Today (July 28) in London History – “we get to see something nobody else sees”

The great statue of Abraham Lincoln in Parliament Square was unveiled on July 28, 1920. It’s the centrepiece for this Today in London History episode.


How I love these moments.

Nothing beats them. 

It’s because almost but not quite uniquely they’ve got the third element.

Normally it’s just two elements. What you’re looking at. And the story that accompanies it – that helps your walkers to see it better. Gets them to see details that they might otherwise miss. Brings out the meaning. The meaning is in the story.

So that’s two elements – story and object (building or statue or piece of street furniture or square or, well, whatever’s in front of your eyes).

Two elements is good. Three elements is really good.

Today you’re getting an example of a really special third element. And what makes it even better is it’s not in the public realm. You can Google until hell freezes over and you won’t find this image. It’s the scholar-hunter – the Daniel Boone in me – that tracked it down, found it. So my walkers get to see something nobody else sees. Very satisfying that.

It’s a magical photograph of the unveiling of the Abraham Lincoln statue in Parliament Square. It happened on this day – July 28th, 1920.

Compositionally, the photograph is perfection itself. It’s a low aerial shot. Somehow the photographer got up above. My guess is he shot it from a platform. It’s old so it’s of course sepia-tinted. And all the more effective for being so. He’s looking down on a sea of black umbrellas. There are just a few people who aren’t under an umbrella. But only one face stands out. It’s a man just to the north of the statue. He’s right by the statue. He’s looking up. Looking at Lincoln. You can see respect on his face. And something approaching reverence. The power of the thing, though, is in the juxtaposition. The man looks very small compared with the plinth and the great tall statue of Honest Abe. And from the angle the photographer’s found, it’s as if Lincoln is looking down on all those people, on that sea of umbrellas. Looking down but not in any disturbing sense of the phrase. He seems to be looking down at them with love and affection – with boundless humanity. 

Lincoln’s in the upper left-hand corner of the photograph. The statue had been veiled with the two flags, sewn together – the Stars and Stripes and the Union Jack.  It’s just been unveiled. Movingly, those conjoined flags, are hanging, like so much drapery from his chair down across the Westminster Abbey side of the plinth.

 From the standing figure of Lincoln the eye sweeps down to the right and around. The huge crowd of people are in a crescent around the statue. It’s almost as if the shape of the crowd is a pair of arms, reaching toward Lincoln, about to embrace him. Powerful powerful stuff. Enchanting stuff. I can always see wonder in the eyes of my walkers when they look at the thing.

So that’s a stop of that walk that has the magical third element. It’s one of about six when I dip into that big shoulder bag of mine and bring out an astonishing image.

And of course having the photograph impacts – “colours” to some extent – the commentary there. The standard palaver there is to get your walkers to notice the stars on the plinth. There are 32. 32 because there were 32 American states when Lincoln was president. And you tell them that the statue is there because the war of 1812 ended in 1815 and so 1915 marked a century of peace between this country and the United States. And it was thought there should be something in London that spoke to that anniversary. Of course you have to add that they didn’t make it on time – the statue didn’t go up until, as we know, this July day in 1920. And you usually add that the statue is a copy of the famous one in Grant Park in Chicago. Oh and you should also add that there were a few close calls – these Brits and those Yanks, they’re warlike peoples. They nearly got into it a few times over that century.

Now in the matter of introducing that statue – guiding it – all of that’s well and good. But it can be done better. Especially if you’ve got the photograph to show them.

I tell them about the meeting just before the unveiling. The meeting in the Central Hall of the Houses of Parliament. It was there that the distinguished American [Ella-hoo] Elihu Root formally presented the statue to the British people, on behalf of the United States. It’s a judgement call of course but I think it’s worth getting [Ella-hoo] Elihu Root into focus for my walkers. He was a former senator and Secretary of State. He won the Nobel Peace Prize. For 15 years he was President of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. I suppose you could say all of that was balanced out by his being Secretary of War and a leading advocate of American entry into World War I on the side of the British and French. His thinking was German militarism would be bad for the world and bad for the United States. 

He’s been called the first “foreign policy grandmaster” in American history – the man who more than any other figure was responsible for transforming America into a world power.

I’m also at pains out there to stress that he was of English ancestry. In a minute you’ll see why that’s important. And if I’m mischievous – I usually am – I add that as a young lawyer he defended Boss Tweed during that New York monster’s corruption trial. And that he was a prominent opponent of women’s suffrage. Was the president of an anti-suffrage league. Appropriate to bring that up right there because of the nearby statue of Millicent Fawcett, the great feminist and suffragette who broke the granite ceiling in Parliament Square, became the first woman to be honoured there with a statue. 

Anyway, in his speech, Mr Root said Lincoln “was of English blood” and “of English speech.” He said Lincoln had “the qualities that have made both Britain and America great. He said, “the statue of Lincoln the American stands, as of right, before the old Abbey, where sleep the great of Britain’s history.”

In the ceremony in the Houses of Parliament the British Prime Minister David Lloyd George accepted the statue on behalf of the British people. In the acceptance speech the British premier said, “Lincoln in life was a great American. He is an American no longer. He is one of those giant figures…who lose their nationality in death.”

They knew how to make a speech a hundred years ago.

Anyway, you get a chance come on my Old Westminster walk and feast your eyes on this very special photograph. It’ll take you right back to the rainy July day in 1920.

That’s all for now. Good night from London. See you tomorrow. 

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