Victorian Art - and water


Contemporary illustration of a Victorian memorial fountain, alas, no longer extant.

Among the most common items of Victorian street furniture we still see today are the drinking fountains, and the cattle troughs. Both of these were produced in abundance by the Metropolitan Drinking Fountain and Cattle Trough Association. Other fountains are commemorative. The story of water supply into the ever-growing cities dates of course from the earliest times, and some of the accomplishments of the engineers were celebrated in Victorian statuary. And as great engineers as well as architects, the Victorians produced various large structures connected with the movement and control of water. Impressive examples of the biggest pumping engines, which have been restored and can be seen working, are at the Steam Museum, Kew, though for wider Victorian rather than artistic interest!

Fountains in London

The Metropolitan Drinking Fountain and Cattle Trough Association was started by Samuel Gurney MP, a rich philanthropist, together with a barrister, Edward Thomas Wakefield, in 1859. Originally the Metropolitan Free Drinking Fountain Association, it changed its name to include cattle troughs in 1867.

The first fountain, a modest affair, was put up on the railings of St Sepulchre's Church, Snow Hill, where it apparently still exists, though moved at one time when the Holborn Viaduct was put up. The Association built many fountains all over London, and took over some existing fountains. They were enormously popular from the beginning, as indicated by this contemporary description:

'The Association has already erected upwards of 80 drinking fountains, all more or less artistic in character, in the principal thoroughfares. That the public appreciate them, may be gathered from the fact that a quarter of a million of people daily drink from them in the summer, and no less than eight thousand persons were counted drinking at one particular fountain in a single day. And the fountains are not appropriated to man alone: in most there is a dog-trough, and in some cases a separate arrangement for supplying horses and cattle.'
The Association sometimes paid just for the cost of the construction, in other cases having to pay for the pure water supply too.

A goodly number of the fountains survive, though municipal meanness means none in London actually work. Many drinking fountains by the Association were fairly utilitarian, but some were designed by important architects, and of most interest to these pages, included sculptural work. A rather impressive early example (1870) of an Association fountain is at Smithfield, with central bronze statue of Peace by the sculptor Birnie Philip. Alas, the surrounding statues of Temperance, Faith, Hope and Charity are long gone. The architect of the Association, Robert Kierle, designed the very large Readymony fountain in Regents Park, one of the largest fountains in London. It is named after the donor, Cowasjee Jehangheer Readymony, a Bombay philanthropist. 10 tons Sicilian marble and 4 tons red Aberdeen granite went into the construction. There are four carvings (the donor, Victoria, Albert and a timepiece - not all survive) by Henry Ross.

On Cornhill, behind the Royal Exchange, are two particularly good fountains - one sponsored by the Drapers and Merchant Taylors City Livery Companies, with a composition of Motherhood by Jules Dalou (1879), and the second to mark the Association's 50th anniversary, with a bronze girl with urn under a rather grand pillared canopy. The original girl, by J Whitehead, 1911, was replaced by a modern effort by Stephen Robert Melton, called Serenity, but this too has now been removed. A modest walk northwards along Moorgate leads to Finsbury Square, with a further example - rather battered and missing its central figure, but nicely shrinelike design, black granite and marble, with surviving grotesque dolphins and small heads. Dedication by Thomas and Walter Smith, in memory of their mother, who died in 1898. Also a cattle trough. Another fountain, presented to the Association by Matilda Kent, is just outside the Gloucester Gate of Green Park, on the bridge leading to Camden - the girl, by the sculptor Joseph Durham, is an iconic figure with piercing gaze under her shading hand, known in different versions as the Milkmaid, Sunshine, or Girl at the Spring.

