UNTIL WE WENT to Southend (in Essex) in February 2022, it was not the first place to spring to mind when thinking about art galleries. To my mind, Southend was mainly associated with its spectacular pier, which is over one mile in length. Now, to the pier I will add the Beecroft Art Gallery to the good reasons for visiting Southend.
The gallery has been housed in a distinctive 20th century building on Victoria Avenue since 2014. Its current home was formerly Southend’s Central Library. The edifice was designed by Borough Architect R Horwell and opened in 1974. Prior to moving there, the gallery was housed in a large Edwardian house on Station Road in nearby Westcliffe-on-Sea.
The permanent collection of art in the gallery was donated to the town in 1952 by a local collector, a solicitor called Walter Beecroft, who worked in Leigh-on-Sea. His paintings ranged from the 17th century to the late 19th, and a few from the 20th. A selection of these was on display in the first-floor gallery of the Beecroft when we visited. Newer additions, mainly on long-term loan, to the gallery’s collection were hung alongside examples donated by Beecroft.
We went to the Beecroft to see a temporary exhibition of 20th century artists from London’s East End. It was excellently curated. I will write about this in the future. There were also temporary exhibitions of Pakistani wedding outfits and feminism during the covid19 lockdown. The basement of the Beecroft is currently dedicated to the history of jazz.
All in all, the Beecroft Gallery is well worth visiting. The quality of the exhibitions we saw there puts to shame a few of the better-known art galleries in London.
LIKE ROME, HAMPSTEAD in north London perches on several hills. A short street, Holly Walk, leads uphill from Hampstead Parish Church towards the summit of Mount Vernon, one of Hampstead’s ‘peaks’. On the southern corner of Holly Walk and the short cul-de-sac Holly Berry Lane, there stands a house, number 9 Holly Walk, that bears the name ‘The Watch House’. It was from this building, constructed in the early 19th century (c1830), that during the 1830s (1830-1834), members of Hampstead’s newly established Police Force set out on patrol and night watch. The Regency era Windsor lantern attached to the Holly Berry Lane façade is of antiquarian interest (https://historicengland.org.uk/images-books/photos/item/IOE01/15703/07). The main entrance to the building was the doorway in Holly Berry Lane; it is surmounted by a bas-relief of a lion’s head. By 1834, the police had moved to the bottom of Holly Hill opposite where the Underground Station stands now.
door to the former police house with its entrance on Holly Berry Lane is a
house in which the composer Sir William Walton (1902-1983) lived in about 1939,
although I am not sure exactly when. Walton used to visit Hampstead in the 1920s
while he was composing Façade (first performed 1923), a musical setting of
poetry by Edith Sitwell (1887-1964), who was living at Greenhill, a block of
flats on Hampstead High Street. Later in life, she lived in Keats Grove.
across Holly Walk opposite the former police station, there is a large,
detached building called Moreton House. This was built in 1894-1896 in what the
architectural historian Nikolaus Pevsner describes as “… the style of a
Jacobean manor house.” The house originally had extensive terraced gardens, but
these are now covered with late 20th century houses. It was designed by Thomas Garner (1839-1906). Its
first owner was the art historian and collector Frederick E Sidney, about whom
I have discovered only a little. His
motto, which can be found in various places in Moreton House was “God is in Al
and in Al thinges”. A Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries, he was born before 1855
and died in 1932. In 1903, he published a travel book called “Anglican
innocents in Spain”. In 1937, after his death, Christies auctioned his
collection of ancient and modern pictures and drawings. The proceeds of this
sale were given to the beneficiaries of his will. Apart from the information
that he had a Torpedo model Rolls Royce Silver Ghost made for him in 1914, I
can discover little more about Mr Sidney. It seems that currently Moreton House
is divided into luxury flats.
three buildings I have described are within a few feet of each other. They are
close to the Catholic church on Holly Walk and the cemetery next to it. There
is so much history in such a small area, as is the case for the rest of
Hampstead. This is one of many things that endears me to the small hill town
that has been absorbed into the metropolis of London without losing too much of
its unique character.
