Hidden Dramas in Covent Garden

Susannah Bray, Public Catalogue Foundation Volunteer, takes us on a tour of the some of the sculpture that can be seen near the PCF’s head office in the heart of London’s theatreland:

“Avoid the traps and focus in closer. What you might find may impress you.

Covent Garden, one of London’s busiest hotspots, is not just home to the hustle and bustle of theatre life, but to a huge amount of sculptures waiting to be uncovered. Some of Britain’s greatest actors, writers and directors are immortalised within the concrete of central London. Some notable names, such as Charlie Chaplin, will lead you through London on an uncommon trail that will make you discover places you never knew existed and have walked past in day-to-day life.

We begin with Agatha Christie. Agatha is particularly easy to miss. The likely person would bypass this sculpture in the heart of theatreland either because they are late to their play at the West End or are too excited by the prospect of meeting a fanciful flower girl in Covent Garden. However, this is a treat not to be overlooked. The bust of her head appears in profile within a solid surrounding of bronze, safely nestled from pedestrians. Her smiling face is a warm welcome against the chill. More than eight of Christie’s plays have been performed on the West End, with particular  The Mousetrap credited as the longest running play in the world.image1Above: Agatha Christie Memorial, Ben Twiston-Davies, 2013.

Not a stone’s throw away, in the north of Leicester Square, opposite the Leicester Square Theatre, you will find one of the heroes of the golden age of Hollywood; Charlie Chaplin. You will come across him in character, absently mindedley waiting your arrival. He doesn’t have a voice unlike another popular work by John Doubleday, Sherlock Holmes (1999), but almost appears, like on screen, that he doesn’t need one.

Chaplin appears to have a good view of the beginning of Chinatown and stares out to where Wilfred Earnest Lytton once lived, but he has not always been sited there. Previously he stood in the middle of Leicester Square, resting on a cane. This cane is now gone and you can only presume that it didn’t make the journey. Something to note is Chaplin’s change in height, as although never being tall in real life, between 1981 and 2011 he gained height physically and commemoratively by being placed in Leicester Square on a plinth. Following the remodelling he was moved without his plinth to Leicester Place.image2Above: Charlie Chaplin, John Doubleday, 1981.

Following the streams of people heading back east is recommended, as between Covent Garden and Bedford Street is a place of perfect serenity; St Paul’s Church garden. On my visit some restoration work was being done, but it is still worth a look. In the garden sits Neptune’s fountain, a piece fit for the water god himself. Although I was unable to see Neptune as the area directly behind the photo was cordened off, the back side reveals a ‘Baroquism’ of a scallop shell that leaves you wondering where an indignant Galatea has been left. St Paul’s Church is a stone’s throw away from the covers of Covent Garden and gains its fame from being referred to as ‘The Actor’s Church’. You can easily imagine flows of actors and playwrights en route from tavern to theatre, praying that they really do not break a leg.image3Above: Neptune Fountain, Philip Thomanson, 1995.image4Above: Doorway to Inigo Jones Garden. The Neptune Fountain can be glimpsed through the door.

Being in Covent Garden, it would be unthinkable to not think about dance, and, just on the other side of The Royal Opera House, a Young Dancer ties the ribbons of her ballet shoes. The grace and preciosity of her art can be seen in her posture, which Plazzotta captures in his sculpture. She perches half on the stool for moment to retie the ribbons before she leaps back into the rehearsal. The piece seems timeless, encompassing every hopeful dancer.image5Above: The Young Dancer, Enzo Plazotta, 1988

The last sculpture, if you recognise it for what it is, will probably be the most memorable. Found on Adelaide Street, many a passer-by will rest on this piece and not realise that they are actually regaining their strength on a nod to one of Britain’s greatest playwrights, Oscar Wilde. Indeed what they are actually sitting on is his coffin, which he seemingly rises out of and attempts to engage you in conversation. image6

Above: A Conversation with Oscar Wilde, Maggi Hambling, 1998.

Wilde, who died in 1900 at the age of 45, had been imprisoned for two years and in a way this controversial work feasibly reflects his life. It is far better, however, to look at a sculpture without any previous knowledge or bias of others’ opinions, just appreciating the art for the way you see it. Note: at the time of observation the whole of Adelaide Street was being dug up, making it hard to take a photo without any road works. I am sure Oscar would not have minded being submerged in the contemporary.”

Thanks very much to Susannah for taking us on this mini sculpture trail around London WC2.


Matthew Flinders and Trim the cat at Euston Station

I thought I knew every inch of Euston Station, having spent many hours there waiting for the platform number for my train to appear on the departures board. Towards the end of 2014, however, I became aware that a new statue had been installed on the main concourse and I was amazed that I hadn’t spotted it before. As anyone who travels through Euston will know, it’s a really busy place, so I hadn’t seen the new sculpture as it was always obscured by large numbers of people surrounding it or sitting on it.

