THIS immense pile of building is more extensive in its range of offices, and more eminent for its architectural ornament, and interior arrangement, than any single public office in the metropolis. It however presents an incongruous medley of styles and forms, it having been built at various periods by three different architects. The oldest part, that is, the centre of the principal or south front, with some apartments on the same side, was designed and erected by George Sampson, in the year 1733; and the lateral wings of this facade, and the returns on the east and west sides, with several offices immediately attached, were built by Sir Robert Taylor, between 1770 and 1786; but the great alterations and additions which have been made since the year 1788 by Mr. Soane, constitute the prominent features of this noble edifice.
The whole buildings are included in an area of an irregular form, the exterior wall of which measures 365 feet in front, or on the south side; 440 feet on the west side; 410 feet on the north side; and 245 feet on time east side. This area comprises eight open courts, the rotunda, or circular room, several large public offices, committee rooms, and private apartments for the residence of officers and servants. The principal suite of rooms is on the ground floor, and there is no floor over the chief offices. But it is necessary to state, that beneath this floor, and even below the surface of the ground, there is more building, and more rooms than above ground. Part of the edifice is raised on a marshy soft soil, for the stream called Walbrook ran here; and it has been necessary to pile the foundation, and construct counter-arches beneath the walls.
Of the architectural characteristics of this edifice, its extent, arrangement, and adaptation to the accumulated and increasing business of the national Bank, it may be impossible to convey satisfactory information in a limited space, and without illustrative prints. But we shall briefly describe a few of the principal features. The oldest part, by Sampson, combines a degree of simplicity united with grandeur, and was admirably adapted to its original purpose. It bespoke the character of a public edifice, with a rich and appropriate style of design. The whole assumed an air of dignity and importance, with a sufficiency of ornament and dress. On a rusticated basement are two stories with Ionic columns, and a bold entablature. An uniformity of character pervades the whole. With such a model before him, it is surprising that Sir Robert Taylor did not design his additions in the same style, or in one that harmonized with it. But he preferred prettiness to propriety, and gaiety to grandeur, and therefore designed the wings, with the offices immediately attached, in the most gorgeous style of Roman architecture. Corinthian fluted columns, arranged in pairs, are placed along the whole front, supporting pediments at both extremities, and a balustraded entablature between. In the additions and improvements made in this edifice by Mr. Soane, we find many novelties in design, and skilful appropriations. The rotunda is a spacious circular room, with a lofty dome, where a large and heterogeneous mass of persons, of all nations and classes, assemble on public days to buy and sell stock; but since the building of the New Stock Exchange, the business transacted in the rotunda has not been of so general and respectable a character. It is still, however, frequented by stock-holders, who wait here to learn the result of commissions given to their stock-brokers.
The design and construction of the dome, by the last-named artist, are entitled to the particular notice and admiration of strangers. In the 3 per cents warrant office, the same profound artist has displayed much taste and skill. It is an oblong room, with a vaulted ceiling, springing from ornamented piers; and in the centre is a handsome dome or lantern light, supported by caryatides. The soffits of the arches are decorated with pannels, roses, and other objects, in strict conformity to the practice of the ancient architects. It is worthy of remark, that the whole is constructed without timber. Branching from this apartment is another, called the interior office, adapted to clerks, whose business it is to guard against forgery. It opens to Lothbury Court, which is a grand display of architectural design, two sides of it being formed by open screens, with handsome fluted columns of the Corinthian order. These are copied front the little temple at Tivoli. On the southern side of this court is a noble arch of entrance to the bullion court; and to other offices. This arch and facade are designed after the model of the celebrated triumphal arch of Constantine at Rome. On the sides of the great archway are four handsome fluted columns, supporting an entablature, and four statues, emblematic of the four quarters of the globe. In pannels are basso-relievos, executed by that great master of sculpture, Banks, allegorically representing the Thames and the Ganges. The chief cashier's office is a noble apartment, in the design of which the architect has again shown his enthusiastic attachment to classical antiquity. It is in imitation of the Temple of the Sun and Moon at Rome, and is spacious, simple in decoration, and cheerfully lighted by large and lofty windows. In the accountant's office, governor's court, vestibule and passage from Prince's Street, and recessed portico at the north-western angle, are some specimens of architectural design, which must excite the admiration of every accomplished connoisseur. In all these parts are recognised the forms, style, and detail, of the best antique specimens, carefully adapted to their respective situations, and calculated to gratify the eye and satisfy the judgement. Stability is certainly the most essential object in such a building; but beauty and grandeur are equally deserving of attention; for the British Bank is rich; its proprietors are presumed to be men of education and taste, and under their auspices, we are entitled to look for such works as shall be ornamental and honourable to the character and taste of the kingdom. In the great enlargements, which have been recently made in the present building, it is evident that the architect has been particularly attentive to the immediate business of the company, the security of their property from depredation, and a chaste, classical style of embellishment.
Source: Leigh's New Picture of London. Printed for Samuel Leigh, 18, Strand;
by W. Clowes, Northumberland Court. 1819