The Liver Birds

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http://www.breedonbooks.co.uk/images/large/1859835473.jpgThe Image of the Liver Bird is depicted in many places all over the City of Liverpool.  In Martins’ case, the bird doesn’t simply appear on the coat of arms of the bank, it is lavishly celebrated in both the interior and exterior artwork of the Head Office Building in Water Street.  David Cottrell, author of “The Little Book of Liver Birds” (Breedon Books 2006) has kindly given his permission for us to display some of the stunning images from his book, which show the beauty and fantasy depicted by the Liver Bird, and other nautical creatures in every corner of Head Office.  David has also kindly written the following piece especially for us, to accompany the images.

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exterior liverbird

A carving of the Liver Bird on the exterior

of Head Office Building

No 4 Water Street, completed in 1932 as the new headquarters of Martins Bank, is a Grade II listed Liverpool landmark. Under the stewardship of chief architect Herbert Rowse, its fabulous decorative elements were a collaboration between celebrated local sculptor Herbert Tyson Smith and the prolific Liverpool stonemasons Edmund Thompson and George Capstick.

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octopus under balcony

An octopus looks down from the underside of a balcony,

onto unwary passers-by

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This was Rowse’s second great realisation of American commercial architecture in Liverpool and indeed the UK. Nine years earlier he’d designed the monumental, marble-faced India Building on the other side of Water Street. In later years he’d create the futuristic entrances for Queensway (the first Mersey road tunnel) and a radical scheme for the city’s Philharmonic Hall on Hope Street.  By the early 1930s, Liverpool was not only revelling in its commercial might but increasingly receptive to new ideas in industry and engineering. By virtue of its own maritime history it already had strong links with the United States and, unlike other British cities, was just as young, modern and imaginative. The colour scheme of Martins and its neighbours in Liverpool’s business district and adjacent Pier Head – a swathe of greyish, creamy white lends them an air of dignity and grandeur. It was a deliberate move by local brahmins to create a skyline like the great American cities with which they did business by adopting both the signature shade of classical architecture and the scale and style of what was called the Beaux Arts – balanced, symmetrical buildings composed of colossal masonry with columns, balconies and restrained sculpture.

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Royal Court – King Neptune is seen

in many guises throughout the building

 

Originating in France, the Beaux Arts flourished in America between 1885 and 1920 – ideal for massive buildings like banks, hotels, museums, court houses and government offices in expanding US cities such as Chicago and Philadelphia that sought to plan on a large scale. Bringing it to a city as sophisticated and progressive as Liverpool became a matter of principle and pride.

 

As the only major bank based outside London (having merged with the long-established Bank of Liverpool in 1918 and procured 700 branches nationwide) Martins was seeking a new head office as much as a statement of confidence as practical requirement – and Rowse was the obvious candidate for architect.

 

xA graduate of the Liverpool School of Architecture – at that time dominated by the charismatic Professor Charles Reilly – he’d won a scholarship to travel to North America before returning home to implement what he’d seen. Accordingly, although designed on classical Roman lines, the 150ft high Martins Bank boasted a steel-frame construction and advanced system of servicing (ducted pipes and wires, heated ceiling etc).

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Such a significant building, faced in Portland Stone (stored and cut at the William Moss masonry in Liverpool), demanded the very best sculptural decoration. The 9ft bronze doorways of the main entrance boast front-facing Liver Birds with raised wings and straight bills, and the adjoining bays have carvings of bald-headed Neptunes with dolphins and African boys holding coins, anchors and ropes. Over the fifth-floor windows of the front elevation is a shield containing a Liver Bird in profile, wings tucked down, surmounting wavy lines representing the River Mersey, and supported by a horizontal triton and mermaid with splendid fish tails, fin-like girdles and Assyrian hairstyles. Above the shield is a grasshopper – a reference to the name of the tavern on London’s Lombard Street where moneylender Sir Thomas Gresham practised the country’s first banking system in the late 16th Century.

mermaids monogram

A monogram of Martins and mermaids provides a signature to the building

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neptune walrus

King Neptune himself looks down, almost giving the impression that he and his fellow sea creatures are guarding the building and the trade taking place within its walls…

 

exterior relief

Simply stunning, this exterior relief is also truly exotic and shows why this building still has the power to take your breath away.

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The Liver Bird, grasshopper and Mersey motif is repeated in discs either side of the arched main entrance, and there are similar birds in cartouches beneath each of the 30 ground-floor windows. All over the façade, upon closer inspection, are exquisite maritime motifs like lobsters, scallop shells, walruses and delightfully-rendered octopuses on the underside of iron balconies high above the streets. Inside, they saved the best till last.

 

The ceiling of the Jazz Age banking hall is embellished with four slate-coloured Liver Birds in gold shields topped with gold grasshoppers and flanked by serene and voluptuous mermaids with cascades of golden hair.  And eight floors up is another artistic tour de force. Drawing the great velvet curtains of the boardroom is like illuminating the ocean floor. The walnut ceiling is awash with more mermaids, ships and tridents, sea horses, starfish and jellyfish, as well as strutting, long-billed Liver Birds picked out in gold, emerald green and Indian red.

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boardroom ceiling

The Liver Bird struts proudly through the court of King Neptune, whilst underneath in the boardroom, the court of Martins would also sit.

interior ceiling

Modesty forbids – how DID the 1930s parent explain those voluptuous mermaids to their goggle-eyed offspring?

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Images and main text © David Cottrell/Breedon Books 2006

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