If you stop to look at the decoration on the churches and concert halls of London, you can find lots of musical instruments and performers playing and singing. Schools of Music and places that host great ceremonies also feature the sounds of music.
The Royal Academy of Music on Marylebone Road is where some of the best musicians in the world get their training. I hope they look up as they enter the building to see the two musicians high up on the pediment above the entrance.
The man has a drum and a lyre, and the woman holds a lute and a scroll of music. I think they look like they are listening to music coming from inside the building. (The public is invited to attend many free concerts given by students at the Royal Academy of Music.)
There are more instruments in the pediments above the windows, along with classical masks of tragedy and comedy. At least, I THINK the one on the left is comedy, although I don’t really understand the significance of the man having his tongue hanging out. Not too attractive, but it probably means something.
The home of the Royal College of Music in Kensington is a large brick Victorian building just behind the Albert Hall. This is part of “Albertopolis” – the complex of museums, schools and a the large concert hall built on land purchased with profits from the Great Exhibition of 1851. The exhibition was organized by Prince Albert, Queen Victoria’s beloved husband who died in 1861 at the age of 42.
The grief-stricken Queen supported the creation of several of the institutions in “Albertopolis” that memorialized her Prince Consort – the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Prince Albert Memorial, the Royal Albert Hall.
These panels with monograms with trumpets are above the central entrance to the building. They commemorate Prince Albert (on the left with the trumpets pointing down) and Edward, Prince of Wales, and his wife Princess Alexandra (on the right – with the trumpets pointing up).
I wonder if there was originally a statue of Queen Victoria in the niche just below these panels.
The Royal College of Museum is very subtle in its musical decoration compared with the Royal College of Organists, which is just around the corner, also facing the Albert Hall.
This is one of my favourite buildings in London. It was built in 1875-76 as the National Training School for Music. Later it became specifically focused on organists. The building was designed by H.H. Cole, son of Henry Cole, first director of the South Kensington Museum, which became the Victoria and Albert Museum. The cream, maroon and grey plaster decoration is by Francis W. Moody, who also did much of the interior work at the V&A.
This unique building is now a private residence. Can you imagine calling this fabulous building home?
Of course, nothing out-does the Royal Albert Hall. Inspired by the coliseum in Rome, this round hall seats up to 5,272 and hosts all sorts of events including the Masters Tennis competition. But music is the main focus of its activities.
The frieze around the top is decorated with figures that are larger than life – illustrating “The Triumph of Arts and Sciences”. Most of the people are working in creative activities, but there are musicians, too:
Methodist Central Hall, which stands opposite Westminster Abbey, also hosts concerts and musical events.
The decoration on the exterior of the hall is surprisingly militaristic, featuring Roman trophies of war, helmets and eagles, but it also has this collection of musical instruments with horns, violins, flutes and a classical lyre.
Of course, it’s hard to beat St. Paul’s Cathedral for beautiful decoration AND music!This little angel seems to be singing away – with trumpets and swords decorating either side. Can you see the strange little face above the angel? I’m not sure what he is – a Green Man, perhaps.
These trumpets and a classical lyre decorate a shallow arched pediment above the entrance of a shop on New Bond Street. I wanted to see if I could find out why these musical instruments are on this particular building so I did a little research which revealed an important and fascinating story.
This is a great example of how looking at architectural decoration in London can lead to a lot of interesting history!
The building at 135 – 137 New Bond Street contains quite a story. (Apologies for the photo with the van in front of the shop – it was a quick snap to remind me where the rounded pediment with the trumpets was. If I had known the whole story then, I would have waited til the van finally moved!)
So here’s the story – which links Art and Music, and reveals the dangers of getting involved in lawsuits.
To my great surprise – this building on New Bond Street started life as the very famous Grosvenor Gallery. In 1876 Sir Coutts Lindsay, baronet, decided to build a permanent art gallery in which to present shows of the avant-garde painters of the day. He bought the leases of some stables and workshops in the area of Grosvenor Mews (behind this building) which provided space to build large viewing galleries, and bought some houses on New Bond Street which, when demolished and rebuilt, would be the grand public entrance to the galleries.
The architect was a young man named William Thomas Sams, who has very little other work to his credit. He seems to have recycled building material from a number of sources. The Survey of London describes the gallery:
“The entrance to the gallery was through a marble doorcase with coupled columns which came from the demolished church of Santa Lucia in Venice and was reputedly by Palladio. In 1925 this was replaced by the present dull entrance with Ionic columns, but above the ground floor Sams’s façade has survived with only minor alteration.