Elsewhere in London, excellent fountains are in Whitechapel High Street (Edward VII drinking fountain, with figural sculpture by William Silver Frith at his best), in Victoria Tower Gardens (Buxton Memorial Fountain), St James Park (The Greek Boy Fountain, 1863, by Lady von Gleichen), the Wills fountain (see Blackfriars Bridge page) and one on the St Paul Cross in St Paul's Churchyard (1905, presumably by Bertram Mackennal, who did the summit figure on the cross). Pottery was considered a suitable medium for fountains in some cases - we must mention the Martin Brothers' garish effort, now in the Pitshanger Manor museum, Ealing. Doulton's also made various fountains - a lone terracotta pillar from one survives in Kennington Park - originally it had a panel by Tinworth. But Doulton's most important fountain is in Glasgow - the Victoria fountain on Glasgow Green, with the bulk of the sculpture by W. S. Frith again. This was Doulton's entry in the 1888 Glasgow International Exhibition.

Fountain at Gloucester Gate by Joseph Durham.

Cattle Troughs

For these pages, there is a more modest interest in the cattle troughs as they are largely without ornament. Some few are in cast iron, but the majority of surviving ones are in solid granite. Most are quite plain, with a simple inscription saying they were put there by the Association, and many are now used as flower holders. Their main use in London was for the vast numbers of Hackney carriage horses. They are mentioned in the walks on these pages where they occur, and in general are not infrequent in towns across the country.

Modern fountains in London

There seem to have been fountain revivals in London since Victorian times, and rathre diverging from the Victorian concerns of these pages, I cannot resist mentioning a few excellent sculptural ones from the 1950s. Trafalgar Square of course, with the William McMillan fountains, and the Triton Fountain by the same artist in Regents Park, at the end of the Broad Walk in Queen Mary's Garden - donated in memory of Sigismund Goetz. And Sigismund Goetz presented the Joy of Life Fountain in Hyde Park, by T B Huxley-Jones. In Sloane Square is a fountain put up by the Leighton Fund, with a graceful nude by Gilbert Ledward. And in Green Park, a fountain bearing a half size Diana with dog, most elegant, by the sculptor E. J. Clack.

Fountains outside London

Back to Victoriana and related matter, and outside London, we can mention a few examples. Various fountains in Bristol - by the Victoria Rooms a showy fishy one, with merman and mermaid, spiky fishes and shells, seal, turtle, and octopus. Good stuff. In the centre promenade, a non-sculptoral one of 1893 to commemorate an industrial and fine art exhibition of that year. And in the Art Gallery, E. H. Baily's famous sculpture of a nude Eve at the Fountain, 1821. In Cambridge, notable is the King's College Founder's Fountain by H. H. Armstead. An over-the-top effort by James Forsyth apparently is still extant in the market place in Dudley. An impressive one is by the Liverpool Walker Art Gallery, by W. T. Allen and Co. And finally, we note a decayed Gothic effort to Sarah, Countess of Waldegrave in Hastings, dated 1861.


Myddleton, by Samuel Joseph.

One of the key figures in the history of London water supply was Sir Hugh Myddleton (also spelt 'Middleton'), a goldsmith and entrepreneur, who built the New River to bring fresh water into north London in the early 17th Century. There is a Myddleton Square, not far from King's Cross, with a church in it. Alas, no statue of Myddleton here. But there are no less than three public statues of him elsewhere - one a stone effort on one of the buildings around Holborn Viaduct, a second by Samuel Joseph on the Bank of England (shown above), and the third, by the sculptor John Thomas, on Islington Green (see the Islington page).

We should also mention Bazalgette, architect of the Victoria Embankment, which opened in 1868. The embankment constrained the broad, wide Thames to its narrower present day size, the main idea being to prevent flooding of low-lying Lambeth and Southwark. He has a modest monument on the Embankment. Elsewhere are more numerous local non-sculptural monuments to those connected with water supply - for example a modest fountain in Uxbridge, a rather unremarkable suburban shopping centre at the end of one branch of the Metropolitan Line: In memory of E. Pratt, ironfounder, d. 1898, 'erected by a few fellow townsmen to mark their appreciation of the great interest he took in procuring a constant supply of pure water for Uxbridge.'

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Sculpture pages // Victorian art in Britain