- since 2011 -

A cherub astride a what?

Monday, 22 August 2011

Notes on some obscure Liverpool delights #1

The palmetto from Abercromby Square, looking good for its age

The palmetto from Abercromby Square, looking good for its age

I still remember the look on the woman's face when I brought up the turkey (in conversation, not physically) at the offices of the South Carolina Historical Society on Charleston's Meeting Street last year.

We'd been getting on famously, more or less, me spouting forth upon the cotton trade, Civil War and blockade-runners built on the Mersey, she displaying exemplary southern charm and hospitality in the face of another excitable idiot from the mother country. I was on a roll. An hour earlier at City Hall, following a guided tour of the building and its George Washington portrait, the building's head of security had clocked my accent, produced a mug emblazoned with the Liverpool FC crest and proclaimed, "You'll never walk alone." Is right, lad.

So there I was at SCHS HQ, deep in convolution, showing off, presuming they'd never heard of no19 Abercromby Square near Hope Street - now used by the University of Liverpool but once home to Charleston businessman and alleged Confederate spy Charles Prioleau. I told them about the painting on the vestibule ceiling of a crescent moon and palmetto - emblem of South Carolina since 1776 when colonists defended a fort built from the tree's sinewy branches against the British (commanded in part by Banastre Tarleton, born on Liverpool's Water Street). Only now, incidentally, have I noticed that the crescent is facing the opposite way to every other representation that I've seen - artistic licence, cryptic message or stupid mistake?

And then I mentioned the cherubs on the ceiling of the old dining room, one of them astride a wild turkey which was of course, I pointed out, the state game-bird of South Carolina…wasn't it? She stared at me like my head was sticking out of a crate, before politely declaring that she was quite sure she could not recall such a thing to be true. Neither could I, when I thought about it - 'state game-bird' for Christ's sake - and I'd been doing so well.

This all comes to me off the back of my last post about the Wellington Rooms and the oddly galvanising sight of Clare Balding and John Sergeant poking around stately homes and Vulcan bombers respectively in Britain's Hidden Heritage on BBC1.

I was going to call this blog 'Behind closed doors: Liverpool's secret treasures'. But, like the palmetto ceiling, not all of them are jealously locked away, and either way there's a good chance they go on show every year during the nationwide Heritage Open Week. And even if they aren't, that's not to say you won't be allowed a quick peek in private if you ask nicely.

So here are a few of my favourite Liverpool curios, for want of a better description. It's hard picking just a handful. The only criteria are that they're interesting in their own way and go largely unnoticed by the multitude.

Martins Bank Building: now that's what you call a boardroom ceiling

Martins Bank Building: now that's what you call a boardroom ceiling

On the subject of ceilings, where better to continue but the magnificent Martins Bank Building on Water Street? Most people are acquainted with the exterior of this Liverpool landmark - all brilliant-white walls and green tiled roof giving it the air of a Roman villa - designed in keeping with American Commercial Classicism by the great Herbert Rowse in the early 1930s. Few have seen the extraordinary boardroom eight floors up. Drawing its great velvet curtains is like illuminating the ocean floor, the walnut ceiling awash with mermaids, ships, dolphins, shells, starfish and strutting Liver Birds picked out in red, gold and emerald green.

Mosaic floor (left), bench and pillars inside County Sessions House

Mosaic floor (left), bench and pillars inside County Sessions House

From above one's head to beneath one's feet. St George's Hall, of course, has the city's most memorable floor, even if it spends most of the year covered up. Running it and the Town Hall a close third, albeit on a much smaller scale, is County Sessions House on William Brown Street with its a fabulous mosaic flooring based upon a Romano-British design discovered at the time of its completion in 1884.

Snakes and staff on the floor of the Medical Institution

Snakes and staff on the floor of the Medical Institution

Once inside this building you appreciate that it wasn't designed for tourists - too many labyrinthine twists and turns and a lack of open-plan space. Today it's used by National Museums Liverpool for storage, but upon its opening it was home to (wait for it) the Quarter Sessions of the West Derby Hundred of the County of Lancashire - a place in Liverpool to hold trials for non-capital offences.

