21 December, 2007

Stone, Water, Angel

In Rome not a stone was looked at that wasn't shaped. Form had driven out all interest in matter. Now a crystal formation is becoming important again, and a shapeless stone is something. Thus does human nature cast about for help when there is no help left.

— Goethe, The Italian Journey, 1788.
There's a restaurant in Catalonia called El Bulli, which has just been voted the best in the world for the second time running. Its chef, Ferran Adrià, is in the habit of taking classic European dishes, and fissioning them out of familiarity. Here, for instance, is how he makes a Spanish omelette, courtesy of the Guardian: 'First, he reduces the old-fashioned tortilla to its three component parts: eggs, potatoes and onions. Then he cooks each separately. The finished product, the deconstructed outcome, is one-part potato foam, one-part onion purée, one-part egg-white sabayon. One isolated component is served on top of the other in layers, and topped with crumbs of deep-fried potatoes. The dish, minuscule, comes inside a sherry glass.'

Peter Ackroyd, in his magnopustical biography of London, does something similar to the city. His first two chapters are entitled 'The sea!' and 'The stones', treating the very fabric of London as essential parts of its history: the city is served as layered foams in a sherry glass. The ploy is a bold one, and pays rich dividends. 'The waters have not wholly departed, even yet, and there is evidence of their life in the weathered stones of London.' It is difficult to write about London after Ackroyd, so grand is his scope, so minute his detail. One can hope only to add footnotes, graft a few new connections, find a little corner of the canvas spare to fill in with a dash of colour. And so, my mind echoing with the waters and the weathered stones of London—plastic force and brute matter—I take a trip north, up to Angel, in the heart of Islington.


You can see a map of Angel. I have marked out the places of significance with coloured squares—pink for Stonefield Street, just north of Cloudesley Square, Street, Place; blue for the reservoir on Claremont Square; red for the New River Head by Sadler's Wells. On an early afternoon, Sunday, gelid and bright, with the trace of a cloud, suspent water, the place is crawling with all sorts, like most, not looking up or even straight ahead, but happy to shop nonetheless, and especially in such a hub of stereotyped and Americanesque commerce, with all their mates or bellamies, young or old, most white, but not all, and likely to find enough small and trinketlike items, enough bibelots and grockle, to tide over the family for another year. Pest'red roads. Out of sight, almost, the canal still flows, and by the towpaths the locals drink without talking; in the near-empty Prince of Wales, with its bad imitation-Asian food, a greying suit sings knowledgeably along to the latest Top 40 hit on the pub radio, embarrassing only myself.

The two-hour walk is not a fluid motion followed through, not a speech of thundering eloquence, but a series of confused jabs, turns, stops, in all directions, radiating from the station, seen in the middle of the map. My first little bummel takes me north for ten minutes, past the mall with its great ugly silver wings, bastard literalism, up to the back streets of Liverpool Road.

I confess from the start, I have come up here mostly because of Harold Bayley, who mused, in his charming 1935 The Lost Language of London, on the origins of Cloudesley Road:
It is happily possible at times to counter-check conclusions by what are seemingly synonymous terms; for example Cloudesley Road at Islington. Being aware that the origin of the word cloud was clude, an ancient and obsolete term for a mass or conglomeration of rocks,—
(I advert the reader to the OED on the word 'cloud':
In the sense 'rock, hill' OE. had clúd m., early ME. clūd, later cloud; and this also occurs in ME. in the sense 'clod'. The current sense is found first in end of 13th c. and is app. the same word, applied to a 'cumulus' in the sky. OE. clúd was on OTeut. type *klûdo-z (pre-Teut. type *glūto-) f. same root as CLOD, the original sense being 'mass formed by agglomeration, cumulus'.)
and back to Bayley:
—it seemed possible that Cloudesley Place marked a lea, meadow, or lieu, where at one time there stood a clude or mass of rock. To my subsequent satisfaction I found that into Cloudesley Square there leads a Stonefield Street, the inference being obvious that Stonefield alias Cloudesley was a field-name. This inference was later verified by the discovery that in 1516 a Richard Cloudesley who resided here bequeathed funds for the repair of a causeway, i.e. a stone-paved road, leading from his house to Islington Church. . . It is quite certain that the Richard Cloudesley of 1516 derived his surname from a somewhere existing Cloudesley probably from the very Cloudesley on which the family was then settled, for I am unable to trace any village or town so named.
Notice the strange acommatism of that last sentence, attributable or not to John Cowan's 'Idiot Copy-Editor God'—the lack of pause before 'probably' lends Bayley's prose an unexpected breathlessness. The whole, however, is enough to start investing these streets, pleasant if not spectacular, with the charm of history. Bayley is not ashamed of the subjective quality of his conclusions; he speaks the language of personal adventure ('satisfaction', 'discovery') that is so inviting, and virtually absent from serious scholarship.

