Thursday, December 21, 2017

Shaftesbury Avenue, London

Hats off, here they come…

London’s Shaftesbury Avenue is one of the best known streets in the capital – the part between Piccadilly Circus and Cambridge Circus, which is full of theatres, is in the heart of tourist London. But the northern part, north of Cambridge Circus and bordering the Covent Garden area is less well known. If you’re around there, I’d suggest wandering towards the northern end, and having a look at the Covent Garden Odeon, a large Art Deco building that started life as the Saville Theatre in 1931.  

The reason I think this building is particularly worth a look is the long frieze that stretches across the facade. It’s the work of the sculptor Gilbert Bayes* and depicts theatre through the ages, with the ancient Greeks and Romans at one end and the twentieth century at the other. ‘Theatre’ is interpreted loosely (spectacle might be a better term), with Roman gladiators and Greek Bacchantes included and the very English sight of Punch and Judy also putting in an appearance.

I’ve chosen two sections of the panel.§ The first shows some wonderful horses from the Roman section and a group of fetching Bacchantes (plus, presumably, one of Bacchus’ pards) on the right. The naked Bacchantes have a period, Art Deco look, with their short hair and slim bodies. One can feel Bayes having fun with all these subjects, relishing the chance to depict the naked female form and the opportunity to include animals.
The second panel includes another group of women: the Bacchantes have become tamed, as it were, as 1920s dancers, with clingy dresses and feathered headdresses – one can imagine them coming down the staircase behind Imelda Staunton in the wonderful current National Theatre production of Stephen Sondheim’s Follies. To their left are a bunch of ‘Romantics’ from the 19th century including a variety of actors in period costumes. Further left still is a Punch and Judy booth in which Punch looks down at a lifeless puppet – presumably the unfortunate Judy – while the dog Toby sits on the ground beneath; Punch and Judy were famously ‘born’ a few hundred yards southwest of here, in the heart of Covent Garden.†

There’s much to admire in these fine panels, and in some roundels by Bayes set further up on the building. I’d encourage anyone walking along the northern part of Shaftesbury Avenue to look up at the relief and take it in. Although the frieze is very large, many passers-by miss it when looking to see what films are playing, rather as people quite understandably miss the details above shop fronts when looking in shop windows. It’s another example of the use of sculpture to give interest to an otherwise rather large and lumpish 1930s theatre facade – something I’ve noticed on early Odeons and other cinemas several times before. More modern corporations should consider giving space to the visual arts in this way. ¶

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* Bayes also did the panels showing ‘merfiremen’ adorning the London Fire Brigade Building on Albert Embankment. 

§ More detail in each photograph will be revealed if you click on the image.

† The first written account of a Punch and Judy show was a record of a performance in Covent Garden. Punch’s ‘birthday’ is regularly celebrated in May in St Paul’s churchyard, when the massed ranked of the ‘professors’’ booths fill the greensward and the walls echo to the sound of beswazzled voices.

¶ There are more pictures of the frieze on the Ornamental Passions blog, here.


bazza said...

I love this building! One thing that can't be appreciated from your (excellent) photographs is that they must be about six feet high and they are glorious.
I am sure you will be familiar with Treasure House in Hatton Garden which also has some fine carvings which, I think, depict the history of agriculture or baking - also worth looking for!
CLICK HERE for Bazza’s contumacious Blog ‘To Discover Ice’

Philip Wilkinson said...

Yes, the carvings are very large – although one doesn't realise this at first because the building itself is very big as well. I always think it's rather gloomy up that end of Shaftesbury Avenue compared to the Piccadilly end, and this frieze certainly brightens things up. The Treasure House is great as well.