Object 16: Decorative glass, 1865
When National Provincial Bank of England opened its new head office on Bishopsgate in the heart of London in 1865, its banking hall was the largest in London. Still famous today for its elaborate detail and stunning design, it was the work of the important Victorian architect John Gibson. Its magnificent banking hall was illuminated by three large domes overhead, each one glazed with pink decorative glass like this surviving fragment.
Gibson's bank-building career began in 1844, when he won a competition to design a branch for National Bank of Scotland in Glasgow. Historically, banks had tended to favour staid, classical architecture, as if to emphasise the sobriety of their business, but Gibson took a new approach. He adopted a Renaissance Venetian flavour, with lavish decorations in coloured stone and lots of stained glass. One account described the 'gorgeous arrangement of sparkling colour', and a 'dazzling shower of coloured rays profusely shed through the deep-stained glass of the cupola'. This was a building intended to impress with its beauty and elegance, rather than with solemnity and solidity.
The building started a fashion that influenced bank architecture for years afterwards, and it was probably this building's success that won Gibson the commission to design a London head office for National Provincial Bank of England.
| The National Provincial building was unlike any existing London bank
The National Provincial building, begun in 1864 and opened in 1866, was unlike any existing London bank, with its sculpted panels, allegorical statues, ornate detail and rich stained glass. It attracted significant press attention, and Gibson went on to design many more bank branches, in London, Southampton, Manchester, Newcastle, Middlesbrough, Portsmouth, Exeter, Sunderland and Lincoln.
For all its splendour, Gibson's National Provincial head office had flaws. It was dark - a situation not helped by the coloured glass in the domes - so in 1933 the stained glass was replaced with clear glazing. This did not solve all the problems, and by the 1960s National Provincial wanted to demolish the whole building and start again. Fortunately public appreciation of our built heritage was increasing, and the demolition plans were stopped. National Provincial's designs for a new head office had to work around Gibson's building, thereby shaping what was to become the NatWest Tower, now known as Tower 42, one of London's most famous landmark skyscrapers.
Across Britain, many magnificent bank buildings still serve their original purpose. Others have found new uses over time. The old National Provincial head office is now an events venue. Tower 42 has become a mixed office building. Most astonishingly, Gibson's National Bank in Glasgow still stands, but on a completely different site. Fifty years after it was built, it was taken down stone by stone to be re-erected two miles to the south, where it became - and remains - Langside Halls.
Whatever changes these buildings have been through since they were first erected, they remain part of our shared built heritage, and add to the beauty and interest we find around us in our modern towns and cities.