Friday 19 April 2013

Royal Exchange, Bank EC3

The Royal Exchange is right opposite the Bank of England and the Mansion House on the main intersection in the City, but people walk right on by. For such a florid and Victorian building, it seems to blend right into the background.
The original exchange was built by Sir Thomas Gresham in 1566 as a place for merchants to do business under cover - they had until then made deals walking down Lombard Street which can't have been entirely satisfactory.
Gresham's exchange had an open courtyard with a colonnade around like a cathedral cloister only in the classical style. It was destroyed in the Great Fire, rebuilt but again burned down in 1838.
The current building was designed by Sir William Tite, who brought in Richard Westmacott Jnr to do the sculpture of the pediment. Competitions were held for both contracts but the whole process was mired in incompetence and, it was said, corruption.
The central figure is Commerce, who holds the Charter of the Exchange in one hand and the rudder of a ship in the other. Next to her are a hive and a cornucopia, symbols of plenty. The inscription comes from Psalm 24, although Victorian merchants were just as prone as today's bankers to regard the earth and the fulness thereof as their own lawful booty and not the Lord's at all.
On Commerce's right hand stand the Lord Mayor, an Alderman and a Common Councilman, in their robes. It looks like the Tower behind.
Merchants from round the world stand further out and below the Brits, including a Hindu, a Muslim, a Greek holding an urn, an Armenian and a Turk. I suspect these nationalities were chosen for the picturesqueness of their clothes rather than any commercial importance.
The extreme corner, always a problem for pediments, is filled with maritime impedimenta.
To Commerce's left, two British merchants stand on a dock being shown some silk by a Persian. Beyond them a Chinese merchant stands with a Levantine sailor and a kneeling African. At the end, a British sailor binds a bale and a supercargo, the representative of the cargo's owner on board a ship and responsible for buying and selling. He is checking an inventory. The pointy bit is filled with assorted goods.

1 comment:

Capability Bowes said...

Beehive = industry