Friday, January 21, 2011

Hyde Park Corner

The Wellington Arch
Every week day for the past two weeks my tube stop (on the way to Spanish class) has been Hyde Park Corner.  Apart from the obvious – that Hyde Park is right across the road – I could see that the corner was the site of various monuments. Today, with 30 hours of Spanish behind me, I took some time to investigate.

'The Iron Duke'
The first thing to notice is that this spot is closely connected with ‘The Iron Duke’ – the Duke of Wellington, defeater of Napoleon at Waterloo and almost mythic English hero (and Prime Minister for a time too). Across the road is Apsley House, Wellington’s London home; in front of it is an equestrian monument to the hero; and dominating the patch of parkland that is the beginning of Green Park and Constitution Hill is the massive triumphal arch known as ‘The Wellington Arch’. I developed rather a soft spot for The Iron Duke after reading an excellent slightly-fictionalised account of the Battle of Waterloo written by Georgette Heyer.  It’s called 'An Infamous Army'and is marvellously researched and vividly written.

But back to Hyde park Corner. In the mid 1700s London had a new ‘West End’ being developed by private property developers, and was rapidly spreading out through Mayfair and Marylebone. Kensington and Chelsea were still outlying towns. To enter London from the west your stage coach or private carriage passed through tollgates at Hyde Park Corner, where the Kensington Road met Piccadilly. As Apsley House was just inside the tollgates, it was sometimes referred to as ‘No.1, London’.

The toll gate at Hyde Park Corner at the end of the 18th century

There was some thought of building a grand city gate here, and Sir John Soane (a very eccentric architect and collector, whose house in Bloomsbury today houses his exotic and weird collection) drew up some splendid ideas. But it wasn’t until 1825 that any real progress was made. An architect named Decimus Burton (he was called ‘decimus’ because he was the tenth son in his family!) was commissioned to design a screen entrance gate for Hyde Park, and a gateway for Green Park, which became known as the ‘Green Park Arch’. To cut a long story short, the project became mixed up with that of the prince Regent, later George IV, to revamp Buckingham House into Buckingham Palace, for his ‘pied a terre’ in London (he actually called it that). The usual story – cost blow-outs, arch left with much of the planned statuary and decoration...

'You Are Here': Hyde Park Corner
Then in 1845 the Arch found itself in the centre of a storm of Victorian public art controversy, as a committee of worthies decided to erect a huge equestrian statue of Wellington atop the arch, completely out of proportion to it. The statue 8.5 metres high, so big that a mounted man could ride under the horse’s bronze stomach; and made of 40 tonnes of bronze, most of it from captured French cannon. ‘Punch’ mounted a campaign of ridicule, but the ugly and disproportionate statue went up (after the Iron Duke himself, abandoning his dignity, threatened to resign all his commissions if it didn’t go up – and he was Commander-in-Chief of the Army at the time!)

'Punch' - 1846
Meanwhile London traffic was growing  - traffic moved at about 8 -11 kms and hour through London in Victorian times – about the same as it does now (except producing dung back then – take a minute to consider that). In 1883 a scheme to widen roads ended in the Wellington Arch (as it was now known) being dismantled and moved a short distance to its present site. Everyone took the opportunity to shed the enormous Wellington statue – they had a bit of trouble finding a home for it, and it was almost melted down, but ended up at Aldershot with the army (where it remains to this day). A new, much nicer statue of Wellington on horseback was commissioned, from Sir Joseph Boehm, and this is the fine one that stands today opposite Apsley House.

To replace the statue, a new bronze sculpture was commissioned. This was the bright idea of the then Prince of Wales, later Edward IV (‘Bertie’ to his friends), the eldest son of Queen Victoria. In 1891 he went to dinner at the Royal Academy and spotted a small statue by a sculptor named Adrian Jones (who had spent his life as a vet – sculpting was a sideline). Bertie thought it would look splendid in an enlarged version on top of the Arch, and eventually it was built (though not before poor Bertie died in 1910). The sculpture is called a Quadriga and depicts four (rather beautiful) horses, barely controlled by a boy charioteer, with ‘Peace’ descending upon him, wings spread and laurel wreath held aloft. The ting was a major technical challenge for it day, but has stood now for 88 years, stable and in good condition. It has recently had a bit of a polish-up: English Heritage now looks after the monument, and you can go up to the top to look at the view and see a small display about the history of Arch.

The Quadriga from below - watch those hooves

'David' - Memorial for the Machine Gun Corp
Meanwhile, in the small patch of park in which the Arch now stands, a number of war memorials have clustered. There is a somewhat unusual memorial to the fallen of the Machine Gun Corps in The Great War – a statue of a Boy David by Francis Derwent Wood, a fanciful mythologising of the fallen. In contrast, on the other side of the park is the Royal Artillery Memorial – again a WWI memorial. The statue of a fallen soldier covered with his cloak, by Charles Sargeant Jagger, is much more realistic, perhaps reflecting the fact that Jagger saw active service in the trenches. During the war years, a government edict had banned images of dead British soldiers; Jagger defied this censorship by including the body of an artilleryman, laid out and shrouded by a greatcoat, his helmet placed on his chest. Underneath are inscribed the words ‘Here was a Royal fellowship of Deathfrom Shakespeare’s Henry V. When a newspaper questioned him about his lifelike depictions, Jagger remarked that the "experience in the trenches persuaded me of the necessity for frankness and truth"
Jagger's fallen soldier: Royal Artillery Memorial
I also investigated a series of post-modern looking angled black stele protruding from the grass, and discovered that they constitute a New Zealand memorial. And the bronze rugby ball on one of them wasn’t the only hint – they are each covered with text, images and figures. This memorial was dedicated in 2006. Its subtle design is by sculptor Paul Dibble and architect John Hardwick-Smith.

The Australian War Memorial, London

Diagonally opposite, I could see another modern site...and yes, it turned out to be the Australian War Memorial, a thing I never knew existed (ignorant me). It was dedicated on Armistice Day in 2003, and is a partial ellipse-shaped space which is intended to be used as a public forum on occasions like ANZAC Day. I found it quite a moving design Рlow and un-triumphal, made of West Australian granite carved with the names of 24,000 home towns of the soldiers, sailors and airmen who fought alongside Britain in the two world wars, superimposed with the far-flung places around the world where they fought and died: Lone Pine, Pozières, Bullecourt, Ypres, Tobruk, Singapore, Coral Sea, Berlin, Gallipoli...and Kokoda.

Information about the Arch is from the English Heritage Guidebook

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