My sister recently moved to into her second year student house on the Southbank in London. When my mum and I went to help her move in we wandered back towards the Embankment via Black Prince Road. For anyone who hasn’t walked along this way, underneath a railway bridge are a series of mosaics depicting Prince Edward III, the street’s namesake. Along the other side are ceramic plaques inspired by Doulton Pottery.
Doulton Pottery was established in Lambeth in 1815. Today the building on Black Prince Road is used for offices, although the firm’s name can just be read, high above the corner entrance. The firm’s former base stands out on this quiet street thanks to its ornate earthenware details, such as the delicate sheaths of corn, encased in blue leaves that form segments of a columnar frame to the ground floor windows. Above the doorway is a humble scene of potters at work, surrounded by bands of moulded motifs like those found above arched church doorways of the Gothic and Renaissance periods. Cast your eyes higher and you’ll see a looming corner turret, consisting of elaborate bands of embellishment, that radiate out like petals.
A number of artists contributed to the ceramics under the bridge, drawing on the themes and patterns traditionally used by the Doulton Pottery. The designs are simple yet dramatic. The use of layered clay creates three dimensionality, and strong colours emphasize, for example, the blue, green and ochre of one foliage design.
The portraits of the Black Prince were created as part of a project called Southbank Mosaics. They commemorate the 14th century royal and military champion in a number of guises, ranging from a representation of a warrior heroically clad in armour, to arresting close ups of the young prince’s face. In the words of the project’s creators, ‘mosaics are a metaphor for London: all the communities, colours, peoples, faiths, tribes and creeds coming together to make a brilliant whole.’ As a medium they are durable, descriptive and diverse, and as such are well suited to adorning an urban underpass.
The bona fide cliche of finding artistic gems right under your nose is certainly applicable here. But as part of this maxim, it is also worth remembering to look upwards every now and again; you never know what aesthetic creations might line tunnel walls, or ornament the windows of passing buildings.
(photographs are a collection of my own, or from the Southbank Mosaics website).