Today (July 31) in London History – Thrown to the Lions

Those lions in Trafalgar Square will never look the same. How so? What’s the connection with July 31st? All is revealed in this Today in London History podcast.


London calling.

London Walks connecting.

London Walks here with your daily London fix.

Story time. History time.

To get started – how about if we lay down a couple of principles.

Both of them tried and true, common sense, really.

Principle Numero Uno: The more you know about something the more interesting it becomes.

And Principle Numero Due: The Important thing is to see it better.  

That’s why you go with a guide, to see more, to see it better.

So let’s take a bit of London that everybody sees – and see if we can see it better. Find out more about it and thereby make it more interesting. 

The bit of London I have in mind is the quartet of huge lions at the base of Nelson’s column in Trafalgar Square. Smack dab in the centre of London, they’re impossible to miss. Everybody who lives in London, everybody who comes to London, everybody who keeps an eye on London from afar sooner or later sees those lions.

And yes, there is a peg for doing those lions today, July 31st. 

Aside here: extraordinary the way a tame, innocuous, pretty much non-descript little nobody of a word – a word like that word peg – can, seemingly out of nowhere, suddenly become a meteor, can streak across the skies, become incandescent, loaded, charged, unmissable. Can, in today’s parlance, go viral, can trend. 24 hours ago – I’m writing this early Friday morning, July 29th – I would have just said the peg for this story is… and thought nothing of it. Twelve hours later – confession time here – I’d joined the stampede. Like countless millions of people around the world I was clocking in to hashtag prince of pegging. Trying to see what all the fuss was about. And – here I’m proclaiming my ignorance – wondering what in the world is pegging. Wish I hadn’t found out. And my reaction – for what it’s worth – and I hasten to add here, I’m no royalist – anyway, my reaction was: “the poor of Princelet of Wales, poor Prince William – trending in that ugly way on social media, having that happen to you, well, right now he must feel like a raw piece of hamburger with a trillion flies crawling over him and buzzing around him.”

Anyway, if we can use the word peg here in its innocuous sense – the peg I’m hanging this story on is to be found in the documentation for the execution of the lions. 

In that documentation is the letter containing artist Sir Edwin Landseer’s acceptance of the commission. The letter is dated July 31st, 1858. So we’ve got ourselves an anniversary here. 

And surely the next building block to put down here is that it took nearly a decade before the work was completed.

And for a further building block: let’s find out something about the principals. London stories – London monuments, London buildings, London neighbourhoods, London institutions, London infrastructures – are always more interesting if you know something about the people – the men and women – who are the hand in the glove of those London establishments.

In this case, the first thing to know about the man who accepted that commission – said, “ok, I’ll do the lions for you” – first thing to know about Sir Edwin Landseer is he wasn’t a sculptor. He was a painter.

Admittedly an animal painter, but a painter all the same – not a sculptor.

Edwin Landseer was a Londoner through and through. He was born in Marylebone in 1802.  Came from a family of artists. His father was an engraver and author. One elder brother was a printmaker; the other a genre and history painter.

Edwin Landseer’s artistic gifts were recognised from a very early age. He was a child prodigy. Drawing with extraordinary precocity as a four-year-old.

From the very first he was drawing animals. Domestic and farmyard animals – Cows in the fields near Hampstead, just north of where he lived, somebody’s Cocker Spaniel and such like. But also lions and tigers. He saw them at something called Mr Cross’s menagerie at Exeter Change in the Strand, not a hundred yards from where Landseer’s den of lions would take up residence many years later.

By the time he was 22 years old he was being hailed as “a pictorial Shakespeare of animal expression.”

When he was 24 – as soon as he was eligible – he was made an associate of the Royal Academy.

By his late 20s he was the foremost animal painter of the day. 

What set him apart was he went way beyond the naturalistic. 

He simply could not paint an animal without a story. His portraits of dogs, for example.  

