The Spirit of Electricity
Heritage Category: Listed Building
List Entry Number: 1430294
Date first listed: 19-Jan-2016
Statutory Address: Orion House, Upper St Martin's Lane, London, WC2 9EA
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Statutory Address: Orion House, Upper St Martin's Lane, London, WC2 9EA
The building or site itself may lie within the boundary of more than one authority.
County: Greater London Authority
District: City of Westminster (London Borough)
Parish: Non Civil Parish
National Grid Reference: TQ3003080957
Piece of public sculpture entitled 'The Spirit of Electricity', 1958-61, by Geoffrey Clarke RA for Thorn Electrical Industries' new Headquarters building, now known as Orion House. Pursuant to s.1 (5A) of the Planning (Listed Buildings and Conservation Areas) Act 1990 ('the Act') it is declared that Orion House, to which the sculpture is attached, is not of special architectural or historic interest.
Reasons for Designation
'The Spirit of Electricity', a sculpture of 1958-61 by Geoffrey Clarke, is listed at Grade II for the following principal reasons: * Artistic interest: as a sculpture of high artistic and aesthetic quality by an internationally renowned artist and representative of the ‘geometry of fear’ appellation attached to a group of innovative young British sculptors in the early 1950s; * Historic interest: as an early example of post-war public sculpture in London commissioned by a commercial client; * Urban context: although repositioned, it remains part of the building it was commissioned for and adds greatly to the streetscape on the edge of London’s ‘theatre land’.
The period after 1945 saw a shift from commemorative sculpture and architectural enrichment to the idea of public sculpture as a primarily aesthetic contribution to the public realm. Sculpture was commissioned for new housing, schools, universities and civic set pieces, with London and the counties of Hertfordshire and Leicestershire leading the way in public patronage. Thus public sculpture could be an emblem of civic renewal and social progress. By the late C20 however, patronage was more diverse and included corporate commissions and Arts Council-funded community art. The ideology of enhancing the public realm through art continued, but with divergent means and motivation.
Visual language ranged from the abstraction of Victor Pasmore and Phillip King to the figurative approach of Elisabeth Frink and Peter Laszlo Peri, via those such as Lynn Chadwick and Barbara Hepworth who bridged the abstract/representational divide. The post-war decades are characterised by the exploitation of new, often industrial, materials and techniques including new welding and casting techniques, plastics and concrete, while kinetic sculpture and ‘ready mades’ (using found objects) demonstrate an interest in composite forms.
Geoffrey Clarke (1924-2014) was commissioned in 1958 by Thorn Electrical Industries to create a sculpture for their new headquarters building on St Martin’s Lane, designed by Andrew Renton (1917-1982) of Basil Spence and Partners. It is unclear whether the clients or Clarke came up with the title, 'The Spirit of Electricity', although it is claimed that Clarke had formed the idea for the design from a study of old light bulb filaments at the Science Museum. The clients stipulated that the sculpture should have integral illumination. The design is similar to one submitted by Clarke for the 1959 competition for a sculpture for the front of the John Lewis store on Oxford Street, won by Barbara Hepworth. The sculpture was erected on the east (Upper St Martin’s Lane) elevation of the 16-storey Thorn House in the spring of 1961. The Architectural Review for September 1961 welcomed the sculpture as an example of business patrons providing London ‘with several worthwhile public examples of the sculpture of our own day, in which it has hitherto been very poor.’ Edwin Mullins, however, in his article ‘The Open Air Vision: A Survey of Sculpture in London Since 1945 (Apollo Vol. LXXVII, August 1962) criticised the position of the sculpture since 'one can only see it properly from an oblique angle, where it is belittled by the building itself, and where its thinness makes it look like a piece of scaffolding'. In 1988-90 the architects Renton Howard Wood Levin renovated the renamed Orion House. The building was reclad, replacing the original Derbydene fossil limestone facing with white aluminium panels, and various alterations were made including the addition of a projecting services stack on the north (Lichfield Street) elevation. The sculpture was moved here from the east elevation after consultation with the Royal Fine Art Commission.
Geoffrey Clarke RA was born in Derbyshire in 1924 and was noted for both his cast metal sculpture, particularly in aluminium, and for designs for stained glass windows. He trained at Preston, Manchester and Lancaster Schools of Art and at the Royal College of Art, London. He showed at the Venice Biennale in 1952 and was included in several major exhibitions of British sculpture - at the Tate in 1960, Royal Academy in 1972 and the Whitechapel Gallery in 1981. He was at the forefront of the iron sculptural trend in the 1950s, executing an abstract sculpture in this material for the foyer of the Time-Life Building on Bond Street in 1951 (listed at Grade II). Public Commissions included the High Altar Cross and candlesticks, 'Flying Cross' and 'Crown of Thorns' for Sir Basil Spence’s Coventry Cathedral (1953-62, listed at Grade I) where he also designed three of the ten nave windows.
Sculpture entitled 'The Spirit of Electricity', 1958-61 by Geoffrey Clarke RA for Thorn Electrical Industries' new Headquarters building, Orion House (not listed), mounted on the projecting service stack on the east elevation facing onto Lichfield Street.
MATERIAL: the sculpture is cast bronze with integrated light fittings which no longer function.
DESCRIPTION: the abstract design is 23.5m in height, and takes the form of a narrow concave pod, likened in shape to an African shield, projecting from the wall surface and mounted on a tall vertical spike. From its surface emerge an assemblage of spikes, pipes, rods and thorn-like projections.
Books and journals
Ward-Jackson, P, Public Sculpture of Historic Westminster, volume 1, (2012), 119-120, 441
Telegraph Obituary - Geoffrey Clarke (1924-2014), accessed 22 September 2015 from http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/obituaries/11223942/Geoffrey-Clarke-obituary.html
This building is listed under the Planning (Listed Buildings and Conservation Areas) Act 1990 as amended for its special architectural or historic interest.
The listed building is shown coloured blue on the attached map. Pursuant to s.1 (5A) of the Planning (Listed Buildings and Conservation Areas) Act 1990 (‘the Act’), structures attached to or within the curtilage of the listed building (which comprises the bronze sculpture ‘The Spirit of Electricity’) are not to be treated as part of the listed building for the purposes of the Act.
End of official listing