Small details

13 March 2016
Ben Pentreath

I can’t tell you how many hours I seem to have spent being stuck in a traffic jam on the Marylebone Road.

For those that don’t know London, this great arterial road snakes it way through the city carrying six lanes of traffic, taking everyone east and west. Betjeman’s Metroland, that brilliant documentary, finds the poetry in the monumental, pompous buildings that line the Marylebone Road, while Gavin Stamp’s brilliant book of essays, Anti-Ugly, has a wonderful chapter on the joys of architecture on the Great West Road, as the Marylebone Road shifts inexorably into the A40. But, for most of the time, I’m just sitting in a stopped car, cursing the traffic.  There’s a reason why I take the train down to Dorset as much as I can, or why Charlie and I get up at insanely early hours to leave London, pre-dawn, when you have the joy of sweeping through the just-lightening streets of the deserted city, feeling as if the place belongs to you alone, and before you blink you’re in the open country, without any traffic jams in sight at all.P1070974

On all these journeys, I have of course become familiar with the various sets of traffic lights and the architectural joys they may, or may not reveal. I love the two or three stops in the vicinity of Regents Park, which always make one feel quite happy. Other stretches of the road are bleaker, with closed-up, decaying hospital buildings in sooty, liver-coloured brick, and with ill-proportioned windows and far too many overblown classical details – buildings that one can’t but help think would make you feel unwell.

Just beyond Baker Street there is a light that always seems to be red. Right by it is a massive brick apartment building with quite distinctive deco balconies painted a beautiful green. Appropriately for us, (and I didn’t know this until just now when I started to look it up) it’s called Dorset House and is listed for its special architectural interest. Designed in 1934-35, by the architect T P Bennett and Sons, it’s the height of moderne chic, still. I wonder if anyone who lives in Dorset House reads the blog?  I somehow doubt it but I would be very happy if they did.
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So for years I’ve stopped here in the traffic and spied this little shop.P1070978

Then the lights change to green and we’re off, and I glimpse the little deco shopfront over my shoulder, and think about the rare survival of tiny special shops like this (which is normally the subject for an author more like the wonderful Spitalfields Life, who I am sure that many readers of my blog will follow as well).

Luckily, today, I wasn’t in the car. I was on foot, after a lovely breakfast in Marylebone. Charlie was up in Manchester with his great friends who I’ve chistened Charlie’s Angels, having a crazy weekend. I was home alone, catching up, if I’m honest, in the office.P1070980 P1070982

The shop is called E. Gandolfi and it turns out it is very famous indeed.P1070984 P1070985

Being a Sunday they were closed, but I was able to spend all the more time enjoying the beautiful signage for it. P1070986

As their website reads,

In the early Twentieth Century, Carlo Gandolfi, an Italian immigrant and his English wife Elizabeth opened their first shop in Paddington, London. They started with manufacturing hand made tap and ballet shoes. the business was growing and in the late twenties the shop was moved to Chapel Street/Edgware Road. By 1949 Gandolfi was a complete family affair and the shop at 150 Maryleborne Road was opened.


Gandolfi is pretty much the bees knees in the Ballet world:

Apart from manufacturing shoes Gandolfi also manufactures dance clothes such as leotards, catsuits etc. Generations of dancers and actors are wearing Marios costumes. Most of them are unique and exclusive. Some of Mario’s costumes are world famous, such as Freddie Mercury’s sleeveless dinner jacket. After the death of Giovanni Gandolfi in January 2000 the family business was passed over to Derek Gandolfi (the son of Valentino Gandolfi and the Grandson of Carlo and Elizabeth Gandolfi), leaving the business within the family for the third generation.


Opposite Dorset House is Berkeley Court, in Classical Moderne Style as opposed to Modern Moderne….P1070990

Looking North, the gloomy Victorian flats of Glentworth Street.
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It’s a relief to find a magnolia in bloom at the end.P1070995

In Regent’s Park the hedges are coming in to leaf:P1070996

Another magnolia:P1070997

Fields of crocus, gleaming in the sunshine;P1070999 P1080001 P1080002 P1080004 A heron watches patiently in the shadow of Nash terraces:
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In Queen Mary’s Rose Garden, the roses are pruned in tight ranks that are almost more beautiful than the blowsy moment in three months time when all this will be in abundant flower…P1080014 P1080019 P1080021

I can imagine Stanley Spencer painting this rose garden, with meticulous care.

Strange to think of high summer. I will try to come back and take a photo then.P1080026 P1080028 P1080033

Looking across to Lasdun’s Royal College of Physicians, which I do love, perhaps one of my favourite buildings in London.P1080035 The Diorama its usual serene self, next door;
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On the way back, wandering through Fitzrovia, another survival of an earlier era, Norman Lyons & Co, Fabric sellers, which gets very nice reviews on Google:

Daffodils in Fitzroy Square:P1080050 More deco off Tottenham Court Road, this time Shropshire House:

Coade Stone in Bedford Square, P1080057 P1080063 P1080064

Next to the British Museum, the new conservation centre (by Rogers, Stirk Harbour) has finally opened. This site caused quite a fuss when the building was designed, but I like it.  It feels quiet and strangely appropriate. P1080069

What I don’t love is the way it meets the ground. Shurely Shome Mishtake? I imagine the architects are grimacing and there are probably quite a few letters in the correspondence files about this strange detail:P1080070 P1080071

The Edward VII wing next door is a ponderous thing; I don’t especially dislike it, but I wish I could paint its great facade of metal windows in a huge rainbow of colours from one end to the other.  It needs perking up.P1080075I love this strange blank brick wall to the east. In fact, I’ve probably photographed it before.P1080077

Nearly home, here’s the wonderful Imperial Hotel, on Russell Square, P1080078

which one day our friend Maisie and I are going to write a brilliant blog about. It’s a London dream.P1080080

But we can’t end on a Brutalist note. I got home. Charlie’s parrot tulips are overblown and blowsy. Tomorrow, they’ll have passed a moment.  Today, they were perfect.P1080085 P1080088

It’s all about the small details.