So, the cloud brings together stone (clude) and water. But the water is south and east of here: in the streets around Cloudesley are only stone, plaster, and brick. And sand. The area is restricted to cars, which can enter only from Cloudesley Road to the west; this gives the streets a hermetic sort of privacy and quiet. It is a theological quiet. On Cloudesley Street is the sinister Grubb Institute, 'an applied research foundation working globally to mobilise values, faiths and beliefs as a resource for the transformation, healing and repair of organisations, people and society', founded in 1957.

The Institute features two Bazalgettes on its staff—presumably descendants of the great Bazalgette, chief engineer of London's sewers. Outside the entrance sits a car with a smashed window; apparently charity and 'wholeness' are not enough to curb street crime. Who would have thought? But at the end of the road, squat in the middle of Cloudesley Square, is the area's real theological stronghold, the Celestial Church of Christ. (Here's an old engraving, rather moiréd on the screen, of its original 1829 incarnation, Holy Trinity Church.)

The gauze protecting the two spires is sky-blue, making the stone melt into the firmament, liquidly, or nebulously, what you will. It is a church in the process of celestial translation, or else it is crumbling to bits, slowly, out of a neglect now bandaged by Lottery money, perhaps not too late.

If the Grubb Institute is sinister, then the Celestial Church is even sinisterer. A worldwide organization, it was founded in 1947, in Porto Novo, Benin; proposed seating-arrangements for the church were 'revealed through a Prophetess who under the influence of the Holy Spirit in the wilderness on Friday 5th of October, 1947, sketched the seating arrangement using oranges'. A senior minister, David Adeniyi, 'likened the church to the rock, as no one can break the rock with his foot, no one can have power over the church'. In 2004 the Nigerian minister of the Cloudesley Square church, Adeniran Magbagbeola, was arrested for conducting sham weddings under its roof, though he was spared gaol-time for ill health. None of this did I know when I walked through its doors.

Parts of the interior are in states of extreme disrepair, lending the hall a Romantic Gothic-horror atmosphere. Most of the stained glass, on the other hand, is intact. Coloured balloons litter the floor, and a plate of fruit has been set before the altar. This is probably the only church I've ever seen with a) a fluorescent cross, and b) a sandpit strewn with bibles:

The church's motto is 'A city built on a hill cannot be hidden', Matthew 5:14. (The next verse is, 'Neither do men light a candle, and put it under a bushel, but on a candlestick; and it giveth light unto all that are in the house'. Evidently men also light electric crosses and put them on sandpits.) London was not built on a hill; thus it can be hidden—hidden down quiet back-streets, and in occult churches and institutes, in stones, even in books.


South of Angel, south of the inextant Peacock Inn, just south of Sadler's Wells, is a little private enclosure containing a number of handsome buildings. This site is the old New River Head, the terminus of the New River entering London from Hertfordshire to the north. The New River, which, as every modern sign or website will eagerly inform you, is neither new nor a river, is instead a sophisticated canal constructed in the early 17th century, and financed by Sir Hugh Myddelton, Welsh entrepreneur and jeweller to the king.

In 1913, the site was purchased from the New River Company by the Metropolitan Water Board, suppliers of water to the capital between 1903 and 1974. One of the old Engine Rooms was destroyed, the Round Pond, into which flowed the River, was stopped up, the pipes excavated, and the new buildings, headquarters for the Board, erected. In 1946 the last filter beds were disassembled, and the river head was removed to nearby Stoke Newington. Thus, the Board developed its central operations as it obliterated the New River; water swelled and ebbed. The pentagonal edifice at the bottom of this picture was the Board's main office, built by Henry Austen Hall and completed in 1920, while the curvilinear shape at the top left is the Laboratory Building, put up in 1936-1938 by John Murray Easton (who also designed Aberconway House, Mayfair, currently on sale for a mere 25 million)—both have now been converted into apartments for the wealthy.

