Today (June 29) in London History – London’s best-loved statue

London’s best-loved statue – Eros – was unveiled on June 29, 1893. This Today in London History tells the tale.


London calling.

London Walks connecting.

London Walks here with your daily London fix.

Story time. History time.

To get a core sample of the very beginning of London you need to drill down about twenty feet. You want a core sample of Shakespeare’s London you need to drill down about four feet. Ok, you can do the maths. The Romans founded London about 20 centuries ago. Roman London is about 20 feet below us. Shakespeare lived just over 400 years ago. Shakespeare’s London is about four feet down. Yes, that’s right, London is an accretion of layers. It goes up about a foot a century.

So yesterday we drilled down to June 28, 1948. Our core sample was the statue of Eros coming home, being reinstated, after its wartime evacuation, at Piccadilly Circus.

We’re going to make it two days in row for Eros. Today we’re going to drill down deeper. To June 29th 1893. 

The day the famous statue was unveiled. That’s what, exactly 129 years ago today. Happy Birthday, Eros.

Let me hasten to add, it’s been a very happy birthday for me. Today’s not my birthday – but I’ve learned just a ton of wonderful stuff about that statue and its creator. And indeed about the man it honours. And learning that – most of which I’m going to pass on here – has made me very happy. For me, that monument’s going to look very different from here on out.

The statue first. We all know it as Eros. But is it Eros? Sir Seymour Hicks said the sculptor, Alfred Gilbert, told him he had in fact christened his creation Eros. But there’s a very different contemporary report that has Gilbert saying, no, it wasn’t Eros the God of profane love  – it was his twin brother Anteros, the deity of sacred or selfless love. And given that the monument honours the greatest philanthropist of the 19th century, well, that version gets my vote. 

Also, when you think about it, a lot of people have claimed the winged boy is Cupid – and bearing in mind that Soho, London’s most notorious red light district, is right there, just behind Piccadilly Circus, well, Eros…Cupid…Soho sex workers…surely that does cut pretty close to the bone, particularly bearing in mind that Lord Shaftesbury, the 19th-century philanthropist whom it honours was, well, puritanical. Chances are, the key that best fits the lock is the arrow the winged boy is about to loose. The statue originally faced Shaftesbury Avenue so firing an arrow in that direction, well, shaft…arrow it’s both a pun but also suggestive of Christian charity flying swiftly as an arrow to help those in want. 

Secondly, the statue is made of aluminium. It’s said to be one of the first-ever sculptures made from the then-new alloy. And into the bargain – the largest. Experts rave about the attention to detail. For example, each of the feathers of the god’s flight wings were cast separately and then soldered together to form the wings. Those same experts have made the telling point that Gilbert knew as he worked that few people would ever get close enough to see the incised and serrated wings. Well, this is one person who’s going to get closer. I’m going to get close enough on the wings of a pair of binoculars. And I’ll also be looking out for – yup, hand on heart here, a million times down there and not once have I seen them – I’ll also be looking out for the chubby bronze putti wrestling with scaly flying fish, all tumbling over one another in high spirited confusion. 

OMG, if I didn’t have to finish this podcast I’d be out the door and heading down there right now. 

Now, as for Lord Shaftesbury, the man who’s honoured by the monument that says London the way the Eiffel Tower says Paris and the statue of Liberty says New York, the man who’s honoured by Anteros – he was, this bears repeating, the greatest philanthropist of the 19th century. In the words of a biographer, his whole life was one of self-sacrifice to the interests of the suffering, of the helpless and of the poor. Here’s a partial checklist. 1. the restriction of the hours of labour of women and children in the cotton mills of Lancashire. It took him 14 years but he finally got a 10 Hours bill passed. Maybe take a few moments here and drive a collective stake – a barbed stake – through the black hearts of the mill owners and the politicians who thought it was perfectly all right to have children working 14 or 15 hours a day in a cotton mill. 

