Allegorical Group by Ernest Gillick. National Westminster Bank (built as the National Provincial Bank). 1 Prince's Street, London. 1929-32. Portland stone, approximately 4m high. [Click on images for larger pictures.]
At the center of the group sits a robed female figure representing Britannia, who wears a somewhat odd tripartite headdress that includes small wings at its side. She is flanked on the viewer's left by a standing Mercury (Commerce) with winged feet and, below him, a somewhat androgynous woman holding a plaque half sits and half kneels. On the other side of the seated goddess, a male winged figure extends a torch towards her while below him another nude female figure, who looks rather anxious, directs her gaze away from the goddess as she, like her counterpart on the opposte side of the group, half sits and half kneels. This last female figure holds a horizonal object intended to be either a box or book, which in turn rests on a pile of five books on top of which perches a grim looking owl perhaps representing wisdom, the owl being associated with the goddess Athena, and a second owl appears behind. The larger, more prominent owl rather strangely resembles an Egyptian canoptic jar, in part because a line or seam, not required by the stone block, traverses the widest part of its chest. Another incongrous element appears in the way the male figure, who Ward-Jackson explains is Truth, extends his torch apparently with the intention of burning an unaware Britiannia. According to Ward-Jackson, “Crouching to either side of Britannia's feet are, to the left, Higher Mathematics, and to the right, Lower Mathematics. Higher Mathematics hold a Magic Square, a numerical acrostic, whose numbers add up to 34, when added horizontally, vertically or diagonally. Lower Mathematics holds a pen and a book.”
Left: Location of the group on the buildings's façade. Right: View from another angle.
Gillick here inadvertently provides a fine example of the fundamental risks involved in mixing allegory with realistic styles in the visual arts, particularly when they involve apparent expression of emotion and what appears to be psychological realism. The expressionless Britannia doesn't go at all with the anxious expressions with which the sculptor, intentionally or not, has endowed the figures representing mathematics. The weird business with the owls, like the way Truth appears to be threatening or attacking Britannia (perhaps to get her attention?) produces unintended comedy.
Photographs and caption by Robert Freidus. Formatting, text, and perspective correction by George P. Landow. [You may use this image without prior permission for any scholarly or educational purpose as long as you (1) credit the Victorian Web and (2) link your document to this URL in a web document or cite it in a print one.]
Related Material: Other sculpture on the same building
Ward-Jackson, Philip. Public Sculpture of the City of London. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2003.
Last modified 18 June 2011