Wednesday, February 18, 2015
Tangled up in film
Some people who know Taunton much better than I were surprised when I expressed admiration for the former cinema, originally the Gaumont Palace, a building of 1931–2 by W. T. Benslyn now given over to bingo. It’s a rather large mass of a building, in the solid Art Deco mode of many cinemas. Benslyn was something of a specialist in this kind of building and had been assistant to Robert Atkinson, designer of truly remarkable Art Deco foyer in the former Daily Express building in London’s Fleet Street, so he was absorbed in both Deco and decoration.
What attracted me in Taunton was precisely a bit of decoration: this sculpture, apparently called Love and Life Entangled in Film. Life, naked and female, raises an arm towards Love, a winged Cupid. The visual structure of the piece is provided by the figures – the curves made by Life’s body and both characters’ limbs. The counterpoint to this are the curling loops of celluloid and the flowing waves of Life’s hair. The combination produces a beautifully poised composition, although it needs some strong sunlight to make the relief stand out against the rather dull brick of the rest of the building and to help us pick out the details. Although parts of the carving (Love’s face, for example) are rather worn, the piece is still worth a good look.
I was pleased to see that the relief is signed. The name of the artist, Newbury Abbot Trent, specialist in the contrasting arts of cinema and war memorial sculpture, is one I’ve noticed on cinemas before. The theme of a female body entwined with film seems to have been a favourite. No doubt cinema proprietors thought such sirens would be effective advertising, a good image of the allure of film in the years between the world wars. Looking back now, they certainly seem to sum up the glamour of the cinema in those times. I’ve noticed three such sculptures recently – one in Oxford, this one in Taunton, and one in Cheltenham. The first is still a cinema, the second a bingo hall, and the third has been demolished. Where they survive, then, Trent’s reliefs are a valuable link with their age.
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