2. Lord Shaftesbury took up the cause of chimney sweeps. 

3. He got laws passed that protected women and children from working in the most degrading conditions in mines. 

4. He made things better for the mentally impaired.

5. He saw to it that the worst excesses of common lodging houses were curbed. 

6. He effected a much-needed reform in the treatment of juvenile offenders – which is a polite way of saying they were sent to reformatories instead of prisons. 

7. In his later years he did a power of good for ragged schools, the shoeblack brigade and the Missions to the Flower Girls of London. 

This was a good man. 

Finally, the sculptor, Alfred Gilbert. 

He was a Londoner. Born at 13 Berners Street. Didn’t know that. He intended to become a surgeon. Applied for a scholarship at Middlesex Hospital. 

He fell in love with his first cousin. When he learned that they were expecting a child they eloped and married on the same day.

He lived and studied in Paris – the Parisians at the time were doing an infinitely better job of teaching the art of sculpture. He also spent time in Rome and Florence – not that that comes as any surprise. In his spare time he taught himself the arts of the goldsmith. He was a man about town, a first-nighter, a member of the Athenaeum and Garrick Clubs. He was instantly recognisable in his flamboyant black cape, felt sombrero and walking stick. He was the darling of aristocratic society, the favourite sculptor of the royal family, the foremost sculptor of his age. He made the tomb for Albert Eddy, the Duke of Clarence – Albert Eddy’s the royal who sometimes gets talked about on the Jack the Ripper walk – and since everybody knows Piccadilly Circus and the Eros statue, well, that’s going to be a neat connection for the guides to make.

His personal life came apart at the seams. The scandal sheets dragged him over the coals. His huge house and studio in Maida Vale hastened his ruination. He exiled himself to Bruges. When he returned to England the royal family gave him a studio first at St James Palace and then at Kensington Palace. He lived in the Kensington Palace studio. He died of dementia at the Cromwell Nursing Home at 198 Cromwell Road. He was the most original sculptor of the late Victorian era. 

A life like his – a firework with brilliant sparks flying in all directions – I don’t know if it’s possible to corral it. But one connection can be made. The winged boy at Piccadilly Circus – an important public monument in the very heart of London – Gilbert thought it would make his career. In fact, it was the beginning of his downfall. £3,000 – that’s what the government forked out for the statue. It also promised to give Gilbert gunmetal to cast. It reneged on that promise. Gilbert had to go deep into his own pocket to pay for the materials. £3,000 he was paid. The sculpture cost him £7,000. He was plunged deep into debt at the outset of his career. For all of his commissions – he could never say no – for all of his living at 110 miles an hour – the arrow the winged boy loosed was plunged deep between the shoulder blades of his creator. Thanks to that arrow in his back he was never able to get his life back on an even keel.

And that’s it for today. We’ve just London Walks’d the wing’d boy in Piccadilly Circus, the best-loved statue in London.

And a Today in London recommendation? It’s a no-brainer. Go on the Westminster Abbey tour and stop, wayfarer, stop and take a good look at the Fawcett Memorial. Done right at the height of Gilbert’s most astonishing period of creativity.

And then when you step outside at tour’s end – make sure you see the now-famous Fawcett statue in Parliament Square. Famous not least because it broke the granite ceiling, it’s the first statue of a woman in Parliament Square. It’s a good pairing – the Memorial in the Abbey and the statue in the square. 

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 can’t get world-class guides – let alone accomplished professionals.

It axiomatic really: 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 blockbuster 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 what you have to do to attract and keep elite, all-star guides. 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 we’ve got a lively, loyal, discerning following – quality attracts quality – it’s the reason we’re able – uniquely – to front our walks with accomplished professionals: barristers, doctors, geologists, museum curators, archaeologists, historians, criminal defence lawyers, Royal Shakespeare Company actors, Guide of the Year Award winners… 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. Good luck and good Londoning. See ya tomorrow.

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