Leader of London Historians Mike Paterson shares his favourite things about Guildhall.
1. It’s free
2. Guildhall Yard
It wears both its modernity and antiquity very lightly. Two ancient structures — St Lawrence Jewry and the Guildhall itself — are counterbalanced by the modern Guildhall Library and Guildhall Art Gallery, both late 20th century. They are integrated deliciously, architectural practice at its most sympathetic and very best. Then there is the pavement which incorporates the gentle curve marking the outline of the ancient Roman amphitheatre 20 feet or so below.
You’ll come across security who scan your bag inside the front door; someone on the front desk, and the two ladies (usually it’s ladies) who run the cloakroom downstairs. Always smiley, always friendly, always welcoming. Archivists and librarians ditto.
4. The Great Hall
This massive 15th century late-gothic space contains monumental statuary commemorating Nelson, Wellington, both Pitts, plus huge statues of London’s legendary founding giants, Gog and Magog. It’s not always obvious whether it’s open, so you may be lucky enough to get the place to yourself.
5. The art
A very mixed bag, and something for everybody. In the main spaces at ground floor and mezzanine level there are many Victorian genre paintings and notable Pre-raphaelite works. But I rather like the London landscape paintings and big parades (Lord Mayor’s Show, Queen Victoria’s jubilee, etc). We use the gorgeous Blackfriars Bridge and St Paul’s by William Marlowe on the London Historian Members’ card. But special mention must go to…
6... this one
The massive The Defeat of the Floating Batteries at Gibraltar, September 1782 by the American artist John Singleton Copley. One of the largest oil paintings in the country, the picture was commissioned by the City of London in 1783. It’s actually a multiple portrait picture featuring the main players on the British side, made out as a battle scene. Its home in the gallery today is a bespoke space that was worked into the design of the building.
7. George Dance the Younger
On his father’s death, George junior took over the role of surveyor for the City of London aged just 27. He designed dozens of significant London buildings, the vast majority of which no longer exist. Probably the most significant is the Guildhall’s façade and front door. So elegant. It reminds me a lot of the fine old London city gates, demolished by his own father in 1760. Irony.
8. The Roman Amphitheatre
When you look at old models or illustrations of Roman London (there is a rather nice example in the Crypt Museum at St Hallows by the Tower), there is always a glaring omission: the amphitheatre. That’s because it was only discovered in the 1990s when archaeologists were having a bit of a sniff around prior to the construction of the art gallery. It is directly underneath Guildhall Yard. Except for ancient history purists, our Roman bits are far from spectacular, but the City has made a noble attempt to make a silk purse from a sow’s ear, and I understand there is a big makeover in the pipeline.
There are all sorts of grand dinners to which we lesser types are not party. Men (mainly) in Livery, Chains of Office, plumed hats, at the very least swanky white tie, their good ladies in tow. There are public ones, though, that take place in Guildhall Yard. My favourite it the Cart Marking Ceremony which happens in July. Also the livery companies compete with one another on Shrove Tuesday in pancake races. Quite new, that one, but all traditions have to start somewhere.
10. The City of London Police Museum
Previously, Guildhall was home to The Clockmakers’ Museum, but this moved to Science Museum in 2015. Today, visitors can take in the exhibits of the City of London Police Museum instead, including a police helmet smashed by an IRA bomb (the officer wearing it survived) and the City of London Police Force's Olympic gold medal.