Jake Bransgrove: Charles Wheeler, Modern Sculptor – The Garden Court Keystones at the Bank of England

For Nikolaus Pevsner, writing in 1957, the rebuilding of John Soane’s Bank of England, undertaken between 1923 and 1942, represented the worst individual loss suffered by London’s architecture in the twentieth century. [1] Constructed to a design by Herbert Baker (1862-1946), the resulting Neo-Georgian pile loomed over the heart of the City, attracting negative comments from the outset. Many, like Pevsner, considered it to be an act of arch-vandalism. Others have since perceived in the ensuing furore a principal reason for its architect’s fall from grace.

A conspicuous portion of the criticism levelled against Baker’s work at the Bank targeted the building’s external sculpture. This was overseen in its entirety by Charles Wheeler (1892-1974), a young protégé of the architect who would go on to become the first sculptor serving as President of the Royal Academy (1956-66). However, in 1922, when Baker gained the commission for the rebuilding, Wheeler was then a relatively unknown figure in the world of British sculpture. This all changed after the Bank. With his and Baker’s working relationship begun through war memorials at Harrow School and Winchester College, it was his Madonna and Child (1922-4) at the latter that earned Wheeler the opportunity of working on this most attractive of projects: “a commission which any of the established sculptors of the day would have gladly accepted”, he later wrote; it was “the young artist’s dream”. [2]

Wheeler’s work was executed in a bold, angular style whose gestures towards Swedish Art Deco sculpture and Byzantine planarity produced muscular forms with a grave, elemental presence. At the Bank, this is clearest on the Threadneedle Street facade, the building’s principal front and most common target of criticism. In addition to three enormous cast-bronze doors, Wheeler ornamented this front with six giant figures (two female caryatids and four male telamons) and, in the pediment, The Lady of the Bank (1929-30). The monumentality of these schemes presaged a career creating public sculptures, often of the gargantuan kind. This culminated in Water (Fig. 1) and Earth (1950-3) at E. Vincent Harris’s Ministry of Defence (1938-1959), which, weighing in at forty tonnes each, are among the largest architectural sculptures in Britain. [3]

Fig. 1. Wheeler working on the sculpture of “Water” for the Ministry of Defence, Whitehall. c. 1950-3. CON_B07584_F001_045. The Courtauld, CC-BY-NC.

The massing and ornament of the Threadneedle Street front were, for Pevsner, the most effective parts of Baker’s scheme, whilst sections like Garden Court, behind an intervening vestibule, were deemed less successful. However, Wheeler’s work was to be found here too, and even in the most humble of pieces he managed to convey something of the deeply symbolic vision he shared with Baker for the Bank. Upon entering Garden Court and facing west, a line of sculpted keystones can be seen in the rusticated storey of an arcaded loggia, with five ornate blocks atop windows in blind arches and four in recessed spaces above. These keystones, photographs of which are kept in The Courtauld’s Conway Library, were carved by Wheeler to carry likenesses of important figures involved in the rebuild, including himself.

First among the Garden Court keystones was that depicting Baker (Fig. 2). The architect’s stern mien, craggy brow and cropped hair suggest the gravity and Graeco-Roman dimensions of his character. These harmonise with the surrounding neo-Greek décor – acanthus leaves and meandering Greek keys abound – chosen to align with the supposed origins of banking in ancient Greece. An Ionic capital, mark of the scholar, is placed below Baker’s face, itself surrounded by olive branches and singing birds, chosen to denote “the music of his country recreations”. [4] Wheeler shared with Baker an understanding of Architecture and Sculpture as being “sister arts” in pursuit of the “higher spheres of creative and spiritual art”. [5] This lent itself to the melding of personality, artifice and nature shown in the keystones, which broadcast a profound respect for and dedication to good architectural craftsmanship and its executors.

Fig. 2. Keystone for Herbert Baker with Ionic capital, olive branches and two singing birds, “denoting the music of his country recreations”. c. 1932-8. CON_B07585_F001_006. The Courtauld, CC-BY-NC.

Baker’s assistant, Alexander Thomson Scott (1887-1962), was depicted in no less of a striking manner (Fig. 3). Balancing his high-cheekboned, pince-nez’d face with a compass, set square and protractor, Scott is bounded by tall thistles – a clear indication of his origins north of the border. Working with Baker from 1914, he became his chief assistant in 1922 and entered into a partnership from 1929 until 1946. This saw the two collaborate on all of Baker’s commissions in Britain after his distinguished career in the wider Empire-Commonwealth, although portions of work at New Delhi were also carried out with Scott’s assistance. A similar transcontinental situation characterised Wheeler’s professional connections with Baker. Like Scott, he was during his time at the Bank just beginning to learn the mastery of his craft. His keystone (Fig. 4) shows the young sculptor, steely-eyed beneath boyish locks (which he kept to the end of his life), clutching a hammer amidst “foliage symbolical of the parallel process of the growth of forms in nature and the artist himself”.

Fig. 3. Keystone for Alexander Thomson Scott, Baker’s assistant, wearing glasses, and with drawing instruments, plus thistles representing his Scottish background. c. 1932-8. CON_B07585_F001_007. The Courtauld, CC-BY-NC.
Fig. 4. Keystone for Charles Wheeler, with “tools of his craft; foliage symbolical of the parallel process of the growth of forms in nature and in the artist himself”, signed and dated 1932. CON_B07585_F001_008. The Courtauld, CC-BY-NC.