WE WERE NOT EXPECTING to see anything like it when walking down Chapel Street in the centre of the Cornish town of Penzance. What we saw immediately recalled the pseudo-Egyptian, art deco Carerras Building near Mornington Crescent in London. The building in London is far larger than that we found in Penzance, the Egyptian House. The Carreras Building was built in 1926-28. The Egyptian House was built far earlier, in 1835-36. Admittedly, the two buildings hardly resemble each other but when I saw the one in Chapel Street, I immediately thought of the structure in Mornington Crescent.
The Egyptian House is a regularly shaped building with an extraordinary façade. The front of the building is decorated in colourfully painted bas-relief with ornamentation that evokes thoughts of Ancient Egypt. The windows of this three-storey building are not rectangular. Each of them is framed in isosceles trapezoids (the top and bottom of each frame are parallel, the top being shorter than the bottom, and the sides of the frames form truncated isosceles triangles). All three layers of windows are framed in a large decorative isosceles trapezoid. This creates the illusion that the façade is tapering rather than rectangular. An informative merchant, who spoke to us from his shop across the road from the Egyptian House, pointed out that although the windows on the three floors look different in size, this is also an illusion; they are the same size on each floor.
The decorative features on the building include pillars with lotus capitals, sculpted human heads, a royal coat of arms and an eagle. Above the centrally located front door there is yet another feature, which I will describe soon. But first, a little bit of history.
“… was a stationer and bookbinder in Penzance, Cornwall, who was also dealing in minerals by 1830. Such was his success that he was able to build the famous Egyptian Hall, “Lavin’s Museum”, in Chapel Street in 1835–36.”
The building he created was typical of the early 19th century craze for building in the ‘Egyptian style’. It is said to resemble the now long-since demolished Egyptian Hall in London’s Piccadilly and the Oddfellows Hall in Devonport (constructed 1820s). Also, some of the tombs in the older, spookier, part of London’s Highgate Cemetery were designed to evoke the architecture of Ancient Egypt. When Lavin died, his son Edward sold his father’s collection to Baroness Burdett-Coutts for £3,500.
The building became neglected and fell into disrepair. By the 1960s, the façade was in a poor state, In the 1970s, the building was restored, and its original colouring reproduced. Now, it is maintained by the Landmark Trust, which rents out rooms within it to visitors at a high price, so we were informed by a local.
The decorative feature that intrigued me most is on the lintel above the front door. It is a bas-relief depicting two outstretched wings attached to a centrally located sphere from which a pair of bird’s heads each, on their own curved necks project. The bird’s heads are shown in profile with their beaks pointing in opposite directions, one to the left and the other to the right. The style of the depiction of the birds is pseudo-ancient-Egyptian as are many other of the ornaments on the building. As I am fascinated by the double-headed eagles that are used as the symbols of many places including, for example Albania, Serbia, Montenegro, Russia, and Karnataka, I was immediately curious as to whether what is above the doorway is a depiction of a double-headed eagle (‘DHE’).
Greatly simplifying matters, the earliest archaeological evidence of the DHE is in sites in Ancient Mesopotamia (3000-2000BC). The civilisations that thrived there were contemporary with Ancient Egyptian civilisations. Although DHE motifs have been discovered in Ancient Egyptian sites, they are not as prevalent there as in the lands between the Tigris and Euphrates. Without getting bogged down with the history of the usage of the DHE, I want to speculate on why Lavin included the two-headed bird decoration on his Egyptian-style building.
Was the centrally located motif simply chosen for its decorative symmetry or was John Lavin aware of some connection of the DHE with Ancient Egypt? Or was he making some reference to Cornish families, such as the Killigrews and the Godolphins, that included the DHE in their coats of arms? Sadly, I have no answer to these questions yet.
Our ‘discovery’ of the Egyptian House in Penzance was just one of many lovely things we saw during our brief first visit to the town. I have already written about the Turks Head pub in Chapel Street and I hope to reveal more of the town’s interesting sights in the near future.