What’s on the roof in Whitechapel?

I like weathervanes and I noticed this one day. Canadian artist, Rodney Graham depicts himself dressed as Erasmus, engrossed on a book while riding backwards on a horse. Erasmus was said to have written his In Praise of Folly, a satirical attack on superstition while riding on horseback from Rome to London. The image began in 2005 as a photograph of Graham in costume sitting backwards on a mechanical jockey trainer’s horse and reading the Vancouver Yellow Pages.

A copy of the weathervane was erected in 2008 in Vancouver. This version appeared in 2009 as the finishing touch to renovation work at the Whitechapel Art Gallery when the public library building next door was incorporated into it.

The Whitechapel Gallery was designed by Charles Harrison Townsend. It opened in 1901 on land bought by Canon Samuel Barnett, a vicar who had volunteered to preach in what was then a no-go area of London. Samuel Barnett (1844-1913) got married and became the vicar of St Jude’s, Whitechapel in 1873. It was in Commercial Street but it no longer exists. A story says that on his first day in Whitechapel his watch was stolen. He and his wife, Henrietta (1851-1936) had worked with the social reformer Octavia Hill before coming to Whitechapel. They wanted to show the people of the area that life could be fulfilling and bright, not the grinding poverty most of them endured if they had better housing, education and creative outlets such as art.

In 1884 he was one of the founders of the East End Dwellings Company. The company bought slum housing and demolished it to create buildings with rooms to rent that casual labourers could afford. Residents shared the cooking and laundry facilities. The rent was collected by women who would give advice to renters when needed. It was financed by private investors who wanted to do good but who also made a small income from the rent in a system that became known as 5% philanthropy.

Canon Barnett filled St Jude’s with artwork to inspire his parishioners and in 1881 organised the first of many art exhibitions. This led to the founding of the Whitechapel Gallery which has become famous for showing ground-breaking art.

John Passmore Edwards (1823-1911) gave money toward the construction of the gallery and before that, to another brainchild of Canon Barnett’s, the public library next door. The Barnet’s had begun a small lending library at the church back in the 1870s. The library was built before the gallery, in 1892. John Passmore Edwards was a journalist and owner of the Echo newspaper, the first London daily halfpenny newspaper plus many other publications. He was also Liberal MP for Salisbury.  Although he was a self-made man but he was always concerned for working people who were struggling in a political system that favoured the Haves rather than the Have Nots. Passmore Edwards was responsible for the creation of over 70 public buildings, mainly libraries (he said he had had no books at home as a child) but also schools, hospitals, convalescent homes, museums and art galleries. He also contributed to housing schemes. His libraries are usually red brick with white stone decoration and if anything, more elaborate than we see here. Apparently, a weathervane had been planned for the library when it was built but wasn’t erected until now.

About the author: Gail Jones