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The Royal Exchange frieze: a freeze frame of history

Sculptures on the Victorian building tell of the City of London's past

The Royal Exchange, City of London

It is easy to miss the sculpted details on the the Royal Exchange, with its prominent eight double columned façade. The building stands at the heart of the City of London at the Bank junction. This intersection of eight roads also features the Bank of England and the Lord Mayor's residence, Mansion House (see here for more on the Bank junction).

 

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The Royal Exchange's neoclassical Corinthian columns lend it a striking similarity to an ancient Greek or Roman temple. This is no coincidence. When the building was opened in 1844, London was at the centre of the world's biggest empire since ancient times and the City liked to compare itself with imperial Rome.


Above the columns, a triangular pediment displays a stone frieze that says much about the mercantile trading past of the City of London and the UK.


The original Royal Exchange was built here in 1571 as London's first specialist commercial building, where the City's merchants could meet and trade around a central courtyard.


There were also shops selling valuable goods on the upper floor. It was officially opened by Queen Elizabeth I, who gave it the 'Royal' title and a licence to sell alcohol, thereby increasing its appeal.


The Exchange was founded and funded by Sir Thomas Gresham, a leading City merchant, member of the Mercers' Company and the agent of English crown in Antwerp from the days of Queen Elizabeth's father, Henry VIII. Antwerp was then the centre of European trade and Gresham was inspired by its bourse.


It soon became the City's major commercial hub, its presence spawning a cluster of buildings, organisations and activities in the immediate vicinity that further developed the City's commercial and trading importance. These included the Bank of England, Mansion House, the General Post Office and a network of alleys whose coffee shops accommodated the development of insurance markets and trading in stocks and shares in the 17th and 18th centuries.


In the Elizabethan Royal Exchange, trading had mainly focused on the British Isles and Europe. In the Victorian era, British trade was reaching the height of its world-wide power and influence.


Architect Sir William Tite designed today's Victorian edifice building in 1844. It was created to showcase the strength of Britain's trade and its empire.

The Royal Exchange frieze, by Richard Westmacott III

Below the frieze, an embossed gold inscription in Latin refers to the Royal Exchange's original opening in the 13th year of the reign of Queen Elizabeth (ie 1571) and its reconstruction in the eighth year of Queen Victoria's (ie 1844).


In fact, this is the third version of the Royal Exchange and the inscription misses out the second one.


The first was destroyed in the Great Fire of 1666, while the second was destroyed in its very own fire of 1838 (ironically, that fire started in offices in the building that were occupied by Lloyd's of London, the insurance institution - see also The Cornhill Pump, The Royal Exchange, Fire and Insurance).


The pediment frieze depicts global trade and commerce, centred on the City of London, Britain and its maritime power in the 19th century.


An allegorical figure at the centre of the frieze represents Commerce, portrayed as female, one hand on the tiller, the other holding a charter of exchange. On the left is a ship's prow, on the right a beehive represents industry and a cornucopia represents plenty.

On either side behind her is a winged caduceus, the serpent-entwined staff carried by Hermes, the Greek messenger god and the god of trade and profit (Mercury to the Romans).


At her feet is an inscription, "The Earth is the Lord's and the fullness thereof", from the Bible (Psalm 24.1), a text chosen by Prince Albert, consort to Queen Victoria.


To the left of Lady Commerce, robed and engrossed in discussion, are three figures representing the City of London's elected officials: the Lord Mayor of London, an Alderman and a Common Councilman.

Then there are two figures representing India, one a Hindu and the other a Muslim, and then a Greek man carrying an amphora.

Next, an Armenian banker, seated on a stool or a box and consulting a document, is facing a Turkish merchant, who is sitting on the ground and appears to be making an entry in his account book. Behind him, filling the left hand corner of the pediment, are an anchor, a buoy, some rope and other marine paraphernalia.


To the right of Lady Commerce, first we see two British merchants looking somewhat aloofly at a Persian trader offering cloth.


Next is a Chinese man, apparently in conversation with a sailor from the Levant. Kneeling between the two, holding a barrel and looking up at the others, is an African man.

To the right of that group a British sailor ties up a bale, closely watched by a British cargo manager, on one knee. Behind him are sacks, a barrel, an urn and an amphora.


The figure of the African man has been the cause of some controversy in recent years, as he is the frieze's only character in what appears a subservient pose. While not depicting an enslaved person (slavery had been abolished in the British Empire in 1834), it remains the only public sculpture of someone of African descent in the City of London.


From today's perspective, other figures in the frieze can also be seen as controversial, since they invoke parts of the world where British trading strength was often backed by military power and colonisation.


The 1844 depiction of a Chinese man was only two years after Britain had fought a war to force China to allow the British East India Company's trade in opium.


The two traders from India are a reminder of the role there of the East India Company, the most powerful private corporation the world has ever known, with its own army to enforce its position.


Founded by City of London merchants in 1600, the British government progressively assumed the Company's powers in India in the 19th century, taking over most of its trading assets in 1833. Nevertheless, East India Company shareholders continued to receive a dividend from the government until it was dissolved in 1874.


Controversies aside, the frieze's 17 figures and associated symbols are an impressive artistic composition by sculptor Richard Westmacott. The youngest of three generations of sculptors of the same family, all called Richard, the Royal Exchange frieze is his only major public work in London.


If you have time after studying the details of the frieze at the front of the Royal Exchange, take a little longer to notice more sculpted details on the outside of the building.


There's Sir Thomas Gresham in painted wrought iron over the front entrance and projecting clocks on either side of the building, complete with the Royal Exchange's coat of arms.



On the north side of the building, on Threadneedle Street, two statues depict important men from the City's past.


Sir Hugh Myddelton, a goldsmith and MP, was the driving force behind the New River, which was completed in 1613 and brought fresh drinking water to the City in the early 17th century. Richard Whittington was four times Lord Mayor in the late 1300s and early 1400s (and the inspiration for the pantomime character, Dick Whittington).

Sir Hugh Myddelton and Richard Whittington on the north façade of the Royal Exchange

At the back of the Royal Exchange, its east end, a statue of Sir Thomas Gresham stands at the base of the clock tower.

Immediately below him is Gresham's shield, flanked on the left by the City of London shield and to the right by the shield of the Mercers' Company. The weather vane on top of the clock tower is in the form of a gold grasshopper, the chirruping insect being the Gresham family emblem.

Today the Royal Exchange is a high end retail mall, with a number of luxury goods shops and a Fortnum and Mason bar and café inside. However, it still occasionally plays a formal role in City and national life (see City of London proclaims the new King).

 

To see a view of the Royal Exchange and other nearby locations in 1929, please see Ward Lock's City of London 1929.

 

Spring schedule of tours available for booking

The London On The Ground summer schedule of tours through to May, is now available for booking. Please click here.

 

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