19 comments on this post


Sadly Gandofi retreated from London last year, now just a boarded-up shop. They now operate from their factory in Wellingborough until they can find affordable London accommodation, presumably Transport for London have gouged the rent. it was a bit of a shock to see it boarded-up, they have been there all my life and more.

Thank you for a nice blog, Our life consists of “Small details”!

Christine Park Strauchsays:

Ben I LOVE your blog! I’m so envious – I live in boring Melbourne Australia and hope to get back to England soon. Reading your blog makes it seem closer


Here in New York City, it is never surprising to see unappealing and unresolved details on modernist buildings. So much so, that I would say it is a hallmark of the style. From the anti-humanist housing projects of the 1950’s to the new skyscrapers for the super wealthy rising up along the High-line, they all share a cynical disregard for fine details, from brickwork to their caulked sidewalk joints.

I have often lamented why this must be so, and perhaps in part it is the result of their creators not being able to draw with the skill their pre-war counterparts all possessed. The snapped together appearance of American modernist buildings today look like they have more in common with high-end, but ultimately disposable, kitchen appliances than they do with their earlier, well proportioned neighbors.

Simon Cartersays:

Ben, we live in one of those “gloomy Victorian flats of Glentworth Street”… and can assure you that whilst everything else in this blog is pithy, intuitive and accurate, you have missed the charm of “Clarence Gate Gardens” (the block that you refer) – built in 1904, home to TS Elliot, Edgar Wallace (“King Kong”), more recent Home Secretaries, stars from soap operas… but above all a close-knit community from all corners of the world – old and young, rich and poor – all united in loving to live in a beautiful part of London!


Dear Simon, if we had a comment of the week, yours would be it!! I look forward to a closer view one day and thank you for putting us all right. Regards, Ben


Things are looking up. Many thanks for the tour of some of our capital city this week. And you couldn’t resist your old fave the former GPO tower, could you? Best, Nicola

Such a lovely photo blog post, i just remembered those days where i used hang around.

Chris Tuckersays:

Wonderful post.
My partner and I are returning to London in June/July this year. We live in Christchurch, New Zealand – a place with which
you are now familiar thanks to your husband, Charlie. We were last in London in June/July 2013 and we realise now that we spent too much time ‘underground’ and not enough time above ground. We will rectify that during this year’s visit, and we are very grateful for all of your brilliant posts about the wonders of walking the streets of London with eyes skyward.
We will also spend time in your beloved Dorset based in a little village called Frome St Quinton, south of Yeovil. Your Dorset posts have been inspirational in our Dorset sightseeing plans. Many thanks.


A brilliant instalment! So many associations and memories of that part of London and Regent’s Park. There’s a family photo of my mother teaching me to walk in the Rose Garden. She’s sitting on a bench with her crutches obvs. 🙁
I spent the morning wandering around that part of the park (past those herons) while I waited on the results of a blood test that would tell me if I was pregnant… It came back positive when I was sitting under a cherry tree in Avenue Gardens (the one with the fountains) and I phoned you to tell you the amazing news!!! x

Building looking is one of my favourite occupations. I love to wander around the side streets in Liverpool admiring the many 18th and 19th century buildings along with the (mainly) lovely new ones.
Thank you for sharing your journey around this part of London, especially the bits about the Gandolfi and Norman Lyons shops.

Just a quick note to say thank you as always for your lovely Monday morning posts. This one has distracted me from errands but reminded me to slow down to look and appreciate too.

deby (in Canada)says:

Oh Ben- thanks for another lovely walk through London…so many interesting buildings…
love the photo of the fountain-looks like a painting. Also a treat to see so many flowers- tops
of bulbs just starting to show in Canada.


I once had a boyfriend whose dad was an architect. He told me to always look up when in London…(I’ve been colliding with lampposts ever since…)
Good to see the magnolias coming out although in my experience it means we’re due for a freak snow/hailstorm which will ruin them!

Patricia Taylorsays:

I’ve lived in London all my life and love walking
around its many varied districts but you always
show me what I have missed by not looking up!!


as usual after reading Ben’s posts about London, I’m running to buy an Eurostar ticket

John Hartsays:

Thank you for the wonderful pictures. I was in your shop on Saturday and bought a fold up map of London amongst other things. We walked there from Waterloo via breakfast in Covent Garden and so enjoyed the arcitecture too. Loved the shop.


On my solo trip to London in September 2013, I spent many hours wandering the neighborhoods taking pictures of the various building styles. I took many pictures of Dorset House and the other ones you featured in this blog – including that exact street of Victorian brick!

Wonderful feeling of deja vu – thanks so much!

Heather Geldartsays:

Thank you for bringing back great memories of my visit to London in March, 2012.

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