The Laboratory, solid and Decoish, with a smashing line and grand glasswork, is the resistance piece. A 1953 history of the Water Board has this to say of the building: 'The curved form adopted by the architect has several advantages. It has the effect of linking up with the existing Head Office building (the quadrant would, if produced, strike the end of these at right angles). It also provides some 30 feet more window space for the laboratories, all of which face the north light, and this is a distinct advantage.' The large plaster arms, high on the wall looking over the fountain, are of added interest (and you begin to see the even shadow creeping five minutes up the base of the arms):

These are the arms of the Water Board, granted in 1931. The motto reads Et plui super unam civitatem, 'And I rained over one city'; the words are from Amos 4:7 in the Vulgate translation. The supporters are Hygeia with her medicinal snake (sinister), representing sanitation, and Aquarius (dexter), representing water-supply—the two functions of the Board. And we can read a 'blazon' or description of the arms in the 1953 Board history: 'Argent on a Pile vert a dexter Hand Or issuing from a Cloud in chief proper and scattering eight Gouttes d'eau in base three Bars wavy Azure on a Chief nebuly of the first a Cross of Saint George charged with a Lion of England, And for the Crest on a Wreath of the Colours a Roundel charged with a Hand issuing from a Cloud and scattering Gouttes as in the Arms.' The book, drawn up by the Board itself as a thirty-year retrospective, goes on to discuss the reasons for its graphic choices. The 'pile vert' or green wedge derives from the arms of Sir Hugh Myddelton, who substituted that shape for his family's 'bend vert' in 1622. The central motif—the hand of God issuing rain—derives from a seal commissioned by the New River Company from the engraver William Hole in 1619; this 'depicts a Hand issuing out of the clouds throwing down rain upon the City of London. The seal also shows St. John's Gate and Old St. Paul's without the wooden steeple, which was burnt down in 1561 and never re-erected.' The machicolated line ('Chief nebuly') towards the top of the shield 'is heraldically supposed to represent the edges of clouds as drawn by medieval artists'. The Lion of England at the top, together with the azure bars at the bottom, recall the arms of the LCC, granted in 1914. The eight gouttes or drops stand for the eight water-companies that constituted the Board upon its foundation in 1903. Likewise, the supporters also derive from the arms of those companies: Hygeia from the Grand Junction Waterworks Company, and Aquarius from the East London Company, the Chelsea Company, the Lambeth Company, and the West Middlesex Company. (When the Metropolitan Water Board of New South Wales came to draw up their contract and arms (right) in 1965, they largely copied those of London.) The Board's arms can be found elsewhere in the environs of the city. In the historic pumping station at Kempton Park, still functioning, can be found the arms rendered in fine bright hues high on an interior wall (taken from here):

And the same arms are found in concrete, out in Crayford, in Bexley, the farthest reaches of what might reasonably be called 'London', catalogued here by the Public Monument and Sculpture Association, rather amateurishly ('the woman is on the left and seems to have a serpent around her arm'), as #BE003:

The most curious aspect of this design is clearly the central motif of the hand from the clouds; it is elaborated in a relief-sculpture nearby. Around the back of the site, past the Shakespeare's Head, in Myddelton Passage, on the front of a terraced row of flats, Worthington House and Benyon House, for no clear reason, I found this curiosity, twice:

When I first looked at this, it struck me that the distant church vaguely resembled Old St. Paul's; now, having read the 1953 history, it is clear to me that this is a copy of Hole's seal of 1619, with St. John's Gate in the foreground. The cloud, meanwhile, is fluffy and rounded enough to be a clude or heap of rocks. The seal is repeated in the atrium corridor of the old MWB offices, beside other roundels of Hygeia and Aquarius (the latter refashioned as the reclining river-god from Marcantonio's 1515 Judgement of Paris); the first picture I took was with a flash, and before I could get a better one the concierge shooed me away—

I wanted to determine some sort of provenance for this image of the pluvious hand, but turned up little. Filippo Picinelli's 1694 Mundus Symbolicus, a standard reference, contains nothing relevant. None of the emblems in the modern Henkel-Schöne Emblemata, meanwhile, possesses more than a very approximate similarity. Here, God's hand pours water from a jug on a heart beset by snakes, with the legend Invidentes egent, or 'The envious are wanting':

