The new Leathersellers’ Hall was completed in 2016 and is the seventh Hall in the Company’s long history. It is located on a narrow site on the south side of St Helen’s Place. Behind it is the medieval church of St Helen’s Bishopsgate. The new Hall stands exactly where the second Hall, the former Benedictine Priory of St Helen, was located up until 1799.
The new Hall is a total new build apart from its early 20th century façade, which was retained from the last major redevelopment of St Helen’s Place in the 1910-1926 period. Internally the entire structure is new and completely different in layout from the previous Hall, which stood on the opposite side of St Helen’s Place. However a number of features from the earlier Halls have been preserved and incorporated in the new Hall, providing a contemporary feel but with some reminders of the Company’s long and illustrious history and heritage.
The architect of the Seventh Leathersellers’ Hall is Eric Parry, who has written a detailed description of the many factors which influenced his design in the 2015-2016 Leathersellers’ Review.
The Hall entrance
Either side of the entrance are bronze statues of a Ram and Roebuck, the Company’s ‘beasts’ which appear as the heraldic supporters of the Coat of Arms of the Leathersellers’ Company. They were made by Mark Coreth in 2000, as a commemoration of the Millennium celebrations that year, and formerly flanked the entrance to the previous Hall.
The magnificent wrought-iron gates were originally made in 1878 by J. Starkie Gardener, for the 5th Hall, and are therefore now nearly 130 years old. They are entirely hand-wrought without the use of machinery of any kind, and are a great feat of workmanship.
The new canopy has a bronze top with a vitreous soffit, and supports two flambeaux which are lit for special evening events at the Hall.
The entrance lobby has a floor with a grey granite finish, imported from Massachusetts, which contains a simple version of the Company’s coat of arms with its three roebucks. The focal point is provided by a modern cast-iron fireplace with a mirror above, with vitrines either side displaying a selection of the Company’s treasures.
The Court Room
The Court Room has walls of American walnut. The floor is covered in a fine Axminster carpet, woven in the 1950s for the previous Hall, and containing the Coats of Arms of the Leathersellers as well as those of three other Livery Companies with leather interests (the Glovers, the Saddlers and the Cordwainers). Royal Coats of Arms appear at each end of the carpet, which is patterned with lively representations of many animals which can be used as a source for leather.
The two glass chandeliers date from the 19th century and came from the previous Hall. The central court table is in European walnut. In one corner of the room is an interesting, antique, leather-upholstered ‘porter’s chair’. A portrait of King Henry VI, who gave the Company its first Royal Charter, hangs on one wall. A recent dendrochronology test on the wood on which this is painted has revealed its date to be late Elizabethan (circa 1580-90), and showed an exact match with the famous portrait of Richard III in the National Portrait Gallery, meaning they were both painted on wood from the same tree.
The Company’s three Charters are hung on the Courtroom walls in places of honour. The first one of 1444 is beautifully illuminated and marks the foundation of the Leathersellers’ Company. A second Charter of 1604 was issued by King James I, with provision for a Court of Assistants. This Charter is also decorated in beautiful colours, with illustrations of Liverymen in their gowns. The original wax Great Seal of the King is still attached. The third Charter of 1685 was imposed on the Company by Charles II at a time when the monarch was trying to extract money from the City of London by unpopular means, and in 1689 (under William and Mary) the Company unilaterally revoked this Charter by breaking the royal seal, thus reverting to the earlier 1604 Charter as its source of authority. Fragments of the broken seal have been re-formed as an approximation of what the original looked like. All three Charters have been recently conserved and re-framed, and are held in place by over 300 micro-magnets.
The Reception Room
This light and airy room is completely contemporary in feel, with a central blue-and white glass sculpture by the renowned American artist Dale Chihuly as its focal point. A circular bronze table with a glass centre, made by London Bronze, contains a Latin inscription around its edge, a key phrase from the Charter of Incorporation of 1444. The carpet was designed by the architect to complement the colours of the Chihuly sculpture hanging above it. Vitrines around the walls display a selection of the Company’s silver and leather artefacts. Four sofas by Jaan with black-and-white cowhide covers are set around the room, and there is a grand piano in one corner.
A large window on the east side of the Reception Room gives views on to the side wall of the medieval church of St Helen. A stained-glass window in the church, clearly visible from this room, shows William Shakespeare, who lived at one time in this parish – the precise location is not known, but it must have been somewhere close to our Hall.
The spiral staircase leading down to the Dining Hall is a central feature of the new Leathersellers’ Hall.
At the top of the staircase is a large stained-glass window by Leonard Walker showing King Henry VI, the monarch who conferred the first Charter on the Company in 1444. It was made in 1937 for the Fifth Hall, but removed for safekeeping, outside London, at the beginning of World War II only two years later. This was fortunate, since it would otherwise have perished in the Blitz. It was brought back and put in the new, Sixth Hall which opened in 1960. In 1992 the window was badly damaged by a large IRA bomb at the nearby Baltic Exchange, but experts were able to restore it. Luckily it had not been reinstated when a second IRA bomb exploded the following year, in Bishopsgate. The window is now positioned and backlit so that its deep, rich colours can be seen at their best.
