A Sculpture Walk in Hyde Park

Hyde Park contains many good statues, and a walk through it allows inspection of some of the grandest monuments and the works of some of the greatest British sculptors. The walk starts at Marble Arch, at the western end of Oxford Street, by Speakers' Corner in Hyde Park. Altogether work by more than 20 sculptors may be seen on the walk, and architecture by John Nash, Decimus Burton and George Gilbert Scott. The tube station is on the Central Line.

Marble Arch

Marble Arch, 1880

Marble Arch was designed by Nash, inspired by the Constantine Arch in Rome. The Arch was built in 1828 as the chief entrance to Buckingham Palace, but later moved to its current site as an entrance to Hyde Park. The metal gates within the Arch (by Samuel Parker) were the largest in Europe at the time. On top of the Arch was meant to be a bronze equestrian statue of George IV by Chantrey; this sculpture ended up in Trafalgar Square.

The Marble Arch is of white Carrara Marble (cost 80,000 when built), which looks rather splendid now that it has just been cleaned (February 1997). It has three archways, with Corinthian columns between, sculptural reliefs in the spandrels and in panels above the subsidiary arches, and wreaths at the ends (attributed by some to Flaxman) completing the scheme. Bearded heads form the keystones of each arch.

The south side (park side) spandrels contain winged Victories with wreaths, and the main reliefs show a Roman-looking naval warrior with Justice on one panel, and Peace and Plenty on the other. They are by Edward Hodges Baily. On the north side, the reliefs include three female figures representing England, Ireland and Scotland; these are by Richard Westmacott, our first sculptor on the tour, and along with Chantrey, one of the most important establishent figures in the early 19th Century.

From Marble Arch, proceeding southwards parallel to Park Lane is a fine double line of London Plane trees, and pleasant floral displays in the spring and summer. Half way down the path is a fountain, gift of the Constance Fund, containing good modern bronze statuary by T. Huxley-Jones dating from 1963. In the centre are a man and a woman cavorting, with four offspring leaping off the concrete base. The man has a Doric Greek look, but the woman's pointy hairstyle gives her away as modern.

Walking further down the main tree line, a little before the corner, a path leading right behind some shrubs goes to a fine St George and the Dragon, St George with his sword nobly aloft, and his fiery horse stepping over the vanquished dragon, which is of crocodilian nature (look at the tail). Around the base, a frieze of galloping horsemen, for this is the memorial to the Cavalry of the Empire. The sculptor was Adrian Jones - we shall meet him again later - working in 1924. Turning left, brings us to Hyde Park Corner itself.

Hyde Park Corner

The Wellington Monument

The biggest and most obvious statue is the Wellington Monument (1822), another example of work by Westmacott. Much more than the marble arch sculpture, this shows why Westmacott was so highly regarded. It consists of a nude Achilles, with cloak draped over his arm, his armour beside him. He carries a leaf-shaped short sword, and holds aloft a shield. The whole effect is heroic indeed, and the statue is nicely elevated on a pediment of plain granite blocks in two colours.

Across the road from the Achilles, stranded in the traffic, is a statue of Byron. It is reached by a tunnel from next to the Queen Elizabeth Gate, which itself is an ambitious, modern (1993) combination of bright metals owing much to art nouveau and looking impossibly delicate to survive vandalism. The Byron (1881) is by R. C. Belt. He is seated, looking most suitably contemplative, and the pose is very successful, if marred somewhat by the dog beside him, which has unconvincing fur looking like a cloak. The group is on a pedestal of incredible pink and white marble, somewhat pitted by pollution.

The big white triple gate to the park (Hyde Park Corner Screen) is by the architect Decimus Burton. It has a martial frieze all the way round the centre top, by John Henning. This frieze shows Grecian soldiers on horseback and precessing priests etc, and is apparently based on figures from the Elgin Marbles. However, the chunky, flat style chosen makes it look too busy and claustrophobic, and certainly not suggestive of the delicate 5th Century reliefs from the Parthenon.

