Friday, October 14, 2016

Piccadilly, London

Dashing for the post

Facebook reminded me today that one year ago I went to the excellent Ai Weiwei exhibition in London’s Royal Academy, an occasion that not only left me with enduring memories of the art, but also gave me reason to notice the very old telephone box in the entrance to the RA’s building, Burlington House.

Looking back through my pictures, I notice that I also have an image* of the wooden post box under the Burlington House entrance arch.† This is all that remains of the Post Office that was once in a room to one side of the entrance arch. The Post Office closed as long ago as 1940, and this box is a reminder that in the 19th century, post boxes were far from standard in form. Big cast-iron monster boxes, pillar boxes like Doric columns, and the elegant hexagonal Penfold boxes§ were all around in the 19th century, along with various other forms, and some of these old ones have still not been replaced with newer designs, much to our visual benefit. For Burlington House, with its classical forms and intricate Renaissance revival ornament (see the left and right edges of the picture), something still more different was fitting. So this very formal wooden box is complete with classical pediment, in which a carved crown is set amid scrollwork. Beneath, there are two slots, which are now marked ‘Franked Mail’ and ‘Stamped Mail’. Above the plate saying ‘Stamped Mail’ one can just discern part of the word ‘London’ beneath – originally these two slots would have been for letters to London and elsewhere respectively.

I have a hunch, and it’s only that, that the shape of this bespoke wooden box has a practical raison d’être. Not only is it made to fit neatly in the available wall space between the pilasters but it’s also not very deep (and wall-mounted, so that it does not occupy floor space). This is not a wide passage and it can get busy. Plonking a ready-made letterbox here just wouldn’t have been very convenient. Altogether, it’s an elegant solution.

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* My photograph contains a blurred figure walking quickly into the frame. I doubt if this figure is recognisable, but if you do recognise yourself and would rather not have your image online, please contact me using the ‘comment’ button below, and I will remove the picture.

† The sign above the box reminds us that the Linnean Society, Britain’s learned society concerning itself with biological sciences, is based in rooms above the entrance arch to Burlington House.

§ I plan to post more about Penfold boxes soon; 2016 is the year of the Penfold’s 150th anniversary.


Hels said...

Now that is what I call First Class Mail.

What surprised me was not the shape, colour or material of the post box, but its location. Even if the post office was located inside Burlington House, I think the post box might have been more accessible for the public on the street in front of the building.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Hels: Good point. The street facade of the building has railings in front of it, so there couldn't be a wall box outside. There could, I suppose, be a pillar box on the pavement, but there may have been a reason not to put one there - I'm not sure. I don't know, for example, whether the current bus shelter, which is where you'd put a pillar box, is a replacement for an earlier structure which occupied that bit of the pavement. Or maybe someone just liked the idea of a nice wooden box on the wall under the arch.