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The Door In Cornhill

March 17, 2016
by the gentle author

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.”

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The Door to Shakespeare’s London

At the Hoop & Grapes

Aldgate Pump, the Pump of Death

11 Responses leave one →
  1. March 17, 2016

    What a wonderful door to the past. Valerie

  2. March 17, 2016

    What a fabulous door!

    Lots of women in there (relatively speaking) – almost like real life – which is a nice change.
    They also all look very purposeful and some of them look pretty fierce! How unusual and how welcome.

    I’ll look out for that door. Thanks GA

  3. Robert permalink
    March 17, 2016

    I’ve never heard of this but it’s little things like this that breaks with the vast foreboding concrete monoliths in the city and provides interest in a humanistic way. A charming door I will have to visit one day.

  4. March 17, 2016

    An interesting absence of nonhuman animals. I would have thought that at least a dog if not a cat would have been part of these imagined tableaux.

  5. ian silverton permalink
    March 17, 2016

    This was once the doors that led to the great Halls of the old Midland Bank hq, before it was taken over by HSBC,who rescued it from going skint. They left it empty for over 20yrs,as they left it,with some lovely desks,and chairs,all covered in a thick layer of dust,figures! waste! Banks!

  6. March 17, 2016

    A wonderful piece of art. One day, I hope to take a look.

  7. pauline taylor permalink
    March 17, 2016

    Not a fan of the Arts and Crafts movement myself, but it is good to know that this door and the carving has survived all the destruction that is going on in London. My relative, Frederick Greenwood, took over from Thackeray as the editor of the Cornhill Magazine, and Thackeray was a visitor to his home. He was described by Frederick Greenwood’s niece as ‘a very nice gentleman’ unlike Dickens who was not so popular. Frederick’s son, Frank, had to stand on a table to recite ‘Little Billee’ to an assembled company which included Mr Thackeray.

  8. carolyn permalink
    March 17, 2016

    Delightful post, gentle author. What precious snatch of British history!

  9. pauline taylor permalink
    March 17, 2016

    I should have pointed out in the first comment that Little Billee is a poem by Thackeray.

  10. William Martin permalink
    March 18, 2016

    An arts and crafts version of Ghiberti’s doors to the Duomo in Florence.

  11. March 18, 2016

    Listening at the moment to ‘Charlotte in Babylon’, where Cornhill is constantly mentioned!

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