Monday, 29 April 2013

Royal Exchange, Royal Exchange Buildings EC3

The east wall of the Royal Exchange is adorned with figures of three major figures in London's mercantile history.
Above is Richard Whittington, so well known as a pantomime character many people don't realise he really was Lord Mayor of London in the 15th century. The younger son of a rich Gloucester merchant, he was sent to London to become a cloth trader or mercer and became vastly wealthy importing costly fabrics such as silk and velvet, and exporting English woollen broadcloth that was in high demand on the Continent. He survived in turbulent political times by the simple expedient of lending the current king lots of money.
The cat and the Bow Bells stuff is nonsense, and it seems he may never have been knighted either.
The 1844 statue, by John Carew, shows him in period costume with his chain of office and holding a formidable mace.
Carew was an Irish sculptor who had been an assistant to Sir Richard Westmacott, the father of the sculptor of the pediment group on the main facade of the Royal Exchange. He is well known for his church sculpture and one of the huge bronze reliefs on the base of Nelson's Column portraying the death of the admiral.
On the other side of the east facade of the Royal Exchange stands Sir Hugh Myddelton (right), the Jacobean draper who is now best known as the main promoter of the New River, a canal that brought fresh water into London from Hertfordshire. The Thames and all its local tributaries had become dangerously polluted, and boreholes were only affordable by industries such as brewing. The New River certainly saved more lives than the entire medical profession in the succeeding centuries.
The commission was given to Samuel Joseph, who delivered it in 1845. It shows Sir Hugh holding a scroll in one hand and a staff in the other, said to be the plan of the New River and a measuring rod. In 1999 the knight's right hand and the rod fell off, which must have been rather alarming for the pedestrians below, and have since been replaced.
Joseph was a brilliant young sculptor who won lots of prizes at the Academy Schools but somehow never made it to the top. He was made bankrupt only a few years after completing this statue, and died nearly penniless in 1850. The Royal Academy deserves credit for giving a pension to his widow to support their seven children.
The most important man on this facade is the Exchange's founder, Sir Thomas Gresham, and the architect has seen fit to put him so high you can only see him from practically underneath. The classic up-yer-doublet shot. When it was unveiled in 1845 the Art Union said it was "placed too high for any opinion of its quality to be formed."
The sculptor was William Behnes, a half-German, half-English, Irish-educated artist whose financial profligacy had reduced him to penury. He was declared bankrupt half way through the commission but he successfully completed it and was paid £550 (roughly £50,000 today). Behnes made a special trip to Suffolk to view a portrait of Gresham, then thought to be by Holbein, for the likeness.

No comments: