London is littered with statues of the great and the grizzled. But what makes a statue worthy of its place in the city? Does it have to be a striking piece of art; a monument to celebrate greatness; an effective piece of propaganda? MouthLondon Arts presents you with our own Top 5 London Public Statues (and one stonking failure). All are central, out in the open air and easily accessible, so why don’t you pay them a visit and let us know if you agree with our choices.
5. Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens
Placed where Peter lands beside the Long Water in J.M. Barrie’s story, this statue appeared as if by magic one morning in the spring of 1912, eight years after the literary hit was published. Nonetheless, once the fairy dust has been wiped away, this garden ornament may have been nothing more than an interesting advertising ploy.
Barrie funded the entire project, prompting MPs to debate if marketing ploys by one author should be permitted within a public park. For a modern equivalent, try to imagine J.K. Rowling arranging a statue of Harry Potter to be erected in King’s Cross Station.
After all the fuss, the author was discontented with the statue anyway. Barrie later commented that the monument by Sir George Frampton “didn’t show the devil in Peter”.
4. Charles II in Soho Square
If generals sit upon steeds at Whitehall and politicians silently debate outside the House of Commons, it seems only natural that the life-size statue of “The Merry Monarch” should loiter amongst the hedonists of Soho Square. Created in 1681 by Caius Gabriel Cibber and positioned at a very touchable level, its now-weathered face suggests a man who’s enjoyed one too many shandygaffs and overdone the snuff.
The statue has enjoyed a past just as uncertain as its subject matter’s. It was removed and relocated to the middle of a lake in Harrow, only to be restored decades later in 1938, thereby allowing the king who witnessed the Great Fire of London to stand through the Blitz as well.
3. Shackleton on Exhibition Road
The Antarctic explorer may have a crater on the Moon and an entire mountain range named after him, but this 1932 statue by the architect Sir Edwin Lutyens is also a fitting tribute. It stands in an alcove on the headquarters of the Royal Geographical Society on Exhibition Road, Kensington.
Shackleton is depicted in his polar gear, an enormous coat with ice-shard creases and a thick knitted hat like the chainmail of a medieval knight’s helmet. This is a statue for the king of a kingless land.
2. George V in Old Palace Yard
George V was a small irritable man who was more at home in a chintz-filled cottage than a palace or war room. In this statue unveiled in 1947 however, the reluctant monarch is re-imagined as a glorious statesman, staring serenely towards the Parliament he helped to save.
The king stands tall upon a platform designed by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott (who would later go on to design the Tate Modern with a similar sense of aesthetic restraint). Carved from white limestone in his garter robes, George cuts a majestic figure, despite the reality.
Yet the current Queen’s “Grandpa England” was not unfamiliar with the importance of an image-change during his lifetime either: he was, afterall, the monarch responsible for rebranding a suspiciously Germanic royal family as the very English Windsors.
1. Gandhi in Tavistock Square
Amid all the improbably muscled generals and ruffled kings, one London statue depicts a wrinkled old man sitting in quiet meditation. The statue, like Ghandi himself, challenges preconceived notions of power. There are no horses, weapons or laurel wreaths here. Yet there is a raw human strength in the figure’s compact and sinewy body; and a silent determination in its deeply hooded, half-closed eyes.
Fredda Brilliant’s sculpture of Mahatma Ghandi was unveiled in 1968. It sits in the centre of the small “peace park” in Tavistock Square, which also includes a cherry tree planted in remembrance of the Hiroshima bombing. Despite the location’s emphasis on serenity, the statue became witness to the terrorist bombing of the number 30 bus, in Tavistock Square, on July 7 2005.
Arguably this statue’s most important function is as a destination of pilgrimage. People still journey from all over the world to place garlands around Ghandi’s neck.
AND THE WORST…
George II in Golden Square
Originally made for Cannons in 1720, the stone sculpture was later bought anonymously at auction and erected in Soho as “George II”, irrespective of its original intention. It now stands as testament to the unreality of royal image and legacy.
Have any statues been unfairly overlooked? Please let us know.
Images courtesy of Louisa Hennessy and Leo Reynolds