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London’s Art Nouveau Cycling Tour

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Unlike Paris, Brussels and Vienna, London is not famed for exuberant Art Nouveau buildings and sculptures. But that doesn’t mean we have none —you just have to know where to look. And this urban ride, by London Cycling Guide author Tom Bogdanowicz, reveals some hidden masterpieces in the capital.

Art Nouveau’s roots are traced to the late 19th-century British Arts and Crafts movement (many examples on the Kensington section of the ride) that reflected the philosophy of south Londoner John Ruskin and Frenchman Viollet-le-Duc. It rejected the standardisation of classicism and prized gothic architecture and craftsmanship. The legacy is found indistinctive buildings and sculptures, with non-symmetrical shapes and facades, and, in the Art Nouveau incarnation, marked by whiplash, curve and sinuous floral decoration.

ROUTE GUIDE

START: THE BLACK FRIAR, 1905 (HerbertFuller-Clark)

Thanks to an intervention by poet Sir John Betjeman and others, we can still enjoy the extraordinary interiors as well as the exterior of the Black Friar pub which was going to be demolished in the 1960s. The interiors illustrating jolly monks and friars singing and carousing were re-modelled by Herbert Fuller-Clark with work by individual sculptors, while the mosaics on the outside are credited to Henry Poole. The pub overlooks the very popular North-South cycle way from Elephant & Castle to Kings Cross.

ORCHARD HOUSE, HARRODS’ FOOD HALL, 1903; FOX AND ANCHOR, 1898.(W J Neatby)

You have only to look at the work of master tiler W J Neatby to recognise Art Nouveau. The vibrant colours, the curves, the whiplashes, the floral (and culinary) extravagance are all there. Neatby was not, however, an architect and the houses he decorated, like the Fox and Anchor, and Orchard House, follow more conventional Victorian forms. Harrods’ food hall is a tiling tour de force and Neatby was also responsible for the decorative exterior tiles.

MICHELIN HOUSE (Francois Epinasse)

The famous piles of tyres and Michelin Man, ‘Bibendum’, are widely known across London. The celebration of the French tyre maker is evident right across the building that is impossible to classify as to style, but would not likely have been built without the popularity and acceptance of Art Nouveau in Paris and elsewhere. Epinasse was an engineer at Michelin and is only known to have designed one other building: the Michelin offices in Paris. The building here was bought by two affluent fans, Terence Conran and Paul Hamlyn and restored and developed as a gourmet restaurant and office space.

HANS ROAD, 1891 (Charles Voysey & Arthur MacMurdo)

MacMurdo’s woodcut for the cover of the first publication of the Art Workers’ Guild that he founded is credited as the first known example of the Art Nouveau ‘whiplash’ motif. His buildings did not adopt the motif, but he introduced the early horizontal windows in the Modern style, a trope that became the trademark of fellow Arts and Crafts influencer Voysey. Voysey may be the most influential architect you’ve never heard of. The two (early) town houses in Hans Road are not typical of his style, but the low mansions faced in white rough concrete became de rigueur for thousands of1930s semis — and some argue that his minimalism was a steppingstone to modernism.

EROS; QUEEN ALEXANDRA MONUMENT (Alfred Gilbert)

On this ride the work of George Gilbert falls most clearly in the Art Nouveau category. Eros, or correctly Anteros his brother, in the middle of Piccadilly Circus is his best known work, but it is the Queen Alexandra Monument outside St James’s Palace that shows his affection for Art Nouveau. Gilbert designed the sculpture as his swansong after being re-admitted to high society following a period of debt and rejection.

WHITECHAPEL GALLERY, 1897; BISHOPSGATE INSTITUTE, 1894; ALL SAINTS CHURCH, 1892 (C H Townsend)

Townsend’s three masterworks are all in London (the Horniman Museum in Dulwich is not on the ride) and are all iconic buildings built in what is called ‘Free Style’. The Bishopsgate Institute has turrets decorated with intricate foliage and friezes that reflect Art Nouveau. The Whitechapel Gallery was due to have a pre-Raphaelite central frieze by artist Walter Crane but the money ran out. All Saints church is an early work with intricate Arts and Craft sgraffito inside.

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