The Lions in Trafalgar Square, by Edwin Landseer

The Lions in Trafalgar Square, by Edwin Landseer

Trafalgar Square would seem incomplete today without the huge lions at the base of Nelson's column, yet at the time when they were made, they were the subject of much ridicule on account of their lateness. Nelson's monument itself was built somewhat post-Nelson, in 1839-42. The commission for the four huge lions went to the sculptor Lough, but subsequently he was dropped in favour of Edwin Landseer, the famous animal painter. This was a popular decision, and the Art Journal enthused that 'The public will see four such statues of the animal as the world has not yet seen'. Unfortunately, the lions were not forthcoming for some years, despite constant promises by Landseer that they would soon emerge from his studio, and became the subject of many jokes in the press. Finally, in the year 1868, the lions were set up. Even then there was a chorus of disapproval, with it being declared that the lion on top of Northumberland House would not acknowledge the new lions as being in any way related.

Writing in 1886, W. J. Nettleship, a distinguished painter of lions, was still criticising Landseer's lions:

"The Trafalgar Square lions must be quietly damned, because, pretending to be done from nature, they absolutely miss the true sculptural quality which distinguishes the leonine pose, and because a lion couched like that has not a concave back like a greyhound, but a convex back, greatly ennobled in line from the line of a cat's back in the same position."

So much for the Trafalger Square lions. I still like them anyway. A picture of Landseer at work on his lions in the studio is in the National Portrait Gallery.

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