Signs and Wonders 17: Behind the Council House

Evening Post, 5 Jan 2006

WHERE: Old Market Square

WHAT: The natural way to think of Nottingham Council House is as a town hall with some shops tacked on at the back. But the natural way is wrong.

As explained in Ken Brand and John Beckett’s excellent 2004 Civic Trust guide, our Council House is really a high-class shopping arcade with civic facilities stapled to the front.

When T. Cecil Howitt, then the Nottingham Corporation’s housing architect, was invited to think about a replacement for his city’s unfashionable and uneconomic Exchange building, he proposed a grand arcade modelled on the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II in Milan, the inspiration for many an Edwardian shopping palace.

But councillors - and particularly Liberal leader Edmund Huntsman - were not keen.

It was too grand for mere retail, and too big a project to pair with an expanded Guildhall for the council, as the idea seemed to be. And so Howitt returned with a truncated arcade, its front end plugged by civic chambers.

The Exchange Arcade, however, remains in the grand style; and the honeyish Bath Stone used inside feels more welcoming than the prestige Portland Stone of the exterior.

It also features what is now my favourite local secret, again from the Civic Trust guide. Those four murals underneath the dome? Well, the artist Denholm Davis took the chance of including a few then-familiar faces. So Cecil Howitt appears as William the Conqueror’s surveyor, near the site of the castle; and Little John is Albert Iremonger, Notts County’s giant goalkeeper.

Any reader who spots a relative around Charles I as he raises his standard, or among the Saxons conquering the city - the subjects of the other two murals - is more than welcome to get in touch.