This newly re-written feature looks at the subjects of art and design and their connection with Martins Bank. From the restoration of old branches, to the building of new ones, the Bank is keen to make its mark on local communities. Whether through the use of locally targeted newspaper ads, or the commissioning of special artworks to reflect local life, Martins spends a lot of money, trying to achieve “the look” within the community – whatever that look might be. Whilst there is a policy of locating branches slightly away from the town centre, sometimes in a quiet shopping street, money is nevertheless spent on making the branch look as if it has been there for many years, and is already part of the local community. In the 1940s and 1950s, banking is all about strength, stability and a safe place for your money, but by the 1960s, just about anything goes. From tasteful redecorations, and bright practical new interiors, to frightening dystopian buildings of a future that, even today, thankfully still hasn’t arrived, be prepared to witness the combination of Martins Bank, Art, the 1960s take on modern architecture, and especially “the Shock of the New”. You can navigate this page either by using our quick links below, or by taking a slow miander downwards but beware, you might just need some dark glasses…
Designing Martins Bank…
Designing Martins Bank is a very serious affair, and the Bank’s Premises Department engages some of the world’s finest architects to effect the transformation of old premises or the building of new ones. The “brutalist” architect Ernö Goldfinger, is, for instance, let loose at the refurbished Branch at 88 Wigmore Street. His design for the manager’s room window is definitely something to behold and a real shock to the system. In this feature, we look at Martins’ love affair with design, which as the 1960s advance, becomes more and more outlandish, and we look at some of the more straightforward design matters, the refurbishment and rebuilding of some of Martins’ older branches. We also take a look behind the scenes of the factory that makes the Bank’s iconic hanging coat of arms signs, from that most modern of materials – in 1964 – the wonderful fibreglass.
Our attention then turns to a chronology of the use of artworks in Martins Bank, from commissioned advertising drawings to three-dimensional works in ceramic, stone and steel, some of which require quite a stretch of the imagination to appreciate. We round off with a gallery of Branches tat have undergone kind of “shock of the new” treatment, leaving us scratching our heads, and asking WHY? Martins Bank Premises Department is one of the most important parts of the Bank. Designs are looked at and decisions made that will affect how customers view the Bank.
The desired effect is to attract new business, and there are plenty of examples where Martins has outgrown a branch, and needs to expand its operations in a particular town or city. In the following article from Martins Bank Magazine, Staff Architect Mr Silcock looks at what is involved in creating new and better customer and working environments, whether or not this means re-using or losing an existing Branch building. The illustrations show the changes that take place inside Tyne Dock, South Shields Branch in 1963…
New Branches for Old…
The work of forming new branches from old presents its special problems. Where an existing branch is being altered but must continue to function on the site, it is necessary for the work to be staged. This must take into account the importance of providing reasonable banking and staff facilities throughout the whole period of the work. As the most convenient time for a change in stage to be carried out is at weekends, the contractor very often has to work round the clock so that the Bank can be ready for business on Monday morning. The staging of work is mostly felt by the managers and staff who, unlike the customers, are ‘with it’ all the time, and the tolerance and co-operation shown on these occasions are greatly appreciated. It sometimes happens that even when structural work is underway, unexpected forms of construction present unforeseen problems and delays. Party walls may be sub-standard and the remedy often proves expensive in time and cost.
There have been cases where work on adjacent sites has had adverse effects on the Bank’s own work, such as basement flooding. While weather can often interfere with the work, the progress of a contract is always to some extent controlled by the ability of specialists to meet the agreed delivery dates. Some items require a considerable time from order to delivery in site, and when one remembers that very often the necessary dimensions are not available until the main structure is in position, it is easy to see that sometimes delays are very difficult to prevent.
Bright and welcoming, the interior of the new branch
Image - Martins Bank Archive Collections
The story is not yet complete, for there will inevitably be teething troubles – a door or a drawer which will not close properly; a heating system which suddenly develops a jinx and tries to roast everybody, but these matters can be rectified quickly. Customers give their own critical analysis, usually of the design, and the staff, thankful to be free from dust and grit, add their opinions – a wall paper is changed. but that is another story.
