Portofino, Newcastle: An Ornate Italian Restaurant Dating From The Victorian Era
The Newcastle branch of the Prudential Assurance Company was designed by the company architect, Alfred Waterhouse in 1891-7. Waterhouse developed a distinctive visual identity for the Prudential, a veritable house style based on red brick and red sandstone construction with a spiky profusion of terracotta ornament. In recent years, the building has been converted into an Italian restaurant named Portofino, and remains one of the most ornate interiors in Newcastle.
Founded in 1848, the Prudential initially catered to ‘persons of the highest respectability, the types of client sought being clergymen desiring to erect parsonages but unable to comply with the terms of Queen Anne’s Bounty.’ The Prudential became a pioneer of industrial insurance at a time when this was still widely seen as a liability due to the high frequency of industrial accidents. In 1859 the company took over the British Industry Assurance Company, whose business was concentrated in northern industrial regions. This allowed it to create a northern branch network in a relatively short time. Expanding beyond this base, the firm specifically targeted industrial areas and by opening a Newcastle branch it was able to sell policies to the industrial workers of Tyneside. The office was run by Riley Lord, who was Superintendent of a territory comprising Northumberland and County Durham. Lord integrated himself into Newcastle’s elite class, serving as Mayor of Newcastle (1895 and 1899) and as Justice of the Peace for Newcastle and Northumberland.
Standing on a red granite plinth with wrought iron grills, the building is executed in a combination of red brick and red sandstone. The style is Free Renaissance, of which Waterhouse was a proficient exponent, although his greatest triumphs lie within the Gothic mode. In fact, the building has many Gothic inflections. The corner bay is canted and treated as the principal event in the façade. The entrance is framed by a round arch with elaborate brackets supporting Ionic capitals and an entablature. Exotic carved beasts are coiled in the soffits of the arch, emphasising the building’s distinctly Gothic flavour. Along the roofline, a series of gables build up to a crescendo in the dominant corner feature. The whole is built on a steel framework. Waterhouse employed the local builder Walter Scott to carry out construction, but specialist work was provided by leading firms in their respective fields, with whom Waterhouse maintained productive relationships. The interior was lined with Burmantofts’ faïence tiles. Accessed via a vestibule, the banking hall was divided by a long counter. Stairs and a lift to the upper floors were situated behind the counter. The total cost was £37,155, reflecting the Prudential’s startling rise to prominence.
The vibrant red sandstone is rare in Newcastle, but is fully consistent with the Prudential house style that Waterhouse established in twenty-seven branch offices, while the profusion of terracotta ornament also unifies it with this geographically-dispersed but coherent body of work. However, Waterhouse’s Prudential buildings were not uniformly Gothic: he was sensitive to local contexts and was known to adapt his style accordingly. The Builder was perceptive when it identified ‘a strange mixture of Gothic feeling and . . . refined Classic details,’ in the Newcastle branch.
This ornate interior now operates as an Italian restaurant. Fortunately, very little has been changed. A large mirror has been added to give the illusion of more space and the walls are lined with the usual menus and specials boards. For the most part, however, the building is remarkably well preserved and remains a prime example of a late Victorian interior.