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Tony Grist

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Sphinxes [Oct. 20th, 2017|12:04 pm]
Tony Grist
I took pictures of the Sphinxes at Cleopatra's Needle because I was in the mood for snapping away and they were there. It was a very dull day and I find the thing to do in these circumstances is get in close to avoid recording large areas of white, featureless sky. I hadn't expected the result- a close-up of the face of the downriver sphinx- visible a couple of posts back- to be so haunting.

We take street art like this for granted. We see it as furniture. It's imposing, it takes up a lot of space but we don't stand and admire it the way we would if it had a big name attached and existed in a fuzz of money and ego. Yet the sphinxes aren't hack work. The iconography is properly and respectfully Egyptian, the faces are African, The cartouches the sphinxes carry between their paws contain real hieroglyphics; they celebrate the immortality of the creator of the obelisk (who wasn't actually Cleopatra) proclaiming, "the good god, Thutmosis III, has achieved eternal life."

The sculptor could have gotten away with something kitschy or Europeanised or playfully erotic, but has chosen authenticity instead. The sphinxes are sound archaeology. But they aren't simply clones of an ancient original; their faces are infused with a wistful, romantic late 19th century sensibility. They know that time has passed, that their world is over and done with and yet they smile. London, they imply, won't last forever either. They are beautiful, androgynous, inscrutable- and their creator is more than a little in awe of them.

Who was he?

His name was George John Vulliamy- and he was primarily an architect- whose best known building is the Swiss church in Endell Street, Covent Garden. He was also an antiquarian who had travelled and studied in Italy, Greece, Asia Minor and Egypt (which comes as no surprise). From 1861 to 1886 he held the post of superintending architect to the Metropolitan Board of Works- in which capacity he designed all sorts of things- from fire stations to lamp posts. The pedestal and sphinxes supporting Cleopatra's Needle were his single most prestigious commission.
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