Love London Part 2. Trafalgar Square, George IV, Victorian generals and the Fourth plinth.

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The painting above is of the NE corner of Trafalgar Square and St. Martin-in-the-Fields in 1888.  It hangs in Tate Britain and it is by William Logsdail. In case you missed it, the first part of my paean to Trafalgar Square is here: Love London, Part 1. Trafalgar Square, Nelsons Column and Charles I, London WC2.

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On the lower northern wall of the square are busts of three First Admirals of the fleet; Cunningham,  Jellicoe and Beatty. Admiral Andrew Cunningham was distinguished veteran of WWII and his bust was added after the other two in 1967. Jellicoe and Beatty are Admirals of WWI and their busts were placed in 1948, facing Nelson, “Hero of the fleet”. I hope it is true that they both admired Nelson as much as they are supposed to, because upon their deaths, in late 1935 and early 1936, they were both entombed in St Paul’s Cathedral, also facing his tomb.

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Also on the lower northern wall of square is an often overlooked historical treasure “The Trafalgar Square Standards”. They are low down along the steps and in the wall behind the seats. These were the official British Imperial measurements of length until we adopted the metric units of measurement in 1995. These were set into stone, by the Standards Department of The Board of Trade, in 1876 and if you suspected that any measuring implements were incorrect you could bring them here to settle the argument. There are three sets of these official standards, the others are in the Royal Observatory in Greenwich and in the Great Hall of the Guildhall in the city. The official measures included are; the inch, foot, yard, link, chain, perch and pole.

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There are four plinths built to contain statues in the square. The two on the south side of the square contain statues of Victorian Major Generals, Napier and Havelock. They both served with distinction in the campaigns in India. The third plinth is occupied by an equestrian statue of George IV. It was commissioned by the King himself and depicts him riding bareback, without stirrups and in ancient Roman dress. He intended it to be placed on the top of the Marble Arch, but it was put here in 1843.

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The fourth plinth was intended to hold a statue of William IV. It was empty for over 150 years until 1999 when it was decided to put a succession of works of art on the plinth, each occupying it for a limited amount of time. These art pieces have generated a great deal of debate over that past twenty years and, in that respect, the concept has certainly been a success. All of them have been controversial, most of them have been innovative and some of them have been attractive. Among the more memorable are; Anthony Gormley’s “One & Other” where over the course of 100 days, 2400 different people each spent one hour on top of the plinth, Marc Quinn’s “Alison Lapper Pregnant” and Yinka Shonibare’s “Nelson’s ship in a Bottle”. The current incarnation, Michael Rakowitz’s “The invisible enemy should not exist” is a recreation of a sculpture of a Lamassu (a winged bull and protective deity) that stood at the entrance to Nineveh from 700 B.C. It was destroyed in 2015 and this piece is made completely from empty Iraqi date syrup cans. I find it beautiful.

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On the South Eastern corner of the Square is a round edifice with a light on top. This is claimed, by some, to be the smallest police station in the world. Put in temporarily in WWI but made permanent during the general strike of 1926, it is a raised room from which a policeman could stand and watch the square in order to phone Scotland Yard, if a demonstration in the square showed signs of becoming dangerous. When the light was changed from gas to electric, the light used to flash when the phone rang, in case the assigned policeman was patrolling the square.

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I have a couple of pieces other random trivia about Trafalgar Square. The north side of the square is substantially higher than the south. This slope is not natural, the south end was lowered in order to made the National Gallery building more imposing. The earth was used to level St James’ Park.  Adolf Hitler planned to remove Nelson’s column and statue from Trafalgar Square when Germany conquered Britain. His intention was to place them in Berlin as a victory trophy.

 

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National Gallery from Trafalgar Square

 

While you visit Trafalgar Square, you should visit St Martin-in-the-fields on the NE corner and the National Gallery. I plan to do separate pieces about these. I will put links here when I have completed them.  Also, on the South side, between Whitehall and The Mall,  there is an unobtrusive hotel called The Trafalgar. This is a smart hotel and if you go to the back you can catch a lift up to a rooftop bar. The cocktails are central London prices, but they are good and the roof terrace has lovely views over the square.

 

 

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Love London, Part 1. Trafalgar Square, Nelsons Column and Charles I, London WC2

 

 

DSC_2999Trafalgar Square is a tourist attraction that is packed with both dramatic architecture and history.  It has a claim to be the centre of London, in both a physical and psychological sense. Other places have claims also; Bank, Buckingham Palace, Piccadilly Circus even Hyde Park Corner, but there are a couple of good arguments in favour of Trafalgar Square.

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It has been  the scene of major British public gatherings and demonstrations from soon after its opening right until the present day. It was the backdrop to the Poll Tax demonstrations in the 1990s, CND rallies in the 1960s and ’70s, Chartist gatherings of the nascent Labour movement in the late 1800s and more recently campaigns against Climate Change and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

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Over the Christmas period it holds London’s most famous Christmas tree, a gift from Norway every year since 1947, as a thank you for Britain’s support during WWII. It was also the traditional gathering place for London’s New Year celebrations until the crowds became too big and deemed too dangerous to have at a single venue.

Trafalgar Square was designed in 1826 by architect John Nash, it did not really begin to take shape until the late 1830s when the National Gallery was built in 1838. It is named after the battle of Trafalgar, a famous 1805 victory over Napoleon.

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The centrepiece of the square is Nelson’s Column; a monument to the leader in that battle. This was erected in 1843 just before the square became a public area. It is a 43metre high, granite column with a 7metre statue of Horatio Nelson on top. The column itself is a Corinthian column, having an ornamental top. This ornament is made from British cannons.  There are also bas-reliefs on each side of the column at the bottom, depicting earlier famous British war victories and these are made from the melted down remains of weapons captured from the French and Spanish armies. Famously, the stonemasons who built the column are reputed to have had dinner served on its top, before the statue was placed.

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The Lions at each corner of the column were designed by Edwin Landseer and were installed in 1867. They are made of bronze and each one weighs over 6000kg. The fountains at either side of the column, were added later. The current fountains were designed by Edwin Lutyens and added just before the start of WWII. Trafalgar Square as a whole is Grade I listed, which is the highest level of architectural protection in the U.K. awarded only to buildings of exceptional interest.

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The oldest statue is to the South of the square. It depicts Charles I on a horse. This was made in 1633 and sent to be melted down after the abolition of the monarchy in 1653. The brazier to whom it was given, made his fortune selling trinkets made from the melted down statue, but he had kept it intact to return to the crown on their reinstatement. This is also what Trafalgar Square its claim to be the physical centre of London, as it is to the base of this statue that official distances to London are historically measured.

You may have heard that all the distances to London are measured from Charing Cross. This is true. The Charing Cross was one of 12 crosses placed by Edward I in memory of his wife Eleanor. It was originally in the spot currently occupied by the equestrian statue of Charles I. It was destroyed by order of Parliament after the civil war. A replacement cross was built and placed in front of Charing Cross station during the reign of Victoria. There is an original Eleanor cross still standing, from 1294, in Waltham Cross.

Part 2 of the Trafalgar Square post is here: Love London Part 2. Trafalgar Square, George IV, Victorian generals and the Fourth plinth.