Friday, 11 March 2011

Natwest Bank, 1 Prince's Street EC2

Ten years after he created the caryatids at the entrance of P&O in Cockspur Street, Ernest Gillick returned to the figure of Britannia for an allegorical group on top of the new headquarters of the National and Provincial Bank (now the NatWest).
The architect was Sir Edwin Cooper, a dyed-in-the-wool traditionalist, who was having no truck with the modern sculpture that had just appeared on the rebuilt Bank of England over the road. As a result, the decoration of 1 Prince's Street could just as well date to 1909 instead of 1929.
It is a lovely group. Britannia rises on a winged seat, flanked by Mercury (representing Commerce) and Truth with his torch.
At Britannia's knees are crouching nude females representing Higher and Lower Mathematics. Higher Maths, on the left, holds a carved 'magic square' a grid of numbers, almost any four of which add up to 34, the number associated in astrology with Jupiter. The square features in Durer's famous engraving Melencolia I and in Dan Brown's recent extrusion, The Lost Symbol.
The symbolism oozes with irony today, after a decade in which the financial sector cynically abused mathematics to loot the world, then hid the truth until economic meltdown was just days away and Britannia was close to ruin.

The building was adorned at ground level with serenely classical statues symbolising financial virtues, by Sir Edwin's favourite sculptor Charles Doman. 
The figures on the Prince's Street facade represent Security and Prosperity.
Security is a veteran soldier wearing a Phrygian cap (for Liberty) and a pauldron or shoulder-plate with an embossed lion's head. He holds a key and a bridle, and stands on books and scrolls.
Prosperity is a graceful girl with one foot on a cushion and holding some fruit from a basket on an ornately-carved bracket behind her. A wreath and more scrolls lie at her feet.

Two more allegorical figures by Charles Doman stand on the south facade. Courage is a female, unusually, holding a sword with which she has just slain a snake. So very unlike my dear lady wife, who hates swords almost as much as she fears snakes.
Integrity is venerable man with a beard, holding a locked ledger and standing on a pile of more ledgers. The light of truth is at his feet.


Hels said...

It is not surprising that quite austere Deco architecture would be decorated and softened by sculpture. What IS surprising is that the sculpture chosen here was complex in both content and style.

In other buildings, we might have expected a caryatid on each of the vertical pillars, for example.

I wouldn't worry about the irony of economic history 80 years later. How many leaders and companies make a big statement in one decade, and look like utter cruds in a later decade?

Capability Bowes said...

I love the pair of owls, companions to Athena, Goddess of Wisdom, sitting on the rather messy pile of books stage left. But what I dont get is the odd pair of wings down stage right that seem to be attached to a strange prism-shaped wall?

You must have a jolly decent camera to have got such a wonderful shot of a sculpture group so far up.

Chris Partridge said...

I like the owls too. I bet those books are very messy indeed....
The wings are part of Britannia's winged chariot, I suspect.
And yes, I do have a good camera, a Fujifilm HS10 as mentioned here -

Capability Bowes said...

Have we both misunderstood? I meant the tiny pair of wings right in the bottom left hand corner of the group, tucked away slightly, rather than the pair at Britannia's feet. They dont seem to be attached to anything logical...

Chris Partridge said...

Oh, those wings. I think they are attached to Mercury's shoe, although he usually only has one on each sandal. Perhaps it is more obvious closer to.

Anonymous said...

Good to see someone on the case with the Dureres maguic square. I discovered it a few years back and couldn't find a mention of it on the net. There are so many other Esoteric gems that need "unearthing". I am busy studying the Victoria Embankment at the moment. Problem is that I live in Florence, which also has one or two bits and bobs worth checking out. best brabinger .. check my video

UKPhilip said...

I worked there 1974 to 1977. The interior decoration of the vast banking hall in particular was also very impressive - sadly vastly reworked to a more modern taste during the last decade.