On their heads be it
I did a post long ago about Cheltenham’s caryatids, describing how their elegant presence on the town’s most striking row of shops was due to the inspiration of a pair of architects, one of whom was highly inventive, and a pair of sculptors, one of whom was very successful but also impecunious. I was reminded of these 1840s figures again the other day, in part by my encounter with some very different carved figures on a London building, and in part by my rereading of an old book, Osbert Lancaster’s Classical Landscape With Figures. Osbert Lancaster was best known as a cartoonist, the man who quietly changed the face of English political humour with his long daily succession of ‘Pocket Cartoons’ in the Daily Express. But his greatest passions were for architecture and travel, and he turned out a series of books on these subjects. All his books were illustrated with his own witty drawings, and some, such as Pillar To Post, named and defined entire architectural styles (Stockbroker Tudor, Bypass Variegated) that hadn’t been recognised before.
In Classical Landscape With Figures, Lancaster presents ‘Greece as it appears to-day’, in other words in 1947, an account enlivened by a picturesque mix of figures in the foreground and ruins, both Classical and Byzantine, in the middle distance. There are a number of passages in the book that make me laugh, and one contains the author’s thoughts on the caryatid, a Greek invention that he pokes some fun at. I must warn my readers that he does so in language that is hardly politically correct – but this is 1947, and his tongue is in his cheek:
To [the Greeks], more than to any other people, it would, one would have thought, have been obvious that to employ a naturalistic three-dimensional rendering of the human form as an architectural unit was to invite disaster. When the Baroque architect of the seventeenth century, whose aims were anyhow completely different, flanked a doorway with a pair of groaning Atlases he had expressionist justification; the over-life-size figures with exaggeratedly bulging muscles do at least emphasise, as they were intended to do, the weight and mass of the architrave or balcony which they supposedly support. But here these elegant flower-maidens simper as unconcernedly as if they had never been called upon to balance two and a half tons of Pentelic marble on their pretty little heads.
Well, perhaps he had a point: maybe there is something slightly odd about the combination of these figures with the structural work they are called on to do. Here in Cheltenham, however, the work of the caryatids, each one separating a pair of shop fronts and each apparently supporting a highly decorative frieze above, is more decorative than structural. And visitors to Cheltenham need not fear. Their decorative presence is entirely appropriate in this street of elegant shops. These were once amongst the most exclusive outlets in town, in an area where early-closing day was Saturday – the point being, I suppose that the locals were so leisured that they could shop on any day they chose and didn’t have to wait to the weekend to dash around buying stuff. If things here aren’t quite as exclusive or leisured today, these delightful figures still do the business.