Wednesday, 1 December 2010


  CHARING CROSS UNDERGROUND STATION 1.12.10... awash with art. Its walls are covered with large images and uplifting words from the National Gallery and the National Portrait Gallery, both close by. Even better, when it was refurbished in the late 1970s, the artist David Gentleman was commissioned to make a 100 metre mural to commemorate the building of the first Charing Cross, dedicated to Queen Eleanor.

 Eleanor married very young and was crowned Queen of England at her husband Edward I’s enthronement at Westminster Abbey in 1274. One chronicler said about Eleanor of Castile, "To our nation she was a loving mother, the column and pillar of our whole nation". The records show they were a devoted couple - she even accompanied him on a crusade in 1270. When she died in 1290 at a village near Lincoln, the King was grief-stricken. He wrote of a wife "whom living we dearly cherished, and whom dead we cannot cease to love." He ordered a cross to be erected wherever her coffin had stopped on its funeral procession to London, the last of which gave Charing Cross its name. 

Gentleman researched  the methods, materials and tools used in the 13th century wood engraving to produce a mural which shows step by step - as if in a strip cartoon -  how  the original cross  was built. He starts with quarrying the stone (which came from Corfe in Dorset and Caen in Normandy) and finishes when the topmost pinnacle is set in place. In lively and graceful groups, workers carry out their daily tasks: quarrymen, rough hewers, masons, mortarers, layers, carpenters, thatchers, scaffolders, labourers, falcon or crane men, apprentices, hod-men, drivers, horsemen and boatmen. Women are there too.  Now each day thousands walk along the Northern line platform also going about their daily business, with job titles just as varied but unlikely to be so graphic.

Gentleman celebrated his 80th birthday this year with a show at the Fine Art Society in Mayfair.  It included some achingly beautiful watercolours. Over the years he has given us lithography and wood engraving as well, logos, postage stamps, coins.His daring  political and environmental protest posters are also well known, though not necessarily the name of the artist who designed them.  Three books of his books are among my most treasured possessions: Paris (Seven Dials), Coastline, and Britain  (both by Weidenfield and Nicholson).

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