Mercers’ Maiden

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St Paul’s Girls’ School has three Maidens, and their images link our school with the history of the City and its foremost Livery Company. The Maiden proper is entwined with the story of Mercer’s. Anne Sutton, the distinguished mediaevalist, argues that the maiden was originally a seamstress, a ‘silkwoman’, and that her image developed from the cognizances, or devices, worn on their sleeves by liverymen (I Sing of a Maiden, 1998).

To Gerald Horsley, our architect, we owe the way the Maiden is displayed at St Paul’s.  He gave her a commanding position over the entrance. If one stands on Brook Green facing the façade, the eye is drawn upwards to the Maiden on her lofty curved pediment. The panel incorporates entwined carvings of the Trees of Life and Knowledge and the Mercers’ motto, Honor Deo. Within the library, this panel is in part replicated, with a serious Maiden, her eyes downcast, scrolls of knowledge unfolding to her either side.  Horsley took particular delight in the clock and Maiden of the Great Hall. His was the design, but the metallurgist was Nelson Dawson, a fellow arts-and-craftsman of considerable fame. Nelson’s daughters Rhoda and Mary were to be Paulinas (1910-16 and 1910-18 respectively). His wife Edith’s fine book on Enamels (1906) is dedicated ‘to my jewels, R and M’. The timepiece proper was manufactured by the celebrated firm of J W Benson, whose warranty ran: ‘we guarantee that every part of the Clock shall be of the best, both as regards the materials and workmanship, and that when fixed it shall be a true timekeeper’.  Horsley combined scrupulous care over the artistry with a certain financial insouciance: ‘cannot say precisely what it will cost’, he told Miss Gray on 18 January, 1909. Fortunately, the Master approved and Nelson Dawson turned Horsley’s designs into the clock surround and a Maiden of beaten bronze, serenely beautiful. Not all Paulinas, as they enter the school, glance at her on the façade, but most will catch the Maiden’s eye in the Great Hall at some point of the day. How many assemblies, plays and concerts, one wonders, have passed beneath her beneficent gaze over the last century and more?

Howard Bailes, Archivist