Power and Speed are two large bronze statues currently situated at Eltham College in London. They were formerly a part of the English Electric building in Aldwych before moving to a number of different locations.
For years Power and Speed had graced central London. Part of a period of post-war construction. Marconi House on Aldwych had received an extension to house the English Electric Company. This was on a space formerly occupied by the famous Gaiety Theatre. The giant bronze sculptures of Power and Speed were to be the proud finishing touches.
The Gaiety Theatre
A key feature of London’s pre-war theatre scene, the Gaiety had closed in 1939. The original reason was that it occupied the site of a would be road widening scheme and would be knocked down to accommodate. That didn’t happen and so plans were then put in place for an office block to take the place of the now closed theatre. During the war the building then took a hit destroying the roof. It was left in a damaged state until 1957 when it was finally demolished.
The new building went up as an extension to Marconi House in 1958. The English Electric Company had taken over Marconi and so the building became theirs. In addition to the construction of the new block, the whole interior was also redeveloped. Much of the old Marconi House had been previously been used as a hotel for the Gaiety complete with ballroom. That interior hadn’t been touched much over the years but was transformed between 1950-53 by the architect John Strubbe.
Power and Speed
This is where the story of Power and Speed begins. The new building had long harboured ambitions to have a significant piece of artwork attached to it. Original plans presented by the architect Basil Spence included something significant on the side. Looking at the plans it was not dis-similar an idea to Barbara Hepworth’s Winged Figure which can still be seen on the side of John Lewis on Oxford Street. It never happened though and instead two naked bronze giants were placed to stand atop of the new entrance. Each statue held aloft a creature from the natural world, a lion and an eagle.
Charles Wheeler was the sculptor. Particularly known for his bronzes, his work can still be seen in iconic locations throughout London. Many of the figures and facades on the Bank of England are his. He worked with them from 1922-1945. Works too had been commissioned for the Jellicoe Fountain in Trafalgar Square (1948), the Ministry of Defence on Whitehall (1953) and the Merchant Marine Memorial at Tower Hill (1952). By the time Power and Speed were installed on the English Electric frontage in 1960, he was serving as the President of the Royal Academy. A position he held from 1956 to 1966.
The bronzes were controversial for the time. Two giant naked male figures which symbolised speed and power. When the building changed hands in 1971 the stark realism of the figures was deemed unacceptable to the new owners. Now belonging to the First National City Bank of New York, Power and Speed were taken down and given back to Charles Wheeler.
They were however quite big and Greater London Council stepped in to help find a place for the statues at Crystal Palace. Here they were stored for a number of years in the Italian tunnel underneath Crystal Palace Parade. Eventually they were moved again in 1973. Destined for a new home in the grounds of the Heathfield Wildlife and Country Park in Sussex. Wheeler had given them to his friend Gerald Moore who had recently acquired Heathfield. At the same time Moore also acquired a statue of the composer Mendelssohn by Charles Bacon from storage at Crystal Palace. All three statues would go on to be displayed in the gardens of the grand house.
Mendelssohn at Eltham College
The Mendelssohn statue once owned by Gerald Moore now sits facing the music school at Eltham College. It was donated to the school in 1998 and has it’s own fascinating history. Originally created by Charles Bacon as the centrepiece of the Mendelssohn festival at the Crystal Palace in 1860. The composer was Queen Victoria’s favourite and the sculpture was expensively cast in bronze. When the fire ravaged the Crystal Palace in 1936, the Mendelssohn statue survived albeit with damage to the face. The statue was kept in storage at Crystal Palace following the fire and in 1973 was acquired by Gerald Moore. In 1998 he donated Mendelssohn to Eltham College who decided against repairing the damage. Preferring it to stand as a testament to the sculptures own remarkable history
Heathfield Wildlife Park and Gerald Moore
Heathfield Wildlife Park has it’s own interesting history. At the time the bronze sculptures moved there it was a public park. Originally opened in 1965 by Gerald Moore and his wife Irene. They had bought what was Heathfield Park in 1963. In the early 70’s they set about turning it into a wildlife park. Animals such as elephants, camels and apes would live there alongside a variety of birdlife. It is likely that Heathfield had originally been a medieval deer park. In 1610 the Dacre family enclosed 600 acres of it’s wood and pasture first calling it Bayley Park. After a few owners and iterations it became Heathfield Park in 1791.
Gerald Moore in addition to being a renowned surgeon was an artist and indeed a sculptor himself. In his own distinguished career he had displayed works at the Whitechapel Gallery, the Scottish Gallery and at the Bath Festival. It is perhaps no surprise that Power and Speed should find a home with him at least for a while. The park went back into private ownership when his wife Irene died in 1993. At this point Gerald sold up and moved to Devon though he continued with his art. In 2003 Moore donated the Power and Speed statues to his old school, Eltham College in Mottingham. He had already donated the statue of Mendelssohn to the school in 1998. Gerald Moore died in 2018.
Power and Speed at Eltham College
Moore was a pupil at Eltham College from 1936 to 1940 and today his name is remembered with the Gerald Moore Gallery. This was a building whose costs Moore himself would substantially meet. It had been a desire of Moore’s to build an art gallery at the school since the 90’s. Finally construction started in 2011 and in 2012 it opened. The gallery is now used for temporary exhibitions that the public can attend (at weekends and in the holidays) and for visiting local state schools. This is in addition to the school’s own art department.
Power and Speed were originally placed outside the schools dining hall where they stood from 2003. In the school magazine of that year they were described as ‘part of Dr Moore’s gift as the first step towards the development of a visual arts/music facility in the New Quad’. When the hall was extended it meant the statues needed to be moved. In 2018, on the 175th anniversary of the school they were placed in front of the newly constructed Turberville Building. Named after the schools longest serving headmaster, Geoffrey Turberville. The new building was part of an extensive series of developments at the school. Today Power and Speed are the centrepieces of a new raised grassy area in front of the new building. Standing proud they are anything but hidden, with a tremendous history and story of their own.
Online Mystery Solved
This article on the Power and Speed statues was inspired by this thread on twitter. An old newspaper article had been discovered by twitter users ‘Invisible Palace‘ and ‘Norwood Society’. The article revealed that the statues had been moved from storage at Crystal Palace to Heathfield Wildlife and Country Park which had long since closed. Through a combination of various online sleuthing they were ‘rediscovered’ in a patch of green at Eltham College.
I am incredibly grateful for the people who contributed to the thread on twitter and for staff at Eltham College who helped fill in the gaps. In particular I would like to thank the school archivist Andrew Beattie for looking further into the history of the statues and the school’s headmaster Guy Sanderson for being so open and receptive to my speculative request for information. For more sculpture related articles on Inspiring City click here.
Thank you. I used to see them from the bus every morning in 1961/2 and thought they were great. I showed them to my mum who was horrified. I now live in Australia. I took my daughter back to Aldwych recently to show her where they stood and always wondered where they had gone to. Next time in London – Eltham College for sure is on the agenda. Patricia
Thanks Patricia that’s amazing thank you for sharing that. They must have had quite an impact on passers by given their location. Certainly I think they were intended to make a statement 🙂