Another image, taken in turn from Théodore de Bèze's 1580 Icones (# 9), illustrates a quatrain beginning 'Pinge globum tenui quem libratum undique filo / Sustineat summi numinis alta manus', with God's hand supporting a city with a beam from above:

Thus my iconographical labours are in vain. (If only I had been Professor of Symbology at Harvard!) Still, it is a beautiful image, suggestive, if not fully sensical. It has value as a true emblem or impresa, where word and picture exist in uneasy tension. One of the chief rules for the impresa, at least according to Samuel Daniel, is 'that the figure without the mot, or the mot without the figure signifie nothing'. In other words, the emblem's text and image should be individually obscure, but mutually illuminating. Remember, the pluvious hand was originally designed for a river company: the fit is a little ill. Why not have the image of a river or waterway? Biblical quotations would have been easy enough: 'He that believeth on me, as the scripture hath said, out of his belly shall flow rivers of living water' (John 7.38) could have been stripped down as 'flumina de ventre eius fluent aquae vivae', or something like that.

The relation of rain to river (or canal) is a complex one, mediated by stone, clude and cloud. It is from cloud that the hand emerges, and it is to stone that the rain returns. The whole is circled, on the seal, and on the roundel or Hurt atop the Board's escutcheon, which 'may also be regarded as representing the Firmament'. The verse from Amos reads, in full,
And also I have withholden the rain from you, when there were yet three months to the harvest: and I caused it to rain upon one city, and caused it not to rain upon another city: one piece was rained upon [compluta], and the piece whereupon it rained not withered. So two or three cities wandered unto one city, to drink water; but they were not satisfied: yet have ye not returned unto me, saith the LORD.
London is not the city built on a hill, but it is a city upon which rain has been allowed to fall, if not in such torrents as elsewhere. It has not withered. God chides the city for not acknowledging his providence. Are we being chided?


London has been so photographed, and so articulated; we know its monuments by sight and in prose. We know those works—the great and the grand. But there is room, also, for the lesser—for objects without shape or articulation. I need not show you the fine stone fountain of Nautilus Gardens, in the heart of the New River Head; nor Regent's Canal which runs east out of Angel; nor the stone Sadler's well, preserved under glass inside the theatre. We want to picture not just the forgotten and neglected, the lost nooks; but the unpicturable, as a quiet provocation. We picture them dark and bleak, half-obscured, dull, barely discernible, traces of form emerging from plain natural matter. The sky is white because it is not there, merely a mounting for the myriad earths.

I stumble down Pentonville Road, towards the Library, my commonest haunt, in the gathered near-twilight, with barely any interest in Pentonville Road, contemplating only the outline of a plot not quite sketched. I come upon Claremont Square and its reservoir. Sarah Jackson, for the London Gardens Trust, has roughed out the bones of square's history:
Claremont Square was developed between 1821 and 1828 around the old Upper Pond of the New River Company, built in 1709. The reservoir was covered and turfed in 1852 following the Metropolis Water Act which outlawed open areas of standing water in London. This covered storage reservoir is still owned and in use by Thames Water. The square has its original 19th-century railings.
The reservoir is thus inaccessible, a guarded tumulus of Victorian industry. By no means is the hill impressive, but its dullness recommends it as the object of portrayal, for London is dull, like a great city, brilliantly dull, like the half-rubbed-out canvas of an Old Master, or the Bacons half-visible behind frosted glass in Love is the Devil. London's beauty lies not in its vistas and façades, but in its supercilious brows, what it hints, just out of sight. This is the beauty of formless—or near formless—matter. Even Google Earth preserves the mystery:

Here the square, top-down, is reduced to geometric form; the north slope mars the symmetry just enough. A low wall runs around the green, and beyond that, eight round stubs of unknown function, like double-breasted buttons. The godsview only compounds the curiosity of the site: we see some but not much, and can get no closer without pixellation. Even if we could walk upon the hill, the true object, under the turf, would remain unknown. We want to peer inside; we want some sense of how London works, inside; this will be withheld. London is not a city built on a hill; it remains, perpetually, somewhat hidden.

