Friday, 23 September 2011

The Wellington Arch

The Wellington Arch at Hyde Park Corner is one of those places Londoners often pass by in their vehicles but rarely visit, perhaps not even realising that the interior is open to the public. The arch was built in the 1820s to a design by the British architect Decimus Burton, not thought to be related to one Maximus Decimus Meridius, “commander of the Armies of the North, General of the Felix Legions, loyal servant to the true emperor, Marcus Aurelius. Father to a murdered son, husband to a murdered wife” 

The arch was not built to celebrate gladiators but British victories in the Napoleonic wars. It was later decided to commemorate one of the most iconic figures of those campaigns, the Duke of Wellington, by perching a 28 feet high statue of him riding a horse atop of the arch. It was handily placed for the Duke to steal the odd admiring glance at the equestrian statue from his front windows in Apsley House at Hyde Park Corner. The Duke might have loved the statue but many others thought it was a ghastly mistake as it was completely out of proportion to the overall size of the arch. The critics wanted it taken down. The Duke was adamant it stayed and threatened to resign if he were thwarted. The Duke won that battle but not the war. After his death the statue was dismantled and moved to the army town of Aldershot. A smaller version of the statue was placed opposite Apsley House.

 In 1911 the English sculptor Adrian Jones was commissioned to produce a statue of a quadriga, something the fictional Roman general and erstwhile gladiator Maximus Decimus Meridius would have recognised. A quadriga is a four-horse Roman chariot.  

The statue shows a boy racing the horses, representing a chariot of war, as the winged statue of Peace descends from the heavens. The boy was modelled on the young son of the wealthy philanthropist and celebrated race horse owner Herbert Stern. I do not know whether it was his eldest son, Herman Alfred then a lad of 12, or his younger son, Jack Herbert who was 3 years younger, who was immortalised in bronze.

Before the Wellington Arch was turned into a museum in 1992 it served as a rather cramped though singularly stylish police station for decades and constituted the official London residence of Snooks, the police moggy and mouser-in-chief. Nowadays, as well as being a museum, it can be hired out as a venue for special events.

I arrived after my London film premiere, not for the after film party but because I wanted to visit the nearby Apsley House and thought to kill two birds with one stone. There being inexplicably no luxury limousine to ferry a star of my magnitude from the Soho Curzon cinema to Hyde Park Corner, I had to make do with Shanks’ Pony. As a consequence, I did not relish the prospect of climbing the three storeys to the outer balconies, with their panoramic views, on so humid an afternoon and so took the lift instead. The top storey was devoted to a history of the Wellington Arch and had various mementoes of the building on display such a copy of the wheel hub from the chariot in the shape of a lion's head. Having perused the collection I went out on to the balconies on either side.

I must admit that I did get a sense of vertigo as I strained to capture the best images of the bronze sculpture from the front and the rear. As a consequence, I was quite happy to return back into the arch and descend to the lower floors. 

One floor  displayed copies of the head of the Goddess of Peace and the boy charioteer alongside an exhibition on Blue Plaques, which are affixed to the former homes of a chosen selection of the great and the good. On the ground floor the charioteer’s arm was on display by the English Heritage shop.

From one of the windows I was able to take a picture of the elaborate gates, designed to allow the pathway to be closed to traffic.
Having stopped off at each flight, the idea of walking down the stone stairs to the ground floor was less daunting a prospect than the initial climb to the top.

I took yet more images of the Wellington Arch from afar before wending my way to Apsley House, the London home of the Dukes of Wellington, more of which anon. I have to say I much prefer to have the Quadriga on top of the Wellington Arch than the statue of someone who got rather too big for his (Wellington) boots.