Newton at the British Library

The British Library is just three tube stops and a short walk from the office.  The walk took me past the wonderful Midland Grand Hotel, a Grade I listed Victorian Gothic masterpiece, designed by Sir George Gilbert Scott, and described by many as the most romantic building in London. 

Originally opened as a 300 room hotel in 1873, it was expensive, with costly fixtures including a grand staircase, rooms with gold leaf walls and a fireplace in every room.  It closed as a hotel in 1935, by which time its utilities were outdated and too costly to maintain, such as the armies of servants needed to carry chamber pots, tubs, bowls and spittoons.

After falling into a state of disrepair, and being described in an article in The Observer as having "stood, like the weird house of a crazy old lady in some village, unmissable, spooky and inaccessible," it re-opened in 2011 as the St Pancras Renaissance London Hotel.  This was following a £200 million refurbishment, which brought this iconic building back to life and resulted in critical acclaim along with many awards, including the RIBA award for Best Building in a Historic Context.

 Then and now.  Not much has changed - the wonderful hotel still stands, magnificent and proud - except, in the midst of busy King's Cross, the surrounding area is now extremely built up
Sweeping staircases inside the hotel
Walking into the sun, I cheerily proceeded along bustling Euston Road to the British Library.  Formerly a department of the British Museum, this national library of the United Kingdom, established in 1973, holds over 150 million items, including nearly 14 million books.  That's a lot of reading!

Other interesting British Library facts:  The Library receives copies of all books produced in the United Kingdom and Ireland, adding some three million items every year, occupying 9.6 kilometres (6 miles) of new shelf space.  As well as books, it holds manuscripts, journals, newspapers, magazines, sound and music recordings, videos, play-scripts, patents, databases, maps, stamps, prints, drawings and historical items dating back as far as 2000 BC.

Arriving at my destination, I began snapping away, through the British Library gates, at Paolozzi's Newton, who sits rather impressively on the forecourt.

This symbolic figure of the 17th Century scientist, Sir Isaac Newton, is a remarkable tribute from one artist to another. Paolozzi's sculpture is a version of William Blake's colour print, "Newton" (below). Paolozzi often explored the relation between the mechanical and the imaginative in his sculpture, and invented new images linking robots to works of art. Here, Newton's body looks partly bolted together, as if the scientist who discovered the laws of nature were himself a machine.
"Newton, after William Blake" by Eduardo Paolozzi
bronze sculpture, 1995, British Library forecourt
"Newton" by the English poet, painter and printmaker William Blake (1757-1827)
 colour print with pen and ink and watercolour
first completed in 1795 but reworked and reprinted in 1805
Other notable works by Eduardo Paolozzi around London include the mosaic patterned walls of Tottenham Court Road tube station (1984); the "Head of Invention" sculpture on the South Bank in front of the Design Museum (1989); and the sculpture "A Maximis Ad Minima" (Latin: from the greatest to the least) (1998) in Kew Gardens at the west end of the Princess of Wales Conservatory.

Eduardo Paolozzi became renowned for taking objects out of their contexts (frequently the skip or scrapheap) and placing them in new combinations, thereby imbuing them with fresh meaning...He could often be seen searching for junk near his home in Chelsea, or lugging cast items to and from a nearby foundry.
"Our culture decides, quite arbitrarily, what is waste and rubbish," Paolozzi once said. "But...I like to make use of everything. I can't bear to throw things away...Sometimes I feel like a wizard in Toytown, transforming a bunch of carrots into pomegranates." - From an article in The Telegraph
He was awarded a CBE in 1968, appointed the Queen's Sculptor in Ordinary for Scotland in 1986 and knighted in 1989.
It's worth pointing out that Blake's representation is not a homage to Newton.  In fact, Blake wrote, "Art is the Tree of Life. Science is the Tree of Death."  In his 1795 print, Newton is portrayed drawing with a pair of compasses. Compasses were a traditional symbol of God, "architect of the universe", but the picture depicts him as measuring and calculating, having turned his back on the beauty and variety of nature, and the picture progresses from exuberance and colour on the left, to sterility and blackness on the right. In Blake's view, Newton brings not light, but night.
William Blake was a Romantic, with a capital R. He was part of the Romanticism movement, the artistic, literary and intellectual reaction to The Enlightenment of the late 18th Century (of which Newton was a founder). The Enlightenment was the time that heralded the birth of modern science, where purest reason was the dominant philosophical trend. The Romantics feared the coming godless world and clung to the dying remnants of an idea of natural idyll; the aesthetic, the rural and the picturesque. They saw the future on their horizon, the world of the rational and scientific, the future we now live in, and it repulsed them. - Blake vs Newton


Sir Eduardo Luigi Paolozzi (1924-2005), Scottish sculptor and artist

After spending some time admiring and photographing the giant Newton, bolts and all, I went in search of Antony Gormley's "Planets" - more art on the British Library forecourt.  Aha!  I came across a circular seating area, around which the planets sit equidistant atop eight pre-existing plinths, orbiting the viewer as they enter the circle.

