 the building received Grade II Listed status securing it and Epstein’s wonderful sculpture for future generations to enjoy, describing it in the Listing as “as one of the most important institutional buildings erected in London, and one of the most significant 1950s buildings in Britain”.
Well worth a visit next time Open House comes around….
This post is an edited version of one that first appeared in issue 22 of The Shrieking Violet from 2014.
My good friend the artist Bill Mitchell was contacted recently by yet another of the growing band of admirers of his work. An email arrived from someone who works near Emanuel House on Rochester Row, SW10 and who had in passing it regularly, come to love the work. Spanning the entire front elevation of Emanuel House is a narrow, but perfectly formed concrete frieze, which undoubtedly has the tell tale style of a Mitchell…
The reason the admirer made contact however, was to try and ascertain who the originator of the work was. As with much of Bill’s work, online references are few and far between and those that can be found are not always correct. As indeed was the case with this piece, which according to the email, was attributed to someone else even in “official” records.
Bill and his wife Joy have asked if there was anything I could do to help, and so in my own small way, by posting this here, I’m hoping to set the records straight for anyone else who notices and wonders at this little gem of a sculpture and tries to find out more…
In the words of the great man himself…
“This was the first integral piece of concrete art ever produced. It’s a ‘ring beam’ which linked all the columns and on which the remainder of the structure depended. I designed it, made the moulds and the builder poured the concrete.
When I recall all the rows with structural engineers, and architects, plus the criticism from the art establishments of the time (including the Art’s Council) and the broadsides from the press – it was apparently obvious to everyone except me, why this work shouldn’t be made. Afterwards of course once it was finished, everyone agreed that it was the right thing to do, giving interest to this and many other, bleak concrete buildings thereafter, both through my own work and via the many copies.
Now I understand that the ring beam at Victoria has been attributed to someone else. This is astonishing, my work at Emanuel House was a piece of history and because of it many art critics made their names and fortunes whilst I and the builder lost money.
I continued to produce public works of art and now and then when I find that some of my works have been attributed to other artists, it only serves to illustrate for me the philosophy of the time, that ‘art’ should only be in frames, and hung on the walls of London West End galleries…”
(Apologies for the images, they’re screen grabs cobbled together this afternoon from Google street view.. I’ll update the post once I’ve been and seen the work for myself…)
A trip to the National Gallery (NG) yesterday to see the work of one of my favorite artists…
In a show entitled “My Back to Nature”, George Shaw’s new work has moved on from the seemingly humdrum Coventry urban scenes that earned him the Turner Prize nomination, and he now seems to be using his trademark Humbrol enamels to paint trees…
Lots and lots and lots of trees.
After his two year studio residency at the NG as an Associate Artist supported by the Rootstein Hopkins Foundation, Shaw has produced a series of paintings, sketches and studies that take inspiration from other works held within the collection.
As he walked through the galleries every day on his way to the studio, Shaw noticed that trees and woodland played a large part in many of the pieces that he liked, echoing his own fascination with those often forgotten, neglected and sometimes dodgy places he remembered from his youth.
Nicolas Poussin especially seemed to include trees in many of his paintings either as allegory (three trees in a painting will ALWAYS refer to the crosses at Calvary) or simply as a backdrop. There’s a very enlightenin video that accompanies the show in which Shaw refers to the painting below in particular, as embodying the essence of what he was trying to capture.
Poussin’s The Triumph of Pan from 1636 depicts satyrs, nymphs and animals indulging in all sorts of debauchery and naughtiness. Shaw suggests imagining the scene once all the action has finished and the characters have all shuffled out of view… What remains would be all the rubbish and detritus, the left over stuff that no one wanted, but that at some point in the earlier proceedings had seemed important enough to bring along.
Shaw felt that this resonated with his own idea that “something out of the ordinary could happen there at any time away from the supervision of adults”…
I have to admit that at first pass, the work on show didn’t grab me in the same way that his Coventry landscapes had. Being an architect, I don’t know whether it was a subliminal preference for buildings over trees, the urban over the rural, but the pictures were all a bit samey and the style of this new work seemed less focused, the lines less crisp and defined, more an impression of things found, rather than a visual record of them.
