The Golden Statues Of London

A statue of Thomas More with gold face

They say that London’s streets are paved with gold. It’s not true, of course. They’re paved with a bitumen-aggregate mixture known as asphalt. But I’ll tell you what is covered in gold: London’s statues. Here are 11 golden examples…

1. Thomas More, Chelsea

Thomas More on a throne
Always believed in his soul.

Scholar. Saint. Statesman. So runs the simple legend around the base of the Cheyne Walk’s statue of Thomas More. The sculpture is relatively modern, unveiled in 1969 on the day after the first Moon landing. The golden face, seated posture and implied communion with a higher force are all suggestive of another space connection: C3PO in the Ewok Village. The choice of golden facepaint seems to have been fairly whimsical on the part of sculptor Leslie Cubitt Bevis. He was a fan of Byzantine and Buddhist art, apparently. But it also references a golden oldie a short walk away…

2. Charles II, Chelsea

Golden Charles II statue
He’s the man with the Midas touch…

Look at the state of this guy, swanning around like Julius Caesar with his golden truncheon or power. This is Charles II in all his blinging majesty. The statue was created in the Merry Monarch’s own lifetime by none other than Grinling Gibbons, most noted for his spectacular wood carvings and silly name. It stands in the grounds of the Royal Hospital Chelsea, which the King founded in 1682. James Bond author Ian Fleming lived twice on nearby Cheyne Walk. I often wonder if this shining statue inspired him to write Goldfinger, and that notorious scene in which a woman is killed by gold paint.

3. Elizabeth I, Westminster

Elizabeth I golden statue
You’re indestructible…

Charlie boy is not the only golden monarch in London. His illustrious predecessor Elizabeth I is remembered with this curious statue in the grounds of Westminster School. While rallying the troops at Tilbury, Good Queen Bess famously said “I know I have the body of a weak and feeble woman.” Well, no more. Her Westminster statue has the hulking, 8-foot body of a Marvel superhero. Meanwhile, the world’s largest polo mint frames her swan-necked golden noggin. Sculptor Matthew Spender, a former pupil at the school, deserves royal honours for creating the ultimate Doctor Who adversary.

4. Albert Memorial, Kensington

Prince Albert in gold
Nothin’s gonna touch you in these Golden Years. Image DHowes9 under creative commons licence

The Bowie lyric here refers to Prince Albert’s isolation from the surrounding park. He’s up on the most blingy plinth in the Kingdom, which is itself cordoned off by a perimeter of golden railings. You ain’t getting near him. And if you did, he’d twat you over the head with his massive golden book (supposedly a catalog of the Great Exhibition). The statue’s sculptor, John Henry Foley, also crafted the statue of Michael Faraday in Savoy Place near Waterloo Bridge.

5. Victoria Memorial, Westminster

The Victoria Memorial in front of Buckingham Palace
Baby it’s gold outside. Image iStock

While her husband is merrily gilded, Queen Vic has to settle for a stately alabaster on her chief memorial. Her statue in front of Buckingham Palace is attended by a golden figure, however. It’s not of a particular person (I mean, who could ever be depicted above Queen Victoria), but a ‘Winged Victory’, not only symbolising the achievements of her reign, but also a play on her name.

6. Athena, Westminster

A statue of Athena on top of the Athaneum
You’ve got the power to know…

Athena, goddess of knowledge, wisdom and 1990s poster shops, overlooks the comings and goings of Waterloo Place. She is the figurehead and namesake for The Athenaeum, a club whose strict membership criteria state that you have to be nominated by two existing members, and be able to spell Athenaeum within three attempts. Poor old Athena looks a little bored up there, with her hunched shoulders and hand in pocket (or so it looks from this angle). It’s hardly surprising given that she’s been perching here for almost 200 years. Sculptor Edward Hodges Baily is best noted for crafting the statue of Nelson which crowns his nearby column.

7. The golden boy of Pye Corner, Smithfield

The golden boy of pye corner

If Athena looks bored then this golden child looks positively spiritless. You’ll find the auric malcontent on the corner of Giltspur Street and Cock Lane, and could there be a more apt location for a gilded sculpture with its willy out? The site specificity runs deeper, though. His placement, on what was once known as Pye Corner, signifies the most north-westerly extent of the Great Fire of 1666, a tragedy that a nearby plaque puts down to the “Sin of Gluttony”.  

8. The Barbican Muse

The Barbican Muse
I’m running out of golden song lyrics

No shortage of nourishment in our next sculpture either. Not far from Pye Corner looms the brutalist behemoth of the Barbican. Given its sheer size, acres of walkway and its reputation for the arts, I’ve always thought it odd that the Barbican doesn’t cover itself in sculpture and arty oddments. One exception is this golden puzzler that guards the eastern entrance to the arts centre. It depicts a woman holding the masks of comedy and tragedy (not pictured) and is known as the Barbican Muse. The work was installed in 1994 and is the creation of our old friend Matthew Spender — he of the polo-minted Elizabeth I.

9. The golden Lady of Harrow

Gold lady of Harrow
Are you going for gold?

You’ll find this golden lady making a parkour leap towards Harrow-on-the-Hill bus station. She, and the office block, are known as Hygeia, a Greek deity associated with health and hygiene. I don’t know much about symbology, but it does seem a little concerning that the embodiment of cleanliness is fleeing from the building towards the nearest bus.

10. Some weird golden thing I spotted out of a window in Moorgate

A golden statue in Moorgate
Golden handsnake

Another golden lady, this time with a snake wrapped around her arm. This, apparently, was the symbol of Metropolitan Life Assurance, who once inhabited this building on Moorgate. It’s an apt figurehead because you’d need a bloody good life assurance policy if you spent your days balancing on a turret with an asp.

11. A golden statue street entertainer on his break

Gold etertainer on a break

This list is getting increasingly desperate. Time for golden slumbers, I think.

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