diamond geezer

 Sunday, November 05, 2017

2 City of Westminster
Aha, it's my penultimate Inner London playing card, representing one of the most historic quarters of the capital. Before 1965 the City of Westminster only stretched up from the Thames to Oxford Street, not as far as Paddington or Marylebone. It also contains more public statues than any other district in Britain, so that's what I've been out hunting for, with the help of this usefully comprehensive Wikipedia list. There are dozens, but I've picked 10, each with a story behind them. [map]

10 Westminster statues

1) "Bomber Harris" (1892-1984), St Clement Danes

Erecting a statue to a controversial wartime figure was never going to be popular. Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Harris believed in carpet-bombing cities, rather than picking specific strategic targets, so was directly responsible for the deaths of innumerable German civilians. Supporters were convinced the nation owed him "an immense debt", so in 1992 erected a statue outside St Clement Danes in the Strand, the RAF Church, and invited the Queen Mother along to unveil it. Numerous jeering protesters came too, yelling their distaste, and for several years the memorial was attacked by vandals. It looks pristine today, possibly because more people see Harris as a hero than a criminal, but more probably because most Britons have forgotten what he actually did.

2) Michael Faraday (1791-1867), Savoy Place

Pioneering electromagnetist Michael Faraday was born near Elephant and Castle, but his statue is on the north bank of the Thames below the flank of Waterloo Bridge. It's here because of the building immediately behind, the headquarters of the Institution of Engineering and Technology (and which was home to the BBC's very first radio studios in 1923). The statue is a cast of the marble original from the Royal Institution, and stands within a small immaculately kept garden at the foot of Savoy Hill. The ring in Faraday's left hand is an induction coil, should you ever want to impress a passer-by.

3) Charles II (1630-1685), Soho Square

You might expect the Merry Monarch to have a more impressive commemoration that this - a heavily eroded statue in the middle of a path in a lacklustre West End square. But in the 1680s Soho Square was one of the newest and most dazzling public spaces in London, and Charles's statue was placed right at the centre, on a pedestal above the basin of an ornate fountain. Tastes change, and Portland stone decays, so in Victorian times the statue was sold off to a private home in Harrow to make way for a timbered gardeners' hut. At Grimsdyke it decayed further, losing both arms, until WS Gilbert's wife sent it back to Soho Square in 1938 and a partial restoration took place. Alas Charles's face now looks more like a mask, his wig remains heavily corroded, and the hut still takes central precedence.

4) Ronald Reagan (1911-2004), Grosvenor Square

Normally Westminster council insist you've been dead for ten years before you're allowed a statue, but they made an exception for Ronald Reagan in the hope that Margaret Thatcher would still be alive to unveil it. She was, as it turned out, but at that stage so frail that William Hague had to do the job instead. The first 'Hollywood' president seems an unlikely candidate for a prime spot in front of the US Embassy but, as the extensive name-dropping text on the memorial makes clear, it seems Ronald ended the Cold War pretty much single handed. After six years it's now impossible to see the plinth on which he stands, thanks to fast-growing shrubbery, and very soon he'll be abandoned altogether when embassy staff move across the river to Nine Elms.

5) Christopher Columbus (c.1450-1506), Belgrave Square

The only statue of a Briton in Belgrave Square is that of Robert Grosvenor, the landowner whose tenure of Belgravia has made his descendants exceptionally rich. Given the number of embassies based in the grand stucco terraces around the perimeter, this foreign twist is most appropriate. The central private garden boasts statues of famous Hispanic personages at its corners, assuming you reckon José de San Martín and Prince Henry the Navigator are famous, some located in publicly accessible indentations, others safely behind the railings. Columbus was a 500th anniversary gift from the Spanish Embassy across the road, waving a bronze scroll in the general direction of the Americas, and with an entirely unconfirmed birth date carved into the pedestal below.

6) Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791), Ebury Street

Where did music's greatest genius write his first symphony? In a terraced house at 180 Ebury Street, just off Pimlico Road, during the summer of 1764. Eight year-old Wolfgang was in England for a year as part of a prodigious Grand Tour, playing for royalty and the nobility, with lodgings in Soho until a family illness required relocating to the country. For seven weeks the Mozarts stayed with a doctor in the then-village of Chelsea, and because noisy piano practice was discouraged Wolfgang spent much of his time composing instead. The statue depicts him standing on a sheaf of manuscripts with a violin on his shoulder, and is regularly swallowed up by the Pimlico Farmers' Market every Saturday morning. The house still stands, and is marked by a non-blue plaque.

7) William Huskisson (1770-1830), Pimlico Gardens

A quiet stretch of parkland by the Thames, opposite Nine Elms, is an odd place to find a statue of a Liverpool MP. Odder still that he's dressed in classical style, in toga and sandals and with chest exposed, but that's how some 19th century bereaved wives liked to remember their husbands. Huskisson ought to be best known as President of the Board of Trade, but instead is infamous as the first ever casualty of the railways. Stephenson's Rocket ran over his leg at the opening of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway in a freak accident, mainly because nobody yet realised how dangerous locomotives could be, and he died from loss of blood a few hours later. At least in Pimlico he has all his limbs intact, gazing out over a silent lawn in track-free isolation.

8) Beau Brummell (1778-1840), Jermyn Street

One of the first London celebrities, in the almost modern sense, George Brummell made his mark by being sartorially scrupulous. Rising from the middle class through education, then sheer force of personality, Brummell soon came to the attention of the Prince Regent and they became firm friends. He eschewed ornate clothing in favour of well-tailored simplicity, popularising the wearing of suits with neckties, and often spent five hours grooming in the morning to make sure he looked just-so. His come-uppance came through gambling, and the former dandy ended his days penniless in a French asylum. Today's Jermyn Street tailors prefer to remember him in bronze as the ultimate dapper clotheshorse - "To be truly elegant one should not be noticed".

9) Florence Nightingale (1820-1910), Waterloo Place

There are ridiculously few statues of women in Westminster, especially those with no connection to royalty, and even this one was an afterthought. Originally only the Guards Memorial stood on the traffic island in Waterloo Place, cast from cannons captured at Sebastapol, but in 1914 this was shifted back to make space for a Crimean threesome. Minister for the War Office Sidney Herbert was brought in from Pall Mall, and a matching plinth (on the left) knocked up to support this nursing superstar. Florence appears in hygienic lacy headgear and with her trademark lamp in her right hand, above a series of reliefs depicting field hospital scenes.

10) Elizabeth II (1926-20??), Trafalgar Square

The Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square was supposed to be filled by an equestrian statue of William IV, but sufficient funds could not be raised. Instead it stood empty for decades, until a rolling programme of public art was established to fill it with something meaningfully non-imperial. The latest incumbent is David Shrigley's oversized thumbs-up, an emanation of positivity, which is due to be replaced next year by a winged bull made from empty Iraqi date syrup cans as a jolting reminder of cultural destruction. But it's surely an open secret that the plinth is actually being kept available for a statue of our current queen, who will eventually take up this privileged position overlooking the toilets in front of a terrace of levitating Yodas.

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