History of the statues’ placement; lack of funds preventing addition of statues in Egyptian Hall until 19th century when City’s involvement in the Great Exhibition of 1851 encouraged the commissioning and placement of statues by the City Architect James Bunning; subjects drawn from British history and British literature to provide “objects of worthy pride to our fellow citizens”; details on 3 statues, ‘Sardanapalus’, ‘Alexander’s Feast’ & ‘Timon of Athens’.
Read by Alderman Sir Roger Gifford
3 June 2019
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Knowing that we would be lunching here today and with the memories of a year spent in this house still – relatively – fresh in my mind and recognising the artistic erudition of the Guildhall Historical Association membership, I could not resist offering, when asked by the Secretary Michael Welbank to do so, to talk about an aspect of the House which was given special attention in 2013. This was effected through the guidebook that my wife Clare commissioned and edited, adding a substantial essay of her own, on ‘The Magnificent Marble Statues of Mansion House’, a phrase coined by no less an expert than Nikolaus Pevsner. Written by Julius Bryant, Keeper of Word and Image at the V&A, it is, surprisingly, the first and only book on the sculptures ever published.
This guidebook followed one produced by Clare on the Harold Samuel Collection which was the subject of a talk to the GHA in 2013 and, having the bit between her teeth, it preceded one she produced on the Mansion House plate and the famous crystal mace which arrived at Guildhall soon after the Battle of Agincourt in 1415. That’s a story for another time.
I came to appreciate the statues guidebook as much as I did that on the Harold Samuel collection simply because there were so many good stories with which I could pepper speeches – as I hope you may later agree. That the statues are historical is indisputable: – that they are of contemporary interest can be seen in how they continue to give a specialness to every Mansion House occasion, crowning every visit and raising our base earthly thoughts to a higher plane when we see them.
So, I think I am fulfilling the requirement (Elizabeth) that this paper should be both contemporary and historical.
And as I finish this preamble, this prelude to the symphony, let me state the obvious – that the quality of the 17 full size statues and the plasterwork here at Mansion House is, simply, stunning. The detail, the art, the workmanship are all of the highest quality. And then there are 6 statuettes, 5 full-sized plasters, 13 busts and a mass of incredibly detailed plasterwork throughout the principal rooms, here and on the first floor of the house.
History of the statues’ placement
Mansion House was completed in 1757 with later alterations to the salon and the roof in particular – and yet the niches in the Egyptian hall were empty for the next 100 years. Well almost empty: aldermanic banners decorated some of them and others may have had some unrecorded adornment. And there must have been many proposals put forwards during the first half of the 18th Century: we know for instance that six reproductions by Coade and Seely of Coade stone fame were placed in the hall in 1802 but removed two years later, for lack of Corporation funds to finish the job.
And at times in the early 19th Century, Mansion House looked distinctly shabby and unloved. Indeed, its very existence has often been in doubt. There were suggestions to demolish it before the alterations of 1795 and again in 1930 when it was in severe need of restoration. And when plans for the current Bank junction were drawn up in 1947, they included demolishing Mansion House. It has twice been subject to bomb plots, in 1881 and 1882!
Banquets were equally compromised. Of a banquet in 1780 when Sir Watkins Lewis was Lord Mayor, the diarist William Hickey wrote
The heat from the crowd was quite disagreeable to all, quite oppressive and distressing. The dinner (at top table near the Lord Mayor) was served with much regularity and decorum, but far different was the scene in the body of the hall where, in 5 minutes after the guests took their stations at the tables, the dishes were entirely cleared of their contents, with 20 hands seizing the same joint of bird and literally tearing it to pieces … the roaring and the noise was deafening and hideous, which increased as the liquor operated, bottles and glasses flying across from side to side, without intermission. Such a bear garden altogether I have never beheld.
The Egyptian Hall itself was clearly designed for statues but funds must have run out at the time. And for many decades after it was built, the Egyptian Hall was only opened up for major banquets, otherwise being used as a storeroom. But it was also in the Egyptian Hall in 1850 that Lord Mayor Thomas Farncombe held a banquet deigned to excite interest in a proposal by Prince Albert in “an exhibition of the works of all nations”, leading to the Great Exhibition of 1851, seen by 200,000 people and featuring 17,000 exhibitors, creating huge national and international interest and goodwill.
It can be noted that the City was a major contributor to the Exhibition, a key role for which it is not always recognised. And so it was, around 1851, that the question of the Egyptian Hall’s empty niches was seriously raised again – after the Exhibition with its extensive showing of modern British sculpture, there for all the world to see and admire.
