Several of the columns that support the Co-operative Wholesale Society buildings have incised line drawings upon them. These depict the rebuilding of Coventry and symbols of the Co-op's activities. The subjects are: the Co-op as a worldwide organisation; holiday facilities for employees; grocery provision, transport and coal; and flower seeds and nursery supply.
Whilst some of the images are clear and legible, others suffer from the constraints of the subject matter.
Three columns are incised with designs. The first has one face with depictions of farm buildings, fruits or tomatoes, a sunflower, a haystack, farm track and gate. These countryside motifs relate to the theme of flower seeds and nursery supply On the other face are depictions of pit head gear and slag heaps, a wheel and dividers, an eye, what could be a tool for carding flax (though it also looks like a paint brush) and flames rising up from burning coals. This symbolises coal and industry.
The second column has on one face, fish, a chopper, a bull's head, 11 milk bottles shown in perspective, bread and ears of wheat. This symbolises grocery provision. The other face depicts a bird flying over waves, a diver, a beach with bathing huts, cricket stumps and six balls increasing in size (the three largest are cricket, football and beach balls). Thus symbolising holiday facilities for employees.
The third column shows on one face a stylised map of the globe suggesting both lines of longitude and trade routes, a dove, a sheaf of wheat and a three-storey building with two doors. Dotted lines connect each design. This represents the world-wide growth of the Co-operative movement with a carving of its Rochdale premises at the base rising to a globe at the top; the other images typify the amenities of the store. The other face has an inscription on a tablet above a pair of glasses and, at the bottom, perfume and medicine bottles with a small glass for taking medicine. Dotted lines suggesting vision pass from the tablet through the glasses towards the base, these suggest looking upwards towards the Co-op sign on the tablet.
The City Planning Committee decided that the façade of the proposed Co-op building should have some form of sculptural decoration. The designs of the panels were restricted by the subject matter chosen by the Co-op architects' department. John Skelton was commissioned to carry out the carvings which are similar to his earlier work on nearby Broadgate House
The carvings depict the activities of the Co-operative Society, founded in Rochdale in 1844. By 1851, there were around 130 Co-operative stores in the North of England and Scotland. Within twenty years, their methods has spread to wholesale trading as well as retail, and to production as well as distribution. The Co-operative Wholesale Society was formed in Manchester in 1864. Membership of the English Societies rose from 250,000 in 1871 to 805,000 in 1889. (1)
Related works : Princess Elizabeth's Column (Manual ref. no WMcvCVxx121).
PMSA recording information