Signs and Symbols: Set in stone
The Royal Exchange is home to an eclectic collection of statues, from Charles II and Dick Whittington to Abraham Lincoln and the Duke of Wellington
Statuary has been an integral part of The Royal Exchange since the original building opened 450 years ago. The covered walkways that surrounded the open quadrangle contained stone renderings of British monarchs.
In 1648 an angry mob pulled down a statue of the doomed Charles I, as Oliver Cromwell’s New Model Army took power and the monarchy was abolished. A replacement statue was ordered upon the Restoration in 1660, alongside one of the new king, Charles II by the Royal sculptor Grinling Gibbons. There was also a statue of founder Sir Thomas Gresham in the piazza, and, according to Samuel Pepys, this survived the Great Fire of 1666, unlike the rest of the building.
The second version of The Royal Exchange was also well served with statuary, including a new Charles II – based on the lost Grinling Gibbons one – by John Spiller, erected in 1792. It didn’t perish in the 1838 fire and is now in a niche in the great courtyard of the current building, as is a later one of Elizabeth I, in tribute to her bestowing the ‘Royal’ epithet on the Exchange.
Sir Thomas Gresham wasn’t so lucky a second time – his statue was consumed by the flames. Other extant statues, including those of Georges I, II and III, were sold as salvage (although not Gresham’s Grasshopper, of course) to help fund a new building. However, Sir Thomas, or at least a stone version of him, lives on. He can be seen by looking up at the bell tower at the rear (eastern end) of the complex, where he sits in a niche. In fact, to avoid a cricked neck, he is probably best examined from across the street.
"Statuary has been an integral part of The Royal Exchange since the original building opened 450 years ago"
Two other figures occupy an elevated position on either side of the Threadneedle Street entrance. On the left is Sir Hugh Myddleton (1560-1631), a goldsmith and engineer. To the right is Richard ‘Dick’ Whittington (1350-1423), who gains his place not just as a mayor but because he served three terms as Master of the Mercers’ Company.
Many visitors also miss a surprising addition to the catalogue of effigies. In the foyer just inside the eastern entrance is a bust of Abraham Lincoln. There is no record of any great connection between the president and The Royal Exchange, it simply says on the plinth: ‘Presented to the Gresham Committee by the Lincoln Committee 1930.’
It was carved in Paris in 1928 by sculptor Andrew O’Connor, from a block of limestone quarried near Lincoln’s home in Springfield, Illinois. It was intended to represent the bond between the United States and Great Britain, with the Lord Mayor of London and the US Ambassador jointly overseeing the unveiling on February 12, 1930.
There are interesting statues in the immediate environs of The Royal Exchange, not least the war memorial, which we will look at in detail later in the Signs and Symbols series. Outside the main western entrance, overlooking Bank junction, sits a mounted Arthur Wellesley, the 1st Duke of Wellington. It was unveiled, with the Duke himself present, on 18th June 1844, the same date as the battle of Waterloo in 1815.
The statue is cast in bronze from enemy cannons captured at the battle. However, the primary reason for the statue of the Duke was not Wellington’s victory at Waterloo but his role, as explained on the plaque on the plinth, in helping pass the London Bridge Approaches Act in 1827, which created King William Street for access to ‘New’ London Bridge (1831-1967). That bridge was famously sold to an American businessman and shipped to Arizona, but a small piece of it remains embedded in the pavement next to the Duke’s plinth.
Finally, in the middle of Cornhill opposite the south entrance of The Royal Exchange is a relatively recent addition. The bronze statue depicts a bearded, hatted man looking down and examining plans held in his hands. This is James Henry Greathead, a South African-born civil engineer. He was employed by London (City) & Southwark Subway, later the City & South London Railway and now part of the Northern line, which has a station at nearby Bank.
As the plaque on the plinth explains, he is credited with inventing the tunnelling shield – a structure that provides protection for the diggers from cave-ins – which made the deep tube excavations possible. The shield is depicted on the plaque and, on the opposite face of the plinth, there is a stone-carved badge of the City & South London Railway. The statue, by James Butler, was unveiled in 1994 and, appropriately enough, sits on top of and disguises a ventilation shaft for the tube tunnels below.
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.