There is a tradition that the Corporation voted the sum of £10,000 for the commissioning of the pieces although there is no record of this in the Corporation minutes of the day. The truth may be rather less attractive. On 13th July 1852, The Times reported that the previous year a member of Common Council had suggested paying for art at the Mansion House by … foregoing a number of dinners! The common councilman in question was probably the poet, Francis Bennoch.
The idea was then, as no doubt it might be nowadays, firmly discouraged. To quote The Times of the day, the idea was “hooted out of court and for a long time its adversaries regaled themselves with increased appetite upon the precious fruits of their victory.”
Nonetheless, as reported in the Illustrated London News, the City Architect James Bunning pursued the commissioning of new statues at the sum of £700 each. The paper noted that “the Egyptian Hall is very deficient in embellishment so that upon grand festivals the room is generally decorated with sculpture and other works of art borrowed for the occasion.”
In July 1852 The Times reported that the aim would be “to elevate the City of London in public estimation and assist in rendering the Mansion House an object of admiration to strangers and of worthy pride to our fellow citizens.” The Times concluded its article with the observation that this could be achieved without the
sacrifice of a single meal – and from then on there seems to have been no problem in getting the funding approved.
There may also have been a sense of competition with Westminster where the Royal Commission of Fine Arts, with Prince Albert as its Chairman, had already selected a number of paintings and statues for the Palace of Westminster, completed in the 1840’s.
The sculptures themselves, it as agreed, should be what is known as ‘Ideal’ – the term used to describe the most ambitious works, usually of literary or historical figures. This was the most elevated form of sculpt on which reputations were made or lost.
They were commissioned, constructed and located in the years between 1853 and 1864. The commissioning process was extensive and not just a bulk purchase from the Great Exhibition. James Bunning, the City Architect, and his colleagues drew up a list of the country’s 15 finest sculptors with the remit that their subjects should be drawn from British History or from British literature since Chaucer.
So, the 17 magnificent marble statues are: of The Morning Star, reference poet John Milton, by Edward Bailey, he of Nelson atop the column in Trafalgar Square fame; of the Faithful Shepherdess, reference poet John Fletcher, by Susan Durrant, the one-woman sculptor to have been chosen by the committee; of Hermione from Shakespeare’s The Winters Tale by Joseph Durham; of Egeria from Byron’s Childe Harolds Pilgrimage, by John Foley; of Alexander’s Feast, from John Dryden’s eponymous poem, by James Westmacott – and so on. Alfred the Great, Britomart, Timon of Athens, Lea, Penserosa and Comus – both Milton again – and my personal favourite, Sardanapalus from the Byron play of that name, by Henry Weekes.
All of them with sufficient British and classical connection to allow for an amusing game for visitors of a ‘traditional’ education to tour the statues and guess their literary provenance.
The niches in the Egyptian Hall were finally filled in 1864.
The Victorian City
And before telling you why Sardanapalus stands out, at least for me, let us put a little social context around the timing of the commissioning of the statues.
The second half of the 19th century must have been an extraordinary time to be British and educated – and male. The possibilities would have been almost endless as country after country, trade after trade, came under some kind of British supervision – often harsh and unattractive in practice. The wealth that the country and especially the City accumulated was prodigious and there was a clear consequent drive to demonstrate this as broadly as possible. “If you’ve got it, flaunt it” was the phrase of the late Victorian day, suitably dressed up at the time with educational or religious purpose, no doubt.
By the 1850s, India had been under the rule of the East India Company for almost 100 years. It was only following the rebellion of 1857 that the Government of India Act led to the British Crown assuming direct control of the Indian subcontinent in the form of the British Raj. And only 90 years after that, that the country became truly independent again. Hong Kong had recently become a colony after the first Opium war, extending to include Kowloon in 1860. Jamaica was already a leading sugar exporter, and even after the full emancipation of slaves in 1838, it continued to make a major contribution to British wealth. And so on. This is neither an apology for, nor a celebration of, the British empire – rather to set in context those City Corporation meetings of 1851 when decisions were taken to fund ‘objects of worthy pride to our fellow citizens.’
That goal, the celebration of wealth, of excess, of exuberant excess, is surely evident in the glory that the marble statues bring to the Egyptian Hall. And here’s a conundrum. As society was approaching its most prudish, its most ‘Victorian’, its most moralising, in the latter part of the 19th century, here is a series of semi-clad classical figures whose histories are themselves morally colourful and occasionally downright dubious.
