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Signs and Symbols: 17 figures

Sir Richard Westmacott’s sculpted stone pediment, at The Royal Exchange’s grand main entrance, depicts a scene of international tradesmen in 1844

The Royal Exchange, City of London The Royal Exchange pediment

The third incarnation of The Royal Exchange (1844) took its design cues from the Pantheon in Rome. Sitting atop the eight Corinthian columns of the main entrance is a striking Portland stone pediment. It displays 17 figures sculpted by Sir Richard Westmacott (1775-1856), who was responsible for many public statues – including one of Lord Nelson in Birmingham’s Bullring and the Wellington Monument at Hyde Park Corner.

The subjects are a figurative representation of the prime purpose of the building – to facilitate and encourage global trade, with Britain’s merchants front and centre. In the middle of the frieze is the crowned figure of Commerce, holding a rudder in one hand, with a ship’s prow next to her – symbolising the country’s position as one of the greatest sea-trading nations on Earth. In the other hand Commerce has a “charter of exchange”, with a beehive and an overflowing cornucopia next to her. She stands on a base with an inscription personally chosen by Prince Albert, who laid the building’s foundation stone in 1842: ‘The Earth is the Lord’s and the fulness thereof’ (Psalm 24.1). And if Queen Victoria’s subjects could make a profit from that ‘fulness’, so be it.

The Royal Exchange pediment The crowned figure of Commerce is the central figure of The Royal Exchange's stone pediment, symbolising Great Britain's position as one of the greatest sea-trading nations on Earth

The other sixteen figures indicate the nation’s mercantile reach at that time. From the left, moving to the centre, Westmacott shows a Turkish merchant doing his books, an Armenian banker with scroll and a Greek holding an amphora. Closer to Commerce there are two figures from India – a Muslim and a Hindu – standing behind a group of British dignitaries: a Lord Mayor, Alderman and Common Councilman.

On Commerce’s left is a dockside scene, where two British merchants examine fabrics being offered by a Persian trader. These give way to a Chinese male (thanks to the treaty of Nanjing, Hong Kong was ceded to Great Britain in the same year construction of the third Exchange began), a Levantine sailor, a kneeling African man, a British sailor tying up a bale of cargo and, crouching among jars and packages, a shipboard sales manager. Taken together, these figures represent the human engine that powered the world’s trading system in the middle part of the 19th century.

Officially opened by HRH Queen Elizabeth I in 1571, The Royal Exchange celebrates its 450th anniversary this year. Our Signs and Symbols series, by author and journalist Rob Ryan, explores the design secrets in and around The Royal Exchange’s magnificent façade.

Visit our heritage page to learn more about the history of The Royal Exchange and keep an eye on our 450 Years site, journal and Instagram for more fascinating facts and insights about The Royal Exchange’s past and present as we commemorate this special milestone throughout the year ahead.

We look forward to welcoming you during 2021, for a considered shopping and dining experience in spectacular and historic surroundings. Please visit our boutiques page for regular updates on our retailers’ opening information and hours, as well as details about virtual appointments and click and collect services.