Monochrome makes filigree of the trees. Consider standing water, how it nourishes the soil and the roots. Here we stand to the east, looking west; this castellar structure can be seen to the right of the green from the air. The river is left in the names. From this point you can look down Mylne Street towards Myddelton Square and St. Mark's; around the corner is ultra-chic Amwell Street, as well as Chadwell and River Streets. Here again we have the last vestiges of the New River—its arch-instigator, and its sources, Amwell and Chadwell, and Mylne after Robert and his son William Chadwell, the River's chief Victorian engineers. 'London is not said to be in England, but rather England to be in London', wrote Thomas Platter in 1599.

Lack of distraction returns the eye to the forbidden mound: one circles and circles, scouting for a way up, and there are steps, and a gate, but it is locked, and the heart sinks, but is also glad, that exploration is frustrate, and the mystery is retained. One projects instead. One interprets what few shapes are there to be interpreted: curve of the brow, steel rails, stub cylinder, low wall, as if ruined. Leafmeal. In such a context photography has the potential for expression, in and of itself.

Strait-laced types pass me on the street, having made their purchases at the local cheese-shop, or perhaps with handmade clocks, ticking, and all wrapped up warm with wools or tweels, eyeing me as I hold leather glove (left) in my teeth and juggle algidly with the camera. Why is he snapping that ugly old thing? The doors around the square are framed with crude crabbed fluted quarter-columns, and in places the plaster has been left to craze. Here (number 4, west side) lived Edward Irving, credited by the plaque as 'Founder of the Catholic Apostolic Church', though Wikipedia disputes the attribution. Tu es Petrus, the rock of ages; and no one can break the rock with his foot—no one can have power over the church. Only water can erode stone.

On the way down Pentonville Road I see this sculpture by the side of the road. It is like stylised water, mem, made into stone, a flow, petrified. It seems a fitting colophon for my journey.


John Cowan said...

Well, it may be amateurish to say "the woman is on the left", but at least it's correct, unlike your description. Hygeia is of course the dexter supporter, because everything on an achievement of arms is formally called left or right from the viewpoint of the armiger, not the onlooker. By the same token, Aquarius (on the right) is the sinister supporter.

Cloudesley to me primarily suggests Sir Admiral Cloudesley Shovel (spelling varies), who was wrecked off the Scilly Isles in 1707 with the loss of four ships and all the crew save one man, leading to the passage of the Longitude Act (1714) and the eventual development of the lunar-distance method and the chronometer for accurately determining longitude at sea.

When I tell this story to Americans, what with Sir Cloudesley Shovel, and me properly pronouncing "Scilly" as "Silly", I always have to interject remarks like "I am so not making this up!" into the explanation before I can finish even the first sentence. Thus it is to know too much, and not be believed, like a trivia-question Cassandra.

Conrad H. Roth said...

"Well, it may be amateurish to say "the woman is on the left", but at least it's correct, unlike your description."

Ha ha, I love it!

Greg Afinogenov said...

Talking of London, he observed, "Sir, if you wish to have a just notion of the magnitude of this city, you must not be satisfied with seeing its great streets and squares, but must survey the innumerable little lanes and courts. It is not in the showy evolutions of buildings, but in the multiplicity of human habitations which are crowded together, that the wonderful immensity of London consists." -- I have often amused myself with thinking how different a place London is to different people. They, whose narrow minds are contracted to the consideration of some one particular pursuit, view it only through that medium. A politician thinks of it merely as the seat of government in its different departments; a grazier, as a vast market for cattle; a mercantile man, as a place where a prodigious deal of business is done upon 'Change; a dramatick enthusiast, as the grand scene of theatrical entertainments; a man of pleasure, as an assemblage of taverns, and the great emporium for ladies of easy virtue. But the intellectual man is struck with it, as comprehending the whole of human life in all its variety, the contemplation of which is inexhaustible.
- Boswell, Life of Johnson

A. Ominous said...

Cowan actually deserves a small *royalty payment* for that comment, I think.

Toby said...

A minor historical endnote to your enjoyable piece: As well as being 'a guarded tumulus of Victorian industry' the Claremont Square reservoir conceals the little known presence on that site of the Fort Royal, one of London's girdle of civil war defences in the 1640s. It then became an open reservoir for the New River Company in 1708, and can be seen in many prints including one of London from the North by Canaletto (in BL Prints & Drawings). [See Robert Ward 'London's New River'Historical Publications (2003).]

Conrad H. Roth said...

Thanks for this.