Travellers will pass two sculptures on their way in and out of the station. A statue of railway engineer Robert Stephenson (1803-1859) stands just outside one of the entrances:Stephenson_EustonThe other work is Eduardo Paolozzi’s large sculpture Piscator, 1980, dedicated to German theatre director Erwin Piscator:Paolozzi_EustonThe new addition to the station’s public art is a statue of scientist and navigator Matthew Flinders (1774-1814), credited with popularising the name Australia, and the first person to circumnavigate the ‘Great Southern Land’ and map South Australia’s coastline. The statue, by sculptor Mark Richards, shows Flinders leaning over a chart of Australia, dividers in hand, accompanied by his faithful pet cat Trim. Flinders Euston_3_9March15Flinders is not a household name in the UK, but he is well known in South Australia where the Flinders Ranges, Flinders Chase National Park, Flinders Street and Flinders University all bear his name. A large number of statues erected in Flinders’ honour can be seen around Australia, apparently only second in number to statues of Queen Victoria. The statue at Euston is the second of Flinders and Trim to be erected in the UK, with the other unveiled in 2006 in Flinders’ birthplace, Donington, Lincolnshire.

Trim the cat was born in 1799 on the Southern Indian Ocean and accompanied Flinders around Australia and to Mauritius. He was described as ‘the best and most illustrious of his Race, the most affectionate of friends, faithful of servants, and best of creatures’. Trim is a much-loved cat even now, with a dedicated Wikipedia page and his own merchandise at the State Library of New South Wales.Flinders Euston_4_9March15Matthew Flinders died in England in 1814 aged 40 and was buried at St James, Hampstead Road, London. The church was demolished in the 1950s and it is rumoured Flinders’ remains are buried under one of the platforms. Some sources say platform 4 or 5, whilst others say his grave might lie somewhere under platforms 12-15.

Mark Richards’ statue was unveiled by Prince William at Australia House, London, on 21 July 2014. In his speech, Prince William said that he felt particularly honoured to have been invited ‘to celebrate a man who did far more than anyone to place Australia – quite literally – on the map’. The statue was subsequently installed within Euston station.

Many more details about Matthew Flinders’ fascinating life and work can be found on the Flinders Memorial website, which is worth visiting to see images of the creation of statue in progress. A collection of letters and documents about Flinders are held by the National Maritime Museum and can be viewed online.

Thousands of people pass by this impressive memorial each day and I hope that some of them will take a moment to look closer at Matthew Flinders and Trim the cat, rather than just use the plinth as a seat or a place to put their fast-food wrappers.

Looking at sculpture in three dimensions

The Your Sculpture project is happening at a very interesting time for the development of new technology and imaging techniques. We definitely want to embrace this new technology, to ensure we don’t get left behind, but the speed of these new developments can be a bit daunting. When the PCF undertook the Your Paintings project, our approach to photography of the 212,000 2D artworks was fairly straightforward. The photographers were given instructions on lighting, file sizes and image processing. This created a consistent style for all the images across the project, whether they were in a store in Belfast or on display in Wolverhampton. Sculpture opens up a whole new set of challenges. Getting the lighting right for photography can be tricky, especially if the sculpture has a shiny, reflective surface. There is also the issue of taking multiple images of each work and what the background will look like; things we didn’t need to worry about for the oil paintings. We will be testing our sculpture photography methodologies in a few months time. Photographing three-dimensional artworks gives us the opportunity to explore the possibility of creating 3D images. Viewing 3D images online will give users a new perspective on the work, espcially if they are not able to visit the sculpture in person. The last few years have seen a huge increase in 3D imaging methods and technology for both professional and amateur use. Exactly how we will create 3D images for the Your Sculpture project is another thing we need to assess during the development phase, but I have already had a go at creating my own images using a free app called 123D Catch. To create a 3D image the user takes multiple images of their chosen 3D object with their phone or ipad, then the 123D Catch software stitches these photographs together. They suggest taking around 20 sequential photos in a loop around the object, then take another loop at a different angle. You need to make sure you cover the whole object, so there are no gaps. This process is called photogrammetry and is already a well known technique for creating 3D images. Having experimented with a pottery chicken on my dining room table, I chose a local public sculpture for my next 3D project. The Staffordshire Moorlands Lion sits near the entrance to the local council offices in Leek. Having been commissioned for Alton Towers by the 15th Earl of Shrewsbury, the lion was moved to Brough Park, Leek in the 1920s, where it stood on a high plinth for many years, before being moved to its current position. It’s just over 1m high and sited away from the wall, so I could easily get all the way round it and see its top as well. I was pleased with the result and uploaded the image to the 123D Catch website.Staffs Moorlands Lion[This is a screen shot of the blended image, so you won’t be able to see this one in 3D!] By uploading images to their cloud, you automatically agree to be open with your rights to the image and allow others to share and use it. My image of the lion was very quickly picked up by another user of the 123D Catch website, who created a mesh model of the lion and uploaded that to a site called Blend Swap. The blend of my lion has now been viewed over 2,600 times and has had 554 downloads. wireI am happy that the work I created in just a few minutes has had so much interest and I wonder who, around the world, now has a 3D model of the Staffordshire Moorlands Lion. We will update you on our exploration of other photography and 3D imaging technology over the next few months.