The scagliola pilasters were also saved and transferred from the old Hall, where they had been set in a conventional pattern around the Reception Room. Here in the new Hall, however, their effect is totally different. The architect has imaginatively scattered them, seemingly at random, around the walls of the stairwell, creating a sense of surprise and elation at something so unexpected.
The stair carpet is coloured mauve. This, together with purple walls on the floor below, acts as a reminder that one of the most famous Masters of the Company was Sir William Perkin, a chemist who discovered the first synthetic dye in 1856. The colour he first developed was a type of purple dye, which he called mauve.
As one approaches the bottom of the staircase, having passed the walls lined in leather by Bill Amberg, the focal point is another stained-glass window, this one from 1994. It was made to mark the 450th anniversary of the Company and it includes, among others, references to the animals which provide us with leather, to the plants and trees which are used in traditional tanning, and to the educational work to which the Company has had a long-term commitment through our schools and through supporting students in higher and further education.
Either side of the window are boards painted with the names and dates of the Company’s Masters, from the earliest days right up to the present. On a wall opposite is a splendid oil painting by William Marlow showing the River Thames and Blackfriars Bridge, with St Paul’s Cathedral dominating the city skyline. It dates from 1769 and although the artist painted several versions of this view, this one is the earliest.
The Dining Hall
The walls are covered in American walnut and the Hall can seat up to 120 people at dinners. The main feature of this large room is the tapestry hanging along the upper part of three of its walls. This was designed by Victoria Crowe and was woven at the Dovecot Studio in Edinburgh. It is forty metres long and contains a wealth of interesting images and allusions, all relating to the Leathersellers’ Company in some way or another, with many references to its long and illustrious history. The intense colours enrich the room and provide diners with a backdrop of great beauty, enhanced further when the tables are set with an array of silver, glassware, floral arrangements and candelabra.
The tapestry is arranged in a roughly chronological order. It begins with images of cave art, which remind us of the use of animal hides for clothing, even by our stone age ancestors, and ends with images of the most up-to-date processes of leather cutting and with a plan showing the outline of the new Hall superimposed over a similar outline of the very first Hall.
Other references in the tapestry include details taken from the Charters, from Company treasures such as the 1638 ‘garlands’ or crowns still used annually at the installation of the new Master and Wardens, plus representations of the Master’s gold chain of 1887, and of leaves of the oak, mimosa and sumach trees, all used in traditional vegetable tanning. In the middle of the central panel is the head of a roebuck, one of the Company’s heraldic ‘beasts’, with a faint suggestion to its right of the modern Gherkin building, which can be seen from St Helen’s Place (and indeed from a skylight window cleverly positioned at the top of the main staircase).
This new tapestry for Leathersellers’ was integral to the vision of architect Eric Parry, who in 2012 began the redevelopment of the livery company headquarters at St. Helen’s Place in the City of London. Parry’s design for the subterranean meeting hall would include a tapestry, addressing the aesthetic and acoustic aspects of the space. Victoria’s design for the tapestry told the story of leather production and celebrated the traditional skills and craftsmanship of textile makers.
Victoria Crowe presented a series of designs to the weaving team at Dovecot, illustrating the rich history of Leathersellers’, to be interpreted in tapestry on an epic scale. Master Weaver Naomi Robertson and her team wove the panels over a three-year period with the final panel being installed in the hall in early 2017.
Please click on the following link https://dovecotstudios.com/tapestry-studio/projects/victoria-crowe-s-leathersellers-tapestry/ to view a short video on the Tapestry.
Above the Master’s chair another tapestry is displayed, showing the Company’s coat of arms. It was made for the opening of the previous Hall in 1960, and designed by Robin and Christopher Ironside, who also designed the UK’s first decimal coinage. It was – like the new tapestry above it – woven at the Dovecote Studio in Edinburgh.
Returning up the staircase to the ground floor, a corridor lined with leather-covered panels in pale green and maroon (retained from the previous Hall) leads along to the Library.
This provides an intimate, comfortable space for small meetings, lunches, or simply reading and relaxing. The walls are lined with oak and above the mantelpiece is another oil painting by the 18th century artist William Marlow, showing a view along the Thames from Vauxhall, with Lambeth and the City of London in the far distance.
The Colfe Library, a special collection of over 400 rare books, is housed in climate-controlled bookcases to ensure the best conservation for these ancient volumes – the earliest dating from 1481. The Leathersellers provided the first books for this Library in 1652, when it was located in Lewisham, above the School founded by Abraham Colfe. There is a predominance of books on theology, philosophy and the classical languages of Latin and Greek. Two of the books once belonged to Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, famously burnt at the stake in 1555.
A pair of rare Flemish paintings hang on the wall opposite the Colfe Library. They were painted by Gillis Mostaert in the late 1500s and show various stages in the leather-making process – a very unusual theme for art from any period. It is thought these were probably painted for a guild hall in the Low Countries, perhaps for a leather-related guild in Bruges or Ghent.
Two small portraits of 17th century Masters hanging on the other walls are interesting survivals of the past. In 1819 a fire destroyed the Company’s Third Hall and the Clerk and Beadle laboured through the night to save what they could from the flames. These are the only vestiges of the many large portraits lost at that time.