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The Door In Cornhill

February 13, 2019
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.”

You might also like to read about

The Door to Shakespeare’s London

At the Hoop & Grapes

Aldgate Pump, the Pump of Death

6 Responses leave one →
  1. Jill Wilson permalink
    February 13, 2019

    Great stuff and wonderfully crafted panels. I have never noticed the door before and look forward to seeing it in the flesh next time I’m up that way.
    Thank you for drawing our attention to yet another wonderful bit of historic London!

  2. Anthony Read permalink
    February 13, 2019

    That is amazing craftsmanship do any other examples of their colaboration exist?

  3. Susan Martin permalink
    February 13, 2019

    Absolutely brilliant as usual thank you

  4. Richard permalink
    February 13, 2019

    Carving such a hard wood as mahogany, I wonder whether machine tools were used. Must have cost a fortune.

  5. Helen Breen permalink
    February 13, 2019

    Greetings from Boston,

    GA, what a gem, hidden in plain sight. I would like to know more about how these clay models “were then translated into wood carvings.”

    I also learned a new word (new to me that is) FURNAGE, defined by Merriam –Webster as “a price paid for the use of an oven; specifically : the fee paid a feudal lord by his tenants for the right to bake in his oven.”

  6. February 13, 2019

    I thought it was notable that each of the faces shown here were profiles. I appreciated how the
    designer skillfully maximized the square format, plus the History of Costume details. Your
    British culture is saturated with visual and decorative arts, beyond compare — thanks for shining a light on discoveries, past and present.

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