Tucked away in the heart of the City of London is a triple whammy of sites, centred around one square, for art and history lovers to enjoy. The Guildhall and the Roman amphitheatre buried below it are a showcase for classical and medieval architecture, while the accompanying art gallery contains striking artwork from the renaissance to the modern period.
The staff are extremely lovely and helpful too, volunteering information and happy to help with any queries. So far from the usual stoney-faced security bods who sit bored in other more famous sites around London.
Another reason to recommend visiting these buildings, is that if you can’t stand hordes of tourists, you won’t need to fear them here. A little sadly perhaps, these sites are off the beaten track and in the City’s commercial centre, which is of course dead at the weekends.
You may be forgiven for thinking you have stepped into a medieval Royal court when you set foot inside the Great Hall of the Guildhall. The spacious hall has high arching ceilings bearing the crests of the 12 great livery companies of the City of London, the 15thcentury walls are lined with majestic statue groups honouring the likes of Wellington, Nelson, William Pitt and Churchill and there are magnificent stain-glass windows at each end of the hall. Oh and when you first enter the hall, take a few steps in, turn around and look up and expect to get a shock: large statues of the legendary (and rather ugly looking giants) Gog and Magog stand guard on opposite ends of the minstrels gallery.
The reason for such grandeur is that this building has been central in importance to the development of the City of London for many years. In medieval times, this was where the London Mayor of London held court, presiding over the trading regulations that helped the City grow into an admirable financial and commercial centre, (which explains its visible ties to the numerous livery companies that exist in the City). Back then this gave the mayor power which rivalled the monarch’s and so it is not surprising the Great Hall emanates such magnificence drama. It still belongs nowadays to the City of London Corporation (whose mayor is not to be confused with old Boris Johnson).
If you’ve got good eye-sight, you will see that the windows lining the side walls have the names of each mayor written on them from the very first one, Henry Fitz Ailwyn in 1189, to emphasise just who exactly runs this show.
And apparently it is still a powerful show to run, because when heads of state come over to visit the Queen et al, they may go to Buckingham Palace on the first day of their trip, but the Guildhall is always the port of call on the second day, the security guard proudly told me.
The Guildhall Art Gallery
This gallery may be small, but it sure ain’t lacking in punch. Walk up the steps to the upper level and life-size painting of Clytemnestra clutching a bloody axe with a glint in her eye greets you on the right and a full length statue of Maggie Thatcher is directly behind you to the left. It’s hard to tell which is more terrifying. A huge portrait of a solemn Queen Victoria in her coronation robes frowns at you as you peruse the fascinating variety of Victorian paintings in the upper gallery and as you descend to the lower levels, her ancestor Henry VIII glares at you, from a Hans Holbein painted panel, bored of the petitioning from the Barber Surgeons.
Among my favourite items were the long, narrow stain-glass window panels dedicated by some of the more modern livery companies (I never realised there was a Worshipful Company of Water Conservators) to the Queen on her Golden Jubilee which now adorn the walls here, reminiscent (on taller scale) of the narrow windows on castles of old that of course had to be that shape to defend against archers.
There are often visiting exhibitions here too, currently ‘The Age of Elegance’ is making a call and has some very dreamy paintings within it.
Then if you descend further into the gallery, you reach…
The Roman Amphitheatre
I must admit I never realised London had one of these lying around, and for quite a while no one else thought so either until 1988 when some rather surprised archaeologists stumbled upon it. There’s not much to see, except for the remains of the walls of the east entrance, the rooms where presumably the guards used as their quarters, a lot of sand and the draining system. However the Gallery has done a good job of showcasing it by keeping most of the room in darkness except for the ruins and by having some wonderful drawings of the stands and human bodies fighting lit up in white light against the blackness of the room. You naturally pause for thought, as you realise how many slaves died fighting here for the entertainment of others…
Admission to all three sites is free, although some exhibitions in the Guildhall Art Gallery may have a fee.
If you are interested in Roman gladiatorial combat, do check out my blog post on how reality TV shows are the gladiatorial games of the modern age here.