Every time that we programme a Bach cantata, I look to see if there is an appropriate image in the City of London to help publicise the event. Ideally, the image is of something in the City of London directly reflecting the text of the cantata, or the biblical readings for the day of the cantata’s performance.
For Bach Vespers on 26 November, 2017, we have programmed O Ewigkeit, du Donnerwort, BWV 60. I couldn’t find anything concerning Fear arguing with Hope (two of the cantata’s characters). Instead I used a pleasant, vaguely Brahmin image of a modern fountain in Aldermanbury Square (right).
As I read more about the cantata and the words of the Holy Spirit ‘Selig sind die Toten, die in dem Herren sterben’ (Blessed are the dead, who die in the Lord), I realised that I should be looking rather harder for what one might assume would be a common sight in the City: angels. Three of them, in fact, in the passage from Revelation 14 quoted by the Holy Spirit.
I made a fresh online search for ‘three angels city of london’. This jumped straight out at me:
The image comes with almost no further information besides ‘Location: City of London; Date taken: 30 December 2003’. Such obscurantism piqued my interest: what is the sign for – and where is it?
A search began. When no further information came through extensive online searches, I started to visit the real experts.
First up were the Friends of City Churches, patient enthusiasts who sit in some of the neglected architectural jewels of the square mile so that they can be open to the public to visit during the day. No-one recognised this straightaway, so they circulated the image by email.
Meanwhile I went to the Guildhall Library. The staff there are utterly forensic, noting the style of frame around the sign, and the style of the iron bracket (wrought, not cast). I was introduced to Bryant Lillywhite’s London Signs (1972), a most succinct reference book, which indicates not only where to find signs according to their images but also by their associations. Apparently the use of three figures is a popular conceit, not least of course through the pawnbroking trade – though one would be forgiven for thinking that angels are somewhat removed from the area of money lending – but I was also pointed towards the three-crown crest of the Drapers Company.
I made my way to Throgmorton Street. At Drapers Hall I was given the contact details of their Archivist. As I left to go and leave a message about this burgeoning search, I realised that I was cycling through Angel Court… not the first in a number of what turned out to be tempting red herrings in this pursuit.
I tried Westminster Archive Library. Here I was again shown Lillywhite’s book but also directed towards a monumental reference work in some 40 volumes of names of London pubs. A handful of Angel-related pubs are referenced but most if not all are now closed.
I wrote to the Blue Badge Guides, the body that certifies guides to take tourists around the City. One member from a mail-out of over 500 wrote back, with much the same results as I had achieved. The sign with the angels was proving properly elusive.
Finally, I visited the London Metropolitan Archive’s online image collection, Collage. There was little concerning the subject matter of the sign and I realised that this line of enquiry was running dry.
I returned to the Guildhall Library, trying a different tack: the architecture of the buildings in the background. the sign appears to be in a court, with modern glass at one end, reflecting a building the other side of the sign, with the building on the left having distinct window columns with dark modern capitals (column ‘tops’). I was referred to Pevsner’s Architectural reference work but the anodyne design of the buildings of the court were beyond the detailed specifics of this famous work’s glossary.
At that moment I got a message back from the Drapers’ Archivist. She suggested, via Sir Ambrose Heal’s Sign-boards of Old London Shops (1948), that such a sign was congruent with an 18th century Mercer’s shop on the Strand – or a Haberdasher’s north of Lombard Street. At the same time, one of the librarians mentioned that her hunch was for it being in the Cornhill-Lombard St area near Bank, not least through the use of gold paint. It was time for another search at street level.
One of the wonderful things about a free, sunny afternoon in late Autumn is the reward of walking the streets of the City and simply looking around. Looking around – and up – was what I did, weaving in and out of the enclosed courts between Threadneedle Street, Cornhill and Lombard Street. I was trying to spot the close-knit conflagration of stone and glass caught by the image company’s (anonymous) photographer. Perhaps it was near St Michael (the Archangel in the now familiar book of Revelation)’s Church Cornhill.
Plough Ct, looking south from Lombard St
Then, there it was.
Plough Court sits south off Lombard Street, a narrow, shallow enclosed area between 37 Lombard Street and… well, a construction site, as a new building is going up in exactly the place where the sign would have been hung. The new building, Aurum, is going up at 32 Lombard Street, replacing an office block that had been there between the 1960’s and 2015.
Phone calls to the construction company and a fresh visit to the Guildhall Library could give no further information about the building that had been there or where the sign might have gone. It seems to have vanished.
However, I was not quite finished. For all that the City of London has great records of its history, it is with modern tools that the next, most useful bit of information came up. A search using Google Maps’ Street View function is right up to date, albeit showing the current construction in progress.
Yet Street View has a relatively new extra functionality that allows one to see earlier iterations of the photographic mapping. Indeed, the old building showing the street number, 32, is available, as far back as 2009:
(In fact, once you know where it is, the LMA’s Collage has even older images, like this one).
Right there in the foreground, above the Plough Court street sign, is that most useful of City signs, a commemorative plaque. This one is for Alexander Pope.
Herbert Fry, London in 1880 (1880)
Pope was a poet, supposedly born in this place in 1688. His Wikipedia entry suggests that his father was a linen merchant; indeed another 19th century reference work cited by Wikipedia also mentions his father’s trade, as well as the banking heritage of the street, whose chief operator, the Longobards – hence ‘Lombard’ – used the familial badge of the Medicis, a three-pilled image now recognised as the pawnbroking sign. So perhaps there is a crossover between the golden balls of pawnbroking and the gilded angels of the sign.
The symbols suddenly have their congruence. Gold is the common constituent of the other celebrated signs of Lombard Street. The sign with three angels stands across the road from the church of a named Archangel from that book of the bible in which they all appear. And this over a shop run by a Roman Catholic dealing in linen – in which the three angels are conspicuously draped – means…
… well, I am not sure what any of this really means. We still don’t know the function of the building for which the sign was originally put up. Perhaps the sign was, like so many others, representing a historic function of the area.
We do not even know if the sign still exists (though, I am told by the Corporation of London’s Surveying Department that if it was treated in the same manner as the plaque to Pope, it has been stored by the construction company, to be re-affixed in due course).
The exercise of trying to find the sign and what it is for has been one of examining the web to conclude that the spider is absent. The wealth of associations of iconography and what it tells us about the City is both rich and fascinating. It also reminds us that, as these are static monuments to cultural and mercantile traditions of the time, so the music and text of Bach’s cantatas are very much contemporary illuminations of liturgical narrative. At least, that’s what we try to achieve by performing Bach’s cantatas within the liturgy for which they were intended.
UPDATE (9 November 2017): having received a tip-off I went back to the Guildhall Library to ask about a book called The Signs of Old Lombard Street by Frederick George Hilton Price (1902).
This is the sign, recorded on p88, as all the signs in the book are, as a sketch. It was attributed to nos 31 & 32 Lombard St, ‘against [opposite] George Yard’. A period map in the glossary has 31& 32 on the very site of the building between what is now Plough Court and St. Clement’s Lane. It is possible that the sign may have been moved around the corner into Plough Court for curatorial reasons.
Hilton Price’s book is at pains to mention that though records have been carefully researched, there is no record of what went on there other than it was a residence for a family Browne from 1723. Which is, entirely co-incidentally, the very year that Bach wrote BWV 60, the cantata that started me on this peculiar search.