Ian Swankie

Art in the Shadow of St Pauls

Review of the talk by Ian Swankie
on July 25th 2018

Ian is a Londoner with a passion for art and architecture.  He is an official guide at Tate Modern, Tate Britain, the Guildhall Art Gallery and at St Paul’s and gives regular tours at each.  His talk centred on the area within easy walking distance of St. Paul’s and he shared with us his knowledge of the art, architecture, monuments and obscurities to be found nearby.

medieval St Paul’s cathedral

Ian’s ‘armchair walk’ began for us with the medieval St Paul’s, a massive Roman Catholic church with a spire that could be seen from the North Downs.  This St. Paul’s stood only three storeys lower than the modern building we all call the ‘walkie talkie’.  At the time of the Fire of London in 1666 Wren was managing restoration work on the building so it was covered in wooden scaffolding.  But for this it might well have survived the fire.  As the talk progressed, Ian’s admiration for Wren shone through.  A brilliant polymath, Wren was a mathematician, an astronomer and regarded architecture almost as a hobby.  Ian sees him as a designer, schemer, politician and skilled manager of teams.  We are fortunate that the King also recognised his worth and gave him a free hand with his work on the cathedral.  From its concealed flying buttresses, to its three domes, this is a building filled with wonder.  Ian explained how after his time researching domes in France, Wren worked out a way to achieve external grandeur without internal ugliness by creating a false dome inside and only two thirds of the size of the outside dome.  And all this at a time when a dome was seen as a papist symbol and a spire would have been anticipated.

As we ‘walked‘ with Ian his focus came to rest on a range of items spanning several centuries.  He pointed out the statue outside the cathedral of Queen Anne, after Bird 1712, rebuilt 1886.  It is often mistakenly identified by tourists as Queen Victoria, but it’s Anne who was on the throne when the cathedral was finished.  Then on down Ludgate Hill to Shoe Lane to see Resolution by Antony Gormley, 2007, using as usual his own body as the maquette for this figure of rusty steel blocks which also serves as a ram proof defence for the building behind.  Then onto St. Paul’s Court to five very British sculptures by Emily Young in Purbeck stone, Cornish marble and Portland stone.  Sponsored by Standard Life and completed in 2003, these Angel Heads deliberately emerge from the raw material used and are seen by the sculptor as guardians of St. Paul’s.

Then on to Paternoster Square, an area that suffered extensive damage during the Blitz and was rebuilt in the 90’s.  Here London benefitted from the work of William Whitfield who managed teams of architects to achieve an excellent urban square in which sits his Paternoster Column of 2003.  Also in the square are the Paternoster Vents, commonly known as the Angel Wings.  Ian illustrated how playing with origami strips had provided the inspiration for this unusually shaped camouflage for heating vents.  It is the work of the Thomas Heatherwick Studio 2002.  Three storeys high and made of stainless steel with a high sheen, these hollow triangles are an elegant solution.

At Eric Parry’s new building for the London Stock Exchange 2003, Ian explained the significance of the strange work of art on the side of the building.  It is Noon Mark 2004 by Professor Frank King and Lida Cardozo Kindersley.  The former was the chair of the Sun Dial society and has incorporated into this sundial the important symbolism of noon for the Stock Exchanges of London, New York and Asia.

Close by, Ian focused on the work of Elisabeth Frink.  Her Paternoster shepherd and sheep is a very tactile work, a surface texture achieved by the use of linen strips in plaster of Paris that are wrapped around the armature.  Sadly it faces the nearby restaurant, The Paternoster Chop House!  Then on to Wren’s smallest building, Temple Gate designed as the gate between two cities and at a very busy crossing point that eventually became a bottle neck so was taken down and stored.  It saw a new life when the banjo playing star who became the wife of the wealthy brewer, Lord Meaux, persuaded him to buy the rubble and resurrect it in their home in Herts.  It was then moved back to its original location at a later date.  Then he moved onto the Central Line Air Vent which has not only a pocket park / vertical garden growing up the side but also the Wandering Hour Clock by Joanna Migdal 2007.  This is an example of a clock in which the hours move, not the minutes.  Behind it is the retained ruin of Wren’s Christchurch Greyfriars church whose remaining walls provide the structure around a garden and whose tower is a beautifully renovated ten storey / one room per floor contemporary home.

Nearby is the 2018 monument by Andrew F. Brown commemorating 300 years of Christ’s Hospital School and showing in two dimensional then three-dimensional form, the various stages of schooling.  Now near the site of the General Post Office we come to Postman’s Park with its extraordinary microclimate capable of producing conditions in which to grow bananas.  Here Ian pointed out the loggia with its many beautiful tiles.  G.F. Watts of Compton wished to commemorate the self-sacrifice of ordinary people as part of the celebrations to mark Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee.  He and his wife commissioned Dalton and De Morgan to produce individual tablets to tell the story of the heroic efforts of men and women who died in the service of others.

St Paul’s cathedral from One New Change

In complete contrast to the work of these Victorian artists we moved on to a very modern building, One New Change by Jean Nouvel 2012, who by means of an Airfix model of a stealth bomber, convinced the commissioners that his building would merge into the surroundings and disappear, which it does as it takes on the colour of the sky of the day.  Alongside it and easily missed by pedestrians is the 12 metre high 2011 Nail by Gavin Turk, a play on the absence of nails in the new building alongside it and the significance of nails to the Christian cathedral nearby.

In the churchyard of the cathedral we find Edward Bainbridge Copnall’s 1975 bronze resin statue of Beckett in his dying moments and behind it a tiny freestanding building commonly called the dog kennel but built in the 1700’s by Wren.  This coffin entrance has rollers to assist the passage of coffins into the crypt without the need to enter by the main entrance.  By the churchyard gates we find Amicale by Paul Mount 2007 whose work provides wonderful reflections of the cathedral.  Opposite is the St. Lawrence Drinking Fountain erected 1866, demolished in the 70’s on the understanding that it would be re-erected.  From 2011 it has provided a free, hygienic supply of water for one and all.

Ian took us on to the Fidelity roof garden where in soil only one metre deep a green oasis of calm with superb views has been created and a car park hidden underneath.  Old and new rub shoulder here as we come to Paul’s Cross and commemorate the area where folk moots took place and Londoners came for sermons and to catch up on news, what Ian called ‘a medieval Twitter’.  And staying with the theme of mail we come to the statue of Roland Hill by Edward Onslow Ford 1881.  Hill brought us the universal penny post and transformed an otherwise unfit postal service into a model for services worldwide.

Before the end of our ‘armchair walk’ Ian manages to introduce us to the threepenny bit building, a new edifice that straddles 2 post codes and which has 3 different road signs; the national Firefighters’ memorial erected to commemorate City firefighters in 1991 but becoming a national memorial in 1998 on which the font is that as used on ration books in the war; and last but not least the intriguing chrome spheres on Peter’s Hill.  These are beautiful, highly polished and make for great reflections of their surroundings.  It’s taken some digging for Ian to establish that these are no more than easily available children’s play equipment from a local garden centre.  When a coach park on the south side of the cathedral became a garden, it was an EU requirement that there should be a break out area for children and this is the solution.  And a tad cheaper than Anish Kapoor!

On a blisteringly hot evening, Ian’s talk brought our summer season to its close in grand style as he took us on a ‘walk’ through such a variety of art, architecture and obscurities.  It left us all longing for a cooler time when we can walk around this wonderful area of the capital and enjoy it, armed with Ian’s insights.

Vivien King


Related link

Ian Swankie's website