Sunday, October 7, 2012

Brighton, Sussex

Building society

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.


bazza said...

I am sure I read somewhere that we should spend more time looking up at buildings. Oh yes, it was here!
These adornments are excellent and alas a thing of the past now.
Click here for Bazza’s Blog ‘To Discover Ice’

Thud said...

The roofer carving is a cracker.

Hels said...

There is nothing quite as impressive as Art Deco low relief sculptures that concentrate on workers at their crafts. Having just come through a nightmare Depression, times were still ideological enough to celebrate real workers, not bloated fat cats.

Jon Dudley said...

My word Philip, these Brighton notes are excellent. I'd never seen these before. I must look up a bit more!

Philip Wilkinson said...

Thank you all for your comments.

Jon: Thought you might have known about these – pleased that I've pointed out something you'd missed. The reliefs on on Marlborough Place, if you are round that way.

Hels: That's a good point. When people think of Art Deco architecture, they often think of luxury (grand hotels, cocktail bars...). But there is also this strain of celebrating everyday life.

Hels said...

I'll just cite a couple of American examples:
1. the stonework above the window of a bank building in Arlington, Mass

2. “We the People” Sculpture, Greenbelt Centre Elementary School, Greenbelt, Maryland

Philip Wilkinson said...

Hels: Thank you - they're lovely examples. And interesting that one of them, like the Brighton reliefs, shows building workers on a bank.

Wartime Housewife said...

Those are gorgeous.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Indeed they are. And, being of the 1930s, the Citizens' Permanent Building Society (how solid it sounds) would perhaps be the place where the Wartime Housewife might deposit her savings.