Wednesday, 11 June 2008

161 Piccadilly

In 1908 the top end of St James's Street where it meets Piccadilly was an architectural arm-wrestling contest between two insurance giants. On the eastern corner, Norwich Union was building solid, stone-faced, respectable and reassuring offices. And on the western corner, Royal Insurance was doing exactly the same.
Symbolism is everywhere. The Norwich Union building (by Runtz & Ford) is topped by a figure of Justice with scales and sword. Nothing could say 'probity' clearer if it were not for Justice's attendants, who are improperly dressed. The group is by Herbert Binney.
The Royal Insurance building is evenmore muscular, by the architect J.J. Joass. As always, Joass uses the classical vocabulary to produce something rather strange. The composition consists of a base supporting columns, with an attic above, but the columns do not reach the attic, so the putti that used to stand in the niches in the columns have had to step up and support the upper floor. This is truly wierd. The sculptor was Bertram Mackennal.
Above the front door, there is a carving by the eminent sculptor Alfred Drury of that favourite bird of insurance companies, the phoenix, on a shield supported by more putti. And above that, the coat of arms of the company with a crown and lions on either side. It is so probitous it squeaks.
But I suspect all this rich symbolism is totally lost on the high-spending clients of the caviar and champagne restaurant that now occupies the site.

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