He always invented situations for his sitters – gave them feelings and attitudes akin to those of human beings. 

By mid-century Landseer was the best-known artist in Britain. And very wealthy. But all was not well. He suffered a nervous breakdown. He was drinking heavily, a problem compounded by drug abuse. There were times when he quite simply lost his mind. What enabled him to keep going was his work – and his friends rallying round.

Despite it all – the inebriation, the bouts of dementia, the loneliness despite all those friends – in the words of Queen Victoria, commenting on his death in 1873, “for the past three years he had been in a most distressing state, half out of his mind, yet not entirely so’. Despite it all, Landseer somehow kept going as an artist. 

In the words of a biographer, “What is remarkable in Landseer’s late works is his willingness to experiment and push out the boundaries of his art. 

When asked to design the lions around the base of Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar Square he cheerfully accepted the commission, although his knowledge of sculpture was extremely limited. Working in the studio of his friend the sculptor Baron Carlo Marochetti, Landseer laboured on the four colossal clay models for a period of ten years, at times elated by the project, at others almost overwhelmed by its size and complexity. 

One of Landseer’s letters to Marochetti tellingly reveals the fragile state of his nerves at this period: ‘a Lion has been turned loose on me by the government. I must conquer or fall’.

For the record, it was Marochetti who turned Landseer’s clay models into the bronze sculptures there at the foot of Nelson’s column today. 

For me there are three takeaways to this London tale. One – I’m always going to be seeing this from now on – on the day of his funeral – October 11th, 1873 – it was a state occasion – the funeral was in St Paul’s Cathedral, Landseer is buried in the crypt of St Paul’s – on the day of his funeral Landseer’s lions were fitted out with mourning wreathes.

Takeaway Number Two – that Italian sculptor Baron Marochetti – he wasn’t on my radar until now. Turns out he’s the sculptor who did the famous Richard the Lionhearted equestrian statue in front of parliament. So that’s a fun-to-know London connection. Lions in Trafalgar Square at the top end of Whitehall, lion-hearted at the other end of Whitehall. Same sculptor.

Third takeaway is more complicated. It has to do with the response to, the contemporary reception of Landseer’s lions. Feelings were, shall we say, mixed. Set me thinking all that. Reading over those contemporary appraisals – well, it was humbling. I thought, they’re seeing these works more closely, more intelligently, better than we’re seeing them. Why is that? I’m not sure. Pushing out a very tentative theory here. They had fewer distractions than we have. They didn’t have Twitter or Facebook or Tik Tok or Instagram or the Internet generally or radio or television or Iphones or aeroplanes or Scooters – all those furies all the time pecking at us, pulling at us. I think they had more time to look closely, to mull over, to think hard about what was in front of their eyes. 

So, for example, one critic spotted “the want of definition generally, which, particularly in the fore legs and paws, might have been rendered  less evident, and a more hairy texture indicated by subsequent chasing.” Well, live and learn. I never saw that. It never occurred to me. I’ll certainly be looking out for it the next time I’m in Trafalgar Square. And glad to add that word “chasing” to my admittedly limited artistic vocabulary.

Or how about this? The same critic speaks of  “the disproportionate size and comparative isolation of these sculptures relative to the column with which they should group as accessories.” 

The anonymous contemporary critic goes on to say: “since writing on this want of keeping, last week, we have inspected the original model in stone, made by Mr Railton, the architect of the Nelson column. In this model the four lions appear couchant, as now completed. But it also has four broad flights of steps, which, rising from between the great jutting plinths and reaching the raised base of the column pedestal, serve to carry the eye from the extremity to the centre of the monumet, and by so doing greatly help to unite the whole composition. Why this important and admirable portion of the design was omitted it is hard to conceive.”

Another critic asked pointedly, “would a practised sculptor have cast them (the lions) so large as to bring the column down to the dimensions of an umbrella and fairly swamp the square with lions? The claws drawn in at one verge of the available space, and the tail tucked tight up at the other, painfully suggest that the noble beasts have been cramped for kennel-room, and also spoil the curve of their haunches, which want some swell at the tail-root to balance the great curves of the head.”