For the staff in particular, a complete change from an elderly branch building to something new and state of the art, with much better working conditions is as good as a feast. Martins prides itself on the use of new innovations, such as central heating through ceiling coils, and special light fittings that minimise and soften the glare of the modern flouescent bulbs. The new branches have better staff rest room facilities, many with kitchen facilities. Between 1963 and 1965, a complete transformation takes place in Preston, where the former Head Office of the Preston Union Bank is tired, cramped, dark and miserable. Despite oozing traditional feelings of security and permanence, the building belongs to another age, and the two year programme of works that follows sees a large number of staff relocated to temporary premises, whilst their new and gleaming statement of sixties hope and glory takes place. Having worked at the “new” Fishergate branch, our editor is broadly a fan – compared to some of the horror stories you will encounter on our special feature page, Preston has an elegance of its own, and a practicality that has kept it in use as a bank for the best part of fifty years (although the huge reductions in manpower since the 1960s will have left many an empty floor. Here is the transformation at Preston, followed by a short extract from Martins Bank Magazine’s visit to the new Branch in 1965, which provides us with some architectural details…
“The entrance porch is of clear glass but the windows are of hand-made tinted glass set in aluminium frames, the counter is of teak, faced with Sicilian marble, and the walls of the main banking office are of wide elm boarding with one large panel of silver-grey marble. The management rooms are lined with cedar of Lebanon against a maple background and hot water coils in the ceilings warm all the office areas. The staff kitchen has built-in teak wall cupboards with magnetised catches”…
Until 1964, Martins Branches displayed a number of different representations of the Bank’s name and/or Coat of Arms on the outside walls of their buildings. From the mid 1950s onwards, a new metal version of the Grasshopper and the Liver Bird has begun to be seen, but 1964 sees the move into fibreglass, the lightest substance yet used for this type of signage. Curious to know just how the mass-production of Bank signs is achieved, Martins Bank Magazine lifts the lid on the process in its Summer 1964 issue…
Fibreglass – the way forward…
since the last war, through research and experiment, the uses of fibreglass have developed to such an extent that there are now companies engaged solely in the manufacture of fibreglass products. Such a company is Carleton Russell Limited whose works at Loughborough we visited recently. The company makes fibreglass signs and displays and has produced several of our Bank signs. At the time of our visit the finishing touches were being made to the huge sign, seen in the colour photograph above, which now gleams upon customers entering our branch at Digbeth, Birmingham. Why fibreglass? Two of its advantages, lightness and flexibility, have much to recommend it as the material for a wall sign, either inside or outside a building. The Coats of Arms carved in stone which once surmounted the two entrances to our Leeds office have now given way to fibre-glass reproductions. Weather resistance is another valuable property of these signs and Hove branch, for example, exposed to coastal weather, is saved frequent cleaning and retouching costs by having its external sign made from fibreglass.
As the name suggests, glass fibre is one of the basic materials used in producing fibreglass. The other is a polyester resin, a plastic substance which bonds the glass fibre into a strong but resilient laminate. To follow the stages of producing a sign from start to finish, our tour of the works began at the modeller's room. Here a model is prepared from the design, which may be merely a blown-up photograph, the modeller working with clay which is kept damp to prevent hardening. In this way, once the mould has been made from the model, the clay can be used again.
The material for the mould is usually liquid rubber which is poured over the model but if many reproductions are to be made from the same mould, a more robust material—plaster, wood or even fibreglass itself—is used. Once the mould has hardened it is filled with the polyester resin to provide a 'gel coat' or smooth, outer coating. This sets in about 30 minutes when another coat of resin is applied and the glass fibre, in narrow, woven strips like bandages, is pressed into it. After hardening, the reproduction is taken from the mould and examined for flaws which can be rectified by careful application of resin.
When all imperfections have been eliminated the reproduction is left in a curing room for between 24 and 30 hours at a temperature of 140-150 degrees Fahrenheit, this curing process being essential for the complete binding of the glass fibre and resin. For a hard, lasting finish the sign is then sprayed with acrylic paints and finished by hand. We could test for ourselves the lightness and flexibility of the finished product and we were told of its weather resistance, but just how strong fibreglass is we were anxious to discover. We took a piece of smooth fibreglass measuring about eight inches by six inches and no more than ⅛” thick and tried to snap it.
