Wednesday, February 10, 2010



As a regular visitor to the Czech Republic, I’ve often been impressed by the giant carvings of Atlas-like figures who hold up doorways, porches, and similar features on some of the most imposing Baroque and Neoclassical houses in Prague. On buildings like Prague’s great Clam-Gallas Palace, giants, all bulging thews and flowing hair, strain their muscles in an eternal struggle to stop the structure falling down.

English buildings occasionally have supporting figures, but these supporters, chunky male descendants of the caryatids of ancient Greece, are apt to be more phlegmatic. The rather homely statues in the photograph support the entrance porch of a house near the cathedral in Norwich. They depict a pair of heroes – Samson (is he carrying the jawbone of an ass?) on the left and Hercules (with his lion-pelt cloak) on the right. They seem to have walked straight out of a 17th-century woodcut or emblem book, and wonderfully combine folk art with knowing allusion to the Biblical and Classical worlds. They are the kind of figures around which legends are apt to cluster, and one story maintains that when the cathedral clock strikes midnight, the pair leave their posts and wallop one another with their clubs.

Samson and Hercules form a memorable entrance for a house built by a mayor of Norwich, Christopher Jay, in 1657. They’re apparently replacements of the original 17th-century figures, but retain the vigour of their predecessors, even if their crispness of line and form has been smoothed over somewhat by various repaintings. Sadly, the wrong kind of painting has begun to appear – the kind of graffiti that represents the human equivalent of canine leg-cocking. The building, which was once a nightclub, now seems to be vacant. One hopes that it will attract a caring owner or tenant. And soon.

Many thanks to Zoë for the photograph.


Peter Ashley said...

Let's hope they get care and attention soon. Norwich has many interesting things- the Octagon Chapel, Elm Hill, Tombland, the Anglia Television studios converted from the old cattle market. But the citizens of Norwich need to make sure they don't lose any of it- I hear the famous Mustard Shop's under threat because Colman's no longer own it.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Yes - lots of good things in Norwich, to which I hope to return.