Writing in Tatler magazine in 1961 the writer, and champion of the British countryside, Ronald Blythe, questioned why follies were common in the countryside, but seldom found in the city. Long before the ‘concrete and glass’ that constituted the cities in Blythe’s mind, costly and extravagant ornamental structures could be found on the streets of the capital. These were the triumphal arches built to celebrate the coronation of a new monarch.
Three arches, created as part of the pomp and pageantry surrounding the coronation of James I, feature in a new exhibition by internationally acclaimed artist Ed Kluz. Facades, his new show at the John Martin Gallery in Mayfair, looks at London and includes ‘reconstructions’, in paper collage and oil, of the arches. Always intended to be temporary additions to the London streets, they were built in wood and then plastered, painted, and peopled with ‘engines’ – automata animated from behind the scenes.
The James I coronation pageant was a cause for particular celebration, as it had been postponed due to an outbreak of plague. The 1603 epidemic, coming soon after James I had inherited the throne, caused devastation in London and further afield. The festivities were held over until the following year, when they also marked the city’s recovery and resilience.
Stephen Harrison, architect of the arches, thought his designs would live on only in ‘the tongues and memories of men’, but he hadn’t counted on London’s flourishing print trade. The James I arches were recorded for posterity in a series of annotated engravings, thus allowing Ed Kluz’s programme of ‘rebuilding’ in 2019.
The tradition of building temporary triumphal arches continued over the centuries, as did the publishing of plates:
©Victoria and Albert Museum, E.424_1898. Triumphal arch designed by William Kent. Erected and painted on the West End of Westminster Stall for the Coronation of his Majesty King George the Second and Queen Caroline. October the 11th 1727.
A new take on the genre was Eric Bedford’s design for illuminated steel arches across The Mall at the coronation of the Queen Elizabeth II.
To see Ed’s vibrant works and learn more, you will need to visit the John Martin Gallery on Albemarle Street before 5 October. As a further incentive other works include palaces, pleasure pavilions and pagodas.