Our efforts succeeded only in flexing it slightly. We then watched the same piece struck forcibly by a golf club which produced a slight dent—on one side only! That could be put right, we were told, by 'filling-in' with fibreglass. It is scarcely surprising that a material with such advantages—produced at highly competitive prices too—is continually finding new markets and we left Loughborough wondering where fibreglass might be popping up next. One thing seems certain: it will not replace steel in the strong room grill.
One modernisation that has stood the test of time as being a beautiful addition to to the Liverpool skyline , is of course the Bank’s Head Office at 4 Water Street. Designed on classical lines, reflecting in sumptuous detail the long association of Liverpool with all things maritime, the building is about to make another splash here in the twenty-first century by becoming a luxury hotel that will rival the opulence and grandeur of many of the top hotels across the World. 4 Water Street, externally grand and traditional is very much a statement of the future, incorporating internal features that are way ahead of their time – a clever heating system, the best electrical and telephone systems that the early 1930s can offer – and many of these last much longer than originally intended. Our first comparison - of No 7 Water Street with its successor – is not a “shock of the new” – it is simply a big step forward in terms of grandeur and design:
By the mid 1930s, Martins has begun its thirty year long push to become a truly national bank, and the South and South-West of England become first outposts, and then mini-strongholds, with clutches of branches in towns such as Southampton and Bristol. A decision is taken that the Bank should very much represent the town or city that its branches inhabit; it begins with the commissioning of drawings and paintings to be used in advertising, and culminates by the late 1960s in individual and ever more lavish three-dimensional artworks being made and put into branches. This is covered in more detail elsewhere within this feature, but here is a selection of images that show the progression of Martins’ love affair with artworks…
The artist Graham Smith is commissioned in the 1940s to paint a series of pictures to be used in advertising under the title of “Famous Banks” – the humour of this idea is in the name of course, as instead of looking at an image of the Bank of England for example, you have “the banks” of the River Thames. Around the same time, Geoffrey Wedgwood is asked to produce a drawing that will represent each of twelve english towns and cities that had been occupied by the Romans. Advertisements carried the pictures, a small piece about the Roman occupation of a particular town, and details of the local Branch of Martins Bank…
The Roman Towns images and advertisements are a clever way of making up for the fact that many of the towns and cities involved do not have their own long established Branches of Martins bank – in some cases the paint is still drying!
As the 1960s approach, Martins starts to think bigger. The shock of the new is already on its way, thanks to architects such as Ernö Goldfinger of the “Brutalism” school of design – dystopian high rise blocks that solve the housing shortage, but remove the soul both from an area and its inhabitants.
In the late 1950s, Martins begins to commission works of art that can take pride of place in new branches, and in most cases reflect something of the local area – a kind of “giving back to the people”. To begin with, this is neither a grand nor hollow gesture, and the character of many a branch is decided by its own unique internal décor and its artwork. Our next gallery combines sixties interior design, with some one off pieces lovingly made to be proudly exhibited within them…
Depicting “certain landmarks in the Bloomsbury area” this tapestry greets the Bank’s customers at London’s Tottenham Court Road Branch. Celebrated designer, Sax Shaw is commissioned to make this remarkable piece, and we believe that this artwork is yet to be found somewhere in the World. The exterior of Martins’ Branch at Tottenham Court Road is designed by Robin and Christopher Ironside, the latter being responsible for the design of the original 10p piece used at Decimalisation in 1971. Their design includes Martins’ Coat of Arms in grained green granite above the door, and for the Bank’s name to be carved into the marbled plinth above the windows:
Image © Barclays Ref 30/2958
The opening of Boston Branch in 1966 sees the creation of another tapestry, this time with a design that is not quite so straightforward as the London Landmarks depicted at Totenham Court Road. Indeed this time, representing the journey of the Pilgrim Fathers from Boston to America, the tapestry is illuminated at night for passers-by to enjoy – having previously only used drawings and paintings to sell the Bank, Martins is now taking advantage of the time a Branch is closed, in order to raise in it the interest of the public. Further examples are shown below, commencing with this view of the Boston tapestry:
1966 – The Journey of the Pilgrim Fathers, Boston, Lincolnshire
Martins’ Coat of Arms is represented in towns across the country, and in many of them, the original design is still to be seen, even if the owner of the building is no longer a bank. Here are some from the vast selection, followed by examples that you can still take a trip to visit – if you want to…
On the corner of Vicar Lane and Eastgate in Leeds (left and centre), you will still find Martins’ original welcome above the door. Meanwhile at Watford 36 High Street (right) the carving of the Bank’s coat of arms is still clearly visible after more than fifty years. Remarkably well preserved on the wall of the Bank’s Branch at Heaton Chapel (below), is this elaborate working of the Coat of Arms, with an agricultural slant…
Main Image © Barclays Ref 30/1588 and Inset © 2000 Michael Alderson
Last but not least, this lovely almost art deco take on the Coat of Arms above the door at the Branch at Claughton Village, Birkenhead which, sadly, closed in July 2013.