The same critic goes on to say it’s three lions too many. After all, the point should have been the lone British Lion. Instead we got a menagerie, like a troop of jungle beasts out for a hunt. And that in practically filling the square with lions – bit of exaggeration there – Landseer has made Nelson like a Daniel in the lions’ den, with the advantage only of being out of the lions’ reach. 

And here again, the composition comes in for some stick. The critic fulminates, “We have a grave objection to the composition of the monument as it is now presented to us entire. The lions are bronze; the capital is bronze; the hero is of stone – and of a cheaper stone to boot than even the blocks on which his lion-guardians repose. This is doubly unfortunate; for, in the first place, working in stone, the sculptor of Lord Nelson has been obliged to balance and secure him with what looks like a huge coprolite, or mammoth wax taper, but is, we believe, a coil of rope; and, in the next, a false concord is perpetuated in making the effigy, which is the object and purpose of the entire composition, of its very commonest and basest material. Lugubriously we feel, as we give utterance to these irrepressible comments, that an evil fortune rests upon our artistic efforts. We can fight glorious battles, and turn out gallant heroes; but, for the souls of us, we can’t hit off the glorification of them without some blunder or other.”

Whoa! No question but those lions – and the monument generally are going to look different to me from here on out. Never again going to be able to look at that coil of rope at Nelson’s foot without seeing a dinosaur turd. Which is, after all, what a coprolite is – the fossilised faeces of animals that lived millions of years ago. For better or worse I’ll be seeing that rope with the eyes of that Victorian critic, pointing it out to my walkers, “look, Nelson’s standing beside a dinosaur turd.”

And on that delightful note – it’s made my day – time for a Today in London recommendation. 

Simples, really. Get thee to the Tate Britain to see some of Edwin Landseer’s paintings. 

You’ve been listening to the Today in London History podcast. Emanating from – home of London Walks, London’s signature walking tour company. London’s local, time-honoured, fiercely independent, family-owned, just-the-right-size walking tour company. And as long as we’re at it, London’s multi-award-winning walking tour company. Indeed, London’s only award-winning walking tour company.

And here’s the secret: London Walks is essentially run as a guides’ cooperative. 

That’s the key to everything. It’s the reason we’re able to attract and keep the best guides in London. You can get schlubbers to do this for £20 a walk. But you cannot get world-class guides – let alone accomplished professionals.

It’s not rocket science: you get what you pay for. And just as surely, you also get what you don’t pay for. 

Back in 1968 when we got started we quickly came to a fork in the road. We had to answer a searching question: Do we want to make the most money? Or do we want to be the best walking tour company in the world? You want to make the most money you go the schlubbers route. You want to be the best walking tour company in the world you do whatever you have to do to attract and keep the best guides in London – you want them guiding for you, not for somebody else. Bears repeating: the way we’re structured – a guides’ cooperative – is the key to the whole thing. It’s the reason for all those awards, it’s the reason people who know go with London Walks, it’s the reason we’ve got a big following, a lively, loyal, discerning following – quality attracts quality.

It’s the reason we’re able – uniquely – to front our walks with accomplished, in many cases distinguished professionals: barristers, doctors, geologists, museum curators, archaeologists, historians, criminal defence lawyers, Royal Shakespeare Company actors, a bevy of MVPs, Oscar winners (people who’ve won the Guide of the Year Award)… well, you get the idea. As that travel writer famously put it, “if this were a golf tournament, every name on the Leader Board would be a London Walks guide.”

And as we put it: London Walks Guides make the new familiar and the familiar new.

And on that agreeable note…come then, let us go forward together on some great London Walks. And that’s by way of saying, Good Londoning one and all. Nothing to add except… Welcome back! You were sorely missed. See ya tomorrow.

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