Quoting at Length: Ruskin’s Lamp of Memory (on London’s India House)

February 9, 2013 § Leave a comment

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“Now, not to speak of any more important public building, let us imagine our own India House adorned in this way, by historical or symbolical sculpture: massively built in the first place; then chased with bas-reliefs of our Indian battles, and fretted with carvings of Oriental foliage, or inlaid with Oriental stones; and the more important members of its decoration composed of groups of Indian life and landscape, and prominently expressing the phantasms of Hindoo worship in their subjection to the Cross. Would not one such work be better than a thousand histories? If, however, we have not the invention necessary for such efforts, or if, which is probably one of th emost noble excuses we can offer for our deficiency in such matters, we have less pleasure in talking about ourselves, even in marble, than the Continental nations, at least we have no excuse for any want of care in the points which insure the building’s endurance.”

Part VIII (of the Lamp of Memory)

On the actual India House…

The New East India House, which replaced the old East India House (top image) on Leadenhall street opened in April of 1800. This is the building that I’m assuming Ruskin is referring to. Ruskin, the champion of the gothic of course hated the timelessness of the classical building (timeless here is a pejorative term, i.e. without history or memory). The decorative program was tied to classical references though placed in an allegorical montage depicting lofty justifications for British rule in India.

The following is a paraphrasing of a description (of the pediment, I assume) by C. Northcote Parkinson:  Commerce was represented by Mercury, who was attended by Navigation, and followed by Tritons on Sea Horses, who in turn introduce Asia to Britannia. Asia is depicted pouring her treasures out at Britannia’s feet. The King is holding the shield of protection over the head of Britannia and of Liberty who is embraced by Britannia (imagine the audacity!!!) Liberty is attended by Religion and Justice. In the background is the City Barge which stand next to the figures of Industry and Integrity. The Thames fills the angle to the right, and the Ganges the angle towards the East. (Amazing… I love this SH*T!!!!)

Now, Ruskin was NO supporter of Indian liberation, “…subjection to the Cross” was, he believed, God’s work… (note to self, did he write anything about the mutiny?)… but something about what he wrote about India House rings true (whatever his moral position may have been)… if we had seen in bas relief  “groups of Indian life and landscape, and…” the prominent expression “…of the phantasms of Hindoo worship in their subjection to the Cross,” we might have in fact been a bit more generally aware of the problems of Imperial ‘subjection’—or at the very least we would have been more aware of South Asia in Britain (by the way Brick Lane is not so far from the old location of the East India House so there is evidence if you know how to find it, or how to read it at least, as Jane Jacobs did in her essay about the gentrification of Spitalfields market published in Edge of Empire). But then again, maybe not. Ruskin whose Seven Lamps was written roughly contemporaneously with Victor Hugo’s Notre Dame de Paris of 1831, did not forsee or believe as Hugo portended that the book would kill the building. He believed that architecture, or at least its decorative program would always be legible.** I would hazard to say that whether it was the classical allegorical pediment or the narrative bas relief, we would be equally ignorant. It is up to books, to historians to rescue shreds of evidence to speak about history to the very very few who are listening.

The old East India House was demolished in 1862. I’m sure Ruskin, despite his predilections would have been appalled at the destruction of this building, especially because Sir Richard Rogers’ Lloyd’s of London replaced it. The steel clad concrete high-tech baroque montage of machinic insanity is not totally unappealing to me, though for the purposes of this argument that is irrelevant. It does possess a symbology of commerce, though of a totally different nature.

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Speaking of the Lamp of Memory in 2011 Heritage minister John Penrose granted Lloyd’s grade 1 listed status, citing its historical interest and architectural innovation—so that value of history, of memory persists, though in service of preserving a hallmark of British High-Tech. Ironic indeed.

I did once make an argument that British High-Tech architecture was a symptom of a longing for a lost Empire. I think I was roundly shot down for this opinion but I think I’ll try to revive it.

**This legibility is very much like reading a book — i.e. it is a legibility that involves decoding symbols, as opposed to decoding space—a practice that Walter Benjamin pioneered, methinks.

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