Portland Stone and Eric Gill

Broadcasting House

So controversial was the work of Eric Gill that they even wrote a play, still popular in 2012, about the potential disagreements between Lord Reith and Gill himself. Much of it is based on diaries kept by both men, but I was particularly tickled by the description of Broadcasting House as an "Antiseptic Modern Warren". Whether this was actually a recorded comment or the author's imaginative dialogue (remember this is a comedy) is unimportant, just the thought of an Art Deco / Moderne gem being referred to as antiseptic and a warren is enough to make anyone giggle! Especially anyone who actually ever worked there .......

An excellent site dedicated to Broadcasting House can be found here

Broadcasting House Radio Programme cutting

I really liked this simple image of Broadcasting House that I found in the Radio Times recently and wonder why anyone wants to improve on perfection by the addition of the really appalling modern extension. I can't see the new bit being sketched with such consummate ease. A larger version of the sketch can be seen below at the end of the Broadcasting House section.

Chisel and Mouse

Talented artisans re-create many Art Deco and Moderne edifices. Two feature on this page - my favourite the Abbey Lighthouse and my hitherto unappreciated former place of work - Broadcasting House.

Abbey Lighthouse carving

Abbey Lighthouse detail

Images of the beautiful Abbey Lighthouse Model in its entirety and a detail of the Lighthouse head - so creatively and accurately reproduced I've bought one and can't wait for it to be delivered!

Broadcasting House Model

Broadcasting House detail

Broadcasting House as a model and a detail of the infamous Prospero and Ariel accurately fashioned and re-created - I may decide to buy this one as well!

County Hall - Nottingham

The County Hall building was designed by Emanuel Vincent Harris in the 1930's. His work includes Sheffield City Hall, Leeds Civic Hall and Manchester Central Library. County Hall has a Portland stone base, used for many civic buildings, and a copper roof which has turned green over the years. The entrance to the Hall is flanked by statues of miners and workers; they're the work of Nottingham artist Robert Kiddey (1900-84).

Bell tower - The original plans for County Hall featured a bell tower which was about three times as high as the present building and would have dominated the view of the River Trent. However, the tower plans were abandoned due to the outbreak of World War II. Local historian Chris Matthews has been researching the building, he says: "[The tower] would have put Nottingham alongside cities like Venice, or the great trading cities of northern Europe, it had that kind of ambition."

County Hall information courtesy of the BBC.

Sunningdale

I admit to thinking that the structure was more fitting to a factory than a domestic residence with all its out-buildings, but much of the thinking process behind the the need for so much architecture is ably explained by Adrian Tinniswood :

His & Hers

'Charters was built for Frank Parkinson (1887-1946), Chairman of engineering firm Crompton Parkinson & Co. Ltd., which made everything from hydro-electric plants to locomotive engines. As you might imagine with an industrialist who had made a fortune out of new technology, Parkinson was a forward-looking, progressive type of man. He liked modern design.

 

His wife Doris didn’t.

 

As a result, Charters could never quite make up its mind what it was meant to be. The Parkinsons’ architects were George Adie and Frederick C. Button, whose buildings, including Athanaeum Court in Piccadilly (1936) and the Electroflo Factory in Acton (1937), tended towards an austere, rather stark Modernism with little or nothing in the way of ornament or decoration. And Charters, which was finished in 1938, appeared to be frankly austere and uncompromisingly Modern. It was a gleaming white box, its flat roof crowned with a massive wireless aerial.

 

But as you approach the house, it becomes obvious that Charters is not all it should be. If it was serious about proclaiming the Brave New World of the future, its walls should be of reinforced concrete, or at least covered with a decent cement render. But Charters turns out to be faced with slabs of Portland stone – fine for St Paul’s Cathedral or the British Museum, but not quite the thing for the futuristic palace of an electric entrepreneur in the 1930s.

 

Inside, you might expect to find textiles by Marion Dorn, perhaps, and furniture by Serge Chermayeff. At least a little glass and chrome, at least some white walls and abstract paintings. But you’d search in vain. Doris Parkinson’s ideas on interior decoration, and those of her ensemblier Mrs G. R. Mount, were more conventional. The drawing room was panelled in pine, with geranium-red brocade curtains; the dining room was furnished with eighteenth-century chinoiserie chairs in mahogany and hand-painted Chinese paper on the walls; the decoration of Mrs Parkinson’s bedroom owed more to Louis XVI than Lubetkin or Le Corbusier.

