Well, this is where it all began, so it’s where I’m going to start.
There is nothing of the houses left, and I felt no ambience about Snow Hill itself. Modernist architecture clad in concrete and glass, not so much announcing a site more making an effort to refract light away from it. A cloak of invisibility, an irony here, like so much of Spare’s life, commandeered by his contemporary: cubism.
Though there is plenty that I’m interested in around it. After all, people are affected by what they see out of their windows as well as what’s in the home. As a humble artist myself, I know it’s what ‘challenges’ my cosy existence that becomes my motif.
If your interested, this is what Snow Hill looks like now.
If you stand by the street name (above and right) and look across the road:
The main entrance to Snow Hill Police Station. Presumable *Austin’s father went in and out of that door on a daily basis.
(*Big assumption I know but as this building was definitely there in Spare’s youth, he would have seen it everyday and that’s my point. What Spare saw, walked passed and was influenced by is the whole point of what I’m trying to experience.)
I could say this is my starting point, my eyes recording what he had done 120 years previously but that’s not true is it, because I had to get here from Farringdon Station. I’ve already seen Smithfield Market, the streets and architecture; dodged the traffic and navigated to this point where I now stand. I know where I am, which direction the light is coming from. And that’s going to make a difference in my head, as I’m sure it did in his.
There is a compactness to this area of London. The Old Bailey, St. Sepulchre-without-Newgate-Church, St. Bartholomew’s Hospital, Smithfield Market and in Spare’s day Newgate Prison. With only a little research, the overwhelming industry of this small area is the processing of meat; be it animal or human. Looming Victorian architecture embraces and condones this sanitised dark side; the mortal, material, blood and guts realm of life and death. The squeals of animal butchery, the smell, discussions, callousness of profit and matter of fact pious disregard for the sanctity of life casts a shadow of inhumanity in all directions. Add to that poverty, disease and a soot clogged atmosphere to the mindset of a sensitive artistic boy and the outlook, hemmed in by a view reaching only a few yards in any direction, is going to be…well dark.
I wandered into St. Sepulchre-without-Newgate-Church, a little under 100yards from the Police Station. An impressive building with a sumptuous interior. An extremely fine church…without a doubt. I’m sure Spare visited it regularly, and in its current form. There I see the Majesty of the Heavens, emblazoned in vividly coloured stained glass windows. The glory of God and the beauty of the afterlife. So different, and yet even in this temple to the divinity of God and his creations, proudly sits a device of mortal cruelty. An item, so cold in compassion and torture; a bell.
A single handbell sits proudly in it’s comfortable and safe glass display. At first glance nothing macabre or obscene at all, until you read the accompanying scroll.
The Execution Bell: rung after midnight on the eve of the condemned man’s execution. Rung outside his cell (via a passage under the road from the church to the prison) to revel in his impending death, it reads:
Prepare you for tomorrow you shall die;
Watch all and pray; the hour is drawing near
That you before the Almighty must appear;
Examine well yourselves in time repent,
That you may not to eternal flames be sent.
And when St Sepulchre’s Bell in the morning tolls
The Lord above have mercy on your soul”.
The ultimate act of human cruelty from the Church? A macabre creation of man’s venomous spirit. I can’t think of a sharper dagger of inhumanity, the image and construct of a godless universe more vividly carved into the mind and soul of any who read it…surely.
The words resonate with a disgust that amplifies, like feedback with each blood chilling realisation of the purpose and intended effect of this seemingly harmless device. In itself it is an object, without contract or intrinsic morality…but now it is a metaphor, a metaphor of sickening abuse in form. These objects, to an artist, are the building blocks of their work…and they are personal in many cases. Symbolism can be a common language or a private one, whether their depiction is intended to face demons, angels or incomprehension. To purge the artist or the audience; that is a matter only the mind of the draughtsman can know.
All around, in just a few minutes, this place is moulding visions in my mind…which I will draw on.
So I leave the church: and there, before even leaving the entrance, looms the central criminal court, the ‘Old Bailey’. A reaffirmation of justice and authority or a spectre of nightmares and tyranny? I’m not going to moralise or pass judgement on it; only to say the overpowering feeling of mortal vulnerability and apprehension doesn’t invite a lightness in my step.
On this wet day, the image is about average. I’ve never seen anything in life as black or white, merely an ever-changing shade of grey.
I’ll enter an opinion here, a gut feeling. If my father was a Policeman, and this square was his patch…more condensed than most it has to be noted, I’d be looking to him for moral guidance. I’m sure, as is still the case, a Policeman is drawn to the force by a sense of duty. A duty to uphold and instigate the process of law. A good man I would hope, who feels he upholds justice both socially and morally. But leaving that church, how could anyone feel satisfied with justice above such human carnage and abject profiteering.
At this point, I have to concede that in Spare’s youth the Old Bailey (built c1903) was still, Newgate Prison, and by all accounts, an even more abhorrent building, accompanied by much worse flights of the imagination.
Agreed AOS never heard the bell toll or the ‘bells of Old Bailey’ except in the nursery rhyme ‘Oranges and Lemons’. St. Sepulchre’s macabre ritual had been abandoned in 1783. Not because of sensibilities, more-over Newgate Prison acquired its own bell.
Graverobbers come next…
This is a rolling blog, so I’ll be updating this page as I go…more later.