Friday, June 20, 2014

From the Women of England to Wellington

This week marks the 199th anniversary of the Duke of Wellington’s victory over Napoleon at Waterloo.  As we've mentioned in previous posts, Wellington ended up a much celebrated gentleman, with nations and royalty showering him with gifts and mementos.  One of my favorites, however, is said to have come from a very different set of people, the women of England.

The Wellington Monument in Hyde Park, also known as Achilles, was paid for by a ladies subscription amounting to 10,000 pounds sterling and cast from cannons captured at the battles of Salamanca, Vitoria, Toulouse, and Waterloo. Created by popular sculptor Sir Richard Westmacott, the 18-foot bronze statue sits on a plinth of Dartmoor granite to rise a total of 36 feet above the pebbled path near Hyde Park Corner.  Even before it was erected in 1822 it was surrounded by controversy.

For one thing, Westmacott must have focused more on his art than the dimensions of its intended location, for when the statue was moved from his studio in Pimlico, Achilles was found to be too big to fit through the gates of Hyde Park! Not to be deterred, the movers merely knocked a hole in the wall to move it through.

For another, critics could not decide whether it was great art or a cheap knockoff.  Newspapers and books of the time either praise the fact that the statue resembled one in Rome, where Westmacott had spent some time on his Grand Tour, or scolded the artist for failing to live up to his Roman pretensions.  Some deemed the body magnificent; others complained that it didn’t look enough like Achilles (and you would know how?).  One critic even lambasted Westmacott for including visible straps holding the shield in place on the statue’s arm.

And then there was the matter of Achilles’ lack of clothing.  The statue is said to be the first nude male figure on public view in London.  The ladies who had helped raise the subscription had not seen the design and were rather shocked by the anatomically correct statue.  Some seemed to feel their reputations damaged by association.  A fig leaf was hurriedly placed over the offending section.  It remains there to this day, even though it has been chipped off twice.

And if you’re a lady enamored of Greek or Roman statuary, or anything Greek or Roman, I urge you to return next week, when Marissa will be launching her first book for adults, by Jove.

Er, yes. By Jove.  No need to raise a subscription.  Fig leafs not required.

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