 

The technology was there, but it was hidden. The curtains in the living hall were opened and closed by electric motors; the gas-heating boilers for the central heating and the thermostatically-controlled water heating were tucked away in the basement, along with the air-conditioning plant and the motors which drove the centralised vacuum-cleaning system. The chrome was to be found in the kitchens, where there was a combined electric dishwasher and waste disposal unit, probably the only one in an English private house at that time. Only here and there above stairs did contemporary design intrude on Doris’s tasteful decorative scheme.'

 

London Transport HQ

In 1926 The Underground Group commissioned 55 Broadway, over St James's Park station, as its new headquarters. It was to replace Electric Railway House, whose offices were too cramped for the growing organisation. The headquarters was to symbolise the company's vision of public transport being at the heart of London's social and commercial life.

Frank Pick, assistant managing director of the Underground Group, commissioned the architect Charles Holden of the firm Adams Holden and Pearson to design the building. On its completion in 1929, 55 Broadway was the tallest building in London. However, building restrictions prevented the floors above the seventh being used as offices.

The modern and assertive design was considered an architectural masterpiece. It was awarded the London Architectural Medal by the Royal Institute of British Architects in 1929. The Underground Group's desire to make a bold architectural statement in keeping with the ideals of the company had been realised. The commission was based on Holden's previous work for the Underground Group on the Northern line extension Underground stations, including Morden and Clapham South. Both Pick and Holden shared the same philosophy in architecture, that it should be well designed and easy to use. They wanted to produce buildings with clean simple lines, proclaiming their 'fitness for purpose'.

The building is Portland stone over a steel structure. Holden's response to the site, which was an awkward diamond shape, was an inspired cruciform plan. Open plan offices radiate in four wings from a central tower. Large expanses of glass make the most of the direct natural sunlight. There are no internal light wells as was common in buildings of this size. The offices are partitioned with Muranese glass that lets in light but can be moved as necessary. This plan followed contemporary American office design, but was considered an innovation in London. Some of the ground floor offices were lit by top light. Holden also designed the furniture in the senior executives' offices. The interior corridors are lined with Italian Travertine marble on the floors and walls. The marble has irregular crevices that give it a non-slip effect, but also make it more difficult to clean.

The whole, set on a two-storey podium, makes a striking silhouette. The seventh, ninth and the tenth storeys are stepped back to the 175-foot (53-metre) tower in the centre. The tower has four further floors, topping the central shaft where the lifts, staircases and toilets are situated. The exterior of the building is sparsely decorated. It has circular grey granite piers with square black marble capitals on the ground floor, which look similar to classical columns. The only other exterior decoration is the relief sculptures.

Holden commissioned some of the most famous sculptors of the day to carve large figurative reliefs, depicting the four winds, directly onto the stonework. These are high up each side of the four wings. The sculptors were Eric Gill, Henry Moore, Eric Aumonier,Samuel Rabinovitch, Allan Wyon and Alfred Gerrard. Holden commissioned Jacob Epstein to create two groups over the entrances called 'Day' and 'Night'. Their primitive, vital style and the figures' nudity created a furore. Both Pick and Holden stood by the sculptor, Pick even tendering his resignation in support of Epstein. His resignation was not accepted and the sculptures stayed. However an inch and a half had to be removed from the penis of the figure in 'Day', as the original size offended contemporary sensibilities. Epstein's sculptures were not universally slated. One contemporary commentator wrote, 'When one looks at them one hardly likes them, but they make such a powerful impression on the mind that when one has left the building they stand out in the memory and seem vividly to symbolise their subjects'. The same commentator went on to say 'one would be happier if all buildings were as good as this'.

In the 1980s the ground floor of the building was redesigned to create a new, improved reception area and a shopping mall. 55 Broadway is now a Grade II listed building. Source : 20th Century London.org

 

 

Portland Stone .........

is, apparently, everywhere! Just have a look around you wherever you are!

