The neoclassical curved frontage of Cheltenham House, a building of 1970-1972 by Healing and Overbury, with integral Theme and Variations sculpture by Barbara Hepworth.
Reasons for Designation
Cheltenham House, by Healing and Overbury, including Theme and Variations sculpture by Barbara Hepworth, of 1970-1972, is listed at Grade II for the following principal reasons:
Architectural and Artistic interest:
* as Barbara Hepworth’s final public commission this is a sculpture of superior artistic and aesthetic quality, resonating with her artistic vision that gained depth and complexity in her maturing years. It is an expressive, dynamic piece that elevates the quality of the elegant neoclassical façade of which it forms a part to achieve a bold and distinctive example of post-war commercial architecture;
* the façade has a well-realised balance of solid traditionalism given a more dynamic classicism and sense of movement by its gentle curve allied with its elegant sculptural centrepiece;
* as an uncommon surviving example of a 1970s neoclassical design for a commercial building, by established architects Healing and Overbury. Classically-themed architecture was traditionally favoured by financial institutions to convey reliability and corporate responsibility, and in this case resonates with the architecture in the surrounding streetscape, and the former buildings which it replaced;
* the sculpture and upper floors of the façade are complete in their original form, remarkably so for a building of this date in a town centre location. The ground floor shopfronts have been sympathetically refurbished in good quality materials in the C21;
* the careful detailing that gives the building its dynamic forcefulness is achieved using a limited but consistent palette of high quality, durable materials, which are carefully crafted, and harmonious with Hepworth’s sculpture in terms of colour and texture;
* the sculpture was skilfully created and finished by the Morris Singer Foundry using quality materials.
* as a piece architectural artwork commissioned by a commercial client from an internationally renowned artist who was working at the height of her craft;
* this was a prestigious building that marked exuberant corporate confidence of the building society movement at its zenith in the early 1970s.
* the sculpture was designed to be part of the street scene, its character unfolding to the view from different angles and distances, demonstrating Hepworth’s skilful demonstration of the potential for art to enhance the built environment and become ingrained into a collective sense of place, as also achieved in earlier commissions;
* the building forms a strong landmark in a town centre rich in the Classical architectural style. Its outline, details and materials form a group with historic neighbouring buildings on Clarence Street and Well Walk, and it forms a strong visual counterpoint to the medieval Minster Church of St Mary (Grade I) and its churchyard, to its immediate rear.
Cheltenham House has origins as a newly-rebuilt ‘Chief Office’ for the Cheltenham and Gloucester Building Society, and was commissioned in 1970. This was a time when the company had ambitions to be the ‘best’ building society in the country. One of the ways in which they declared their intention to demonstrate their superiority was in their offices, and they engaged local architectural practice Healing and Overbury to design it. This was to be a complete replacement for the existing stuccoed Classical buildings on the site. In design terms it was to be a modern response to the architectural cues of the surrounding town with a shallow-curved façade that offered a balance between solid traditionalism and a more dynamic classicism.
In November 1969, architect Thomas Overbury (who was also on the Board of Directors for Cheltenham and Gloucester) approached Barbara Hepworth (1903-1975) to produce an abstract sculpture to fill three panels on the Bath stone façade, measuring no more than 925ft long and twelve ft high. On being sent an artist’s impression of the proposed building, Hepworth responded: ‘I like the proportions and I have several ideas in mind for wall sculptures.’ After having sent pictures of examples of her work, in January 1970 she was asked to produce a hardboard maquette of her design for the clients to consider, which the tripartite composition of semi-circular forms that overlie each other to create a three dimensional effect that would become the final bronze piece (the maquette is now in The Hepworth Wakefield). She explained in an accompanying letter that this maquette did not ‘represent final thicknesses or textures as all these will grow quite naturally at full scale when I am working with the foundry at the casting…I am personally very pleased with this sort of theme and variations on a triptych, and would adore to work it out to scale.’
After some initial hesitancy by Cheltenham and Gloucester, the piece was commissioned in June 1970, and named ‘Theme and Variations’. Work began on a full-scale prototype, which was sand cast in bronze by Morris Singer in September of that year. Hepworth, in consultation with Overbury, specified the patina and colouring of each element in order to prevent it appearing flat from distant views along the street. The bronze was cast in sections, treated with chemicals and allowed to weather outside the foundry achieve the correct patination before it was moved to Clarence Street and fixed in position under the supervision of the general manager of the Morris Singer Foundry. The topping out of the building took place in December 1971 and the opening ceremony was on 20 September 1972, with Hepworth unable to attend. In an interview at the time she noted the importance of the setting of her pieces and remarked ‘I’ve got a new one that will unveil next month in Cheltenham which is 30 feet long. It’s the longest I’ve done and enjoyed it very much but I’ve had to wait two years for the architects. It’s called Theme and Variations. It’s a kind of musical piece.’ Following the unveiling Hepworth was pleased with the finished result as she wrote to Overbury on 20 October: ‘I think my sculpture looks just right in scale and movement’.
In 1975, a fourth floor of offices was added at roof level, set back from the parapet and incorporating the building services equipment. Cheltenham and Gloucester moved out of the building in 1989, to new head offices in Barnwood, Gloucester after which time the ground-floor, open-plan banking hall was converted into a number of commercial units. The upper floors have continued to serve as offices for other organisations.
The building was extensively refurbished in 2015-2019 when the shop fronts and interiors were largely replaced. The interiors have also been replaced throughout the building, except for the staircases.
Office façade of 1970-1972 by Healing and Overbury for Cheltenham and Gloucester Building Society, with ‘Theme and Variations’ sculpture by Barbara Hepworth.
MATERIALS: a frontage to a steel-frame construction faced in Bath Stone ashlar and dressings, and green (possibly Delabole) slate dressings to the openings. Other finishes include polished stone fasciae, aluminium trims and metal signage. C21 materials include plate glass and polished stone cladding to columns. The window frames are centrally-hinged with aluminium frames (hardwood to the interior). The sculpture is cast in bronze by Morris Singer Foundry and mounted on steel fixings.
DESCRIPTION: a stripped back neoclassical façade to the upper floors with modern shopfronts below. The 28-window front is curved and has regular fenestration with pilasters to the three upper floors and an ashlar band below the first-floor openings extends to the west return wall. The first and second floor openings have green ashlar architraves and narrow cills, and a fluted frieze between them interrupted by the pilasters. Three windows from the left, the three first-floor openings project from the façade, in the manner of oriels, and are faced in green ashlar. The corresponding set of openings to the third floor is recessed, and a similar variation to the regular arrangement of openings is also given to the right end of the façade where the third-floor openings, fourth from the right, are recessed and those to the first floor are blank with attached sculptures.
The three bronze pieces of the sculpture (‘Theme and Variations’) is attached to the building by steel fixings and comprises semi-circular bronze forms that overlie each other. To the right of the façade is a blank bay with CHELTENHAM HOUSE lettering (probably of 1970s date) and a flagpole above. The lettering to the centre of the façade is of C21 date. Below the ashlar façade is a polished stone fascia with aluminium trim (some sections C21 replacements) that follows the variation in the street level and which overhangs the C21 plate glass shop fronts, forming a modest canopy. The shop fronts have stone-clad columns, stall risers and metal doors. There is a ramp access down to a basement car park to left of centre and to the right end is a vehicle access to the rear of the building. Above the second-floor openings is an ashlar cornice with fluted frieze, and third-floor openings above. The ashlar parapet overhangs the façade and has stop-chamfered detailing.