At almost 9 foot tall, Sardanapalus and Caractacus stand proudly either side of the vestibule, just outside the Lord Mayor’s office, the Venetian Parlour. Here the
King of Assyria is raising a cup of wine to the skies in celebration. Byron’s verse play makes him seem quite a reasonable, slightly hard-done-by, peace-loving man who reconciles to wife and life and dies a horrible death by burning, repentant of a past life of debauchery.
According to the historian Diodorus, however, Sardanapalus exceeded all previous rulers in sloth and luxury. He dressed in women’s clothes – not so unusual nowadays of course – and wore make up. Ditto. He spent his whole life in self indulgence and wrote his own epitaph which stated that physical gratification is the only purpose of life. He had many concubines both male and female – and perhaps I need go no further.
Now why, I often wondered, was he so obviously positioned right outside the Lord Mayor’s office – a daily judgment on what the value, the worth of the incumbent’s proper duties might be? As inspiration? As warning and admonition? Or just as a remarkable character who lived life, on his rules, to the full.
In the Egyptian Hall we have Alexander the Great, depicted with a cup in one hand and a flaming torch in the other, exquisitely sculpted by James Sherwood Westmacott and first shown at the Royal Academy in 1861. He looks ready to step down and set all before him ablaze. It seems appropriate, as Julius Bryant notes, that on the wall alongside the niche is the Corporation’s sign for the fire exit!
John Dryden had written ‘Alexander’s Feast’ nearly two centuries earlier. The scene for this imminent immolation is Persepolis, capital of Persia, after Alexander had defeated Darius, King of Persia. Alexander is intent on burning down the King’s palace in revenge for Greeks killed in the battle and the burning of the Acropolis, and he is seen wearing the Victor’s floral crown, half-drunk, it is suggested, from the revelries of the night before. Another splendid subject to look down on banquets at Mansion House I am sure you will agree, and indeed in a contemporary article, the Art Journal asked whether “the half-intoxicated warrior-king of Macedonia’ was entirely suitable for “a British Banqueting room”.
Mind you, if the writer of that article had had a look at Leda and the Swan in the Old Ballroom, admittedly high up in a far off corner, they might have asked whether the tradition of debauchery was in fact merely being continued. Part of the original plaster work of the 1750’s, it surely shocked the genteel society – or so we are led to believe it was – of the late 18th century? Perhaps not, and it was not replaced.
Timon of Athens
Perhaps to balance all of this, Timon of Athens is included, in the part of the play when Shakespeare describes him as having left the City and all it’s worldly goods for the forests. To quote
There’s nothing level in our cursed natures
Therefore be abhorred
All feasts, societies and throngs of men,
His semblable, yea himself, Timon disdains
Destruction fang (“take”) mankind! Earth yield me roots!
This is a statue that condemns self-indulgent banquets. Indeed, Timon famously gave one with no food at all as a reminder of those who had to go without. The moment depicted by the statue is when Timon is digging for roots – you can see the carrots he has already found – and he discovers a pot of gold coins. Timon disdains them, reflecting that he has seen the error of his ways. Not exactly a sentiment in tune with the times, one presumes.
So, if the Mansion House was famously built to entertain and impress, then the magnificent marble statues have certainly added to that ambition. And as Julius Bryant himself concludes, its plasterwork and its statues are of real interest. After the monuments in St Paul’s Cathedral and Westminster Abbey, Mansion House presents the most extensive permanent exhibition of sculpture in London. And one of the finest collections of ideal sculpture anywhere.
In conclusion, may I invite you to think back for a moment to how it might have felt to visit the House in the latter part of the 19th Century. Think of the living conditions that most people endured and the grim reality of poverty for many and rampant petty crime for all. Think of Oliver Twist and Bill Sykes, of Little Dorrit and Rigaud, of wars abroad and disease at home. Life then wasn’t all bad, but it wasn’t all good either, or clean or comfortable.
And then come in to the splendour of this House, instantly pulling us up from the daily grind into a world of magic and make believe, of music and marble and majesty.
The paintings and the statues are stunning. They invite us to measure our lives in a different way. This is what the statues are really for – to elevate us, to bring us from one world into another, into a world of high art and high ideals, and one of entertainment and exuberance. A theatre amongst the City’s workplaces, a piece of paradise in its parochial passageways.
So, the Magnificent Marbles of Mansion House can inspire us, as well remind us of our ancient history lessons. Enjoy them afresh! Enjoy their exuberant excess!
Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for listening.