Inside the entrance a vestibule with marble columns and pilasters led to a grand staircase by which the complex of galleries at first-floor level was approached. In the lavishly appointed main, or west, gallery the walls were divided into bays by richly gilded Ionic pilasters which had been salvaged from the recently destroyed old Italian Opera House in Paris, and the intervening spaces were covered with red silk damask.
The decoration on the coving depicting the phases of the moon was by James McNeill Whistler, and Lindsay himself was responsible for the panels between the roof principals, where cherubs and cupids held festoons of fruit and flowers.”
Even today the façade above ground level is worth a closer look. Like many Victorian buildings, it seems to combine various styles and elements with energy and enthusiasm. You might not love the style – but it is interesting.
On either side of the window at the top level there are classical heads peering out at the street. I am not sure if the rounded bracket between the windows had a function or was just decorative. Could it originally have supported a statue?
The panel under the bust in the left side has an artist’s palette and paint brushes, which relate to the building’s original use as an Art Gallery. I can’t really translate the symbolism of the leaves and flowers in the right panel.
The two busts in these panels remind me of the busts of Roman Emperors that King Henry VIII had placed on the entrance gatehouse at Hampton Court:
I wonder if the busts on New Bond Street came from the old Italian Opera House in Paris along with other architectural bits. The heads on New Bond Street definitely look much older than the carved panels, and seem to have been fitted into the round frames.
Sadly the Grosvenor Gallery was not a long-term financial success. In 1888, after a disagreement, Lindsay’s co-directors resigned from the Grosvenor Gallery to found the rival New Gallery. They took many of the well-known artists including William Burne-Jones with them. Lindsay had other financial and personal problems. For a while the art gallery was taken over by his estranged wife, but by 1890, Lindsay was forced to sell out to the Grosvenor Club.
In 1903 the whole building was taken over by the Orchestrelle Company of New York (the “Aeolian Company”). As manufacturers of musical instruments, and especially the mechanical piano-player known as the pianola, they converted the space into offices, a showroom and a concert hall. The building was remodelled again in 1925, and the entrance was simplified when the grand classical columns removed from the New Bond Street façade. I wonder if this is when the relief of trumpets and a lyre was placed above the entrance.
As the Aeolian Hall, the building hosted many concerts of classical music and even small operas. During the Second World War the BBC took it over for recording and broadcast of a variety of concerts and recitals. The Beatles recorded “Taste of Honey” in the hall on 10 July 1963 for a BBC broadcast. The BBC used the building until 1975 after which it was used for retail shops, and has recently become the London base for Belstaff clothing.
My real surprise and interest in the building at 135-137 New Bond Street was based on the story of a famous law suit.
Perhaps the most memorable event to take place in the building happened on the opening night of the Grosvenor Galley – and it involves music in a symbolic way. On 1 May 1877 the gallery opened with an exhibition of works by the up-and-coming artists of the day – William Burne-Jones, John Everett Millais, Frederic Leighton, Walter Crane and the American-born James Abbott McNeill Whistler. Whistler exhibited his new painting “Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket”, which was inspired by the fireworks display at Cremorne Gardens on the banks of the River Thames in Chelsea. Attending the opening exhibition was the very influential art critic John Ruskin, who had for some time criticized Whistler’s work, even calling it “absolute rubbish”. Ruskin had a VERY strong and negative reaction to The Falling Rocket, and printed in his review that he ‘never expected to hear a coxcomb ask two hundred guineas for flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face’.
Whistler had had enough. His reputation and financial security were at stake. He sued Ruskin for libel. During the trial, which took place in November 1878, Whistler explained that the painting was not a traditional painting that showed an actual view or event, but instead presented the colours and arrangement of the light and dark in a way that gave the feeling or effect of the exploding fireworks. This all seemed beyond the understanding of the judge, jury, journalists, most of the public – and of John Ruskin (who did not attend the trail because he was suffering from occasional mental instability). In the end Whistler won the case, but the judge awarded him one farthing to cover his damages. (A farthing was ¼ of a penny!) After having to pay the court costs, Whistler was ruined financially. He had to declare bankruptcy and sell, mortgage and pawn everything he could. He even left England for a while. It was a very sad story – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_Abbott_McNeill_Whistler#Ruskin_trial
So – the sad story of the Nocturne in Black and Gold ends this story of discovering music in London.
If you really want to see it in person – the painting now belongs to the Detroit Institute of Arts.
All photographs by Cathey Leitch @Cathey Leitch, 2015
images of Grosvenor Galley and The Falling Rocket found online