I only understood its wonderful complexity during a guided tour by Joseph Sharples, author of the Pevsner architectural guide to Liverpool. There are four separate entrances, for instance: the spectacular front for magistrates and barristers; a not-quite-as-grand side-door on Mill Lane for solicitors and witnesses; an ordinary opening at the back for members of the public; and a brooding iron gate on the east side for prisoners. Inside, the stairs and corridors were designed to ensure that these four categories of user didn't meet until they confronted each other in the courtrooms.

Highlights of the tour included: the still scary cells downstairs; the lofty, intimidating main courtroom with its 'impossible distant' (as Sharples put it) skylight; the animated plaster ceiling of the magistrates room; and the entrance hall with its Welsh marble columns and original benches with griffon carvings.

Medical Institution library (left) and Cotton Exchange visitors book (signed copy)

Medical Institution library (left) and Cotton Exchange visitors book (signed copy)

That same Heritage Week, I think, the Medical Institution on Mount Pleasant also opened the doors behind its graceful colonnaded portico. There's another fine mosaic here, in the shape of two serpents entwined around the staff of Asclepius, who was the son of Apollo in Greek mythology and dabbled in medicine. (NB. when you're writing about scholarly stuff like this, you always have to put 'serpents' instead of 'snakes' - it just sounds clevererer).

This place was built in 1836 after a merger of the city's Medical Library and Medical Society. Pride of place are a 17th century grandfather clock, museum of gruesome medical instruments (of torture by the look of it) and library of antediluvian books.

Which brings us to the last stop, for now, on this random expedition: the original visitors book at the Cotton Exchange on Old Hall Street. The signatures on the first page belong to the Prince and Princess of Wales, who opened the building on 30 November 1906 when five million bales of raw cotton were being imported to Liverpool every year.

A commemorative brochure reveals: 'The Royal couple were then conducted over the new premises. The Prince was impressed with the architectural effect of the building and conveyed his hearty congratulations to the President on the possession of such a fine Exchange. He expressed his astonishment when the President informed him that it was now possible to cable New York and do business within three minutes'.

Today the building's ornate Edwardian façade has long since gone - a heathen act on a par with pulling down the grand Customs House on the waterfront - along with six of the eight allegorical statues that once stood high up on the roof. But the place still reeks of history, not least down in the basement where, now and again, workers claim to smell old tobacco smoke that seems to materialise from nowhere.

Stay tuned for more eerie anecdotes (whom I'm sure once recorded a session for John Peel) on the other side of these commercials…

'Here are a few of my favourite Liverpool curios, for want of a better description. It's hard picking just a handful. The only criteria are that they're interesting in their own way and go largely unnoticed by the multitude'


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All Play and No work

Peel on wheels

Walk on Water

Blue jays over Botetourt

Golden Virginia

Georgia on my mind

Strange Magic

Nurse Gosling's book of verse

Titanic 2.0

Love for sail

Bex maniacs

Mary, Mary, quite contrary

Wings of desire

World cities works of art: some offcuts

World cities: some works of art

'I have no idea what other people do'

Raiders of the well looked-after Ark

Railroad blues

Blog on the grog

Did you hear that too?

A cherub astride a what?

A time to dance

Ghosts of Mount Urgull

Postcard from San Sebastian

El Camino, with knobs on

'Of the city, by the city, for the city'

Guggenheim Bilbao: as good as it gets?

Still small voice

On the waterfront

Raise the botanic

Old man of the sea

What a carve up

Gates to the city

Brand of hope and glory

Two of a kind

Kingdoms of Heaven

Green and serene

Seville for divvies

Ride a Black Swan

The pub on the beach

On Savannah and Charleston

Still chasing the birds

The Liverpolitan
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