Missing in Action: Charles Wheeler's Post-War Architectural Sculpture
In his catalogue essay for the Open Air Sculpture Exhibition at Battersea Park in 1948, Eric Newton wondered how many of the visitors drawn to the spectacle would look ‘with equal interest at the London sculpture that is not on exhibition, but is performing sculpture’s proper function [my italics] of decorating our streets, establishing a focal point to our squares or enriching our buildings?’ (Eric Newton, ‘Sculpture’, catalogue essay, Open Air Exhibition of Sculpture at Battersea Park, May – September 1948, p. 5). Lost or stolen or strayed, like James James Morrison’s mother in A. A. Milne’s poem, numerous of these ‘properly functioning’ sculptures seem to have been mislaid. As the PMSA is only too aware, theft is just one of the reasons why sculpture disappears from the public sphere, from public record and from scholarly awareness. Reputation, fashion, taste and commercial interests all conspire in the loss of significant works as Historic England’s exhibition ‘Out There: Our Post-War Public Art’ reveals (showing at Somerset House until 10 April 2016).
When I began researching the career of Charles Wheeler twenty years ago most of his work was relatively forgotten, but mercifully much of it survived, hidden in plain sight, particularly in central London where it can be seen in public spaces like Trafalgar Square and in the Merchant Marine memorial garden at Tower Hill, as well as on and within some of the capital’s most significant buildings. Listed institutional structures like the Bank of England, India House, South Africa House and Church House Westminster have retained their architectural sculpture more or less intact, but other buildings from the inter- and post-war periods were less fortunate. Herbert Baker’s Electra House on Temple Place (1929-33) was demolished in the 1990s and while I have so far found no trace of Wheeler’s stone carved Hand of Zeus (with clasped thunderbolt) from the original door lintel, the developers retained and transferred his two elegant bronze Mercury figures to the entrance of Globe House, the building currently on the site (1998).
The very portability of bronzes, so appreciated by thieves, can contribute equally to their preservation and re-use as it does to their removal and loss. Wheeler made two 18ft high naked male figures Power and Speed for Charles Holden’s final building, English Electric House, in the Strand. The gilt-bronze titans, created between 1957 and 1960, were cast at the Morris Singer Foundry and installed as freestanding figures above the entrance canopy. This detachment from the façade was deemed a modern approach to architectural sculpture, but it facilitated their peremptory removal in 1971 for reasons of ‘decency’ at the wish of the Quaker board of the American Citibank that took over the building. The irony of this late eradication of naked figures from a Strand building by Holden will not be lost on readers of 3rd Dimension. Nor will the juxtaposition of the nearby theatre’s billboard advertising its production ‘No Sex, Please, We’re British’ in the photograph of the cranes uprooting the statues (though ‘No Sex, Please, We’re American’ would be more accurate).
Discovering the fate and whereabouts of these colossi was one of my more interesting pre-digital sleuthing challenges, which involved piecing together clues from various archives and press cuttings followed by a series of letters and phone calls. Eventually I traced them to a storage yard in north Devon. They belonged to Gerald Moore, who in the early 1970s had befriended Wheeler and displayed some of his sculpture in a privately owned sculpture park, created from a small quarry in the grounds of Heathfield Park, Moore’s home in Sussex. Most of the sculptures were returned to their owners, Wheeler’s family, but when Moore moved to Devon some years later, he took these figures with him, an undertaking of considerable determination and financial commitment.
Moore has recently donated the statues as part of his endowment of a new arts centre at his old school, Eltham College, and now Power and Speed have been installed in the courtyard. A happy ending for the statues and for my catalogue. But an interesting question arises: when is sculpture truly ‘lost’? In this case the works were lost to me, to public records and to scholarship; more importantly, on the orders of a new owner, they were lost to their original architectural location – itself demolished some years later. Nevertheless they survived intact, and were not ‘lost’ to Gerald Moore who, over forty years ago, in collaboration with Wheeler, carefully retrieved them from neglect in LCC storage at Crystal Palace. Safe in their new home, however, they are no longer in the public domain and are thus likely to remain hidden from interested parties like the PMSA. (It may be possible to see the works at Eltham College by appointment, at the school’s discretion).