I do love lighthouses, so to see them as part of another piece of artwork is rather special, the example below comes from the former Abbey National Headquarters built in 1932 and designed by J J Joass (not too much about him on the internet I'm afraid other than he was a competent Scottish architect.) Although the facade of the building has been retained, like so many other buildings e.g. the Black Cat Factory featured elsewhere on this site, the interior has been lost forever and made over to modernisation (regrettably nothing to do with Streamline Moderne).

Abbey National Lighthouse

How Portland Stone has impacted on me personally : It all started with Eric Gill's much travelled relief of 'Odysseus' which had, and has again, pride of place in the reception area of the Midland Hotel in Morecambe.

Foyer as shown AI 1933In a section dedicated specifically to the Midland Hotel the Architecture Illustrated September 1933 edition, includes in its foreword  “On the wall opposite and as a pendant to the Dining Room grille, is a  great panel of beige coloured polished Perrycot Portland Stone, carved in low relief by Eric Gill, with a classical representation of Odysseus welcomed by Nausicaa, symbolising hospitality. “ (Low relief is also known as ‘bas-relief’ (bas being the French for 'low') meaning “a stone sculpture made by chipping away at a slab of rock to make a picture that stands out and is contrasted with high relief sculpture where the image stands out further from the surface. The Egyptians, Persians, Greeks and many others have used bas-relief.”)

What we now know as the reception area is referred to as the hall and the photograph supplied clearly shows the original location of the panel, Another photograph in the same publication features the south end of the hall describing the furniture but not mentioning the Marion Dorn rug despite it dominating the image and at the conclusion of the article a third of a page plate is devoted to the detail of the panel.

Midland FoyerBecause of my enduring interest in the Midland Hotel, and it has to be said the dedication shown by many of the ‘Friends of the Midland’, I felt compelled to find out more about Portland Stone and to dedicate a section to it in my web-site. As my research gathered apace, I was astonished to discover that Portland Stone has been a feature in my life since a very early age! How early? Probably since I was about two or three years old, because that was when I ran away from my mother when we were in town together. We were in ‘slab’ square which is situated in front of the Council House built in 1929 and I probably decided to take it upon myself to chase the pigeons. (Nottingham is one of the relatively few public squares to house pigeons).  Not only was she in hot pursuit of me, but a Policeman (that’s what they were called in those days) with a handlebar moustache assisted her – I can’t actually remember the incident but I was told about it – I can just imagine the whole scene, my mother (with mobility issues following a polio attack in childhood) struggling to catch me scampering away on my two little short legs, the policeman of at least 6ft height (de rigueur for Nottinghamshire Constabulary’s policemen in those days) striding after me with his moustaches swaying in the wind and on catching me handing me over to my mother who didn’t speak English. It may be a bit of fantasy, although the timeline is possible (1955 to 1991 is only 36 years ……) – when I joined Nottinghamshire Constabulary in 1991 one of the first people Council House NottinghamI came across was (the now late) Pete Swanwick the last remaining officer (by then working as a civilian member of staff) sporting an authentic handlebar. And what has this to do with Portland Stone? Quite a lot – the Council house and its remarkable ‘guard’ lions are carved from Portland Stone. Another interesting aspect of this particular impact of Portland Stone on my life is that the architect of the Council House was Cecil Howitt, a local man from Hucknall (where I have lived since 1980!)

The Council House in Nottingham was not the first time I came across Portland Stone locally. Although I never put two and two together, the purpose-designed Newton Building erected in the late 1950s for the Technical College (now Nottingham Trent University) and also designed by Howitt, which my sister attended held no interest for me because even at such an early age I preferred the lines of art moderne and this did not quite cut it! The University of Nottingham’s Portland Building derives its name from its source materials and across the river the County Hall building was designed by Emanuel Vincent Harris in the 1930s. His work includes Sheffield City Hall, Leeds Civic Hall and Manchester Central Library.

County Hall has a Portland stone base, used for many civic buildings (as I’m beginning to find County Hall Minersout) and its entrance to the Hall is flanked by statues of miners and workers which is the work of Nottingham artist Robert Kiddey (1900-84). County Hall also became prominent in my career when I started employment with Nottinghamshire Constabulary as the organisation was then still under the auspices of Nottinghamshire County Council.