Next door is Apsley House, the Wellington Museum, with Corinthian columns in sandstone. It houses a good art collection.

In the central reservation facing the gate, surrounded by traffic and best reached from underground, is the huge triumphal Constitution Arch (again by Decimus Burton) with Corinthian columns - the biggest in the vicinity - and much additional ornament above, wrought gates with heraldic symbols, and on top the magnificent chariot, horses and winged Victory. This is one of the most impressive sculptural groups in London, and is by Adrian Jones (1912), who made the St George mentioned earlier. It replaces an earlier equestrian statue of Wellington, by M. Cotes Wyatt, (1846), which now resides at Aldershot. The picture below, looking out through the Hyde Park Corner Screen with Constitution Arch behind, shows this old Wellington statue.

Hyde Park Corner, 1880s

Other statues on the central island include Wellington (1888) by J. E. Boehm and the Machine Gun Corps Memorial (1919). This is by Derwent Wood and shows a central nude warrior (David, apparently) with a long sword, with the machineguns and other modern accoutrements placed lower down on each side - a nice solution to the problem of combining classical heroic figures with 20th Century weaponry. Also in the Square is the Royal Artillery Memorial, a chunky marble piece by C. S. Jagger.

Returning to the Park, and continuing, westwards now, parallel to the bridalway (Rotten Row), in the rose garden is a cherubic figure in marble trying to ride a grotesque fish - this is the Boy and Dolphin (1863) by the Pre-Raphaelite sculptor Alexander Munro. It is hard to take this sort of work seriously, but we have to at least look at it, because of who did it. How indeed did the creator of works such as Paulo and Francesca come to make such a strange thing as this? Next, a fountain with a slender nude Artemis with bow, very beautiful. She is on a scalloped base in the centre of a marble basin supported on four steles bearing Egyptian-style half-figures. The composition is by Lady Feodora Gleichen and dates from 1906.

Walking further through landscaped shrubberies and floral displays, inhabited by a vast, bold and hungry population of grey squirrels, leads to the Albert Memorial, placed exactly in between the former sites of the two International Exhibitions originated by Prince Albert (of which the first is discussed on these pages).

The Albert Memorial

The Albert Memorial is one of the great sculptural achievements of the Victorian era, and for sheer scale, opulence and complexity is hard to match. The architect was George Gilbert Scott, and he was much inspired by miniature medieval shrines, and also by the medieval Eleanor Crosses, set up by King Edward I in memory of his dead Queen, Eleanor, wherever the funeral procession went. (Though the original cross in London did not survive, the current Charing Cross is closely based on the earlier design). The composition has a large statue of Albert seated in a vast Gothic shrine, and includes a frieze with 169 carved figures, angels and virtues higher up, and separate groups representing the Continents, Industrial Arts and Sciences. The pillars supporting the canopy are of red granite from the Ross of Mull, and from a grey granite from Castle Wellan Quarries, Northern Ireland. These latter pillars, of which there are four, are from single stones, weighing about 17 tons each. Each pillar took eight men about 20 weeks to finish and polish, and the Albert Memorial was noted at the time of its completion as being one of the most costly works in granite of the period. Darley Dale stone was used for the capitals, and the arches are of Portland stone. Pink granite from Correnac, Aberdeen, appears with marble in the pedestal on which the statue of Albert sits.

The Albert Memorial

The picture above, from 1868, seemed an opportune one - the main structure was completed in that year. However the statue of Albert and the fine details are artistic licence, as these were not yet in place. The edifice was opened to the public in 1872, and the statue of Albert was only installed in 1875. The sculptor chosen was Carlo Marochetti, a favorite of Queen Victoria. He produced two designs for statues of Albert, neither considered quite right, and was working on a third when he died. J. H. Foley was selected in his place, and completed a suitable statue, cast in many parts, but himself died before they could be assembled. That task was left to Thomas Brock, his assistant at that time. Older sources indicate that another pupil of Foley's, G. F. Teniswood, also had a hand in the completion of the statue.