Power and Speed were the largest individual Wheeler sculptures that were toppled from their original perch, but since the 1980s substantial sculptural schemes that he made have been displaced in their entirety – sometimes more than once. Chief among them was the ensemble for Barclays Bank, Lombard Street (A.T. Scott and V. Helbing, 1956-64). In addition to huge decorative bronze entrance and bullion room doors were two over-life-size bronze corner groups, Hercules and the Lion and St. George and the Dragon for the exterior, along with nineteen carved stone plaques (each about 5ft high and 4ft wide) representing City of London streets, inns, churches and family crests relating to earlier buildings occupying the site. In the adjacent George Yard, a bronze fountain ensemble was installed in 1969, comprising an over-life-size Poseidon statue flanked by fountain figures of a Mermaid and Triton.
When Barclays redeveloped the Lombard Street site between 1986 and 1994, the sculpture was removed and dispersed. What follows – so quick in the writing – is the result of slow, piecemeal and often frustrating research because the corporation held no coherent record of the fates of all these works. Barclays informed me that the statues of Poseidon, St George and the Dragon and Hercules and the Lion are all now far from London, at ground level in a business park at Barclays, Westwood Park, Coventry. Some of the stone plaques, I learned only recently, were installed at the Stock Exchange and when that building was (once again) redeveloped, they were finally sold off shockingly cheaply at auction, unrecognized, as little more than by-the-yard stone carvings. Thus the deracinated were deracinated yet again and disposed of. The Mermaid and Triton fountain figures were sold at auction through Phillips, London, on 4 November 1997, Lot 132. I do not know where they went.
I found the Phoebus and Ursa Majorbullion room doors on the market for a substantial sum on Ebay through an office supplies company in the West Midlands and recorded this in my catalogue. Searching again this week to check their current status, the company informed me that a deal has now been agreed with a Californian winery. If all goes according to plan, the doors – each leaf 13ft high by 10 ft wide and weighing approximately 2 tons – should leave the warehouse, where they have been since 2000 sometime in the next few months. The current owners bought them direct from London where they had lain in storage, at considerable expense to Barclays, since the demolition of their premises in Lombard Street. I am very grateful to The Office Furniture Warehouse, Birmingham for generously providing this information. The following British Pathé Newsreel clip shows Sir Charles Wheeler PRA working on the Phoebusleaf of the doors.
An article from the architectural correspondent of The Times (29 April 1995) revealed that Barclays retained a number of stone plaques and installed them inside their new London headquarters, along with the two bronze entrance doors, which were dramatically suspended above the atrium. The technical feat to install these four-ton bronzes was considerable and costly, evidence of the architects’ and patron’s appreciation of their sculptural and corporate historical contribution to this new Canary Wharf tower. New owners redeveloped this building yet again about five years ago and, on a final enquiry for my catalogue in 2011, Barclays were not forthcoming on the fate of these doors, so their location remained a mystery as my book went to press.
Thinking about the doors again for this article, their location has finally emerged via press articles from business pages and trade journals in 2011, that have now become accessible online. Their saviour was one of the major architectural salvage companies, in this case LASSCO. In conversation with Anthony Reeve of LASSCO Three Pigeons a couple of weeks ago, I heard that they are now a feature of a very grand walled garden in the south of England. Reeve is very knowledgeable about Wheeler’s (and others’) architectural sculpture and has vast experience of rescuing material from development sites across the country. The records of removals of exterior and interior sculpture, decorations and fittings that his and other reputable salvage businesses hold constitute, in my opinion, an invaluable archive. It was clear to me from speaking to Anthony Reeve and to a senior salvage expert from Westland London, that they are only too aware of the need to record as much detail as possible from the sites they attend. Surely a form of sculptural ‘rescue archaeology’ should be mandatory for significant buildings under development. Such recording would not impede legitimate demolition or salvage, and would be considerably cheaper than the sub-soil rescue archaeology that must statutorily be carried out on the majority of sensitive sites of continuous occupation. Many of the buildings to which Wheeler and his colleagues contributed came close to being listed – indeed, had the newer criteria at Historic England been in force some years ago, these sculptural schemes might have tipped the balance.