But after spending time in the exhibition, watching the accompanying film and then revisiting the work, I left with a feeling of great satisfaction., the work is accomplished, playful and thought provoking all at once. The three large paintings at the end are especially excellent and beautifully made, full of what I imagine are intentionally dark and deliberately ambiguous iconography including rood/ rude screens, porn mags littered in front of dark mysterious openings and red paint/ blood spattered trees…
Whether this work represents a maturing of style or simply a measured response to the NG collection, time will tell, but I like it very much… Fingers crossed George brings this new found confidence to his next series of urban landscapes…
Talking of confidence, Shaw has taken the decision to populate his works, as this self portrait of the artist doing what we’ve all done in the woods at one time or another attests..
Some rather evocative photos today taken by a young French photographer by the name of Laurent Kronental…
They illustrate some of the large public housing schemes that went up in and around Paris between about 1960 and the mid 1980’s, showing them in the context of their current, mostly elderly residents.
As an architecture student in the late 80s early 90’s, I remember some of these huge and bizarre “Grande Ensembles” being published. Even then, I got the distinct feeling that they were far more about form than function, style over substance, brought about by the architects desire to show off their paper thin, post modern credentials, than a drive to create human scale environments and sustainable communities (step forward Messers Bofill, Rossi and Botta…)
In the accompanying text to these nameless, descriptionless images, Kronental suggests that as these anachronistic buildings age in parallel with their residents, their “wrinkled faces and cracked walls” convey a mix of resignation and expectation, of skepticism and confidence” and in so doing become living memories of their time, echoes of a younger generation that did not see itself age.
I’m not sure about that, retrospective prose seems somehow misplaced in these gargantuan and ultimately misguided social experiments.
They certainly do make very arresting and interesting images though…
The listing announced last week of 41 postwar outdoor public sculptures was not only excellent news for the arts in general, but also for my friend Bill Mitchell whose wonderful bas relief “The Story of Wool” was amongst the works deemed worthy of official protection…
And quite right too. I first wrote about this amazing piece back in April 2011 noting at that time how little I could find out about it online, I wasn’t even certain it still existed…
Jump forward 5 years and as the word continues to spread not only about our phenomenally rich post war artistic heritage, but also about the oeuvre of Mr. Mitchell himself, the number of sites and references to his work seems to be increasing at an exponential rate, which is obviously welcome news indeed….
Located in Ilkley, West Yorkshire the new headquarters building for the International Wool Secretariat was designed by local architect Richard Collick and opened in 1968. Bill was commissioned to create a work to wrap around the lecture theater which Collick had placed over the main entrance. Taking the themes of wool and textiles as a starting point, Bill created what is undoubtedly one of his finest works, and certainly one of my most favourites.
Rich in detail and imagination with his trademark, deeply recessed and figured surfaces, it was one of the first sculptures Bill made using bronze-faced glassfibre, a material he was involved in developing during the mid 60’s and which he also used to impressive effect on his entrance doors for Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral completed the year before in 1967.
The large abstracted ram motifs to the front and the stylised microscopic cross sections of wool fibres on the side, are tied together by layers of patterning and texture that take their inspiration from the many forms that knitted wool can be transformed into.
So huge congratulations to Bill, as his work continues to get the recognition it so richly deserves. I for one am very pleased to see his name alongside those of Epstein, Moore and Hepworth, great and gifted artists whose work has quite rightly been recognised as worthy of preserving for the enjoyment of future generations.
David Shrigley’s proposal for the Fourth Plinth was far superior in every way to the overly literal horse skeleton with its barely visible ticker tape nonsense unveiled by the Clown Prince himself yesterday.
Like the excellent big blue cock, Shrigley’s giant thumb had humour, panache and style, things that the city can never get enough of..
Hey ho, roll on next years competition…
My good friend William Mitchell, sculptor, raconteur and all round legend, recently dug out his bow tie and headed off with his lovely wife Joy to be given an award in recognition of his many artistic achievements.
Sponsored by the British Precast Concrete Federation, this years annual prize for Creativity in Concrete was awarded to Bill in recognition of his lifetime’s commitment to producing and promoting concrete as a medium for making wonderful things.
Bill’s name joins the illustrious list of previous winners of the award, including Jorn Utzorn and David Chipperfield and is further proof of the renewed interest in the work and artistic contribution of this under appreciated genius.
So congratulations Bill, I’m very, very pleased for you and happy that others recognise and think as much of your work as I do. The snowball continues to gain speed and kudos (finally…)
For more information about William Mitchell, start by typing his name into the search bar at the top right of this blog, and take inspiration from the images of his wonderful work you find there…