A Door in Cornhill
The Bronte sisters visit their publisher in Cornhill, 1848
An ancient thoroughfare with a mythic past, Cornhill takes its name from one of the three former hills of the City of London – an incline barely perceptible today after centuries of human activity upon this site, building and razing, rearranging the land. This is a place does not declare its multilayered history – even though the Roman forum was here and the earliest site of Christian worship in England was here too, dating from 179 AD, and also the first coffee house was opened here by Pasqua Rosee in 1652, the Turk who introduced coffee to London. Yet a pair of carved mahogany doors, designed by the sculptor Walter Gilbert in 1939 at 32 Cornhill – opposite the old pump – bring episodes from this rich past alive in eight graceful tableaux.
Walter Gilbert (1871-1946) was a designer and craftsman who developed his visual style in the Arts & Crafts movement at the end of the nineteenth century and then applied it to a wide range of architectural commissions in the twentieth century, including the gates of Buckingham Palace, sculpture for the facade of Selfridges and some distinctive war memorials. In this instance, he modelled the reliefs in clay which were then translated into wood carvings by B.P Arnold at H. H. Martyn & Co Ltd of Cheltenham.
Gilbert’s elegant reliefs appeal to me for the laconic humour that observes the cool autocracy of King Lucius and the sullen obedience of his architects, and for the sense of human detail that emphasises W. M. Thackeray’s curls at his collar in the meeting with Anne and Charlotte Bronte at the offices of their publisher Smith, Elder & Co. In each instance, history is given depth by an awareness of social politics and the selection of telling detail. These eight panels take us on a journey from the early medieval world of omnipotent monarchy and religious penance through the days of exploitative clergy exerting controls on the people, to the rise of the tradesman and merchants who created the City we know today.
“St Peter’s Cornhill founded by King Lucius 179 AD to be an Archbishop’s see and chief church of his kingdom and so it endured for the space of four hundred years until the coming of Augustine the monk of Canterbury.”
“Eleanor, Duchess of Gloucester, did penance walking barefoot to St Michael’s Church from Queen Hithe, 1441.”
“Cornhill was an ancient soke of the Bishop of London who had the Seigneurial oven in which all tenants were obliged to bake their bread and pay furnage or baking dues.”
“Cornhill is the only market allowed to be held afternoon in the fourteenth century.”
“Birchin Lane, Cornhill, place of considerable trade for men’s apparel, 1604.”
“Garraway’s Coffee House, a place of great commercial transaction and frequented by people of quality.”
“Pope’s Head Tavern in existence in 1750 belonging to Merchant Taylor’s Company, the Vinters were prominent in the life of Cornhill Ward.”
“This well was discovered, much enlarged, and this was pump was erected in the year 1799 by the contributions of the Bank of England, the East India Company, the neighbouring Fire Offices, together with the bankers and traders of the Ward of Cornhill.”
“On this spot a well was first made and a house of correction built thereon by Henry Wallis, Mayor of London in the year 1282.”
These flowers commemorate a recent episode in the history of Cornhill – the spot where Ian Tomlinson, newspaper seller, died in April 2009 after being hit with a baton by a policeman whilst trying to find his way home on the day of the G20 protests.
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