Simon Jenkins

Famous and forgotten faces

Text settings


Philip Ward-Jackson

Liverpool University Press, pp. 520, £

Paperback edition £29.95

I was much attached to Kaled. She stood at the corner of Fleet Street and Chancery Lane, pert, stylish, mocking the scribes and hacks scurrying round her feet. She was faintly androgenous, a pageboy Tiresias who saw and knew all that passed along that street of shame. She is there today, much battered but still with her swagger.

Nothing peoples a city as do statues. The more inhumane the architecture the more desperately we cling to relics of humanity, even if they are in stone and metal. Nobody seems to notice them. How many Fleet Street hands salute as they pass effigies to King Lud, Elizabeth I, Mary Queen of Scots, Northcliffe, Edgar Wallace, Prudence, Justice and Liberality? But that makes our enjoyment of them the more intimate.

The Public Monuments and Sculpture Association is engaged on a massive project to record urban statues throughout Britain. The latest and largest, Public Sculpture in the City of London, is a glorious work. Given the condition, and often obscurity, of many of these statues, this is also a call to arms. God forbid they should ever be removed to a museum. They alone stand between us and interminable sheets of steel and glass.

Most early statues were created as integral to the buildings in which they stand. Like the Elizabethan figures that adorned Ludgate and Temple Bar, art and architecture were fused in a single decorative project. The Royal Exchange would thus be incomplete without Westmacott's sculptural pediment, a commercial updating of the Parthenon marbles. The Blackfriars pub is a gallery of Arts and Crafts reliefs which would be stars of the V&A were they not, mercifully, still in situ.

Interwar architects could still handle ornament, often in the aggressive 'health and efficiency' style of Reid Dick's horses outside Unilever House. The adjacent lamp standards, by Walter Gilbert, are said to depict the Unilever company's raw materials. One is described as 'a herculean male figure in a lion-skin, confronting serpents with a palm tree'. That is presumably how board-members like to see themselves quarrying soap from the elements.

Even the postwar era was not bereft of inspiration. The much-abused architect, Richard Seifert, placed a charming if eerie group of 'Three Newspapermen' outside the headquarters of the Starmer Group off Fleet Street, carved in 1956. I particularly like Richard Kindersley's 'Seven Ages of Man', a totem pole of 1980, injecting a moment of humanity into bleak Queen Victoria Street.

But what a falling off there has been. The entrance to Broadgate is dominated by a crude and graceless work by Richard Serra (1986), vast tilting slabs of heavily rusted steel. It honours Serra's 'lust for rust' and had to be redesigned by the health and safety executive, though not so as we would notice. Critics applaud its 'disaffirmative qualities', and its 'primitivising, non-allusive, asymmetrical and threatening heavy presence'. That about sums it up. It is ugly, a blot on an otherwise exciting townscape. Meanwhile Tony Caro's 'gates' at the end of the Millennium Bridge merely look absurd.

Modern architecture along the eastern side of the City is mostly bereft of statues. The reason can only be that modern architects are so egocentric they cannot stand aesthetic competition, least of all from portrayals of human beings. But credit where it is due. The 'LIFFE Trader' by Stephen Melton was erected in Walbrook in 1997. He wears the lapel badges, mobile phone and cocky tilt of the head of a true Dickensian clerk. Within three years, LIFFE had closed. But its memorial arrived in time.

This excellent book is thoroughly researched and well-illustrated. Now for the West End please.