Today (July 9) in London History – London’s first nude statue

As per the title, on July 9th, 1822, London got its first nude statue. This Today in London History podcast tells the story.


London calling.

London Walks connecting.

London Walks here with your daily London fix.

Story time. History time.

July 9th.

You know what… we’re going to bong this one.

Bong. July 9th, 1553. Lady Jane Grey – the 16-year-old great-granddaughter of Henry VII – inherits the crown from her cousin Edward VI. He’d named her his successor. She goes to the Tower of London to prepare for her proclamation. She’ll be Queen for nine days. She’s got just over 200 days to live. She’ll be at the Tower of London for a different occasion on the 12th of February 1554. She’ll be there to kneel down, put her head on the block and have it chopped off. As ordered by her cousin Mary, Edward VI’s sister.

Bong. July 9th, 1874. Proceedings in the House of Commons are interrupted when a large tabby cat comes out from behind the Speaker’s chair, darts across the floor of the House, acrobats up to the benches, leaps above them, bounds over the heads of parliamentarians and disappears. 1874 Crystal ball gazers foretell that Larry the Number 10 Downing Street cat will be waiting patiently outside the door of Number 10 on July 8, 2022, waiting to be let in, thinking extremely dark thoughts about what he, Larry, speaking to his feline friends, describes as the “combination non-stop clown show bacchanalian frat party I have to put up with under my own roof.”

Bong. July 9th, 1877. The first serve of the first tennis match on the first day of the first-ever Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Championships. The tournament was won by a local land surveyor named Spencer Gore.

Bong. July 9th, 1860. The greatest nurse of them all, Florence Nightingale – the Lady with the Lamp – sets up the Nightingale Training School at St Thomas’s Hospital.

Bong. July 9th, 1822. London gets its first nude statue. It’s the statue of Achilles at Hyde Park Corner, put up to honour Wellington, the nation’s great military hero, the vanquisher of Napoleon. Gave him something to look at when he came out on his balcony of a morning, because it’s right there, just a stone’s throw away from his house, Apsley House, at Hyde Park Corner. 

And this one’s our big bong for Today in London History. Let’s find out a bit more about London’s first nude statue. The sculptor was one Richard Westmacott. It was cast from cannon taken in the victories of Salamanca, Vittoria, Toulouse and Waterloo. It’s based on one of the famous statues of the horsemen on the Monte Cavallo at Rome. It was huge – twenty feet high. Huge. And hugely controversial. The driving force behind it was an organisation called the Ladies of England. So it was known as the Ladies’ Trophy. But the ladies weren’t best pleased when it was unveiled and it was all too clear that the sculptor had done Achilles as, and I’m quoting, “an undraped figure.” Richard Westmacott had done him in the altogether. 

There was outrage. A great clamour went up – and before long Westmacott had to go up and put up a fig leaf you-know-where. And now I have to ask, am I the only person who thinks fig leaves are ridiculous? If you must not show you know what, well, why not do the honest thing and put the Iron Duke in iron breeches. Or knickers. Also known as unmentionables. Or a loin cloth, for heaven’s sakes. Or even a pouch. But a fig leaf? Give me a break. How did it stay in place? Super glue. It’s ridiculous. 

Final point here – and it’s an equally fun one. The figleaf is a favourite target for vandals. It gets torn off from time to time. The which exercise reveals that Achilles is far from being a normal man. He’s hung like a horse, in other words.

Now I have a two-fold purpose in using that hoary old phrase. The first one’s obvious. The second one has to do with the other side of the coin of contemporary reception. The ladies couldn’t take their eye off you-know-what, it was the focus of their attention. But there were others who took a rather more sophisticated and instant dislike to the statue. Aside here: this is one of the things I so enjoy about doing this Today in London History podcast series. I like it that I often get to refract the historical event – or work – through contemporary eyes. It can be so interesting to compare what a 21st-century art critic makes of a statue with what the experts who first set eyes on it made of it.

What in this instance I’ve discovered is that they were much more up on their art than we are. The Times’ man – one day after the unveiling – thundered – I’m paraphrasing here – the position of the marble statues and their horses on Monte Cavallo in Rome is entirely to the point. The action of the men in those statues is that of resisting and pulling back as much as possible an almost overwhelming force upon the left arm, which appears in the original with great difficulty to hold in the steed.” But there’s nothing of the kind with this new statue in London. There’s no horse the figure is straining against.  There is in this new production simply placed a shield, which it requires no strength whatever to sustain; so that the body is, as it were, receding, where there is no external force to throw it into that position. And here the critic really hits his stride.  He says, “suppose an artist were to give us the colossal figure of Atlas as he is generally represented but instead of the globe under which he labours, were merely to put him on the Lord Chancellor’s wig; would not all the world ask why the hypocritical knave was thus crouching and pretending to be overwhelmed.  Just so. In the present instance, we are presented with an action, which there are no external circumstances, no adventitious incidents, to justify or render intelligible. 

What is to be placed in the right hand, we know not; but at present it looks very much as if it were sustaining a cup of physic, which poor Achilles was loath to raise to his mouth. The left leg also we should suspect to be faulty. In short, the whole is what may be called nonsense.

Well, that’s not bad going considering what his eye must have been drawn to – certainly the ladies’ eyes were drawn to.

For the record, that right hand was eventually fitted up with a short sword. You can think of it, the short sword, as appendage compensation for what the fig leaf took away. 

And a Today in London recommendation. Again, it’s obvious isn’t it. A visit to Apsley House – Wellington’s House – there at Hyde Park Corner. And either on the way or after you leave, well, stop by and see what you can see – it’s awfully hard not to come all over double entendrish here – anyway, yes, drop in on Achilles and see what you can see. 

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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