Thursday 9 May 2024

Nelson Mandela House

It was recently announced that Harlech Tower on the South Acton Estate is to be demolished to make way for a new development of mixed and private housing. Not unusual perhaps but this story has a bit of a twist. Since 1981 Harlech Tower has had a, not exactly secret, alter ego. For the popular TV series Only Fools and Horses it became Nelson Mandela House.

don't know if Harlech Tower and, presumably, the rest of the estate really needs to be demolished to make way for new housing. I have no idea whether it is economically viable, or even necessary, to bring it up to 21st century standards, whatever that may mean, but it seems that local opinion is mixed. Some look forward to the newer housing but others think that the Tower should be preserved. Some are even suggesting that it should be listed. I have a problem with that.

The decision to list a building is complex, if you have several hours to spare  take a look here. Basically, it should be of architectural, cultural, aesthetic or historic importance. Although other opinions are valid, I believe that a tower block in Acton, pretending to be a tower block in Peckham doesn't qualify, even if it is associated with a program as popular as Only Fools and Horses.

Harlech Tower was originally chosen because of its location which was close to both the North Acton rehearsal rooms and BBC Television Centre. It was used for the exterior shots only, the interiors were recorded at the Television Centre

Eventually, and perhaps inevitably, the popularity of the series made filming in Acton difficult, so the exteriors of the last two series were filmed at Whitemead House in Bristol. As far as I know, no one has suggested listing that one..... yet.

Saturday 19 January 2019

An Identified Floating Object

I noticed today that the former sorting office next to Paddington Station, has been reduced to a pile of rubble and a few sections of steel framework. It will be replaced by a 14 story office block perched on 12 metre columns and a large central podium. The podium itself will house eateries, retail units and a new entrance to the Bakerloo line. 

The Royal Mail sorting office was built by Sir Henry Tanner in 1892, in 1907 it was extended by Jasper Wager. From 1927 to 2003 it was also the western terminus of the Post Office Railway. Although it had been disused for many years the Victorian Society considered it important enough to protest its demolition claiming “The proposals entail the complete loss of the existing handsome building and would cause substantial harm to the setting of nearby listed buildings and the conservation area". They also agreed with Historic England's statement that "whatever its detailing, a building of this scale will have a seriously detrimental impact on the character and heritage assets of this part of London".

The architect of the new building is the, love him or hate him, Renzo Piano the man who gave us the Shard and the multi coloured Central St Giles development. He has said of this building "when you exit the station you will see a clear floating cube levitating above the ground". If you close one eye and squint heavily with the other perhaps!

The original plan for this site was announced in December 2015. The proposed building, also by Mr Piano, was a 254 metre, 72 story, cylindrical skyscraper. Nicknamed the Paddington Pole, it was condemned by Sir Terry Farrell as "opportunistic and piecemeal" Unsurprisingly locals protested about its effect on the area and the Skyline Campaign fought against its impact on London's horizon.

Further protests from locals, SAVE Britains Heritage and Historic England among others, led to a withdrawal of the planning application in February 2016.

By July of the same year the plan for the new building was in place and despite continuing controversy, Westminster Council gave its approval in December. The decision made simpler perhaps by an offer from the developers to build, and pay for, a new ambulance access road to St Mary's hospital.

But it didn't end there. Following constant campaigning the then UK Communities Secretary, Sajid Javid, issued an Article 31 direction, preventing Westminster City Council from granting formal planning permission for the project. Ultimately, of course, that was overturned which brings us to where we are now.

So, like it or not, there will soon be a shiny glass cube hovering alongside Paddington Station. At least it won't be casting a giant shadow, like some kind of humongous gnomon, across West London.

Saturday 20 May 2017

The Painted Hall Project

The Painted Hall of the Old Royal Naval College in Greenwich has what is considered one of most impressive and important baroque interiors in Europe. Originally built at the instigation of Queen Mary II, it formed part of the Royal Hospital for Seamen which was intended to offer care to sailors invalided out of the navy.The Hospital was designed by Sir Christopher Wren and Nicholas Hawksmoor, and was built on the site of the Palace of Placentia, more often known as Greenwich Palace, which had been the birthplace of Henry VIII and his daughters, Mary I and Elizabeth I.

