Piccadilly Circus, the site of the statue of Eros, arguably the best-known emblem of London, came into being when John Nash, as part of his scheme for the improvement of London, set out Regent Street across the ancient and fashionable street of Piccadilly. Called a circus because, like Oxford Circus, the buildings around the intersection were fashioned to give a circle, in Victorian times this was lost, in part because of the construction of Shaftsbury Avenue, to gradually form the current Piccadilly Circus, of no particular shape at all.
The Eros, atop a fountain, is the work of the New Sculptor John Gibson, and while the fountain is of bronze, the figure itself is of aluminium (more of a note here)
We note the buildings and views around the Circus. Lillywhites first, as it has sculptural adornment – it was built as the Criterion Building in 1870-74, the architect being Thomas Verity, and later extended on the side and to the rear. The rather flat, classical façade of the original building has much light-hearted decoration, the principal figural sculpture consisting of four full sized female statues in niches to left and right of the central range at first floor level, and two seated females with two smaller angelic figures placed above the main portico at second floor level. The minor decoration includes a variety of little faces of men and lions, and assorted floralities. The four standing figures are excellent. They would appear to represent the Four Seasons, with one highly draped and windswept girl as a plausible and charming Winter, another draped girl with fruitbowl, corn and discrete sickle as Autumn, a seminude girl cradling flowers as Spring and another semidraped girl, a little more volumptious, with ferns and bulrushes, as Summer. Each is in a niche with scallop patterned ceiling.
Two of the Seasons, on the Lillywhites building (Criterion).
But what on earth do we make of the two female figures above, seated holding garlands. The garlands themselves are carefully carved with flowers and gourds, the drapery of the figures competently done, the arms oddly stretched with some hint of musculature to the upper arm and hand. But the heads are potatoes perched on thick necks, impossibly crudely scratched with the facial features – all I can think is that the originals became worn or broken and were recarved down into these abominations, secure in the knowledge that without magnification, they could not be scrutinised from the Circus. A similarly lumpiness is evident in the two subsidiary figures, naked female angels, seated to the sides, with some effort applied to wings, but lumpy bodies with missing limbs, and a similar crudeness to the faces.
The Circus has a fine view around the curve of Regent Street, called the Quadrant, which looks similar yet different to old prints of the construction of John Nash. His arcade is gone, the windows and elevations above familiar, the block to the right – the County Fire Office – with arches and windows and Britannia statue all reminiscent of but not quite like the old drawings. The answer lies in a rebuilding of this part of Regent Street and the side of Piccadilly Circus dating from after the turn of the century. The machinations and mean-spiritedness of the public authorities defeated a variety of proposals, including an acclaimed one by Norman Shaw which resulted in his Piccadilly Hotel on the left side looking from Piccadilly, and fixed the elevation of the whole scheme. But for the rest, it was only at the end of World War I that work seriously got underway on a design led by Reginald Blomfield, with Aston Webb and Ernest Newton, and only in the 1920s that the whole thing was complete. The architects were bound by the condition that their design, while making allowances for modern retail needs, should maintain the character of the previous buildings as far as possible – hence the haunting familiarity with the old, mixed in with something of an Edwardian classical look.
On the right hand side of the end of Regent Street, the London Fire Office is again by Blomfield, dating from the 1920s and as previously remarked, rather similar to the previous building it replaced, but with a big dome above and recessed from the frontages. As in the previous building, there is a statue, generously sized, of Britannia and a lion. A blocky deco composition in stone, the blank faced bare-breasted figure is seated on the lion, holding a shield with the Union Jack and a bronze spear and helmeted. If it was ever signed, the signature is gone.
We have to remark on the north-eastern side of the Circus, with its huge advertising hoardings, continuing a tradition for the site since at least the 1920s, but though iconic, this is not for these pages. By this side is the entrance to Shaftsbury Avenue, another good view of Edwardian and late Victorian buildings including several theatres, and we have to go at least a few dozen yards along to appreciate the figures on the Apollo Theatre. A turn of the century Edwardian building the top storey has a little dome at each side, and in front of each of these is a pair of angels, fantastic semidraped girls with theatrical accoutrements, long hair, a solidness of body and leg, and a certain coarseness used with deliberation and skill. The sculptor, apparently, was a certain T. Simpson, not familiar to me.
Angels on the Apollo Theatre, Shaftsbury Avenue, by T. Simpson.
Returning to Piccadilly Circus, on the other side of Shaftsbury Avenue is another prominent building, a great block of a building in jolly Continental Classical style built in the 1890s as the Trocadero Palace, now merely a façade with the grim interior of the London Trocadero. Minor surface decoration includes musical half figures emerging from flourishes by round windows, and jolly little heads which need not detain us.
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Eros statue // East to Leicester Square // SE to Trafalgar Square
Sculpture walk along Piccadilly and Bond Street