Liverpool's Old Town Hall, and Exchange Flags

Old Town Hall, Liverpool.

The Old Town Hall stands at the western end of Dale Street, where it becomes Water Street, and looks down Castle Street. Behind it is the open space known as Exchange Flags (see below). The Old Town Hall is rather earlier in date than the mostly Victorian concerns of these pages, and is interesting as one of the earliest large town halls and so a predecessor to the great classical town halls of the 19th Century, for its external sculptural decoration, and for the artwork inside.

It was built in the 1740s-50s by the Woods of Bath, father and son, who were responsible for so much of the architecture of Bath, including above all the Circus (see 2nd picture on this page). Its purposes were several:

‘The basement contains a kitchen and other offices’; the ground story (which was intended for an Exchange, but was never used for that purpose) committee rooms, rooms for the magistrates and juries, a sessions room, offices for the town clerk and other officers, and the principal story contains a suite of rooms communicating with each other including drawing rooms, ball room, refreshment room etc…’

The exterior is typical 18th Century – two lofty storeys, with the ground floor rusticated, a central projecting portico to the full two-storey height with pediment on top, and Corinthian pillars on the upper level, and behind and central, a dome raised on pillars. This dome, though, is not original, but a replacement of the 1790s raised after a fire damaged the building. The figure of Britannia on the top of the dome thus dates from the very end of the 18th Century, and is the work of J. C. F. Rossi, in his typical very Greek, long-necked and full-bodied style.

Britannia, by J. C. F. Rossi.

The rest of the sculptural décor on the building is a bit of a puzzle. Flanking each of the four clocks around the dome are a unicorn and lion, which from their style would date from the end of the 18th Century revamp of the dome. Lower down, there is a band of relief sculpture above 2nd floor level, at the base of the entablature. This contains various heraldic, animal, vegetable and industrial designs, with a few portrait heads mixed in. This might date from the 1750s or the 1790s, in particular looking at some of the animals – stumpy crocodile, elephant, bear and so forth. However, a couple of the portrait heads at least look to have had some reworking at the latter time, if not in the 19th century.

Panel from the Town Hall frieze.

Also on the building, at the rear looking over Exchange Flags, are four standing figures in stone, in exposed position and much weathered. They are recognisably female, at least, and discernable accoutrements include a torch, a cornucopia, and perhaps a harp. One is graceful in form, the others looking slightly mannish or with head disproportionate to the body, which may conceivably be due to decay or poor restoration after breakages. According to sources, these are supposedly either by Rossi, or were taken from the Parliament building in Dublin – the stone is certainly different from the building, and there seems little reason to give them to Rossi on stylistic grounds, so I would be inclined towards the Irish attribution – most interested to hear from anyone who knows more.

Figures at the rear of the Town Hall.

The interior of the building is happily open to the public from time to time, most notably during August, a worthy and appropriate idea for a building to house those ostensibly serving the public, and to be commended. The interior is lavish, with a series of grand rooms, including various reception rooms, a committee room and a grand ballroom. The decor is well-maintained, with murals, sculpture, and paintings. Inside the dome above the very grand stairwell, four paintings show labourers at work, with the focus on lots of muscular backs and arms. They date from the early 1900s, and are by the obscure Charles W Furse. The rather more familiar Frank O Salisbury (1874-1962) was the painter of the murals underground in and around the Hall of Memory. They mostly take the form of lunettes, and are a mix of allegorical and religious figure subjects. Some of these are excellent - note especially the face of Justice from 'The ideals of Justice and Freedom', and the composition entitled 'Infancy'.

The paintings are fairly numerous, including mostly portraits and landscapes. I particularly like the portrait of Mrs Wilson, Lady Mayor 1923, again by Frank Salisbury. Also we may pick out among the Liverpudlian artists in the collection, Stranded, by William J.J.C. Bond (1883-1926), a view of Chester Cathedral by William Huggins (1820-1884), and landscapes including Sunny October Morning by Thomas Hudson (1844-1920).

The sculpture is first encountered after the panelled entrance hall, in the shape of a statue of George Canning, the statesman Prime Minister and Liverpool MP, in a baroque robe, by Francis Chantrey. Comparable with the equally noble statue of him in Parliament Square in London, by the younger Westmacott. In the displays at the base of the stairwell is a full figure in marble of a nice lightly draped seated girl, in the style of the beginning of the 19th century, called La Filatrice (the spinner). The sculptor was Rudolf Schadow (1786-1822), a German artist working mostly in Rome, and influenced by Thorvaldsen.

The rest of the sculpture consists of a a collection of busts. They include:

Exchange Flags

As well as the Town Hall figures facing onto it, Exchange Flags contains the important Nelson monument, the first major work by Mathew Cotes Wyatt, dating from 1813-15. Much of the modelling was apparently carried out by Richard Westmacott (later Sir Richard Westmacott RA). The central group is complex and baroque, featuring the hero astride a cannon, protective guardian angel above, another sailor, a mourning Britannia, and a skeleton emerging from beneath a draped flag. Around are mourning figures in shackles, epic in themselves, interspersed with four panels showing significant moments in Nelson’s career.

Liverpool's Nelson Monument, by J. C. F. Rossi.

Against one wall of Exchange Flags is a World War I memorial, by a certain Joseph Philips, not a familiar name to me. Certainly of the new school rather than the old. The composition is pyramidal, and consists of four soldiers clustered around an artillery piece, one of whom is wounded and being comforted by a nurse, and a summit Britannia holding a small child. Stone groups of a seated man and woman, each with a child, raised up on either side (not shown in our picture), are in a wholly unrelated style and would appear to be by a different hand and more recent date.

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