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A Door In Cornhill

May 25, 2021
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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10 Responses leave one →
  1. Herry Lawford permalink
    May 25, 2021

    Having worked there for almost 40 years, I found this particularly fascinating. Thanks again!

  2. May 25, 2021

    These are treasures. Thank you so much for showing them.

  3. May 25, 2021

    I worked in Cornhill many years ago and saw these splendid doors on my way to and from work.
    What a joy to find out so much about them and their creator, thank you GA.
    Another trip down memory lane this morning……

  4. Sebastiaan Eldritch-Boersen permalink
    May 25, 2021

    I could not believe the number of times I had walked past them en route to and from work via Liverpool Street to Aldwych.
    Now, I make a point of stopping to look at them. They really are awe inspiring, despite the incongruous setting.

  5. May 25, 2021

    Greetings from Boston,

    GA, thanks for featuring these fabulous doors at 32 Cornhill. What a story they tell. Another stop on my next trip to London (I hope).

  6. May 25, 2021

    The history of costume mavens do a deep curtsy, and thank you for this fascinating post.
    Bows-under-chins, beribboned wigs, ruffed collars, buckled shoes, snoods, and (ahem)
    codpieces, tra la. I greatly admire how the designer skillfully concocted the elements within each square, and the dramatic profile portraits. It’s amazing that these fluid, descriptive panels started out as static blocks of wood. Long may they endure.

    Thanks for shining a light.

  7. May 25, 2021

    I have seen these glorious doors somewhere before. Amazing workmanship. I shutter at the thought of some fool with a can of spray paint doing the unmentionable to these divine beauties. It’s really sad that the state of the world made that pop into my mind. I am still in a state of horror and nauseum over the recent theft from Arundel Castle. Those rosary beads that were stolen are utterly priceless historically. The degradation of our society leaves me with worrie over such irreplacable things such as those doors. I guess I shall go cry in a pint. Blessings .

  8. Cherub permalink
    May 29, 2021

    A fascinating story, although I’m ashamed to admit I worked in the City for about 10 years and was not aware of these doors. I find old doors interesting and often take photos of them in the medieval cobbled streets of Basel Altstadt. There is often a family name and a date painted above, some as early as the mid 13th century.

  9. Dee P permalink
    June 1, 2021

    50 years ago, I worked at 50 Cornhill, Prescotts Office, how I wish I had noticed these doors on my way to and from work! Thank you so much for enlightening me! As a school leaver just starting work I guess I was always in a hurry! My main glimpse and feel of history was part of the Roman wall which lay under our Bank. When down in the vault it was accessible to touch through metal railings!

  10. June 2, 2021

    Beautiful carvings. There is real movement in them, helped by the shadows in each one

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