19 August 2019

A giant sculpture by
a giant among sculptors
at Congress House

‘The Spirit of Brotherhood’ by Bernard Meadows at Congress House in London (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Patrick Comerford

Bloomsbury is associated for many people with the literary figures, writers, poets, playwrights and artists, who lived in this part of London. But an unexpected place of cultural interest is Congress House, the headquarters of the Trades Union Congress (TUC), in Great Russell Street.

David du Roi Aberdeen won an architectural competition to design the new TUC headquarters building in 1948. Staff began moving into the new office block in 1956, and Congress House was officially opened on 27 March 1958. It was one of the earliest post-war buildings in Britain to be listed at Grade II*, in 1988.

The best-known work there is the giant pietà-style statue by Jacob Epstein in the internal courtyard of a woman holding her dead son. It was commissioned as a memorial to dead trade unionists who died in both world wars.

Less well-known but more visible is the bronze sculpture by Bernard Meadows that dominates the front of the building. ‘The Spirit of Brotherhood’ represents the spirit of trade unionism, with the strong helping the weak.

The British sculptor Bernard Meadows (1915-2005) was associated at an different stages in his career with Henry Moore, and was also part of the Geometry of Fear school, a loose-knit group of sculptors whose prominence was established at the 1952 Venice Biennale.

Bernard Meadows was born in Norwich in 1915, and educated at the City of Norwich School. After training as an accountant, he attended Norwich School of Art and in 1936 became Henry Moore's first assistant at his studio in Kent, and took in the first Surrealist exhibition in London that year.

He moved to Chalk Farm on 1937, assisting Moore in his studio at Hampstead, and he studied at the Royal College of Art and at the Courtauld Institute.

At the outbreak of World War II, Meadows registered as a conscientious objector. But when Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, he withdrew his objection and was called up to the Royal Air Force. He worked in air-sea rescue, spending time the Cocos Islands in the Indian Ocean.

After World War II, he returned to Moore’s studio and helped him with his marble sculpture Three Standing Figures (1947) and his bronze Family Group (1949).

He found acclaims with an elm figure exhibited in the open air sculpture exhibition at Battersea Park in 1951, alongside the Festival of Britain, which went to the Tate Gallery.

He exhibited in the British Pavilion at the Venice Biennale a year later, with Anthony Caro, Lynn Chadwick and Eduardo Paolozzi. Their angular styles, contrasted with the rounded work of Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth gave them the name of the ‘Geometry of Fear.’ His edgy pieces often based on animals and seemingly carved from shrapnel could imply Cold War menace.

He first solo exhibition was at Gimpel Fils in 1957, with four more in the decade to 1967, and he also exhibited at the Venice Biennale in 1964.

Meadows was a Professor of Sculpture at the Royal College of Art for 20 years, from 1960 to 1980. He returned to assist Henry Moore again at Perry Green, Hertfordshire, from 1977, after Moore’s health started to fail. After Moore’s death in 1986, he became an acting director of the Henry Moore Foundation.

Bernard Meadows died in London in 2005.

An introduction to John
Thompson’s architectural
legacy in Peterborough

The Lindens … the Arts and Crafts house John Thompson built for his family in Peterborough in the 1860s (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Patrick Comerford

One the great figures in the architectural heritage of Peterborough was John Thompson jnr, a skilled Victorian stonemason and master-builder. I had seen his work at Peterborough Cathedral before I found myself on Lincoln Road, after my fruitless search for Peterborough’s synagogue, and found both The Lindens, which Thompson built as a family home in the 1860s, and Saint Mark’s, the parish church he built a few years earlier.

Thompson worked on six English cathedrals and also worked on the Glasgow University buildings in 1866 and Royal Holloway College. His influence lives on not only in Peterborough Cathedral and in buildings throughout his home city, but in cathedrals, churches, colleges and other works of architecture throughout Britain.

The firm that would become Thompson and Sons can be traced back to the late 1820s, when the young Edward Blore entrusted John Thompson snr and Francis Ruddle with re-ordering the choir of Peterborough Cathedral, then located east of the crossing.

