The Story Behind the Barbican Frieze on Aldersgate Street

The Barbican complex is a strange beast, confusing to navigate and ‘ugly’ to some. However, give it a chance and there’s gems to be found.

One of my favourites is the Barbican Frieze on Aldersgate Street

Barbican Frieze Aldersgate Street

Background to the Barbican

The City of London (along with the East End) suffered much more than the rest of London during The Blitz. One particular section; the ward of Cripplegate was almost completely destroyed.

Barbican Frieze Aldersgate Street

This hand-coloured bomb damage map of 1945 makes it pretty clear. Purple = damaged beyond repair.

But out of the rubble come the towering Barbican estate, with 2,014 flats housing around 4,000 Londoners.

Thankfully, fragments of the history before remain. Like the frieze on Aldersgate Street;

Barbican Frieze Aldersgate Street

It was removed from 53 & 54 Barbican, the premises of W. Bryer & Sons. They were gold refiners and assayers (those who determine the quality of gold or precious metals) and the frieze depicts their trade.

The Barbican Living blog says the firm was established in 1815 at no. 53 Barbican, then expanded to 54 when John Bryer – a watchmaker – took over. Later the family business passed to William, Thomas and Henry Bryer.

Although the buildings actually escaped the bombs, they were demolished in 1962, unfortunately in the way of the new complex’s plans.

Barbican Frieze Aldersgate Street

The details are beautiful. Close up you can see the men at work; weighing the raw product,

Barbican Frieze Aldersgate Street

contentedly using long tongs for smelting,

Barbican Frieze Aldersgate Street

sweating from the heat,

Barbican Frieze Aldersgate Street

casting; pouring the molten metal into a mould before finally…

Barbican Frieze Aldersgate Street

Ensuring you sell for a good price!

Barbican Frieze Aldersgate Street

What do you think of the Barbican? Despite almost always getting lost, I’ve grown to love it.

Barbican Frieze Aldersgate Street

More London Inspiration

8 Comments

  • regine slavin

    Reply

    I don’t understand how people think the Barbican is ‘ugly’ – for me it is the most beautiful building complex in London, after St. Paul’s Cathedral. Every detail enchants me. I also admire the civic spirit of the time, which made the building of such an estate, including high and low rise, arts institutions, a library, a tropical greenhouse etc, possible.

    November 20, 2019 at 9:03 am
  • Stewart Francis

    Reply

    I loved this article and the photos – that excellent light camera to the fore again! I don’t love the Barbican 100% but maybe 90%. There’s a brutal/brutalist feeling about it; but what I do love [100%] are the vistas and juxtaposed, sudden scenes, e.g. the City of London [?] School and the ancient [?] church viewed against the brutal buildings. I enjoyed a guided tour around it on a London Open w/e and heard about the links with rebuilding to create a huge plus after the terrible minus of the bombing.

    I had not seen the frieze you have shown us. It is exquisite, with those details and the extraordinary skill of the sculptor in depicting the human body in action – always the utmost artstic challenge.

    Thank you for this lovely report plus photos, Katie. I’ll add this item to my ever-expanding must-see list!

    November 20, 2019 at 3:57 pm
  • David Farrell

    Reply

    Hi Katie, I found the bomb damage map of the area fascinating. Hopefully someone will one day invent a time machine so we can travel back to the 1930’s and explore this part of London and its long vanished streets.

    November 20, 2019 at 6:55 pm
  • Elizabeth Claren

    Reply

    I also always get lost in the Barbican but during my wanderings I always find something beautiful. Like the conservatory. This story made me want to get ther again and see this frieze in person. Thank you!

    December 9, 2019 at 9:47 pm

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