The sculptor in overall charge of designing the statuary of the memorial was H. H. Armstead, and he made the Sciences, and together with J. Birnie Philip, made the 169-figure Frieze of Parnassus. J. B. Philip also designed the angels, and the eight Virtues were sculpted by J. F. Redfern. Mosaics were by Salviati of Murano, to designs of John Clayton of Clayton and Bell.

The most impressive groups are the four Continents and the four Industries, entrusted by Armstead to eight eminent sculptors. They are:

Of these, the Africa by Theed is superbly exotic, and arguably the best of them all.

The Albert Memorial suffered from the general discomfort with all things Victorian during later periods, and due to time, pollution and weather suffered structural damage. For a while at the beginning of the 1990s it was under scaffolding, and there was a lively debate as to what should be done with it. Conservation was one option, considered rather expensive, and for a while Destruction was genuinely put forward as the most reasonable solution. Fortunately, the forces of Barbarism suffered a setback, and the Memorial was conserved. The cost was 10 million, but considering the importance of the work, and the fact that it is equivalent to many separate works of art, this seems eminently reasonable. Three cheers for the good old British taxpayer. The whole edifice has emerged from underneath the tarpaulins that have covered it for so many years, complete with gilt Albert, and is a must for anyone visiting this part of London.

Walking straight into Hyde Park (northwards) from the Victoria Memorial leads to a huge equestrian statue of great vigour and strength. This is Physical Energy, by the sculptor and painter G. F. Watts. To my mind, this is one of the best statues in London. There is obviously a debt to the ancient Greeks in this work, but at the same time a 19th Century symbolism in a fashion uniquely Watts.

From the statue, a sign points right towards the Serpentine and Peter Pan. Walking along the path and turning north again by the water reveals this statue in a small glade. Peter Pan is shown as a small boy on a tall hillock of a pediment, covered with fairies, nymphettes and rabbits. The sculptor was Frampton, an important sculptor of the 1900s and 1910s, and this group in fact dates from 1912.

Carrying on further leads to the north side of the park and the Italian Fountains, dating from 1861. A shelter/pump house (1862) by architects Banks and Barry looks over four pools with fountains. There are heads above each doorway all the way round - three to a side, with bearded Neptune-like males in the centres and ideal female heads on the sides. There are stone urns with dolphins and more ideal heads, this time with decoratively twisted hair, around the ponds, and on the south side towards the water a cascade with water nymphs by the sculptor John Thomas. Next to the ponds is a good bronze statue of Jenner (1858), sober and patricianlike, by William Calder Marshall, whose work we saw in the Agriculture group of the Albert Memorial. I believe that this was the statue of Jenner originally in Trafalgar Square, from whence it was removed in 1862. A commentator soon afterwards noted that 'It certainly looked very much like an interloper beside Napier, though as a work of art it was far superior to the statues of Sir Charles and Havelock.'

Turn eastwards, but before leaving the Italian Fountains, make sure to see the astonishingly humble fountain on the west side, with two embracing bears. It dates from 1939 and is due to the Metropolitan Drinking Fountain and Cattle Trough Association celebrating their 80th anniversary. Several of the cattle troughs may still be found dotted around central London, though sadly without water (see the page on Victorians and Water. Walking eastwards (to the right), more or less parallel to Bayswater Road, leads back to Marble Arch. A final diversion can be made by walking along the road directly opposite the Arch - Seymour Place, which in a couple of minutes leads to an elegant crescent on the right where may be found a statue of the Swedish wartime hero Wallenberg, by Jackson. The statue is in a severe style, with an overcoat used as a cloak to accentuate the strong vertical lines of the drapery. Piles of passport papers behind form a wall, over which is more drapery, to give a memorial effect.

Returning to Marble Arch ends the walk.

Top of page

Sculpture pages

Home