Looking for Welbeck Street. Hunting for Henrietta House. At times walking and looking upwards. At other times with my nose buried in a map.
Following another tweet, sniffing out a lead, searching for prehistory where by rights there should be none and yet….
… this is London after all.
This tireless, relentless, obsessional quest for #urbanprehistory is driving me on beyond what is reasonable of a person with my other commitments.
And then I see it: the London cromlech. Suddenly it is all worthwhile.
On the corner of Welbeck Street and Henrietta Place, perched high above pavement level, surveying the steady flow of commuters, shoppers, doctors in this medical quarter of Marylebone. A place of bones. On Henrietta Place stands Henrietta House. On Henrietta House stands the cromlech.
Megalithic art on the corner quoins
Occult architecture across a from department store, a place of coins
The Debenhams dolmen
A structure of dark passages and concealed knowledge
rendered in four dimensions, all angles and shadows
having the feeling of being an optical illusion.
A stone joke not shared by those who pass beneath unaware
the view from below being as if from the underworld
and we are the dead.
The cromlech is perched, an iron on coffin legs
placed on a junction, a liminal place of decision-making
looming from its dizzy cliff, inaccessible, skeletal, timeless
representative of an impossible topography.
The cromlech is not alone. A remarkable series of buildings and structures are carved around the façade of Henrietta House in Portland limestone, the work of sculptor Keir Smith. They are from a commissioned series of sculptures he called From the Dark Cave which was completed in 1992. I traced the edge of this office block with my eyes, moving forward in time, sometimes recognising the well-spaced miniature stone architectural renderings of iconic buildings of Britain both real and stylised.
Fifteen buildings, from the dark cave, to Canary Wharf, hundreds of thousands of years of human occupation and endeavor.
The primitive hut twinned with the cromlech, wrapped around the corner
Temple, cave, pyramid, skyscraper, church
Watchtower and tolbooth
Castles and crenulations
Globes and domes
The phallic observatory
Machines of industry
Whimsy, fancy, folly
The Euston Arch
Hawksmoor (of course).
This work was commissioned by Lynton plc and Nationale-Nederlanden, and in part funded by the Public Arts Development Fund. The influences, process, and rationale, is captured in a rather tough to find short booklet entitled A sculpture for Henrietta House London W1, From the Dark Cave. The second part of the title is written, white on white.
My copy came in the post in an extravagantly stamped envelope.
The creative process involved the creation of a series of wooden maquettes in a specially established woodworking workshop. These are smaller scale versions of the final sculptural pieces which were made by cutting stone blocks with a diamond steel saw, ‘essentially stone constructions rather than pure carvings’.
As a whole, the buildings represent what Smith characterised as a ‘personalised history of architecture, or more properly of building’. Yet there was also a strong archaeological undercurrent in this work, acknowledged by Smith as a longterm preoccupation. In his obituary in The Guardian it was noted that ‘Art and architecture of the past, archaeology, mythology and landscape informed his early work’ and all of this and more is evident at Henrietta House. There is also a clear occult thread running through this work not least with the depiction of a pyramid that recalls the one in the cemetery of Hawksmoor’s church St Anne of Limehouse and his pyramid in the grounds of Castle Howard.
Of the cromlech itself, Smith notes the ongoing impact on his work of Paul Nash, of whom this carving is a ‘remembrance’ especially the 1937 lithograph Landscape of the megaliths, an Avebury masterpiece. The line of stones in this painting, a kinaesthetic avenue, has more curves and fewer angles compared with the Dark Cave series, but captures a similar processional, progressional, aesthetic in stone.
The cromlech is a composite creation, based both on an un-named megalith that Smith saw on a trip to St David’s in Pembrokeshire (= dolmen country) and Kits Coty House, a caged dolmen in Kent. That it is a fictionalised dolmen, composed of multiple sources of information, an every-cromlech, is no surprise. But Smith’s rendition has no cage, only the adjacent cave.
Here the Nash influence is at its most strong, and Smith has fabricated a fascinating facsimile of this mysterious monument. Unlike most other buildings in this series, this is a place of the dead, not the living.
What of the future of this artwork? This is a place of transformation. Scaffolding and fencing conceals from view some of the carvings, while men with high-vis jackets, hard hats, and cigarettes loiter in the shadow of the cromlech, observing my own curious behaviour, taking photographs, keeping notes, avoiding traffic.
This is not a quiet location. Close to Oxford Street, it offers the back view of big shops, the rear entrances, the underbelly of capitalism and pre-Christmas consuming.
Henrietta House is currently occupied by CBRE who appear to be a big international real estate corporation.
CBRE have embarked on what they call Henrietta House Re-imagined. A ‘divisional director’ says:
This transformational project will create an inspiring and energising workplace which promotes wellbeing, sustainability and productivity. Incorporating the latest in tech and office design, it will allow innovation and collaboration to thrive and will empower our teams to better serve our clients and to attract and retain the best talent.
A glance at the impression of the new look for the exterior of this building shows that Smith’s series of carved buildings will survive this regeneration. This can do no harm to the wellbeing of staff and visitors alike.
And CBRE do appear to like prehistory. They are the ‘Official Real Estate partners’ of the Tutankhamun: treasure of the golden pharaohs exhibition at the Saatchi Gallery (November 2019 to May 2020). This is King Tut on tour. This golden sponsorship deal reminds me of the Bloomburg curation of London’s Temple of Mithras which will be the subject of a future blog post. It would be nice to think that this ethos would encourage information about Smith’s work to be included at Henrietta House, as I am not sure if this is currently the situation.
Smith’s obituary says this of the Dark Cave series: These frontal sculptures were carved in deep relief, much bolder and more three-dimensional than the shallow carving that bas-relief allows. He employed geometric form and references to elements of his favourite buildings, whether significant or utilitarian. Who is to say which category we might assign to the cromlech?
The depiction of the dark cave, of the cromlech, of the primitive hut, represent an urban prehistoric triptych of unparalleled depth and complexity, and are well worth a visit if you are ever in the vicinity.
You won’t regret it.
Sources and acknowledgements: thanks to Magnus Copps for drawing my attention to this cromlech, which I visited during a trip to the TAG conference at UCL in December 2019. A suitable end to the millennium. Quotes in the text either come from ‘the obituary’ (The Guardian, 3rd April 2007, by Ann Elliot) or ‘the catalogue’, which is the 1994 pamphlet From The Dark Cave – A Sculpture For Henrietta House London W1 by Keir Smith. The image of the maquettes is sourced from the Royal British Institute of Architects (RIBA). Finally, the Henrietta House re-imagined visualisation comes from the web page with this name linked to in the text above.