Later, in the 1840s, Blore worked with Thompson and Ruddle on re-ordering the Choir of Westminster Abbey, also in an early 14th century style.

When John Thompson snr died in 1853, his son John Thompson jnr took charge of the family firm. Thompson of Peterborough was engaged in many building works of scale and ambition in Peterborough, including the complete reconstruction of the crossing tower in Peterborough Cathedral, under the supervision of the architect John Loughborough Pearson (1817-1897).

John Thompson was engaged in the complete reconstruction of the crossing tower in Peterborough Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Other major cathedral repair and restoration schemes included those at the cathedrals in Hereford, Chester, Ripon, Lichfield, Bangor and Winchester where, from as late as 1906, the firm was main contractor for underpinning the retro-choir. Similar schemes were undertaken in many parish and collegiate churches in England.

Thompson’s new building work included the chapel of Balliol College, Oxford (architect William Butterfield), Glasgow University (Sir George Gilbert Scott) and Royal Holloway College (WH Crossland), which was an astonishing evocation of Chambord in the Loire Valley.

The spire of Saint Mary-without-the-Walls, Handbridge, built by Thompson for the Duke of Westminster, dominates Chester from the south bank of the River Dee.

There was new work in Peterborough too, including Saint Mark’s Church (architect Edward Ellis), immediately to the south of The Lindens, the beautiful Arts and Crafts home Thompson built for himself on Lincoln Road.

Peterborough expanded in the mid-19th century following the arrival of the railway, but for generations church services were only provided at Peterborough Cathedral and the Church of Saint John the Baptist, the parish church of Peterborough.

As the area around Lincoln Road, the main road north out of Peterborough, was developed from the mid-19th century, The Church Commissioners realised new churches were needed to serve the expanding population. Two new churches were commissioned: Saint Mark’s and Saint Mary’s were built on land in areas that been rural but that were owned by the Church of England.

Saint Mark’s, built by Thompson, was consecrated on 26 September 1856, two years before he bought the nearby site for The Lindens. It is a fine example of a Victorian Gothic revival church.

Thompson was the first churchwarden at Saint Mark’s and donated a stained-glass window to the church. Other stained-glass windows in the church are linked with Westgate House School, which stood where the department store stands today.

Saint Mark’s, the Victorian Gothic revival church built by John Thompson, was consecrated in 1856 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Thompson and his wife Mary lived in The Lindens with their two sons. He was an alderman of the city and the Mayor of Peterborough for two successive years in 1881 and 1882. He died on 11 April 1898.

His family business continued until it was forced into voluntary liquidation in 1931 while building Peterborough Town Hall.

Thompson bought a site on Lincoln Road for £350 in 1858 and built The Lindens as a family home between 1860 and 1865. The house was named ‘The Lindens’ after 10 linden trees at the front of the property.

The street elevation of the house has been altered over time – a projecting stone porch bay with more of an Arts and Crafts flavour was added – but the garden front essentially retains its original form.

There are picturesque half-timbered cross‐wings that are embellished with convincing Gothic Revival detail. Some figure carving might seem, at first glance, to be salvaged mediaeval work.

The interior retains sumptuously carved joinery, especially in the staircase hall which is lit by stained glass panels celebrating great composers.

The Lindens remained in the Thompson family until 1920, when it was bought at auction for £4,375 by Alfred J Paten, a local wine and spirit merchant and hotelier who lived there with his wife Emilie and family. The Lindens was also used as a military hospital in both World War I and World War II.

Alfred Paten died in 1950 and in 1953, and The Lindens was bequeathed to the City Council for a public purpose.

Although many of the original features on the ground floor remain, there has been much renovation and redevelopment over the years.

The recent development of The Lindens was undertaken in two phases, with the consent of the Trustees of the Paten bequest. Phase 1, comprising 22 one-bedroom and three two-bedroom sheltered flats and warden’s accommodation, was completed in 1987.

Phase 2 was completed in July 1990 to provide office accommodation for the Special Needs section of Peterborough City Council’s Housing Department, the Lifeline alarm control centre and facilities for Age Concern Peterborough.

A plaque at The Lindens commemorates John Thompson’s contribution to the architectural heritage of Peterborough (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)