Thousands walking along Brixton Road pass the rainbow façade of the Reliance Arcade every day, but how many of them realise that if you turn into Electric Avenue, and then right into Electric Lane, you can find a little bit of Egypt in Brixton?
Reliance Arcade runs between the Brixton Road and Electric Lane, on the site of an early nineteenth century house and its gardens. Bizarrely, the remains of the house still exist in the centre of the arcade, which was built 1923-25 for the South Coast Furnishing Company, to the designs of R S Andrews and J Peascod. It’s a building of real character, which has recently been lovingly restored by the Heritage of London Trust and London Borough of Lambeth with the support of law firm Mishcon de Reya, whose original offices were in Brixton.
It’s the small but colourful entrance in Electric Lane which is the real surprise though. Most people seeing it would probably recognise it as looking Egyptian, but what is it that tells us this? What we think of as Ancient Egyptian architecture is mostly its stone built temples. Tombs had some external features, but many of these did not survive as long as the temples, and most other buildings were made of mud bricks. Some key elements that Egyptian style buildings borrow from the temples of Egypt are the very distinctive overhanging border around the tops of walls and over entrance-ways (known as a cavetto cornice), columns imitating papyrus, palms, or lotus plants, and their colourful decoration. All three of these are present in the Reliance Arcade entrance. Its shape even echoes that of temple entrances, or pylons, but without their distinctive sloped sides, which are difficult to include in terraced buildings, but can be suggested by mouldings. The bright colours on the roof cornice, columns, and some of the other decorative terracotta elements, produced by Shaws of Darwen, were painted on after the terracotta casting, perhaps for cost reasons.
Why was this style used? It probably reflects the huge popular interest in the discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun, which took place in November 1922, only a few years before the arcade was built, although the Egyptian style has been used for buildings in England since the beginning of the nineteenth century, and for monuments and landscape architecture before that, and the former W H Smith print works on Stamford Street in south-east London, which dates to 1916, has Egyptian elements. However, while the public in general may have succumbed to Tutmania, architects were made of sterner stuff. Only half a dozen buildings in an Egyptian style other than the arcade were built in London between the two World Wars, and of them several have now been lost. In 1928 a six storey office block was built on Shaftesbury Avenue with plain cavetto cornices, Egyptian style columns, winged sun disks, and a Pharaoh’s head over a side doorway. In the same year the magnificent new Arcadia Works was built for the Carreras cigarette company on Hampstead Road, with a coloured cavetto cornice and twelve huge Egyptian style pillars, both coloured with cement mixed with crushed Venetian glass, and a front entrance flanked by giant Egyptian cat statues, a symbol of the goddess Bastet. (Allegedly the building was originally going to be called Bastet House until someone realised that it could be misinterpreted.) Four cinemas with either an Egyptian style exterior or interior were built between the wars, but the only survivor is the former Carlton Cinema on Essex Road. This has, you guessed it, a cavetto cornice and papyrus bud pillars, and other terracotta tilework, all brightly coloured, produced by the Hathern Station Brick and Terra Cotta Company.
The Art Deco style borrowed from a lot of cultures, including Ancient Egypt, and a lot of Deco buildings have ‘Egyptianish’ elements. True Egyptian style buildings, with several of the distinctive elements of Ancient Egyptian architecture, have always been exotic rarities, however, and every one of them should be precious. Brixton is lucky to have one as a hidden gem, now restored to its original elegance.
You can find out more about Reliance Arcade on the Historic England and Brixton Buzz web sites (www.historicengland.org.uk and www.brixtonbuzz.com) and in my book Egypt in England.
HOLT is thrilled to have supported the restoration of the Egyptian façade of Reliance Arcade – and thanks to our supporters Mishcon de Reya for their contribution to this project.
Images by Richard Lea.