Wednesday, July 23, 2014

A thousand-year-old Book, Paolozzi's Newton, and Mellow Yellow Brick

The British Library courtyard with St Pancras Station beyond

I'd never thought that the King's Cross area of London as being anywhere other than a place to avoid – very run-down with tarts galore – but this visit, my first, proved how long-established my ignorance has been. During the last twenty years or more, the area and the railway station have been regenerated (the area, beginning with The British Library and the station with a marvelous canopy above the new Western Concourse) with hotels like the resurrected Great Northern Hotel and George Gilbert Scott's St Pancras Hotel, restaurants, residential and commercial buildings being built, and older structures made sound and adapted for reuse.

Newton after Blake
Eduardo Paolozzi

The British Library, architecturally speaking, is underwhelming, but, in the Sir John Ritblat Treasures of the British Library Gallery with an exhibition of more than two-hundred items, overwhelmingly reveals itself as the treasure house of world culture and knowledge that it is. As the web page for the exhibition states, half of the exhibits have not been in public view for many years and, believe me, the list of those exhibits is formidable. With exhibits such the earliest dated printed book, the Diamond Sutra, Handel's Messiah, the Gutenberg Bible, Laurence Olivier's script for Macbeth, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (a thousand-year-old book, give or take a minute or two), a First Folio of Shakespeare, and Magna Carta, this British Library gallery is well-worth a taxi-ride across London. In fact, it's downright awesome!

For over forty years the front of King's Cross Station was obscured by a "temporary" structure and it is only recently that structure has been removed and replaced with a relatively new (in modern times) phenomenon – the piazza. Not yet finished, but very well-used by travelers and those who meet them, this new piazza is a place to keep wallets safe and to wonder at the variety of the human face. 

King's Cross railway station is fronted with mellow-yellow brick arches that trace the shapes of the massive iron-arched train sheds behind. Easy as it is to forget that for the Victorians (King's Cross was built in 1851) structures such as these were the acme of contemporary technology in architecture – a point that is immediately evident when one walks from the old structure to the new Western Concourse with its soaring fountain of a canopy – a covering suggesting the springing of the gothic arch of St George's Chapel, Windsor, rather than the Gothic of the nearby St Pancras railway station.

King's Cross Western Concourse 

Lewis Cubitt, the designer of King's Cross railway station was also responsible for the design of the Great Northern Hotel seen in the photograph below to the left of the station. The hotel has gone from being drab and basic to contemporary "boutique" hotel with a redesign and renovation reputedly costing £45,000,000 ($76,687,117). This is where we stayed for the first of the family parties before we headed north to Lancashire and Scotland. 

Photographs of Newton after Blake by Eduardo Paolozzi and the King's Cross Western Concourse are from Wikipedia Commons. All the other photographs are mine. 


  1. I love an urban preservation success story.

    1. The Devoted Classicist, thank you. I agree. This is going to be brilliant when finished for the whole area around and behind the station is being improved with new buildings, restaurants and stores all the way up to the Regent's Canal

  2. Isn't it wonderful what they've done to the area in recent years? I was last there just over a year ago and marveled at the changes. I've also been following the progress of the reopening of the Renaissance Hotel, which looks splendid. Oh, and you do know Fortnums recently opened an outpost for those in a bit of a hurry to get their trains out of London and beyond?

    Next time I return, I shall pay a visit to the British Library as you've whet my appetite for a good snoop around the treasures held within.

    Thank you for this informative post.

    1. Chronica Domus, thank you. I think what is happening in London and this area especially is wonderful. What I particularly like is that the city whilst remaining essentially British has become more European and all the better for it. The fact that the service industries are staffed by young Europeans is also wonderful to me – meeting so many from different countries and with so many different accents was such a pleasure.

  3. The Western Concourse lattice is enchanting and very similar to the British Museum's. I hope to try and see it during my current visit to London, but there is so much to see and do, it might have to wait until the next time. Today we made a discovery - Fulham Palace, which is but a ten minute walk away from where we are staying, and then a walk along the Thames, and during intermittent rain, much welcome to cool the temperature, which was quite debilitating yesterday. We shall be in your footsteps so to speak: we are heading to GOC on Monday, where although cooler, I understand they have been experiencing a "heatwave" there too.