Banks in The City (6)

  Recently the banking industry in London has been in the press a lot – scandals, crises, taxes, “bankers who don’t know what they are doing”.

But – this isn’t new.

London has been a financial centre since Day One.
In the year 98, the Roman historian Tacitus wrote that …
Londinium was packed with traders and was a celebrated centre of commerce.
As traders and merchants know, things have ALWAYS gone UP and DOWN.
I for one am glad the banks were confident and successful enough to erect buildings that reflected what the builders thought was important.

Often this was a connection between their success and classical Roman power.
These buildings were meant to impress and to last.
And in the City of London they still do impress.

Bank of England from Royal Exchange plaza

The Bank of England

The Bank of England is the symbolic centre of the financial industry in Britain. The Bank’s headquarters have been on Threadneedle Street in the City of London since 1734.
The Bank of England was founded in 1694 as a way to finance the debt that William III’s government incurred in rebuilding the British Navy after they were defeated by the French at the Battle of Beachy Head.
Lenders, who provided the government with cash, would be incorporated as the B of E, and could issue bonds, as the only limited-liability corporation allowed to bank notes.
The plan worked. The financing of Britain’s rebuilding helped re-build the Navy and create powerful new industries and technologies, along with expanding new agricultural methods that fed the growing nation.
The economy was transformed. In 1707 England and Scotland were formally united and the Kingdom of Great Britain was on its way to becoming the dominant world power.

Bank of England - Lady of the Bank

The Lady of the Bank

I’m not sure the founders would approve of “The Lady of the Bank” on the pediment who seems to be ignoring the money that is slipping away.

The front of the building is guarded by these 6 impressive figures.

The figures were sculpted by Charles Wheeler when he worked on the building from 1922-1945.  The 4 male figures represent Custodianship and the women represent Productiveness.

Unfortunately, it’s easy to look at them as shackled souls who have lost everything, including the shirts on their backs.

Sir John Soane - Bank of England, Princes St at Lothbury

Today’s Bank of England building was initially the creation of the great architect, Sir John Soane, who worked on the building from 1788 until 1833.

His statue stands in a niche in a corner of the Bank building at Princes Street and Lothbury. Unfortunately when the Bank was remodelled in 1921-1937 by Herbert Baker, most of Soane’s building was demolished or hidden.

Nikolaus Pevsner in ‘Buildings of England’ described the remodelling as “the greatest architectural crime, in the City of London, of the twentieth century”. Bank of England - curtain wall at Bank JunctionYou can see how Baker’s new bank sits on top of Soane’s screen (or windowless) wall of the Bank of England.

National Provincial Bank on BishopsgateThe National Provincial Bank built its impressive headquarters at 15 Bishopsgate in 1862-65 (during the time the United States were fighting their Civil War!).

National Provincial Bank - Corporate seal with BishopsgateAbove the entrance at the corner with Threadneedle Street is a sculpted roundel shows the ancient Bishopsgate.
And along the roof line are sculptures that represent various cities where the bank did business including Manchester, Birmingham, Dover, Newcastle and London.
Unfortunately they are in need of restoration and are covered by safety netting.

Above the arched windows there are eight sculpted panels of allegorical scenes representing the achievements of mankind: The Arts, Commerce, Science, Manufactures, Agriculture, Navigation, Shipbuilding, Mining

These huge panels are quite “heroic” and in a way they remind me of the “Heroic Worker” art of the Soviet Union of the 1950s-70s, and I guess these had the same patriotic propaganda purpose – showing pride in the achievements of their society.

When the National Provincial Bank was built in 1862-5 three plots of land were combined, including one that had been the site of South Sea House. South Sea House, Cornhill This decoration on the building on Threadneedle Street right next to the National Provincial Bank shows two sailors above a keystone with old Father Thames – and it tells quite a story.  Apparently this is the only thing left of the South Sea House – scene of a HUGE financial disaster where many fortunes were lost.  Funny, things don’t seem to change too much in the City of London!

The South Sea Bubble was one of the most famous financial collapses in British history. In 1720 share prices went from £100 to £1000 and then collapsed to being worthless.

The South Sea Company was established in 1711, promoted by London financiers John Blunt and George Caswall, and backed by Robert Harley, Lord Treasurer, who saw the South Sea Company as a Tory competitor for the Whig-supported Bank of England. The company was promised a monopoly of all trade to the Spanish colonies in South America in exchange for taking over and consolidating the national debt raised by the War of Spanish Succession. The company was never successful in the South Sea trade but profited by convincing the government to convert successive portions of the national debt into South Sea Company shares.
(Read more at :

The two sailors on South Sea House are really pretty strange – look at those faces!  They are holding all kind of sailing things – a compass, sextant, block and tackle, telescope.  But their heads look like they were from some other statues and just stuck on here.  (I just realized – they look like Comedy and Tragedy.)  Sailing vessels are drawn in shallow relief on the wall behind them.

The decoration on buildings in London will never fail to fascinate!

National Provincial Bank eventually was merged with other banks and the result was National Westminster Bank.  In the 1970s they built an iconic new headquarters right behind the National Provincial Bank on Bishopsgate- Tower 42 - built as NatWest TowerThe NatWest Tower (now known as Tower 42) was the tallest building in London for 30 years.
Interestingly, when viewed from above, the shape of the tower, designed by Richard Seifert, resembles the NatWest logo.NatWest logo (image found online)The City of London is still home to major banks and corporations, but now they are often international firms.
From my point of view,  they don’t tend to show much artistic decoration focused on history and allegory.

Too bad – it tends to result in fairly anonymous and even boring buildings.
But not always.  Some of the buildings that have appeared in the last decade are fairly memorable –

The building at 30 St. Mary Axe was completed in 2003.  Known as “The Gherkin” it was one of the first iconic 21st century buildings in the City of London.  The Gherkin with St. Andrew Undershaft in frontThe Shard in Southwark is the new iconic London building. It was completed in 2012 and the architect was Renzo Piano.The Shard

Renzo Piano also designed many of the modern buildings in the new financial centre of Canary Wharf.Canary Wharf One thing we can be sure of – London will keep on growing, changing and being interesting.

@ Cathey Leitch, 2015