If you look around the City of London, Mercury pops up in lots of places. When you read the background of this mythological figure, it makes lots of sense.
“Mercury is a major Roman god. He is the patron god of financial gain, commerce, eloquence (and thus poetry), messages/communication (including divination), travelers, boundaries, luck, trickery and thieves. His name is possibly related to the Latin word merx (“merchandise”; compare merchant, commerce, etc.), mercari (to trade). en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mercury_%28mythology%29 It all makes him a perfect symbol to use in London.
As with many figures in the pantheon of Roman gods, Mercury is closely related to an ancient Greek god – Hermes, who was the messenger. He carried messages from the gods to humans, and is often depicted holding the caduceus in his left hand. In mythology, this is the staff that was also borne by heralds in general, for example by Iris, the messenger of Hera. It is a short staff entwined by two serpents, sometimes surmounted by wings. Mercury often is shown with sandals and a cap that have little wings – to speed him on his way as he carried messages. (The symbol of doctors is actually the Rod of Asclepius, which has ONE snake entwined around the rod. The confusion with the caduceus, especially in the US, started in the First World War when an Army officer used the caduceus as the symbol the US Army Medical Corps. Too bad he didn’t do his research.)
These two somewhat camp figures stand in front of Globe House, 4 Temple Place. The bronze figures were sculpted by Sir Charles Wheeler for the previous building on this site – Electra House – which was built in 1933 as the HQ for Imperial and International Communications, which in the following year became Cable and Wireless Ltd. The building had another, secret, purpose. Secret links were laid to the Central Telegraph Exchange in Moorgate which enabled the telephone lines of every foreign embassy in London to be monitored. So – Mercury may represent communications, but not necessarily public or transparent communications!
The new building at 4 Temple Place has been renamed Globe House which now offices for British American Tobacco.
Electra House on Temple Place was extensively damaged in WWII, so in 1955 Cable and Wireless built an HQ building in Holborn, at 124 Theobalds Road, and named it “Mercury House” – maybe in tribute to those sculptures of the God of Commerce on their previous building on the Embankment. This relief of a speeding Mercury is on the front of the new Mercury House.
On Temple Avenue, just around the corner from Temple Place, is another Mercury – this one a more classical representation. He’s got the winged cap and sandals, and is holding a large caduceus above his head. With his floating robes, he seems to be speeding along with his message.
These figures are up at the attic level of the National Westminster Bank Building at the corner of Prince’s Street and Poultry – facing the Royal Exchange. They are part of a group of large figures with Britannia at the centre, and were carved by Ernest Gillick in 1929-32.
Here Mercury seems to be wearing a Super-Man costume, with his short cape blowing behind as he clasps his caduceus.
The woman crouching below him looks like she trying to hear something as she supports a Magic Square – a mathematical puzzle in which the numbers add up to the same sum horizontally, vertically or diagonally. In this case the answer to the puzzle is 34.
This muscular Mercury is on Norway House, 21-24 Cockspur Street, facing Trafalgar Square. He isn’t wearing much – he has no sandals and the wings on his head are on a little headband. He is cradling a globe and looking over his shoulder at a ship – so he obviously symbolizes Travel or World Trade.
The building was erected in 1914 without a definite tenant, so the decoration was designed with a fairly generic theme of business and travel. Several of the buildings on Cockspur Street were offices for British and International railway and steamship companies, so this fits right in.
Today the building’s facade would have just been a blank canvas, but instead we have four interesting panels of relief sculpture, done by Louis Frederick Roselieb, the Lambeth-born son of a German sculptor who moved to England. Louis changed his surname to Roslyn during his military service in the Royal Flying Corps in WWI.
A nearby building at 14-16 Cockspur Street was built in 1906 for the Hamburg America Line, which at times was the world’s largest shipping line. After the war, the building was taken over and given to the P&O Line (formally the Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Company), so the building has always had a connection with travel. Here Mercury, wearing a winged helmet, seems to hold onto a pair of swan’s wings. The sculptures on this building were done by William B. Fagan.
Some depictions of Mercury on buildings in London show him speeding around, presumably carrying important messages.The two Mercuries (above) in front of a globe are on the front of the former Daily Telegraph Building, 135 Fleet Street. The building is one of the Art Deco treasures of London.
When it was built in 1928-30 Fleet Street was the international home of journalism and these two classical messengers symbolise the news being spread around the world. The building is now offices for Goldman Sachs.
Above the back door of the Adelphi Building on Adelphi Terrace, this little Mercury speeds along with the moon at his feet. The enormous Art Deco building was completed in 1938. Although it is a massive hulk of a building, if you look closely you can find a lot of interesting sculpture – including four huge corner allegorical figures.
Mercury may be running along in some of his depictions in London, but not in this one on King William Street in the City. Maybe he’s just taking a rest after working hard all day. The classical façade on which he rests is attached to the south side of the church of St. Mary Woolnoth. It was designed by Sydney Smith in 1899 as the entrance to the Bank Station of the City and South London Railway, the first deep-level train line in the world.
This elaborately-decorated round window is one of a pair on the NatWest Bank at 1 Hatton Garden, at the corner with Holborn Circus. The other window has a theme of “Spirit of the Land and Spirit of the Sea”. This one is titled “Commerce and Industry” – and Mercury, patron god of financial gain, commerce, eloquence, poetry and communication, holds his caduceus. The lady on the right represents Industry or Manufacturing – in her right hand she hold a gear above the window, and in her left, a spindle of cotton or thread, ready to be spun.
You can find lots of little Mercuries if you look.
In London, keystones are an especially good place to look for little portraits –
Five Kings House stands at the corner of Upper Thames Street and Queen Street Place. The building was erected in 1911 for Liebig’s Extract of Meat Company – which later became producers of OXO beef cubes. The elaborate and theatrical decoration includes two figures above the corner entrance.
Willing House, at the top of Gray’s End Road near King’s Cross, was built in 1910 for Willing Advertising – and it features a number of classically themed reliefs. The building is topped by this statue of Mercury which definitely has it all – wings on his sandals, wings on his hat, a bright star on his head and a very shiny caduceus. Too bad about the stain that comes down over his torso and leg.
I’m not sure what he is pointing at, but he is definitely making a point. And -whatever he is saying, he is SURE about it.
The sad thing is that today the building has been converted into a Travelodge – a budget hotel. But maybe that is appropriate, since Mercury was also the Roman god of travellers!
It’s fun chasing Mercury around London and interesting to discover the different symbolic messages he sends.
All photos were taken by Cathey Leitch @Cathey Leitch, 2015