Fine art and the lords of finance

There is a sense that bankers still haven’t paid their dues, but what kind of art could fulfil this function?

Can the City of London, or the lords of finance who preside over it, redeem themselves through art? This question raises other questions: first, do the City and the lords of finance need to redeem themselves? In the court of public opinion the answer to that is almost certainly yes. Bankers are already being made to perform certain penances; a senior figure on the private side of one of the biggest banks recently confided to me that “It has all become a nightmare; you have to warn perfectly intelligent grown-up people that their stocks might go down as well as up.” But there is a sense that they still haven’t paid their dues. And then a second question might be this: what kind of art could fulfil this function?

I was pondering these questions as I wandered around the Great St Helen’s: Sculpture Space in the City of London, an annual exhibition of site-specific open-air sculptures by contemporary artists that currently animates a corner of EC3 dominated by the Gherkin and the Lloyd’s Building. My first impressions were guardedly positive: works such as Tracey Emin’s “Roman Standard”, in which a sculpture of a tiny bird perches on top of a tall thin post, and Michael Craig-Martin’s upside-down blue “Hammer”, simultaneously material and immaterial, brought charm and humanity to an urban space I have usually thought lacking in both.

Some were more challenging or thought-provoking: Thomas Houseago’s “Bottle II”, in which a skull-like face with a stove-pipe hat appears like a dark genie, has a pungent whiff of mortality. The piece I liked most was Angus Fairhurst’s wonderfully touching sculpture of a gorilla and a fish, of their mutual incomprehension or incompatibility, entitled “A Couple of Differences Between Thinking and Feeling”.

These sculptures certainly give someone like me more reason to visit an area of town I don’t frequent. But do they “transform the Square Mile”, as the City’s press release claims? You’d have to say their impact is modest – small sparks of imagination dwarfed by the great towers that surround them, and I’d guess ignored by many who work in the City. If they are a fig leaf, designed to make acceptable a thrusting, not so artistic reality, they are, shall we say, a somewhat scanty one.

Perhaps the most famous of all fig leaves preserves the modesty of Michelangelo’s “David”, now in the Accademia in Florence. The Florentine Medici – the most successful exemplars of bankers’ redemption through art – were not so much worried about the court of public opinion as about the state of their immortal souls and, in particular, about the consequences of usury. The history of Florentine banking, which prefigures the whole of the modern age, revolves around an apparent impasse: how could bankers make money out of loans without infringing the church’s ban on charging interest on loans?

The solution is strikingly prophetic of what happened fairly recently. They managed it by creating more and more complex financial instruments, which few could properly understand. There were discretionary deposit charges, compensation in the form of gifts, and bills of exchange, described by the economist Mark Koyama as “promissory notes which enabled merchants to promise to pay one another in another city at some future date”. All this was facilitated by the internationalised, if not globalised, reach of Florentine banking (the Medici had branches in Bruges, Lyon, Avignon, London) and by diversification from banking into trading in wool, silk and alum.

Now none of that was necessarily “a bad thing”, but its finessing with the sin of usury clearly weighed on the consciences of the leading financiers. Cosimo de’ Medici donated the vast sum of 40,000 florins to the church of San Lorenzo in 1442 (and rebuilt two other churches), endowing it with a college of 12 priests. Though San Lorenzo bristles with great artworks, the motive here was not purely aesthetic.

Not only was the motivation for investing in art more urgent for the Medicis and their ilk than for the contemporary financiers who support the Great St Helens: Sculpture Space, their engagement with art was more intense. Cosimo’s grandson Lorenzo “the Magnificent” more or less stopped being a banker and devoted himself to politics, scholarship and artistic patronage. The Medici bank never recovered but what a bonus came, not to clever agents and middlemen but to all succeeding generations of humanity. Lorenzo didn’t merely commission Michelangelo but invited the young genius to live with his family for five years, to dine at the same table.

The point was that, however imperfectly and temporarily, the bankers and the artists were engaged in the same great project: a humanistic enterprise of philosophical, cultural and civic renewal that produced perhaps mankind’s finest artistic flowering. Of course it all came to grief; Botticelli gave up painting and joined in Savonarola’s burning of the vanities; but what a flowering it had been. My message to contemporary City financiers: it’s a start, but try harder.

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