Thursday, 14 April 2011

262 High Holborn

The relief on the modernist office block at 262 High Holborn has been described as everything from a vision of the Book of Revelation or Celtic imagery to 'hallucinogenic doodling'.
In fact, it is the heraldry of the Pearl Assurance Company, who built it in 1956, and was the creation of Bainbridge Copnall. The architects were T.P. Bennett and Son, who occupied it themselves for many years.
At the top is St Margaret of Antioch, whose name in Latin, Margarita, means pearl. She holds a gigantic pearl in her right hand and the martyr's palm in her left - she was devoured by Satan in the form of a dragon, who lies beneath her feet looking a bit grumpy.
The other symbols relate to places associated with Pearl Assurance. The swords are the City of London, and the covered cup is St Dunstan, the patron saint of Stepney where the company had its first office. The wounded hind is St Giles, of St Giles in the Fields, the local parish.
Other symbols are the sun and a star, and the elements, air, fire and water.
The artist has not included Pearl Assurance's motto, Damus Plus Quam Pollicemur (We give more than we promise), which is a shame because then I could have given you a poem written by some unsung South African employee way back:
Upon the dragon's back for years
St Margaret bravely hid her fears.
A most precarious place to stand
And hold a pearl in outstretched hand.
But Margaret has no need to worry
For if she jumps off in a hurry,
And slips perchance and breaks a femur -

Many thanks to Jo French, information manager at T.P. Bennett, who dug out this information.


Jane and Lance Hattatt said...

Often in High Holborn for the Soane Museum, we have never noticed this relief. We shall look more carefully next time, particularly in the light of your description.

The poem is wonderful - so apt and amusing. Great fun.

Anonymous said...

Thanks indeed for an explanation of the iconography. Decorations such as this often hide the secret of their meaning from the photographer or observer so it is interesting to see one explained.

With regard to not noticing interesting sights, when Tigger and I are out with our cameras, we are often addressed by locals on whose lips we hear the refrain: "I pass here every day and had never noticed that!"

Nice to think we sometimes make people more appreciative of their own environment :)

Ron Combo said...

Look up, my mother used to say, always look up.

Blue said...

Loved the verse and the relief.

I put your blog on my blogroll a while back and have linked to it in my classes about interior design and architecture history. Good blog!

Anonymous said...

thanks so much for this...I have worked in this building for nearly 6 years and always wondered what the meaning behind this was.

Anonymous said...

I walked past this yesterday (Central Line terminated at Holborn and I was looking for a bus stop) and took a photo to remind myself to find out more about it. Thank you for explaining the history and the detail - I so love living in London….

Sam Hazell said...

Thank you soooo much for your post. I have wondered for years about this mural. I had asked colleagues and shopkeepers around the area, and no-one knew anything.
I gave up thinking about it as I wasnt travelling to London any more for work, until I went past it again yesterday. I took a photo and thought I'd give it one last google this morning!
Again - thank you. Though, I am a bit disapointed at its mundane back story... but hey ho - it has kept my imagination occupied for years :o)

Chris Mundy said...

Looks like the building is going to come down. See it while you can!

Chris Partridge said...

That was alarming, Chris. However, I did a quick search of Camden's planning applications and it seems that although the rear block is to be rebuilt (higher, of course) the 1950s block is to be retained and the stonework and sculpture cleaned (hooray!)
The application is dated 2014 so I suppose something might have happened in the interim but it seems encouraging. If you know something I don't, please comment!