Wednesday, 29 August 2012

Always Look Up.

I appear to have this untoward fascination with Gargoyles. Ask any of my London friends. I utter a cry of delight whenever I see one and, as one my friends roll their eyes and wait patiently for the photo to be taken, as I did 10 - 12 years ago.

My first memory of noticing gargoyles was on a trip to London with my family. I remember standing by the railing peering heavenward as my Father's camera was carefully trained on one of the gargoyles on the roof of the Natural History Museum. I cannot remember what it was, just an animated creature that grinned down at passers-by, always watching, but rarely watched in turn. But I plead that there were and still are so many. Sculptures, figures as gutter pipes, beetles moulded into the walls, silhouettes along the ridge-line standing out along the grey sky.

Since then I've adopted a mantra: 'Always look up', particularly when wandering through and urban jungle. In cities that dwarf us and have done for centuries now, there there are so many amazing details that are usually just above one's eyeline, or miles away hanging precariously off the end of a roof. They date from the middle ages, weathered and worn beyond recognition, to the modern age, art deco carvings presiding over a street off the main thoroughfare of Piccadilly. I've seen comical faces said to belong to the uninviting members of the local council (Aalborg, Denmark), a delicate little owl purported to bring good fortune to whomsoever rubs it (France), mythical creatures, extinct animals, gremlins, and faces frozen in a gamut of emotions.

At London's Natural History Museum, the outside is a myriad of various sculpted animals, arranged into extinct specimens on the left of the main entrance and living species on the right. But what's even more impressive is that the gargoyles continue inside. Monkeys clamber up a vertebrae as you walk beneath them into the main hall, completely ignored by the birds ensconced in the bowery arches. Lemurs gnaw at each other in the corners of the room, while on another pillar a lonesome mouse quietly nibbles away on a purloined berry. Upstairs real skeletons swing along the corridors leading you towards the mineral room where you appear to have sunk to the ocean floor beneath the fish and Crustacea that decorate that stone pillars.

They're all different and they're all beautiful, left to the whim of the sculptor as to what he might chose to draw attention off to the side, away from the general line of vision of passers-by. But when you do catch sight they make you smile, perhaps even laugh at the world around you, or at the absurdity of the sculptor.

However it was in Dublin that I found the most delightful of my collection. Unlike many, these were at eye-level, set back about a metre from the footpath. They decorated the base of a series of columns at the National Library, though I'll admit I'm not sure what a mongoose playing a lute or greyhounds have to do with a library. But then again, they don't need a purpose. I just wonder how many people have walked past them not even noticing the monkeys playing billiards.

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