I will never forget my first impression of Liverpool, almost 18 years ago. The impressive architecture of the city with its classical references was definitely an attraction to a Greek. But while it is easy to spot the classical influences on the exterior of Liverpool’s buildings, we often miss their interior decoration. The extension of our brand new café into the Mountford building is an excellent opportunity to view such prime examples and to perhaps think of the reasons why classical antiquity imagery became such an important narrative of civic pride and glory in 19th century Liverpool.
The Mountford building is named after its architect E.W. Mountford (1855-1908 ). This side of the museum opened in 1901 as the Museum’s extension. This is also where the Central Technical School of Liverpool used to be based. One of the attractions of the new café is the magnificent fireplace with the relief decoration directly above it: two winged children, slightly chubbier than ancient examples, hold the central crescent with the Liver bird and an open shell above it. Underneath the cupids there is the Latin inscription: Deus Nobis Haec Otia Fecita: God has given us these days of leisure. This was Liverpool’s motto and is repeated in many of its buildings.
Our Roman relief in store ( 59.148.378 ), from the collections of Henry Blundell, is close to the fireplace decoration. In the centre of the relief is a portrait of a deceased woman with a flying cupid or Eros at each side (Amorini and Medallion type). It came from a sarcophagus and the decoration fitted its funerary purpose. Underneath the main scene, there is a lower zone of three cupids; one of them frightens the others with the mask of Silenus. These designs and scenes are symbolic of life and death.
The relief in one of the lunettes in the ceiling of the extended café has in its centre a helmeted female with a Gorgon’s head on her breastplate. It is not difficult to identify her as Athena or Minerva, similar to some of the Roman statues from Henry Blundell’s collections. But, this time Athena is not in her original Greek state of Athens or in a Roman villa, but is in maritime Liverpool, set by the ships in the background. Minerva, on a throne endorses the collaboration of the arts and industry: the female and male joining hands in front of her. The artist’s palette, a painting, a sculpture and a mallet are next to the female one while a sledge hammer, a large cog wheel and a pair of blacksmith’s tongs are next to the male figure.
The famous British sculptor Frederick William Pomeroy ( 1856-1924 ), well known for his famous statue of Justice at the Old Bailey devised the overall scheme for the decoration of the Mountford building. Visitors may have already noticed the magnificent painted relief in the new café area, also designed by Pomeroy and painted by Robert Anning Bell ( 1863-1933 ). The central female figure is Liverpool; she wears a crown and hands out a laurel. Next to her she has Minerva with a group of scholars, while the Arts is to her left. Hermes, the protector of commerce with his winged sandals and helmeted hat is also present. The mural is classical in inspiration but reconfigured to convey the aspirations of the city of Liverpool. I hope visitors to the new café will enjoy these rich decorations and perhaps reflect upon the place of arts and culture in our lives.
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