These one-tonne ancient granite boulders/planets, formed by successive ice ages, are between approximately 350 and 1,000 million years old.  Each has been hand-selected by the artist for their individual colour and texture from Sweden's glacial plain - specifically, a quarry in Southern Sweden. 

I thought they looked a bit like brains from afar but as you get closer, you can pick out human forms, carved into the rock, clinging to the boulders.  Apparently, Mr Gormley asked people he works with, friends and family members (including his wife and one of his daughters) to drape themselves around the rocks, and then drew their chalk outlines, using this as a template for the incised figures.  And one of the rock-hugging people was Antony Gormley himself (he often uses casts of his own body for his sculptures), although I'm not sure if this is on display, as there were twelve carved stones originally, from which the eight, here, were selected.

In the artist's own words, "Rather than try to do what Michelangelo did and find an idealised human form inside the stone, I've done it the other way round. The form of the stone is what dictates the attitude of the body. What you see is the outline of a body hanging on to this bit of the material world...Essentially, the basic premise is to talk about the dependency of the human body on the material world in a building that is devoted to the fruits of the mind."
"Planets" by Antony Gormley, 2002
But where's the ninth planet? I didn't find it it. Interestingly, in 2006 the International Astronomical Union controversially decided that Pluto is no longer a planet (here's why for those interested), so there are now only eight planets in the solar system.  Did Antony Gormley know something we didn't?  And here, below, are a selection of his quirky planets.
Antony Gormley and a couple of planets - from an interview with  The Telegraph
Antony Gormley, who was awarded the Turner Prize in 1994, and an OBE in 1997, is probably most famous for the "Angel of the North" - a 20 metres (66 ft) tall, 200 tonne, steel sculpture, dominating the skyline on a hill in Gateshead, Tyne and Wear.  According to Gormley, the significance of an angel was three-fold: first, to signify that beneath the site of its construction, coal miners worked for two centuries; second, to grasp the transition from an industrial to information age; and third, to serve as a focus for our evolving hopes and fears.

I also really like "Field for the British Isles" - a dense carpet of approximately 40,000 handmade terracotta miniature figures, made out of 30 tonnes of clay, with each figure looking towards the viewer; "Another Place" - 100 cast iron figures facing out to sea, spread over a 3km stretch of Crosby Beach near Liverpool, each standing over two metres tall (now a permanent installation, due to public demand); and "Iron Baby" - a life-size iron sculpture of a newborn baby lying alone on the gallery floor, on permanent display at the Science Museum.

On the way out, there was just enough time to stop and ponder a plaque dedicated to Anne Frank.  Click here for more information on the memorial and a picture of the tree, which was without it's leaves on my wintry visit.

Glancing back at the British Library, on my way back to King's Cross station, I noticed a wall-mounted sign at the lights on Euston Road.  It made me smile.

"Knowledge is of two kinds.  We know a subject ourselves,
or we know where we can find information on it - SAMUEL JOHNSON"

Step inside - knowledge freely available
Open 7 days a week


  1. Deborah, someone sent me your Secret Lunchtime at Whitecross Street which I found absolutely fascinating as this was my are of growing up. How can I have these automatically sent to me as a new one is made????

  2. I loooooove this blog! I just discovered it, and realised you have not actually written anything for a while!
    I would enormously encourage you to carry on!
    Thank you very much above all for the Masonic Temple one. Very interesting. Will visit for sure during the London Open House.

    1. Hi Anonymous, thank you for your lovely comment back in 2017!!!! I'm ashamed to say that as I haven't updated the blog for some years I hadn't noticed your comment. I'm so glad that our blog was useful to you back then. I miss my secret London lunch breaks with Deborah and often think back to our adventures!

  3. Ditto "anonymous",just discovered this blog whilst researching wooden pavements,flippin marvellous,just love it,from the dates it seems they no longer do it.I thoroughly encourage them to carry on with their wonderful work,but if not thanks for everything so far

    1. Hi Anonymous - I realise this reply is so out of date that it's embarrassing - but just wanted to say, thanks for your lovely comment. It's been a number of years since our last blog entry and I often look back and remember the great times we had exploring hidden London! So glad that what we have written has been of some use to you! Jessica x


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