Whereas keystones depicting Wheeler and the Bank’s architects conformed to established precedents of artistic recognition, others represented a striking break from tradition, attributing authorial status to figures occupying more identifiably “modern” roles in the architectural enterprise. George Macaulay Booth (1877-1971), Chairman of the Building Committee and later Director of the Bank, for example, was afforded just such an honour (Fig. 5). An enthusiastic patron of Wheeler and Baker, Booth was, in the latter’s words, “our revered leader […] He had unique gifts, a combination of quick insight and the understanding of complicated plans and practical problems, as well as sympathy for the artist and a genuine flair for the beautiful in art”. [6] The visual puns continued in Booth’s ornamentation by Wheeler with a “staff of power” and a lyre – “a double reference to “calling the tune”: to the designers and his musical recreations”. 

Fig. 5. Keystone for George Macaulay Booth, Chairman of the Building Committee, with lyre, “a double reference to “calling the tune”: to the designers and his musical recreations; and the staff of authority”. c. 1932-8. CON_B07585_F001_010. The Courtauld, CC-BY-NC.

To Booth’s managerial functions were added engineering responsibilities in the domain of Oscar Faber (1886-1956), depicted by Wheeler below a square arch of steel girders and above the “winged wheel of mechanical forces” (Fig. 6). Faber was another of Baker’s frequent collaborators in the Interwar period who, alongside Wheeler and Scott, made a name for himself through working at the Bank. A pioneer in the use and advocacy of reinforced concrete, he wrote widely on engineering matters, garnering extensive praise: earning an OBE during the First World War, a CBE for work on the House of Commons (1951), and rising to the presidencies of the Institute of Structural Engineers (1935-6) and the Institute of Heating and Ventilating Engineers (1944-5). A firm believer in the importance of the architect-engineer partnership, Faber worked well with Baker, and extensively, on projects like India House (1928-30) and South Africa House (1931-3), both in London. [7] Indeed, the depth of their involvement indicated the growing participation of engineers in the architectural profession which Baker – in many ways a late survivor of an earlier period – foresaw as inevitable.

Fig. 6. Keystone for Oscar Faber, the engineer for the rebuilding, with “girders and the winged wheel of mechanical forces”. c. 1932-8. CON_B07585_F01_011. The Courtauld, CC-BY-NC.

As well as Baker, Scott, Wheeler, Booth and Faber, less prominent but no less crucial figures involved in constructing the Bank found their likenesses carved into its surface too. A row of keystones, set above portals in the spandrels of Garden Court’s west arcade, depict four individuals whose reputations have since waned or been lost to posterity. If recognition of Booth’s managerial contribution and Faber’s engineering prowess was a conspicuously modern means of displaying architectural authorship, the installation of these four keystones (Figs 7-10) spoke to the growing importance of the collective and the lessening pre-eminence of the architect in large-scale projects of this kind. The craftsman Joseph Armitage (1880-1945) – whose best-known work is the oak leaf sign for the National Trust (1935) – worked largely in reproducing sculptures after Wheeler’s original carving. His keystone (Fig. 7), showing “tools and a decorative wreath”, is simple yet evokes the foliate designs he was known for making throughout his tenure with Baker, as at India House and the Indian Memorial for the Missing at Neuve Chapelle, near Lille (1918-27). [8] H. W. G. Tanner, clerk of works (Fig. 8) and R. H. Pillar (Fig. 9) have all but faded from recognition. However, Henry Thomas Holloway (1876–1951), the Chief Builder, has remained comparatively well-known due to his role as head of Holloway Brothers, a thriving construction firm responsible for large-scale and civil engineering projects across the late-nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In Wheeler’s keystone he is shown with two cranes (Fig. 10).

Figs 7-10. Keystones, clockwise from top left, for: Joseph Armitage, craftsman, with tools and decorative wreath; H. W. G. Tanner, clerk of works, with ‘Instruments of measurement’; R. H. Pillar, Works Manager with visual pun, “Pillars of support”; Henry Thomas Holloway, Chief Builder, with crane. c. 1932-8. CON_B07585_F001_019-022. The Courtauld, CC-BY-NC.

Wheeler’s Garden Court keystones represent in stone the contribution of those who, beyond the architect and chief sculptor, helped build the new Bank of England. In doing so, they encapsulate the collision of a fading Arts & Crafts tradition, to which Baker (and, to a lesser extent, Wheeler) could claim inheritance, with the modern realities of large-scale, complicated construction work. They are also, perhaps just as importantly, a bit of fun, as Baker himself acknowledged. In both ways, the keystones lend traces of humanity to the building they are fixed to. As marks of recognition, they capture the likenesses of men who carried out the real, often toilsome, work required to complete the project. They remind us that architecture is more than taste and style – it is budgets and schedules; measurements and repetition; people working together rather than abstract genius; it is weight, pressure, stone and steel.


Jake Bransgrove

Courtauld Connects Digitisation Volunteer
Tutor in Architectural History and History of Art at the University of Edinburgh

References

[1] Simon Bradley and Nikolaus Pevsner, The Buildings of England: London I: The City of London (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2002), p. 276.

[2] Charles Wheeler, High Relief: The Autobiography of Sir Charles Wheeler Sculptor (London: Country Life, 1968), p. 55.

[3] Sarah Crellin, The Sculpture of Charles Wheeler (Farnham: Lund Humphries, in association with the Henry Moore Foundation, 2012), p. 169.

[4] Descriptions of the keystones in quotes come from Herbert Baker, The Decoration of the New Bank of England and its Significance (London: private printing for the Bank of England, 1939).

[5] Herbert Baker, Architecture and Personalities (London: Country Life, 1944), p. 3.

[6] Ibid., p. 129; Wheeler, High Relief, p. 55.

[7] John Faber, Oscar Faber: His Work, His Firm, and Afterwards (London: Quiller Press, 1989), p. 2.

[8] Edward Armitage, ‘Joseph Armitage, Craftsman. 1880-1945’, Journal of the Thirties Society, no. 3 (1983), pp. 25-30.

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