Baker in the Bank

UNBELIEVABLY, THE ARCHITECT Herbert Baker (1862-1946) demolished a major work of one of England’s greatest architects – Sir John Soane (1753-1837). Imagine the outcry if Sir Richard Rodgers decided to demolish Christopher Wren’s St Pauls Cathedral to replace it with one of his own design. Well, in the 1920s, Baker demolished most of Soane’s Bank of England to replace it with a larger building – the present Bank – which he designed.

There is a small museum in the Bank of England. Some of its rooms have been designed to recreate the kind of interiors that would have existed in Soane’s Bank building. In one of the rooms of the museum, a circular space beneath a glazed dome, there is a framed portrait of Sir Herbert Baker. Baker, who helped design New Delhi, is well known for his architectural work in South Africa. After being commissioned by the imperialist Cecil Rhodes (1853-1902) to redesign Groote Schuur, his house on the slopes of Cape Town’s Table Mountain, he was asked to design many other structures in South Africa.

The portrait depicts Baker standing at a drawing table by a window through which a building in his typical neo-classical style can be seen. At the bottom left corner of the painting, there is a depiction of a framed painting of Cape Town’s Rhodes Memorial, which Baker designed in 1906. If you look carefully at this picture within a picture, an equestrian statue can be discerned. This statue, called “Physical Energy”, was sculpted by George Frederick Watts (1817-1904), who was briefly married to the actress Ellen Terry. The statue was cast in 1902, and placed at the Rhodes Memorial in Cape Town. In 1907, another bronze cast was made, and this stands on a stone plinth in Kensington Gardens almost midway on a line connecting the statue of young Queen Victoria in front of Kensington Palace with the Henry Moore sculpture on the east bank of The Long Water (part of the Serpentine).

When we saw the portrait of Baker, we were viewing an interesting exhibition that explores the Bank of England’s many and varied links with the slave trade. The caption relating to the portrait of Baker concentrated on the small image of the memorial to Rhodes. It correctly pointed out that Rhodes had been a Prime Minister of the Cape Colony, which became part of unified South Africa in 1910. It also mentions that Rhodes:
“…held racist beliefs that Africans were inferior.”
In 1912, the author GK Chesterton wrote of Rhodes that he:

“… had no principles whatever to give to the world. He had only a hasty but elaborate machinery for spreading the principles that he hadn’t got. What he called his ideals were the dregs of a Darwinism which had already grown not only stagnant, but poisonous … It was not his fault that he “figured out that God meant as much of the planet to be Anglo-Saxon as possible.” Many evolutionists much wiser had “figured out” things even more babyish. He was an honest and humble recipient of the plodding popular science of his time; he spread no ideas that any cockney clerk in Streatham could not have spread for him. But it was exactly because he had no ideas to spread that he invoked slaughter, violated justice, and ruined republics to spread them.”

Well, that is something for recipients of, and those applying for, Rhodes Scholarships to ponder over.

Getting back to the Bank that Baker designed, the museum is well worth visiting not only for its temporary exhibition about slavery but also for its permanent collection of exhibits, all of which have easily understood explanatory labelling.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s