Wednesday, April 10, 2013


Screen goddess

I don't know anything about this relief. Positioned high on the wall of a cinema in a side street in Oxford, it may be by Newbury Trent, who did many carvings for cinemas. Its subject is a cousin of the curvaceous and silvery women who adorn a former cinema in Cheltenham and who were the subject of one of my previous posts (that Cheltenham building is still empty and yet more unkempt since I posted it back in 2008).

It's not the greatest piece of carving. The hands, elegant as they are, don't quite work for me, and, if you will pardon the expression, the breasts don't repay close examination. But I like her face, which seems to me to be sensitively carved, and the way the film snakes its way around the figure, part frame, part secular halo. The simplified tripartite wave of her hair is perhaps a signal that we should take the whole carving as designed to be looked at from some distance without the assistance of the zoom lens I used to take the photograph.

The relief is a relic of a time, the 1930s I suppose, when cinema was the epitome of glamour and modernity and when old established arts like sculpture could be brought to its service. Cinemas of the 1930s – along with contemporary factories and other buildings – were often decorated with this kind of carving. Such decoration forms a reaction to the minimalist modernism of buildings in the tradition of Le Corbusier – and ultimately of the Central European architect Adolf Loos† who declared that ornament is crime – and shows how buildings can be modern and ornamented at the same time. And if buildings connected with the arts cannot be a bit showy, what can?

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† Loos was born in Brno, another of those with Czech origins (think Freud, Mahler, Rilke) subsumed into the all-embracing Austro-Hungarian culture.


Vincent said...

Certain stylistic features remind me of Eric Gill. He did do work for public buildings on commission. Apart from Westminster Cathedral, Broadcasting House is the most famous example I suppose but the Midland Hotel in Morecambe is another - see

By comparison with the above, this would be a minor work. Perhaps an expert will laugh at me for suggesting it.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Vincent: It does have things in common with Eric Gill, although I'd expect his work to be a bit bolder and more vigorous.

I've modified the post slightly since receiving your comment, to include a suggestion that the sculptor was Newbury Trent, an artist who did a lot of work for cinemas (as well as a number of war memorials).

Joseph Biddulph (Publisher) said...

"Ornament is crime" is another of those fatuous personal preferences masquerading as "moral" principles castigated in David Watkin's "Morality and Architecture". These three words, "Ornament is crime", are responsible for acres and acres of the most uninspiring development, and I'm disappointed that after a brief flurry of ornament in the early 80's the craze for completely bare surfaces and absolute austerity still seems unabated. I was walking past a quite ordinary row of miners' houses yesterday, and noticed the exquisite tilework in the inset front doorways - only a fisherman by the water, and some trees, and no doubt factory-made - all the quick-build mass-produced stuff of its day. But very refreshing. Even the gateposts, tho' made in moulds all the same, are exuberant and joyful in terracotta. A pub in Tonypandy has a heavy doorway with garlands (one of fruit, one of flowers) emerging from the mouths of jocular faces: opposite this, an interesting essay in Bath stone surrounds, classical in form, sort-of-gothic in detail. Wish I'd had my camera with me. Me, I love ornament, even if it's irrelevant and a bit nonsensical like this lady at Oxford, and I know that when the old ornamented buildings have gone we can only expect some measure of sense-deprivation in their place. Unless there is a revolution in taste.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Indeed. Another example: I used to live in South London, where there were rows of late-Victorian houses festooned in this kind of decoration – tiles in the porch, mould-made masks and foliage above the door, stained glass panels in the front door (sadly long gone in the case of my house). These were houses built for artisans and clerks, not rich people. They provided some visual stimulation for the owners and for passers-by.