Friday, June 20, 2008

Harley Street, London

London’s Harley Street is well known for its doctors’ houses and consulting rooms, making the district, as it were, the capital’s bedside manor. The street was first built in the second half of the 18th century, but there are also plenty of houses from the Victorian and Edwardian periods that left such a mark on this part of London. Number 37, on its prominent corner site, is one of the most spectacular.

It was designed by the architect Beresford Pite, who threw at it all his skill in composing the facades of a building and marshalling all kinds of architectural bits and pieces to make a coherent whole. The two frontages are full of incident – windows of different sizes and shapes, the ornate corner oriel, the doorway and curved pediment, the skyline with its big dormer windows. And all this fits together wonderfully.

But what really take the breath away are the sculptures that encourage the eye to linger on the facades. One represents poetry, a laurel-crowned figure with a lyre and volumes of Homer and Milton behind him. Another is a reclining figure with a telescope and a star, representing the science of astronomy. At the top is a caryatid holding up the heavy cornice. The whole collection constitute a little-known London treasure, but the artist who created them was not a Londoner. His name was Frederick Schenk.Frederick Schenk was the son of a German lithographer who settled in Edinburgh. As a young man he worked in his father’s lithographic business before training as an artist in Edinburgh and London, and working as a modeller for various potteries in Staffordshire. Although he was successful in the precise and painstaking work of the ceramic modeller, a change in the pottery market led him to find a new direction in his career. He became an architectural sculptor, and specialized in low-relief work, especially on public buildings – town halls and the like – designed by the architect Henry Hare.

There weren’t that many houses grand enough for Schenk’s stone sculptures, especially as by the turn of the century tilework and terracotta were so fashionable. But the architect Beresford Pite, a man who combined skilful handling of shapes and masses with considerable decorative flair, gave him his chance on this corner site. Schenk picked up the scheme and ran with it, and his splendid reliefs of about 1900 still delight the eye.


Jack Hughes said...

15 years ago I curated an exhibition of Pite's drawings at the RIBA Heinz Gallery, and we included a full-size maquette by Schenk of one of his sculptures for the building, supplied by an extant relative. Pite -- architect to the Howard de Walden Estate -- was a devout Evangelical, who worshipped at nearby All Souls' Church. He included the luxuriant leafage among the sculpted panels for 37 Harley Street in order to evoke Revelations 22:2 -- "and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations". Highly appropriate for a medical building.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Thanks for a fascinating comment. Do you know anything about the iconography of the other reliefs, for example the female figure at the bottom centre of the corner oriel, the one who's holding what could be an unrolled scroll or a length of linen?

Einar said...

Thanks for introducing me to (I lost his mane already) this sculptor's work. It is fun looking stuff. Einar