Tuesday, 2 November 2010

Old Middlesex Sessions House, Clerkenwell Green EC1

Middlesex built its court house in a rather dreary, industrial area on the northern edge of Georgian London, so it must have stood out considerably when it was newly built amid the workshops and factories of Clerkenwell in 1779. The architect was Thomas Rogers, the county surveyor.
The good burghers clearly decided to push the boat out and got Joseph Nollekens to carve the panels on the facade. He was probably the most famous sculptor in England at that time - when he had become a member of the Royal Academy just seven years before, his diploma had been signed personally by King George III. A bust of the King appears over the central window.
To the monarch's right is Justice, seated and correctly wearing no blindfold. She holds a drawn sword in her left hand and scales with her right.
On the left sits Mercy, her sword sheathed and holding a sceptre with a dove of peace perching on the crown.

Nollekens was the London-born son of a Dutch painter, and was said to have been abundantly naturally talented but rather dim. He made an enormous sum of money when he went to Rome on a study tour and found a lucrative market sculpting souvenir busts of visiting English notables, including David Garrick and Laurence Sterne. He also bought fragments of Roman sculpture and added all the missing limbs to sell to credulous collectors as perfect specimens.
The court house pediment is filled with the arms of Middlesex, probably not by Nollekens. The three weapons are usually described by tour guides as scimitars but they are actually seaxes, the notched sword of the Anglo-Saxon warrior.
They also appear on the arms of Essex. The shield is surrounded by a luxuriant growth of oak, the tree of Middlesex, and laurel.

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