Sunday, 19 September 2010

gog, magog, poplarism and powers of ten

It's a long way from East London to Detroit, Michigan, but architectural and design leapfrogging gets you there pretty fast. What started as a curio piece following the sculptural links between resurrected pagan giants in Guildhall to a socialist modernist town hall in Poplar led to a footnote connection to modernist icons Eero Saarinen and the Eames.
At the hub of that nexus is David Evans, the sculptor of the Gog and Magog statues. These pagan giants, whose origins lie in Geoffrey of Monmouth's 12th century melding of Celtic, Biblical and Greek myth, were said to be the fathers of a race of giants in mythological Britain, and they're the heroic traditional protectors of London.

Carried through the capital's streets at the Lord Mayor's Show every November, the folk effigies are all too vivid throwbacks to the human sacrifices of ancient festivities, so it's perhaps apt that the most recent versions have been 14-ft (with size 56 feet) wickermen made by the Worshipful Company of Basketmakers.

David Evans' metal Gog and Magog, commissioned in 1953 to replace the 18th century versions destroyed by the Blitz, take a quieter role protecting the grand Guildhall, originally home to the Lord Mayor's court and now home to the City Of London corporation.

They're as impressively detailed as a Harryhausen skeleton but also, it has to be said, as cute as the Clangers Soupdragon or George Pal's Puppetoons and, likewise, as animation-friendly.  

I can't help thinking of Oliver Postgate and Peter Firmin on the Lewis Chessmen (the inspiration for Noggin the Nog). Just as the chessmen to them looked benign, resigned and not in the least warlike, so Gog and Magog look grumpy rather than glowering. Like Raymond Briggs Santa, they need a cup of tea and the chance to put their feet up.

When this pair of gargantuan warriors were being put in place, Evans was living, as he had been since 1940, in Welwyn Garden City, which is dotted with a few more of his public sculptures. But he was already known as the official sculptor for the Poplar Town Hall, which opened in 1937, the visual representation of radical socialist principles that had made the local council notorious.

In scenes that would see a kind of distant echo later in the 1949 Ealing comedy Passport to Pimlico, the landslide inaugural Labour-ruled council of 1919 caused outrage and scandal in 1921 when it withheld revenue due to authorities across London and instead used it for local social reforms and poor relief. Thirty councillors were jailed, there was a public storm and an Act of Parliament eventually standardised rates for rich and poor boroughs.

Poplarism became a byword for local authorities who fought central or national control, and the town council erected 16 years later was similarly revolutionary. It cast aside the usual lavish adornments of town halls of the era for a definitively "modern style". But this time the storm was of praise, as both the popular and architectural press fell for for the factory-like look. David Evans' work was at the heart of the display, with five bas-relief panels along the front showing workers involved in the building, as well as the sculptor himself, and a stunning mosaic canopy of local industries over the council members entrance.

Evans may not be a big name in art history but, had he taken a different turn in his career, that might have been different. In 1929, before Poplar, Gog, Magog or a garden city, Evans became the sculptor in residence at the Cranbrook Foundation in Michigan. Cranbrook, which was founded by the Detroit newspaper mogul George Booth, was the start of a philanthropic culture and education venture that included the Cranbrook Academy of Art.

Booth developed ideas with a visiting professor of architectural design, Eliel Saarinen, who, a few years later, taught architecture there.

Eliel was the father of Eero Saarinen, later a student of the same academy, along with his friends and fellow revolutionary modernist icons, Florence Knoll and Charles and Ray Eames.

At which point the mythic giants of Gog and Magog meet the mythic dimensions of the Powers Of Ten documentary made by the Eames Office for IBM in 1977.

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