During the London Open House weekend in September I was one of many hundreds of visitors to The Leadenhall Building, the tallest building in the City of London. While waiting in the long queue that meandered towards the gigantic new structure, I was curious about a fragment of old architecture installed in the public space at street level.
This part of Leadenhall Street was previously occupied by buildings of the Peninsular & Oriental Steam Navigation Company, most recently an office tower built in the late 1960s. This maritime connection has been acknowledged by the display of a carved stone relief on the theme of ‘Navigation’, a godlike figure holding a passenger ship, flanked by a binnacle and ship’s wheel. Unfortunately, there is no caption to fully explain where this fragment has come from.
I was confident that some evidence could be found in the collection of P&O archive material on loan to the National Maritime Museum. Sure enough, during the following week, one of the Caird research fellows in the reading room drew my attention to P&O/90/13 in the Archive Catalogue. This material includes two photographs of the newly completed P&O Banking Corporation Ltd building taken by Bedford Lemere & Co in the early 1920s. They show that the figure of ‘Navigation’ originally stood in a much superior position, looking down from a recess in the facade at the junction of Leadenhall Street and St Mary Axe.
The National Recording Project database on the Public Monuments & Sculpture Association website suggests that the sculptor was Percy George Bentham (1883-1936). As a reference for carving the miniature ship, Bentham probably had in mind the Naldera and Narkunda, as they entered service in 1920 and were the first three-funnelled vessels in the P&O fleet.