One final example of the consequences of demolition and redevelopment can be seen in the case of One New Change in the City of London. Jean Nouvel’s bronzed glass shopping-eating-drinking-and-office building occupies the prominent site of Victor Heal’s extension offices for the Bank of England, New Change Buildings (1953-60). Heal’s building was contextually designed for its surroundings to be subordinate and respectful to the nearby St Paul’s Cathedral. Like Baker’s Bank of England at Threadneedle Street, the offices surrounded a spacious garden courtyard and the buildings were embellished with sculpture. Wheeler was the chief contributor along with Esmond Burton, Alan Collins, David Evans and Donald Gilbert. Boris Anrep made mosaic medallions for the interior floors. Land Securities obtained the site in 1994 and began planning procedures that led, finally, to the commissioning of the French architect Jean Nouvel and the demolition of the building in 2007. A considerable furore erupted around the project. In a letter to The Guardian of 20 August 2009 Gavin Stamp wrote to protest at the imposition of Nouvel’s building on the sensititve site: ‘The Scandal is that the preceding building on the site was allowed to be demolished. New Change Buildings by Victor Heal, built on blitzed land in 1953-60, was a stodgy but well-made classical design which made no attempt to upstage Wren. It was faced in fine red brick and Portland stone, enriched with high-quality sculpture, and deserved listing.’
By the time I was frantically assembling information for my catalogue, the building had gone, and the only permanent record of the architectural sculpture in situ was found in the pages of Philip Ward-Jackson’s Public Sculpture of the City of London (2003) – proof positive of the value of these publications (main image). As with Barclays, a reputable salvage business, Westland London, had apparently secured the entirety of the sculpture, and the cover of their online catalogue showed Wheeler’s figures of St George Combatant and St George Triumphant among the many other carvings. Imagine my surprise, then, when my daughter told me last summer that she had seen ‘some Wheelers’ on the roof terrace of Nouvel’s building. My recent investigations and enquiries to Westland proved fruitful. The planners, it seems, in an insubstantial nod to the quality of what was being lost, made it a condition of their permission that some of the sculptural and artistic scheme must be retained and used in the new structure. The demolition company mistakenly sent all the sculpture to Westland, who photographed it as it arrived. Realising at once that the two St George figures, along with two Guardian Lions by Wheeler had been delivered in error, Westland returned them to the developers. Thus, more fool me, the catalogue cover design deceived me; I should have taken the time to make a phone call. Westland has now sold all but a couple of the carvings – a somewhat goggle-eyed lion and the smaller version of Wheeler’s ‘Young Lady’ of Threadneedle Street, whose nose is unfortunately missing.
It might be thought, and it must surely have been the intention, that a condition of planning to retain and publicly display valuable artworks from an earlier site would be carefully monitored to ensure that the spirit of the condition was satisfactorily fulfilled. When I visited One New Change I was disappointed by what I found. Wheeler’s sculptures St George Combatant and St George Triumphant flanked by two GuardianLions have been cleaned to pristine whiteness and are now displayed in a quasi-vitrine under a small clear section of the bronze glass pyramidal roof, overlooking St Paul’s. I missed them at first, dazzled by the reflective glare on the angled glass. A label declares them the work of Sir Charles Wheeler PRA, and gives the dates but no contextual information. Adjacent, in a triangular corner of the terrace and set on a shingle beach within a sedum lawn, is Boris Anrep’s 4 metre diameter roundel mosaic illustrating Wheeler’s gilt-bronze Ariel of The Bankon the Tivoli dome at the Bank of England. Not that the title is given – the label once again simply states the artist’s name and the date of the work. Any sightseer enjoying the stupendous view of St Paul’s, or vodka drinker from the glitzy rooftop bar might reasonably wonder why on earth these 55-year-old artworks have been parachuted into this twenty-first century setting.
