Sunday, October 7, 2012
I wonder if I would have noticed these carvings if I'd not been alerted to their presence by Nicholas Antram and Richard Morrice's Pevsner Architectural Guide to Brighton and Hove. Possibly not, as they adorn a 1930s neo-Georgian building and my eyes would probably have been distracted by Regency onion domes and other fancies. So I'm grateful to Antram and Morrice for pointing me in the direction of the former Citizens' Permanent Building Society.
Building Societies. If you are inclined to think of them in the way we think of banks, financial institutions offering a range of financial "products" from loans to insurance, think again and think back. Building was originally much closer to the heart of what building societies did – holding deposits from some of their members and lending other members money to build houses.
So when he designed the Citizens' Permanent Building Society J L Denman got Joseph Cribb to carve a series of relief panels depicting the building trades and set these panels around the three large windows on the ground floor. Capped and overalled tradesmen mix mortar, saw wood, attach roof tiles, and build walls, and Denman himself appears in one panel, unfurling a plan and discussing progress with another man (a foreman or clerk of works?).
Joseph Cribb began as apprentice and assistant to Eric Gill, remaining at Ditchling to work independently when Gill left Sussex for Wales in 1924. His work is in numerous churches and I'd not expected to find his carvings in this context. They rise to the challenge of squeezing their subjects into the spaces and curves around the windows and pick out details, from roofing battens to pulleys, in a satisfying and realistic way. Their concentrated view of life on site also reminds us of what building societies were about. The building, however, is now occupied by a bank.