In the meantime, before I settled to life back in Nottingham, I like many other young people with ambitions went to work and play and live the lifestyle in London. I went to work for the British Broadcasting Corporation and was based at Television Centre. Poor old Television Centre, opened on 29 June 1960, as the BBC's first purpose-built centre for television production and now up for sale! But it isn’t TC (as abbreviated by staff) that has a place in this story, but the building known as Broadcasting House in …… Portland Place – the hub of the BBC. The design resembles the curves of an Ocean liner and the reliefs adorning the building are designed and carved by Eric Gill. Not that I knew anything about that at the time.

Back to the near-present day – in 2004 I was invited down to New Scotland Yard to participate in the BBC Broadcasting Houseinauguration of the National Disabled Police Association. The nearest London Underground station to this building is St. James which also happens to be the headquarters of London Underground Transport, 55 Broadway, built in at the end of the 1920s. Built, like the building I was to visit, of Portland Stone.

In 2010 Andrew and I visited Bournemouth and apart from wanting to visit Bexhill-on-Sea for the first time to see the celebrated Art Deco de la Warr Pavilion and to re-visit the Ocean Hotel en route we didn’t really know where else to go. Andrew then found the Isle of Purbeck Brewery (which has a seahorse as its logo) and we then saw that Portland Isle was within driving distance – kismet.

It may surprise you to know that the Cenotaph is made of Portland Stone and as 11th November is celebrated annually it is fitting to include this most iconic of memorials viewed by millions internationally each Remembrance Day. You may even look at it in a different light if you were previously unaware of its source material. The word "Cenotaph" means empty tomb, the memorial you see today was completed and unveiled in 1920 (the original monument was built of wood and plaster for the first anniversary of the Armistice in 1919) and is crafted from Portland Stone. Designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens to commemorate the dead of the Great War the various arms of service are symbolised by the flags and emblems of the Army, Air Force and Royal and Merchant Navies. The inscription simply reads "The Glorious Dead".

Broadcsting House unsullied in a sketch

SCANDAL HITS SUNNINGDALE 2014

It seems even the great and good are not immune from scandal and we have certainly been rocked by some of the names emerging in the backlash of a named serial paedophile from the world of 'light' entertainment. The latest casualty is Cliff Richard who in light of the accusations has decided he must at all costs divest himself of an art deco penthouse which has been his most recent British base. The Daily Mail informs us that this piece of architectural history 'The Art Deco building has Portland stone columns and bronze-framed windows, and is conveniently near the Surrey office of the Cliff Richard Organisation, which handles his affairs." It is sad to read that 'The decision to sell will not have been taken lightly, as Sir Cliff spent years searching for his ideal property in the Home Counties.'

Aeriel view of sunningdale complex

An aerial view supplied by the INS News Agency shows the sprawling complex that was originally built for millionaire industrialist Frank Parkinson in the 1930s.

Charters in the 1930s

Looking more like a municipal building or factory here is an early example of 'Charters'.

Charters Swimming Pool

Happily the original swimming pool has been restored to its original grandeur for the tenants of 'Charters'.

Charters Garden ViewCharters panorama

Two more views of the property - the one on the right more reminiscent of the Villa Tugendhat in Brno

55 Broadway

London Transport Headquarters

Image courtesy and © of London Transport Museum

The London Transport headquarters building at 55 Broadway was opened in 1929. It was designed by Charles Holden in the Modern style, which combined sharp angles and geometric shapes with modern materials like concrete. The style is popularly referred to as Art Deco. The building remains one of the most important Art Deco buildings in London. The exterior of the building was decorated with carved relief including statues by Eric Gill, Henry Moore and Jacob Epstein. Source : 20th Century London.org

Reception area 55 Broadway

The majestic Reception Area to London Transport HQ which I caught a glimpse of when attending New Scotland Yard - Image courtesy and © of London Transport Museum

View of 55 Portland from above

This could so easily have been taken from the canteen at New Scotland Yard - one of the nicest things about sitting in that sterile environment was overlooking 55 Broadway! Image courtesy of UK Construction Media

The Headquarters building was commissioned in the 1920s by The Underground Group who wanted Broadway to reflect its bold vision of the future of transport in London. Architect Adams, Holden and Pearson were given the task of creating a ground-breaking design. The site at St James’s Park Tube station was challenging because of its irregular shape and the District and Circle line only 7.3m below. The solution was a cross-shaped layout, allowing pedestrians to walk through the ground floor of the offices, across the station booking hall, providing a short cut between Victoria Street and St James’s Park.

