A Walk down Whitehall

Whitehall is a broad avenue of Government offices running from Trafalgar Square through to Parliament Square, and contains several interesting sculptural things. It angles towards the river, and by cutting through Horseguards Avenue it is easy to branch off to the Victoria Embankment. There are various statues along Whitehall, and some important architectural sculpture on the former War Office and Foreign and Colonial Office.

Starting from Trafalgar Square, the first statue, in the centre of the road, is a large, equestrian George, Duke of Clarence (1907) by Adrian Jones. The former War Office, a large baroque building in white Portland Stone, fronts on to Whitehall, Whitehall Place and Horseguards Avenue. High up - too high up to see from a good angle - are groups of stone sculpture by Alfred Drury. These monumental groups, each containing a pair of reclining female figures, are highly allegorical. They represent Peace (Sorrow and Joy) and War (Horror and Dignity of War) on the Whitehall side; Truth and Justice on the Whitehall Place side; and Victory and Fame overlooking Horseguards Avenue. Each group is duplicated on opposing corners. These statues have much to recommend them, especially in the way they complement the architecture and give a feeling of massiveness and solidity surpassing even their large size. They were put up with the building in 1905. The architect was W. Young.

In the entrance to Horseguards Avenue is another statue, The Eighth Duke of Devonshire (Lord Hartington) (1910) by H. Hampton. It rests on a pedestal of Darley Dale Stone. Further down Horseguards Avenue flanking the entrance to the Ministry of Defence are the modern figures Earth and Water, by Charles Wheeler, highly successful and on a monumental scale. Back in Whitehall, in the middle of the road is the well-posed, slightly stylised Earl Haig (1936), again on horseback, by Alfred Hardiman.

Further down, we may note Inigo Jones's important Banqueting House on the left, dating from the early 17th Century. The bust of James I is by Le Sueur, whose equestrian Charles I is in Trafalgar Square.

Continuing down Whitehall, in front of the Ministry of Defence are four more statues. There is a not-very-good Slim and equally poor Allenbrooke of modern times. Between these two bulky figures, looking very out of place, is a slender, boy-sized Walter Raleigh (1959), by William McMillan. Better is the Montgomery, in uncompromising modern style but with a dignity and seriousness lacking in the other figures.

Further down on the opposite side is the old Foreign and Colonial Office - the pre-eminent Victorian building in the street, covered with decoration. It is an Italian Cinquecento design dating from the 1860s by the architect George Gilbert Scott. The material is Portland stone, with a Victorian polychromatic effect given by various coloured granites, most effectively on the rear of the building facing St James's Park.

Regarding the sculptural work, we start from the top and work downwards, describing in some detail. On top of the building is a seated or Victoria) with two rather small beasts - a lion and a rather worn unicorn - and four flanking classical figures. They are not particularly individualistic, but give a good effect against the sky. Lower down, 8 more modern but semi-classically draped statues in niches, with four more round each corner, fronting Downing Street and King Charles Street. These are not labelled, but the series of little portrait busts in roundels are, and include Cook, Drake, Franklin, Livingstone, Wilberforce and Albert. In central position is the portrait of Edward the Confessor, with above to left and right, full figures in high relief of Christianity (with what seems to be mistletoe behind), and a (male) angel. On the rear of the building, facing St James's Park, another 17 figures, again with some wrapping round the sides. The figures are interesting - some representing modern 19th Century personages, they are in modern dress, but to match the classical and allegorical figures which are intermingled, they have been disguised somewhat with flowing robes - much more than the simple cloaks given to many modern statues. Incongruence is avoided because the 19th Century accoutrements - sleeves, trousers etc - are de-emphasised, so that the classical drapery at first glance looks complete.

Next we come to the best ornament of all, the high relief figures gracefully seated in the spandrels (triangular shapes next to arches) in classical drapery. These are by H. H. Armstead and J. Birnie Philip, and are well worth close study. The figures to the right of the main entrance (itself with more figures higher up) belong to Birnie Philip and are allegorical figures of the Continents. We see Australia, with two kangaroos and two sheep, and America in native American head-dress, with a buffalo peering coyly under her outstretched arm. A magnificently wild-looking and buxom Africa, with infant, grinning hippo and exotic palm, matched by Asia, wearing a necklace, armbands and a nose ring, and accompanied by an elephant. Europe of course is more civilised than all these, dressed more modestly than the others, and surrounded by a ship, globe and horse rather than any more savage animal. This series is flanked by two male figures - Education on the right, and Government on the left, towards the centre of the building. To the left is the work of Armstead, a series of rather more heavily draped females, the principle ones accompanied by angels. The flanking figures are Law and Literature, each with tablet and pen. Agriculture is particularly sympathetic, with sheep (which raises our count to three) and corn. A careful look at Art shows the expected accoutrements, and Science may be seen to include astrology. The series is completed with Manufacture and Commerce, the latter of which rests her arm on a plinth depicting a camel, which will satisfy those missing the beast in the Africa figure on the other wing. We mentioned the pair of figures high up on the central portico - to the right, again by Armitage (signed), is a fierce Britannia wielding a spear - her own almost Normal shield is studded with three spear-heads of some unseen enemy; to the left, a seriously Valkyrie-like handmaiden with mirror - look at those shoulders. Excellent and wholly satisfying work throughout.

The building is next to King Charles Street, which is spanned by an arch with a sculptural frieze (1910) by P. R. Montford (mis-called Montfield or Moutfield in various sourcebooks, embarrassingly repeated on this site before, after walking past it many times on the way to work, I noticed the signature). The scene depicted is somewhat confusing, but features both nautical and trade aspects. To the left, also by Montford, a freestanding group of Victory, seated, laurel wreath squashed underfoot, with horn of plenty in one arm, the other comfortingly around the shoulders of a rather elderly, downtrodden-looking workman with mallet. On the right hand side, the matching group again shows Victory, with sword, shield and plumed helmet tucked away, elbow resting on a more youthful and heroic labourer. The significance of all this is obscure. The spandrel figures below are by a different artist, W. S. Frith. The viewer will not fail to notice the contrast between Montford's sturdy, Amazonian females and the more sensuous rounded forms of Frith's girls below.

Almost opposite is the Red Lion tavern, an 1890s building with two decorative figures in relief high up - a satyr on the left, cup in hand, vine behind, and to the right, a girl with a sickle, presumably to harvest the grapes.

At the end of Whitehall is Parliament Square, the Houses of Parliament and Westminster Abbey.

Top of page

Sculpture pages // Trafalgar Square // Victoria Embankment

Home