Sunday, 12 February 2012

Bank of England, Threadneedle Street EC2

The Bank of England was a masterpiece by one of Britain's greatest architects, Sir John Soane, which was scandalously destroyed in the 1930s.
The fact that Soane's fortress-like wall round the old building was preserved as a platform for the new only rubs salt into the wound. But Sir Herbert Baker's pompous neo-Georgian monstrosity is adorned with some of Sir Charles Wheeler's best work.
The pediment at the top frames the Lady of the Bank, the successor to a statue of Britannia that had inspired the Bank of England's nickname 'the Old Lady of Threadneedle Street'.
Charles Wheeler's dynamic figure of girl seated on the globe with her cape billowing behind and a shower of gold coins to one side emphasises the world-wide reach of the Bank. She holds a model of the Bank itself, like those medieval statues of bishops holding models of their cathedrals.
The statue was the subject of attacks from all quarters from the moment it was unveiled in 1930. The Evening Standard wrote:
"Miss Threadneedle Street is wearing a permanent wave and not a great deal else...[she] appears in the act of removing her bath-robe; but in place of the cake of soap that she should by rights be fondling she is dandling on her knee what looks like a small Greek temple. This may be her bath salts - they are put up very elaborately these days - or again it may be a toy savings bank...For the rest, the lady has a very hard eye, a disagreeable mouth, and hands only a shade less elephantiasic than Rima's own."
Notice how Epstein manages to get into every public row about sculpture, even when it is nothing to do with him? Rima was already 10 years old and it still rankled.
A group of stockholders waged a vigorous campaign against Wheeler's work, calling them 'very extraordinary monstrosities' but luckily got nowhere. 
The new Bank's main portico has a rusticated base with a big entrance arch that makes no sense because it opens onto the roof of Soane's old building.
On either side of the arch are six statues by Charles Wheeler, conventionally referred to as caryatids (female) and telemones (male), but they aren't really because caryatids and telemones have to support parts of a building on their heads and these don't. They are more like buttresses really.
The male figures represent custodianship, according to Herbert Baker's diaries. They carry chains, keys or banners. The women hold cornucopias, a great symbol of quantitative easing. That's our money they're pouring out all over a grateful City.
The three figures to the right of the central arch:
And those to the left:

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