- since 2011 -

Still chasing the birds

Monday, 7 March 2011

Research, guesswork, the odd moment of inspiration and occasionally pure fluke. All key requirements in this line of toil - which is how I've found myself outside the erstwhile headquarters of Lloyd's Register (of British & Foreign Shipping) on Fenchurch Street in the City of London, digital camera and notebook at the ready.

When it's an old(ish) building that was formerly the premises of a company or organisation with some kind of connection to Liverpool or shipping and its associated industries (insurance, underwriting etc) there's always a chance I'll find what I'm looking for.

It's ornithology of sorts, twitching with a difference. The bird that I catalogue never flies the nest to compete with gulls and pigeons for the day's scraps, and you won't find it in any conventional guidebook.

Liver Birds on Lloyd's Register Building

Liver Birds on Lloyd's Register Building

My eyes scan the stone facade of this splendid building to one of the decorative friezes over its row of arched windows, and then I see it: wings at rest and seaweed clutched in bill, in a simple crest surrounded by nautical imagery. That familiar, unmistakable creature of modern mythology, the Liver Bird - a good 250 miles away from its home roost.

I've written a whole book about Liver Birds, examining their origins and cataloguing their presence at over 100 places in Liverpool. For me, those two green giants upon the twin domes of the Royal Liver Building were just the beginning of a long (and admittedly slightly sad) obsession.

One by one, a whole flock of silent sentinels revealed itself - in brick and stone, iron and bronze, enamel and glass - as I yomped the streets and explored not just famous waterfront buildings but old banks and hotels, museums and libraries, schools and hospitals, pubs and fire stations, cemeteries and bridges, even lamp posts and bollards.

On the seal granted by King John 800 years ago, it resembles an eagle. Alongside Neptune on the coat of arms ratified in 1797, it's more like a cormorant. Everywhere else in Liverpool, it's pretty much every species in-between.

Impossibly proportioned and wonderfully ludicrous, no two are exactly the same. One, for instance, might have the hefty chest of an ostrich, sprouting an osprey's powerful wings with legs ending in a duck's dainty webbed feet. Another, the looped neck of a swan, slender bill of a heron and fanciful crest of a grebe, paired with a peacock's flamboyant tail.

I should know - I've dodged thundering buses at street-level and harrying seagulls on windswept rooftops to photograph them all. Though their numbers may have dwindled in an age when traditional sculptural decoration has become obsolete, those that still linger tell something of Liverpool's story.

The book's done and dusted, a local bestseller (the publishers will have you know). You'd think I'd have let it go. Not quite. Still, when the occasion presents itself, I keep an eye out for them on the road - and London is prime hunting ground.

The old Lloyd's Register building is what they call a classical palazzo - at least it says so in the brochure I've just been handed by the receptionist in its replacement, a glass-and-steel tower only a matter of feet away in a secluded courtyard off Fenchurch Street. Receptionists, security guards and caretakers of historic buildings often do things like this because they're proud of the places where they work. They like to show them off, to share them.

The new Register was designed by Richard Rogers and completed in 2000. The old one was the work of an architect called Thomas Collcutt and built nearly 100 years earlier in 1901. It isn't open to the public so I settle for a stroll around the outside while browsing through the brochure.

The carvings on the Portland Stone exterior - including the Liver Bird and lots of maidens carrying ships - are by George Frampton, who also sculpted the bronze Peter Pan in London's Kensington Gardens (a copy of which was placed in Liverpool's Sefton Park). Inside, says the guide, amid the marble floors, mahogany staircases and stained glass is another Liver Bird (with crests from other ports) on the ceiling of a lavish library.

Prudential Building

Prudential Building

It's hard to drag myself away, but eventually I head for High Holborn and the red-brick Prudential Assurance HQ - designed by Liverpool-born architect Alfred Waterhouse and a dead ringer for the branch on Dale Street, only a lot bigger. Waterhouse was the Victorian equivalent to the likes of Rogers or Norman Foster, designing the Natural History Museum in London as well as other Gothic Revival masterworks like Liverpool's North Western Hotel (Lime Street) and its University's Victoria Building (Brownlow Hill).

Prudential Building facade

Prudential Building facade

The facade features the arms from various towns and cities in Britain, and the Liver Bird appears twice in ornate shields surrounded by foliage or acanthus as it's known to architecture types. So, High Holborn and Fenchurch Street in the bag - and added to two earlier 'finds' at the old Smithfield Market and Lombard Street, back in the City of London.

Smithfield Market

Smithfield Market

Smithfield's Liver Bird sits below a female statue of Liverpool, along with fellow personifications of London, Edinburgh and Dublin that together represent the major towns to which meat was dispatched from the market, which was built in 1868. They stand ageing and unnoticed on the cornice of this long arcaded building.

Lombard Street Liver Birds

Lombard Street Liver Birds

In contrast 68 Lombard Street is a small brick building, jostling for space on a narrow thoroughfare, with stone dressings designed by Herbert Baker in 1930 (he also designed the Bank of England on Threadneedle Street). Either side of its entrance are four modest columns, their capitals featuring three front-facing Liver Birds with raised wings and curled sprigs of seaweed in their bills. A grasshopper sits above the doorway and upon a pub-sign gable outside.

Lombard Street grasshopper

Lombard Street grasshopper

The street was named after Italian bankers from Lombardy who settled here in the 13th century, and these are the former London offices of Martins Bank, listed on this site as early as 1794 in Kent's Directory. In 1918, Martins was acquired by the Bank of Liverpool (founded in 1831) but retained its name and boasted 'over 560 offices and agents in all the principal towns at home and abroad' with its headquarters on Water Street. The grasshopper refers to the original inn where founder and Elizabethan banker Thomas Gresham traded.

That's it, so far. I've checked out a few other locations in London - based upon informed hunches mostly - only to be ultimately disappointed. But there are still one or two places on my hit list where Liver Birds might just lurk. If you see any familiar feathers on your own travels in the capital, I'd love you to let me know.

The Little Book of Liver Birds

• The Little Book of Liver Birds is published by DB Books (www.dbpublishing.co.uk) and available from all good bookshops and online.

'My eyes scan the stone facade of this splendid building to one of the decorative friezes over its row of arched windows, and then I see it: wings at rest and seaweed clutched in bill, in a simple crest surrounded by nautical imagery. That familiar, unmistakable creature of modern mythology, the Liver Bird'


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The Liverpolitan
Published at Brighter Design
Unit 26A, Britannia Pavilion,
Albert Dock, Liverpool, L3 4AD

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