The Painted Hall itself was originally intended to be the dining hall for the inhabitants but from the start it was felt to be too grand by the pensioners themselves, who preferred to eat in more humble surroundings. It very quickly became a space for ceremonial occasions and other special functions but was also an early "tourist" attraction, open to paying visitors! In 1806, the lying in state of Admiral Lord Nelson took place in the Painted Hall, following his death at the battle of Trafalgar. Huge crowds queued to view the body over a three day period before he was taken to his State funeral and internment in St Paul's Cathedral.

The decoration of the Hall was carried out by James Thornhill between 1707 and 1726. For this the agreed payment was £3/square yard for the ceiling and £1.00/square yard for the walls. However, when it came to actual payment, there were the inevitable delays and disagreements with those holding the purse strings! Eventually, Thornhill received a total payment of £6,685.00. This was a princely sum in the early 18th Century but when looked at a little more deeply does seem a tad miserly. This was a 19 year project, during which he had provide his own materials and the scaffolding. Plus, as this was not a single handed operation, he had pay the team of assistants required to get the job done.

On the plus side, a prestigious commission like this also led to work from other sources.  During the period that he was working in the Painted Hall he also carried out a number of other important projects including a number of walls and ceilings at Chatsworth House, the grisaille  panels inside the  dome of St Paul's Cathedral and the ceiling of the New Council Chamber of the Guildhall in the City of London!

Also within the same period he opened a school of drawing (twice) where one of his pupils was William Hogarth who also later became Thornhill's son in law.

Oh yes, he was also a fine portrait painter and the Member of Parliament for Melcombe Regis in Dorset. This man was a seriously good at multitasking!

The painted ceiling is a massive and important work. It emphasises Britain's naval power and international trading success but also reflects the political, social and scientific achievements of the age. It is an incredible cocktail of around 200 contemporary, historical and allegorical figures, musical and scientific instruments, warships and weapons, and a pretty hefty chunk of the animal kingdom!

One of the problems with working on a project of this length was that things change. Thornhill had to keep on top of the shifts in political power and social values and, of course, changes in the monarchy. He was clearly a man who  knew which side his bread was buttered, so he frequently modified his design as the years went on. Britain went through a series of royal changes over the 19 years. Starting with the joint monarchs William III and Mary II, followed by Queen Anne and finally George I. He made sure that they were all well presented in a respectful and flattering manor, unlike Louis XIV who is shown being trampled under King William's foot!

This political tiptoeing paid off when, on 2nd May 1720, he was knighted by King George I, the first British artist to receive such an honour.

I have to be honest here, and admit that I didn't know anything about James Thornhill before I started researching this article. Why is his name not mentioned in the same breath as Constable or Turner? Perhaps it is because the majority of his great works grace walls and ceilings rather than canvas but, whatever the reason, he deserves more recognition.

The Painted Hall is currently part way through a major project. The emphasis is on cleaning and conservation, rather than restoration. The plaster is in remarkably good condition, with very few cracks, all of which seem to be minor and easily stabilised. The painting itself is also in very good shape, the real problem being the various layers of varnish that have been applied over the years. Darkened and crazed in some areas. As much as is possible, it will be cleaned and treated sympathetically, without disturbing the actual painted surface.

Until September 2017, you have the once in a lifetime opportunity to get up close and personal with the ceiling of the lower hall. Measuring 15 by 30 metres, it towers over 18 metres above floor level. The extraordinary scaffolding (around 7 miles of tubing and weighing roughly the same as the Space Shuttle........apparently!) enables you to get within touching distance of this amazing art work. To be honest, the majority of the detail and 18th century symbolism would be beyond the comprehension to most of us in the 21st century but, fortunately, the wonderful guides are there to help you through this visual minefield. Plus you get to wear a hi viz waistcoat and a hard hat. What more could you want?

It is a fascinating and beautiful piece of British history and all of the money raised through ticket sales goes into the conservation fund, so you also get that warm feeling , knowing that you have done your bit towards preserving this treasure for future generations to enjoy.