Above ground, the building was faced with 78,000 cubic feet of high quality Portland stone. Contemporary artists were invited to sculpt decorative features into the stone facade, carved on site. Two are just above street level and a further eight are above the sixth floor windows on each side of all four wings. Source : UK Construction Media (this website also contains details the proposed change of use to the building)

Sculptured tile of 55 Broadway

Artists Impression of 55 Broadway

Artists Impression of 55 Broadway

A sculptured tile and two artists impressions of 55 Broadway - courtesy of the London Transport Museum Collection

Read more about the sculptures adorning the exterior of 55 Broadway by many renowned artist/sculptors in addition to Eric Gill here

The History of Portland Stone

Entrance Plaque“In the past, the Portland Limestone was worked by hand and waste rock was carefully banked up as quarrying progressed. The result is a landscape of quarry workings and a maze of 'beaches' (massive dry stone walls), passages, trackways and gullies of great 'heritage value' together with exposures of the original geology.

 

The quarry workings, once left to nature, have been colonised by a limestone flora and fauna of exceptional beauty and international importance. Large areas of the Island, including virtually the entire coastal strip, has been designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest for geology and wildlife while the coast and Kingbarrow Quarry is a Special Area of Conservation.

Quarrying for Portland Stone continues today but quarry methods and products have changed. Heavy machinery is now employed and the result is deep and open quarries. Kingbarrow Quarry

Some famous buildings have been built from Portland Stone including the replacement for the original St Paul’s Cathedral in London which had been destroyed during the great fire (1665).  The architect of the new Cathedral, Sir Christopher Wren, designed the new building to be made of Portland Stone and took control of all the Portland Quarries from 1675 to 1717.  Weymouth took advantage of his regular visits to the area by electing him as one of its Members of parliament for 1702.

Portland Stone was also used to build New Scotland Yard, Waterloo Bridge, the Cenotaph, the United Nations Building in New York, the new British Museum, the Parliament Building in Northern Ireland, the new Stock Exchange and the Bank of England.

The CenotaphThe minerals permissions granted in the early 1950's required little more than the most basic restoration of such sites but even these, left for a decade or more, attract important wildlife. However the Environment Act of 1995 introduced the requirements for a Review of Minerals Permissions (ROMP). Portland Stone remains a prestigious, quality product used throughout the country.

Portland based Albion Stone won three awards, had two project Highly Commended and one Commended in the 2006 Natural Stone Awards in London.  The New Build Award (modern non-load bearing stone) was gained for the BBC's broadcasting headquarters where Albion Stone provided 85 cubic metres of stone.  Other awards and commendations included repair and restoration work on Temple Bar at Paternoster Square, Interior Award for the National Gallery in Trafalgar Square, restoration work on Stowe House in Buckinghamshire and repair and restoration work on St Paul's Cathedral.

The quarry and masonry operations are fascinating. The use of stone for sculpture is promoted by the Portland Sculpture Trust a tenet of Stone Firms, while traditional masonry and sculpture skills are taught in Weymouth College. The Jurassic Coast Project are 'working closely with the quarry operators to promote the concept of a Quarry Park' for the Island, incorporating some of the older sites together with modern sites that are restored for geological conservation, wildlife interest, educational use, recreation and amenity.” The Portland Sculpture Trust offers a number of activities including stone carving courses.

Source : Visit Weymouth’ (abridged)

Originally, this page was to have been solely dedicated to the work of Eric Gill and his fascination with Portland Stone. However, I soon found, that as the subject of this naturally occurring substance evolved it deserved a history of its origins in Portland to be included as well as references to the many other artists who were fascinated by and made use of this medium.

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Page refreshed : 14th September 2017 (G)