The One New Change management website briefly mentions ‘Wheeler’s Statues’ and their original location, explaining that ‘the re-siting of the artwork into the replacement development was part of the Public Art Strategy for One New Change and the planning permission for the building’. As for Anrep’s mosaics, the website perhaps reveals the attitude of the owners to this imposition: ‘The escalators on the western end of the lower ground floor of One New Change hide [my italics] three mosaics by a Russian-born artist, Boris Anrep (1885-1960).’ They depict Queen Elizabeth II, William and Mary and an emblematic flower and star. The rooftop mosaic is only described as ‘much larger’; no subject matter is given. Land Securities informs us that all the artworks were preserved ‘due to the accomplishments and reputations of the artists who created them.’ If the company had any intention to pay more than lip service to the strictures of the planners and the ‘reputations of the artists’, then the way the works have been displayed and the absence of any historical and architectural context in the labelling has signally failed them. The fragmented, even bizarre, installations seem grudging of the planners’ intrusions into this high-concept building. Yet a bolder and more prominent exhibition of the ensemble could have made a striking feature for the thousands who daily pass through the concourses of this building, simultaneously showing respect for the artists, the site and the planners while demonstrating the seriousness of Land Securities’ commitment to public art. Unfortunately One New Change misses this target by a mile. Planners and developers need to collaborate with expert advisors in order to achieve the best outcomes for any salvaged sculpture that is hostage to the fortunes of big business. There is a great opportunity to do much more in future.
Post Script: Stolen bronzes, and a new discovery
Wheeler’s portrait bust of Yehudi Menuhin was stolen from the foyer of the Royal Festival Hall in 1990 (one of three busts made in 1960, exh. RA 1961 nos. 1312,1313,1314). More recently, in June 2009, thieves removed the large bronze portrait bust of 2nd Viscount Leverhulme from his plinth in the Lever family burial cloister at Port Sunlight (1949-50, exh. RA 1950, no. 1316). Other stolen Wheeler bronzes include the torchiers from the Harrow School War Memorial loggia (made c. 1921, stolen 1980s) and a life-size fountain figure, Aphrodite IV (1959-60, exh. RA 1960. No. 1460), which was stolen from a private garden near Lewes in Sussex, probably in the 1980s.
Whether any of these bronzes are still ‘out there’ somewhere or have been ignominiously melted down, we may never know; I suspect the Menuhin bust might well be sitting on a music buff’s mantelpiece.
On a happier concluding note, while researching this article, an exciting Wheeler work, entirely unknown to me, emerged via the highly informative LASSCO website. The Morris Singer Foundry entrance doors were recently sold to a London art collector for installation in his home. The doors were made in 1931, in a style echoing Wheeler’s Bank of England doors, to commemorate the merger of the Singer Foundry of Frome, Somerset, with William Morris of Westminster to form the Morris Singer Foundry. The doors are cast in relief with prominent lion masks, raised bosses and bas relief images of two groups of three foundry-men at work: casting on one leaf and hammering on an anvil on the other. These splendid doors are 213.5cm (84”) high and 141cm (55 ½”) wide. Their date suggests that they were made at the same time as the three Threadneedle Street doors for the entrance to the Bank of England, which I date to 1928-31 (central doors 570cm, 224” high by 143cm, 56” wide; flanking doors 308cm, 121” high by 153cm, 60” wide). As Anthony Reeve writes in his LASSCO Three Pigeons catalogue entry, doubtless these foundry doors, which remained in the Morris family, ‘were cast as a showpiece to remind visitors that this was the foundry responsible for the colossal doors at Herbert Bakers new Bank of England’. It is thrilling to know that there are delights still ‘out there’, waiting to be discovered.
Main image: Charles Wheeler, St. George Combatant, Thames Keystone and St. George Triumphant, c.1957, Portland stone, in situ on New Change Building, City of London
(photo: Michael Phipps)
*Dr. Sarah Crellin, The Sculpture of Charles Wheeler, London, Lund Humphries in association with the Henry Moore Foundation, 2012.