The Treasure Map
You exit the tube at Bond Street towards Oxford Circus. You are buffeted on all sides by the throng of people eager to escape from the stuffy underground: businessmen and women, tourists, families with small children, couples young and old holding hands, impatient shoppers and laughing teenagers all rush past you into the open air. Swept along by the crowd, you turn right down Oxford street. You pass by a stall selling ‘I Love London’ merchandise where someone is trying to haggle down the price of a novelty mug. Huge department stores and high-street fashion shops line the street on both sides and as you walk past John Lewis on your right, you happen to glance up at the immense building
Suddenly you stop; on the corner where Holles Street meets Oxford Street, four metres above the pavement, a shape stands out at you. You cross the street to take a closer look and see, installed on a small plinth on the exterior wall, a tall, curving, winged form intersected by crisscrossing iron bars. A bright, clear voice rings out and tells you:
I was made in 1963. My name is Winged Figure. The famous sculptor from St Ives, Barbara Hepworth, crafted me on commission to commemorate the opening of the new John Lewis store built in place of war-damaged buildings. 200 million people pass by me every year; some of them notice me, some do not, some stop and look up at me, others pass me by.
You leave the Hepworth sculpture soaring over the heads of shoppers too preoccupied with their purchases to look up. You continue to wend your way down Oxford Street, then turn right onto Regent Street and take the second left on Great Marlborough Street, which pulls you into the heart of Soho. Groups of sophisticates sipping cocktails strike poses on the pavements, fashionistas cluster around Newburgh Street, the smell of freshly ground coffee from cups held by gossiping millennials mingles with the aroma of fragrant spices wafting through the streets from the exotic array of food stalls that litter the neighbourhood.
What is that sense of a hidden presence at the corner of your eye as you make your way between the streets and buildings of Soho and Covent Garden? Dispersed throughout these central London districts are seven life-size plaster noses which protrude from the city’s walls, some in plain sight, some barely noticeable. At the Admiralty Arch which leads from Trafalgar Square to The Mall, you hear a great sniff and turn with surprise to see a life-sized plaster nose protruding from the northernmost arch’s inside wall at a height of about seven feet. The nose twitches and a gravelly voice sounds in your ears:
Artist Rick Buckley installed me and thirty-four fellow casts of his own nose in 1997 in protest against the proliferation of CCTV cameras and public surveillance. Most of us were removed but seven of us remain hidden around London’s historic entertainment and culture neighbourhood: The Seven Noses of Soho. Buckley never revealed his involvement until 2011 so local myths emerged in an attempt to explain our existence. Some have said about me that I am a spare nose for the statue of Admiral Lord Nelson; others believe that I bring luck to cavalry troops who tweak me as they pass by on horseback. Buckley says: ‘I wanted to see if I could get away with it without being detected. The afterthought was that it would be great if these protrusions would become part of the structure themselves’.
The nose sneezes and you turn away back up the Mall and cross the roundabout onto The Strand. Smartly uniformed doormen stand to attention outside grand, palatial hotels while London’s red buses roar up and down the wide street. You turn left onto Duncannon Street and immediately take a right onto Adelaide Street. Next to St Martin in the Fields Church, you pause to catch your breath and rest on a solid granite bench placed in the middle of the pavement. As you sit there, you realise that you are not alone: a large bronze head and a hand holding a cigarette emerges from one end of the curved bench. An expressive, musical Irish voice tinged with a high-society English drawl comes from the metal mouth:
I am Oscar Wilde, the notorious and illustrious Irish poet and playwright from the end of the 19th century. This is my monument, A Conversation With Oscar Wilde, created by the artist Maggi Hambling in 1998. I was one of the most flamboyant personalities in Victorian society and now I am immortalised here so that passers-by might repose and converse with me.
The head of Wilde begins to lecture you on the subject of beauty in art, and you politely take your leave. As you walk away you hear the voice say ‘Remember! We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars…’
You continue up Adelaide Street and onto Chandos Place, which you follow round until it joins onto Maiden Lane. Breathe in the smells of freshly baked pizza and sizzling grills from the many eateries dotted along the street. At its end, you take a left up Southampton Street and emerge into the bustle of Covent Garden. Diners sit under white umbrellas and street performers vie for the attention of the crowds. You slip between the pillars of the central market and cross to the opposite side of the square. As you head up James Street, you catch the eye of a performer painted as a living statue and it winks at you. You smile but continue on; this is not what you are looking for. You get to Floral Street with its boutiques and cafes. You begin to walk along with it but something catches your eye… at first, you think that you have found another of the Seven Noses of Soho but no: the walls of this street literally have ears.
A cast of a human ear is attached to the left of Ted Baker’s grey facade. You go to take a closer look and you catch a voice whispering to you: I hear everything that happens on this street; I listen to the footsteps and conversations of every passer-by but I am rarely noticed. I am a cast of artist Tim Fishlock’s own ear. I was one of fifty installed across Covent Garden in the year 2000, inspired by The Seven Noses of Soho, but only two of us remain today. Like Rick Buckley’s noses, I am a reminder that we live in an era of public surveillance. You never know what is being heard…
You leave the ear listening to the sounds of passers-by and continue along Floral Street with the ear on your left. As you turn right onto Garrick Street, excited theatre-goers push past you clutching their tickets and crowds surge towards Leicester Square. You join onto Cranbourn Street and head down straight for Leicester Square Station.
Back into the underground. You take the Northern Line southbound and ride four stops to Kennington. You are glad to be away from the bustle of central London and you take a left out of the station down Kennington Park Road towards the lush greenery and open spaces of Kennington Park. As you enter the park and take the path on the left, a skateboarder hurtles past you followed by a panting dog. The path lets you out at the other side of the park and you head down Royal Road. There is the smell of cooking coming from open windows and the sounds of children playing. You pass by the Brandon Housing Estate and on the stretch of grass outside you are amazed to see a huge reclining figure cast in bronze.
Something about the monumental form looks familiar… you examine its smooth, curving exterior, its abstract features. Of course! It’s a Henry Moore, reclining peacefully in the middle of a housing estate in Southwark. A slow, deep voice says:
I am Henry Moore’s Two Part Reclining Figure No. 3. I was placed here in the early sixties as part of The Abercrombie Plan, which aimed to restore communities in the aftermath of the Second World War and instil a sense of hope with the installation of public art. I was bought in 1962 by the London County Council and, in 1998, I was given a Grade II status. Now, I am an integral part of the estate and part of the residents’ daily lives. I was made by one of the world’s most famous sculptors, and yet nobody thinks to look for me here.
You have looked. You have discovered some of London’s artistic treasures hiding in plain sight. As you make your way homewards, exhausted and craving a cup of tea, you think to yourself that the next time you walk through the city’s busy streets, you will remember to pay closer attention to the things around you, for you might just see something unexpected.
Use our treasure map to find some of these sculptures yourself; maybe they’ll talk to you too…
Words: Rebecca Irvin