A Closer Look at Norwest House | Formerly Imperial Chemical House
Crossing Lambeth Bridge provides an epic panoramic view of the House of Parliament, London Eye and Lambeth Palace. However, a building that doesn’t get as much attention is Norwest House, previously Imperial Chemical House.
This post is why it’s worth having a closer look. But first, a bit of background.
Along Milbank, between Dean Stanley Street and Horseferry Road, is a collection of vast stone-faced office blocks. The biggest was designed by Sir Frank Baines (costing a whopping £1m) and built between 1927-1929.
It was part of a large commission that included Thames House (current tenants being MI5) which can be seen on the west side of Horseferry Road.
Pevsner – the architectural critic – wasn’t too kind about Thames House, commenting on its “unfortunate cheese-coloured tile roof”.
Milbank – in case you were wondering – takes its name from a mill beside Westminster Abbey, mentioned in 1565. Until 1650 it stood roughly at the end of Great College Street.
But back to Norwest House, this was built for the Imperial Chemical Industries (ICI), hence Imperial Chemical House.
Imperial Chemical Industries
In 1926 the four leading British chemical companies merged to former the Imperial Chemical Industries.
They made chemicals, plastics, paints, pharmaceuticals as well as speciality polymers, flavourings, fragrances and food ingredients.
Even the non-chemist can recognise some of their most successful products; perspex, polythene and Dulux paints. During the Second World War they also worked with the government on its Nuclear weapons programme.
In 2008 they were bought by the Dutch paint company Akzonobel, selling parts to Henkel, a German Chemical company.
In the 1980s the offices were subdivided and now contains the government Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) as well as Ofgem. The building is known as Norwest House (as per the Grade II listing) but there’s also an adjacent building called Nobel House.
Imperial Chemical House Sculptures
Peering down over the 5th floor balustrade are four epic sculptures by Charles Sergeant Jagger. Jagger is one of the finest British sculptors and responsible for the gut-wrenchingly poignant Royal Artillery Memorial, celebrated for showing the harsh reality of a dead solider.
These statues show four different industries*. On the northwest corner is Chemistry, an older man in a lab coat sits pensively within a large hand. The hand is meant to symbolise Mother Nature, opening to reveal secrets and allowing man to peer inside.
Marine Transport is depicted by a muscular, shirtless dockworker hauling cargo and embodying industrial strength. There are what looks like iron ship hulls at his feet
Building is also heaving away on some giant chains, securing an iron girder into place.
Lastly is The Sower, or Agriculture. Viewed from the ground, I always thought he resembled like an MI5 agent with a hat and briefcase. However, looking through a decent camera lens, the scythe can be seen in his right hand.
*Online you can find different attributions and names for each sculpture. I went with the Victorian Web’s matching.
As well as these full-size sculptures there are also nine portrait keystones depicting famous Chemists and ICI Directors.
One is Alfred Nobel (1833-1896), the Swedish Chemist and inventor of dynamite. He’s probably more famous for using his fortune to establish the eponymous scientific prize.
The Front Entrance
Although they’re wonderful, the statues are fairly difficult to appreciate from the pavement. So something that’s a little easier to see at ground level is the fantastic front entrance, covered with sculpted panels by William Batemen Fagen.
Born in Bermondsey in 1860, Fagen trained locally at Lambeth School of Art and he’s credited with the gorgeous sculptures on the former P&O headquarters to the South of Trafalgar Square.
The material is a silvery nickel-copper alloy which was developed by the ICI so a nice little link.
As with the sculptures, the decoration also has a scientific theme. Specifically it shows humanity’s scientific discoveries and breakthroughs over time. Here are some of my favourite little details…
A prehistoric scene of homo sapiens attempting to hunt a mammoth.
A Neolithic team-meeting with the construction of what appears to be Stonehenge going on in the background.
Modes of transport through time, including an epic steam engine crossing a viaduct.
Astronomers in an oddly-placed observatory with a view across the Thames. On the far right you can spot the Victoria Tower on the House of Parliament and Imperial Chemical House is visible on the left. The campanile of Westminster Cathedral also makes an appearance in the distance.
Finally, a depiction of Michel Faraday lecturing to a packed crowd of scientists including Charles Darwin who looks like he’s tentatively about to raise his hand and ask a question in the middle of the front row.
So I hope you enjoyed this closer look at the former Imperial Chemical House, it’s a reminder to look up even when you’re passing a seemingly ‘boring’ building!
More London Inspiration
Look Up London runs 11 different weekend walking tours, uncovering the hidden history in areas like Bermondsey, Spitalfields, Kings Cross, Smithfield and Soho! Find out more here.
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