What links the bronze camels, sturgeon and sphinz on the Thames embankment with goblin vases and the Society of Women Artists?
The family name Vulliamy. George Vulliamy, a little known architect was born in 1817 to a family of clock makers, architects and artists. He studied at Westminster School and when he left in 1833, he went to work for an engineering firm, Messrs. Joseph Bramah & Son. In 1836 he made a life changing decision and went to work for Sir Charles Barry who is probably best known for his work re-building the Houses of Parliament.
George is employed by the Metropolitan Board of Works.
George Vulliamy stayed working with the practice until 1841. In 1861 he was appointed chief architect for the Metropolitan Board of Works which was established in 1855. Its role was to take over from the Metropolitan Commissioners of Sewers who had responsibility for the main drainage of London. Within its remit it was given some supervisory and coordinating powers over the vestries and district boards. These boards were responsible for local drainage and for the paving and lighting of streets and it was this that gave George Vulliamy an opportunity to design work street furniture that would be admired to the present day.
Joseph Bazelgette creates an embankment, George Vulliamy embelishes it.
The great work of Joseph Bazelgette, the engineer who was tasked with putting in place a sewer system in London that would become surely one of the man made wonders of the world, created a platform for the work of Valliamy to rest upon. Bazelgette created an embankment on the northern side of the River Thames and ran his sewer line ran along it. An underground railway was also built. This new embankment came with an elevated concourse on which the people of London would perambulate.
George Vulliamy brings sturgeons to the banks of the River Thames.
The Metropolitan Board of Works decided to create a splendid space on what would be named, the Victoria Embankment and they asked George Vulliamy to design street furniture for it that would represent the spirit of Britain and her Empire. He would design the lamp posts and the benches that have become so well known and loved today. Vulliamy had no experience as a sculptor but he had artistic flair and he set about designing street lights that looked as if they were part of some grand epic tale of the sea. Two serpentine sturgeons wind around the bases of the lights, apparently inspired by the dolphins in the Neptune fountain at the Piazza del Popolo in Rome, they are large and impressive and the beady eye of the animal certainly watches you as you make your way around it.
Let there be light.
Next he set about making a simple bench seat into something wondrous. It was a time of an Egyptian revival movement . George worked in cast iron and created bench ends of kneeling camels and of sphinxes. They were and still are, dramatic and fun. The lamp posts were made first and erected in 1870 when the Victoria embankment was opened, originally gas lit, in 1878 the Victoria Embankment became the first street in Britain to be permanently lit by electricity from a generator but it was still in its experimental phase and so only every other lamp was lit by electricity, the alternate one being powered by gas. By 1884 the electric lights were deemed uneconomic and the lights returned to being powered by gas.
In 1878 Cleopatra’s needle obelisk was re-erected on the embankment and George Vulliamy was once again called upon to design the pedestal and a pair of sphinxes to sit each side of the needle.
So what has this got to do with goblin jugs made in Devon?
George was the cousin of artist / potter Blanche Georgiana Vulliamy and she created some extraordinary pots and jugs taking her inspiration from amongst other things, goblins and bats.
And his connection to the Society of Women Artists?
Blanche was the daughter of Belgian born Anne Marie Museur and she was an amateur artist who exhibited at the Society of Women Artists. This society was founded in 1855 as the Society of Female Artists, this was established because women were not generally held to be serious in their approach to art, ‘dabblers’ instead of professionals and were banned from the Royal Academy (of course).