We still have not reached the true “shock of the new”, that this page boasts, but believe me, get there we shall, and shocking it will be. The 1960s sees an explosion of art and media, that brings colour into the lives of a country that is still confined to black and white television, and limited expensive colour in magazines. Newspapers are still completely monochrome, save for a few words such as “Late Edition” printed in red ink in the top corner of the front page. Any artistic expression is embraced as new and exciting, although within a few years we will be easily able to sort out the rubbish from the good stuff. Before we assault your eyes with some truly shocking examples of new BUILDINGS, here are some artworks that you will no longer be able to find on the high street…
Meanwhile, in Martins Bank’s newest and fastest growing district – South Western – a young ceramic artist is, to great effect, given free reign over three branches… We have already seen good examples of the Bank commissioning pieces of art work that reflect the local area. Three such works are created by Philippa Threlfall for the branches at Bristol Clifton, Cheltenham High Street, and Gloucester. Philippa’s appeal for information about the fate of her ceramic masterpieces is already featured on our MOST WANTED page, but we wanted to do justice to her work on this page with large images.
BRISTOL CLIFTON, WHITELADIES ROAD
The design depicts various buildings
and landmarks in Bristol
The Shock of the New…
At last – our roll call of the hideous is about to begin. These are Branches of Martins that are either built as new, or to replace an older office of the bank. In each case, the best of intentions we are sure, were meant by those reponsible. It is only now that we can say – just WHAT were they thinking?
Image © Barclays Ref 33/547
Welcome to dystopia 1967 – or Thornaby on Tees Branch, as it is known – an office drowned in its own grey drabness, a real nightmare in concrete. How many people were subject to trudging those awkward walkways with a pram, we can only guess. The next crime occurs in Bexley, Kent, just before the 1969 merger – unfortunately, we can’t even blame Barclays, as the whole thing is planned and executed by Martins. Marvel for yourself, at what takes the place of Bexley’s original branch…
In the face of such horror, will we ever be able to sleep easy in our beds again? Well, NO - here is another Kentish candidate, the lovely old branch at Welling is also destroyed and replaced.
The North of the country is not immune either. We will concede that Hartlepool York Road had to be replaced, the original North Eastern Banking Company building is definitely past its sell by date - but the change is positively startling – Mum, where’s my attic bedroom gone?
Where in the universe have we landed? Is this one of the wobbly sets from the 1960s episodes of “Dr Who”? Even worse - no need for L S D when paying in your £ S D at the new Watford Branch. The uneven cobbled effect on the floor, clashing with walls that look as if they might close in on you at any minute, must have made for an “interesting” visit to Watford…
Image © Barclays
Our Designing Martins feature ends with a short look at Martins’ obsession with mock tudor. As if advertisments giving an impression that Martins Bank goes back to Roman times aren’t enough, they do also have a habit of sticking faux wooden beams across the front on some of the Branch buildings, to give them that “ye olde” feel. Here are some of the suspects:
We hope you have enjoyed this tour around some of the designs, artworks and buildings that make Martins so distinctive. Please use our search facility and/or A to Z to visit the individual offices concerned, to learn more about each of the individual branches mentioned.