Check out Janeslondon's post on the Ceiling Tour here, it also includes a good tip of where to eat if you are visiting Greenwich!

More photographs in my Flickr album here.

Thursday 23 February 2017

The Repentant Magdalene

Yesterday I went to see the Repentant Magdalene at the National Gallery. What a lovely thing it is!

Commissioned by Emperor Leopold 1, it was painted , in Vienna, by Guido Cagnacci sometime in the early 1660's. For a picture from the Baroque period, it is remarkably unfussy. Many artists at that time seem to have been intent on cramming as much into their paintings as possible, either because that was desired by their clients (who were prepared to pay handsomely for a suitably showy result), or because they simply wanted to show just how clever they really were. This is not at all like that, it is a large canvas, around 104x90 inches with an elegant setting and lots of space. It shows Mary Magdelane renouncing her sinful ways and converting to Christianity. The really stunning thing, from my heathen point of view, is the depiction of the heroine (or villainess, depending on how you chose to read her character). While the characters around her seem to fit the Baroque idea of what a biblical figure should look like, Mary herself could have just stepped out of a 21st century fashion shoot or an ad for Chanel perfume!

No pictures from me, I'm afraid. Although the National Gallery freely allows non commercial photography of its (our!) own collection, but, as in this case, it often does not apply to artworks on loan from other collections. This painting is on loan from the Norton Simon Foundation in Pasadena and is being shown in the UK for the first time in over 30 years and we have to thank them for that.

This is a beautiful painting, way beyond my descriptive abilities. Go and see it yourself. It is on display until the 21st May.

Tuesday 20 September 2016

The Veronica Scanner

Two weeks ago I had a 3D scan of my head made at the Royal Academy as part of the Veronica Scanner project. An interesting, if very short, experience, the scan itself taking just a matter of seconds.

Why did I do this? A very good question! I'm not a natural photographic subject, I don't mind spontaneous photographs but ask me to pose for a shot and I don't know what to do. I usually end up looking puzzled or gurning like a man in leave of his senses (some who know me may well think that description not too far off of the mark!)

I suppose it was partly just to try something different and to be part of an art project but it was also, perhaps, to see myself as others see me. We are used to seeing ourselves in a hard copy photograph or on a phone or a computer screen, but whether it's a still shot or a video, it is remains a slightly flat image. 3D promised something different. So why not give it a go.

So, what happened on the day? I turned up ahead of my booked time slot and took a quick look around before checking in at the desk.

There were a number of examples of printed heads on display, in a variety of materials. Of particular interest were a small series loosely based on the wonderful character heads created by Franz Xaver Messerschmidt in the late 18th century. Examples of his work are held in the collections of the V&A and the Wellcome.

The scanner itself sat in the middle of the room in a large perspex box. It looked like a giant, perforated, desk globe, split vertically with the two halves separated by a couple of feet and in the centre was a saddle-like seat.

After signing the waivers, which would allow the resulting images to be used as part of the project, and a very short wait, it was my turn to be scanned. The first choice I had to make was whether or not to wear my glasses. Apparently, most people have chosen to remove them. That didn't seem to make sense to me. Specs have been part of me for the last 50 plus years and relatively few people would remember me without them, so to keep them on was a no brainer.

The procedure was explained and I soon found myself perched on the saddle as the two halves of the sphere closed in on me. The saddle was raised by the operator to centre me in the scanner and we were good to go.

The sphere has 96 apertures and is lined with a number of low powered flash units. Eight Canon EOS 5D cameras are arranged in an arc on an exterior arm that resembles the support on a conventional globe. The cameras are timed to shoot as they pass the holes in the globe. The for those who care about these things, the overlapping pictures are saved as 24 megapixel RAW files.

Some other sitters chose to be quite creative with their poses but I decided on what I thought was a fairly neutral expression, not that I'm a great judge of these things (see my earlier comments). The operator asked me if I was ready and, after a reminder to remain still during the scan, she hit the button. It apparently takes four seconds to complete the scan, but at the time it seemed much quicker. I was aware of the arm swinging around the outside of the sphere and the flashes firing in sequence and then, it was all over. The cameras had taken their 96 shots and it was now down to the computers to make sense of it all.

