This statue of Mercury stands on top of Willing House in Gray’s Inn Road. It is now a Travelodge hotel, but it was once the home of the Willing family. They made their name in advertising, their activities ranging from book stalls and posters to billboard advertising. The Beamish Museum has one of their metal advertising boards (see here). The statue of Mercury, or Hermes, the messenger of the gods and responsible for the communication between the worlds of gods and men, is rather appropriate. Bill-posting was a lucrative business and one of the largest contractors in London was Willing and Co, founded in 1840. They arranged for the wall space, found the advertisers, and arranged the printing and pasting up of the posters. A contractor had the right to a certain wall or hoarding space, often paying good money for it, and employed regular bill-stickers. Those most proficient and capable of climbing ladders with poster and glue without getting the paper torn in the wind could claim higher wages and were called ladder-men.
Wall space was essential in this competitive world of advertising and one journalist wrote:
The value of advertising space, where it is secured and not subject to obliteration inflicted by some rival “fly-paster,” is absolutely fabulous. More than £300 a month was paid a short time ago for some hoardings in Queen Victoria Street; and, altogether, I was assured by a gentleman who has been in the trade for a long time, and enjoys every opportunity of making a fair estimate, that upwards of £60,000 was paid annually for the possession of hoarding and wall space in London to let out to advertisers. Indeed, so much money is made in this way, that there are certain houses standing in conspicuous places by the railway lines, which are not pulled down, though in ruins, because it pays the owners better to let the outside walls for advertising than to let the interior for dwelling purposes.(1)
Alfred Cecil Calmour gives us an insight in the cost of advertising for a play. He listed the costs he had made for one of his plays that he tried in a morning performance at the Vaudeville Theatre in 1883. The cost of advertising came to £7 3s. 7d. and posting by Willing & Co. had cost £1 while the total production, including actors, had come to “seventy odd pounds”.(2)
The bookstalls of Willing and Co. turn up in the addresses where magazines and journals are for sale, such as this one in The Automotor Journal of 1903. But the firm also had works published in their own name, the most well-known being Willing’s British and Irish Press Guide which, according to the write-up in The Electrician of 19 April, 1895, was “the handiest book of the kind published. The method adopted in dividing the book into sections lends itself to ready reference”. The guide was first published in 1874 and is still published today, no longer by Willing, but by Cision.
But not everything was as great a success as their Press Guide. William Tinsley relates how James Willing senior wanted to start a new monthly periodical “England in the nineteenth Century” which was however stopped after most of the work had been done for the first issue, because not enough advertisers were interested in the project, and, as Tinsley states, “the monetary success of any daily paper, or weekly, or monthly, or quarterly magazine, depends to a great extent upon the number of advertisements it contains”.(3)
The red brick building on Gray’s Inn Road stands on a site that was first developed as a residential area in the second half of the 18th century by John and Richard Smart. The Metropolitan Railway (±1861) cut through some of the houses; the north corner of the Willing site is now situated over the railway tracks. By the 1890s, the Willing family occupied number 366 which stretched from the Gray’s Inn Road, along St. Chad’s Place to Wicklow Street where they had their stables. They gradually acquired and developed the rest of the site to what is now the Travelodge hotel at 356-364 Gray’s Inn Road. From 1910 onwards, their architects were Alfred Hart (1866-1953) and Leslie Waterhouse (1864-1932) who designed the house in the ‘Free Baroque’ style which is called ‘a free mix of Tudor and Baroque elements’, although the Listed building site just calls it ‘French Baroque’. Over the years, smaller and larger alterations have been made to the building complex. In the 1970s – the building had by then been acquired by the Haslemere Group – substantial moderations were made to the place to create more office space, but the frontage has remained more or less what it was.(4) Although the site had been included in a plan for the development of the King’s Cross area, the 1974 Grade II listing changed all that. I’ll just quote the beginning of the description here:
Irregular facade of 3 storeys and attics, 5 storeys right hand bay. Left hand 3 bays forming a slightly projecting pavilion with round-arched central main entrance. Pilasters flanking entrance surmounted by large winged lions supporting a great 7-light bowed window with enriched apron, segmental headed lights and pilasters supporting a cornice and domed roof in an arched recess. To either side, transom and mullion casements with aprons; 1st floor with segmental-arched enrichment with small keystones. 2nd floor with paired stone Ionic columns to outer bays, flanking 2-light windows and supporting a modillion entablature with round-arched balustrade (piers with swags and features terminating in balls) over. Central dormer with transom and mullion casement flanked by scrolled consoles. Roof surmounted by a statue of Mercury.(5)
The statue of Mercury is by Arthur Stanley Young (1876-1968). It was made from cast and sheet bronze sculpted around a hand-carved elm structure. It was recently restored to its former glory by Rupert Harris Conservation. When they analysed the paint, it transpired that Mercury had originally been painted in a pale grey and that the caduceus had been gilded. He has been repainted and regilded and now proudly stands once again surveying the area from above.
The frieze above the porch that seems to be resting on two winged lions, was carved by William Aumonier (1891-1943), the father of Eric Aumonier who designed the reliefs in the lobby of the Daily Express building.
(1) Adolphe Smith, “Street Advertising” in John Thomson and Adolphe Smith, Street Life in London , pp. 22-23.
(2) Alfred Cecil Calmour, Practical Playwriting and the Cost of Production , pp. 55-56.
(3) “An Interesting Speculation Nipped in the Bud” in William Tinsley, Random Collections of an Old Publisher (1900), vol. 1, pp. 96-103.
(4) The information on the history of the building has come largely from a Report on Willing House by Paul Drury FSA ARICS IHBC (now Drury McPherson Partnership), 2000.
(5) The full listing can be read here.