After a short wait to be sure that the 96 individual shots had been recorded, it was time to leave.

Now, two weeks later, those 96 individual photographs have been processed to produce this! It may take a little while for this to load (especially on a tablet, a friend and I have had problems on different Samsung Tabs, desktops and laptops seem OK) , but please be patient because, as the advert says, I'm worth it LOL.

I have to admit that I'm pleasantly surprised with the result. There were no guarantees that the scan would be successful and I was fairly convinced that something would go wrong, perhaps I had moved during the scan, or there would be a software glitch, but no, it has turned out OK.

So, what now? I have a digital file that I can send to a 3D printer to have my head recreated in a variety of materials from plastic to glass or even in chocolate. It is also possible to connect to a specialised routing machine to reproduce me in wood (a wooden head? Too close to the truth I think!). There is even the option to print in wax and then produce a bronze Me using the lost wax process! I'm not yet sure if any of these are going to happen for two main reasons. One, I suspect it is going to cost considerably more than a head, an arm and a leg to do it and, Two, I'm not sure that I want to be stared at, in my own home, by another version of me. Might check it out though. Just in case!

The guys below are not me!

In the nine days of the RA event more than 600 heads were scanned. The results of all of these scans can be seen here, along with more information on the project.

I'm not sure that I've learned any more about myself from this but it was an interesting experience with a surprisingly acceptable result.

That's it!

Wednesday 4 May 2016

Moving On.

This time last week, I was getting up at stupid o'clock, going to a place where I didn't particularly want to be and doing things I didn't really want to do.

It was known as work!

Today, I got up when I felt like it. I mooched about for a bit, then I came here, doing not very much apart from sitting in the sun, drinking decent coffee, watching the World (or at least a very small part of it) passing by and listening to the birds sing their hearts out.

I can now do this whenever I like (weather permitting!)

This is known as retirement.

Highly recommended.

By the way, "here" is Holland Park, without any doubt, the best park in London and don't let anyone tell you any different. I have been coming here all of my life, from a baby in a pram to the grey haired, near OAP that I am now

Wednesday 9 September 2015

The Royal River Salute

On the 9th September, Queen Elizabeth became our longest reigning monarch, bumping her great-great-grandmother, Queen Victoria, off of the top spot. To mark the occasion  there was to be a flotilla of boats led by the Royal barge Gloriana. It was hoped that a rolling wave of cheers and applause would follow the flotilla on it's journey from Tower Bridge (which would open for the occasion) to the Palace of Westminster

If you didn't go, you really didn't miss anything. The whole thing was staggeringly underwhelming. I decided to watch from the Albert Embankment opposite the H of P. Actually, not so much a decision as a necessity, as it was the only point I had a chance to get to, given that I had left it so late to leave home.

I got there just as The Gloriana cleared Westminster Bridge. It was followed by the Havengore, two fire boats, one of which, the Massey Shaw, was a Dunkirk Little Ship. There were also a couple of Police boats and a Thames cruise boat.

These were followed a few minutes later by something that didn't pass under the bridge but was making a variety of wonderful hooting, screaming noises from it's steam whistles. I later found that the source of these noises was what looked like converted (in a good way) trawler named the George Stephenson that, despite having folded its funnel and mast, clearly wasn't going to risk passing under the bridge with the tide as high as it was.

I'm not sure what I expected of the "flotilla" (the information I saw was a little vague about that) but it was a bit more than this and the expected wave of cheers/applause that the organisers hoped would follow this event from Tower Bridge to Westminster, if it ever started, had fizzled out long before it reached me!

On the other hand the weather wasn't too bad and it did get me out of the house slightly earlier than my natural lethargy suggested was possible.

By the way, I was wrong about the George Stephenson. Not a converted trawler but something altogether more interesting. Thank you to Joanna Moncrieff for pointing me in the right direction on this one.

Oh, and I should give a special mention to the crew of the rather lovely cruiser Elvin, who seemed delighted to have so many cameras pointed in their direction, even though they were not part of the flotilla!


That's it!