The Shaftesbury Memorial Fountain

Survey of London: Volumes 31 and 32, St James Westminster, Part 2. Originally published by London County Council, London, 1963.

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'The Shaftesbury Memorial Fountain', in Survey of London: Volumes 31 and 32, St James Westminster, Part 2, (London, 1963) pp. 101-110. British History Online [accessed 25 April 2024]

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The Shaftesbury Memorial Fountain

Sculpture can on occasion arouse the British public to exhibit either crass insensibility or passionate regard. The Shaftesbury Memorial Fountain (now almost universally known as Eros) enjoys the unique distinction of having successively provoked both these attitudes. At first even its sponsors viewed it askance, while since its erection it has been insulted, derided, tinkered with, neglected, cosseted and finally enshrined as a kind of national talisman; to attempt to write a factual account of the memorial is therefore not to be undertaken lightly. The difficulty of getting at the truth is moreover increased by the absence of the records of the Shaftesbury Memorial Committee. For the early history of the monument the historian must therefore rely primarily upon the archives of the Metropolitan Board of Works and the London County Council, and on the recollections of the sculptor, (Sir) Alfred Gilbert, as recorded years later by his friends. But the former do not tell the whole story, partly because there were frequent personal meetings between the sculptor and the municipal authorities at which what was said was largely unrecorded, while the latter are often unclear and occasionally contradictory.

Antony Ashley Cooper, seventh Earl of Shaftesbury, the philanthropist, died on 1 October 1885. Sixteen days later a public meeting was held at the Mansion House to consider the erection of a national memorial (fn. 9) and on 28 October the Shaftesbury Memorial Committee, under the chairmanship of the Lord Mayor, decided that 'two statues should be erected to the memory of the late Earl'. One, in marble, should be placed in Westminster Abbey and the other, 'in bronze, the pedestal of which should record in bas relief Lord Shaftesbury's principal labours, should be erected on a conspicuous site in one of the most frequented public thoroughfares in London'. The Committee also resolved that a national convalescent home for poor children, to bear Lord Shaftesbury's name, should be established, and invited the public to send subscriptions to the Lord Mayor. (fn. 10)

Towards the end of November H. R. Williams, the honorary secretary of the Memorial Committee, asked the Metropolitan Board of Works to grant a site for the proposed bronze statue. On 22 January 1886 the Board decided to offer a site in Cambridge Circus at the intersection of the two streets which it had recently formed (fn. 11) and probably as a result of this decision the Board decided three weeks later to call one of these streets Shaftesbury Avenue; the other was of course Charing Cross Road. (fn. 12)

The Memorial Committee thanked the Board for this offer but stated that they 'were of opinion that a site at the Piccadilly end of the new street would be preferable'. (fn. 13) The Board, however, had not yet decided how to make use of the space recently opened up by the formation of Shaftesbury Avenue, and no firm answer was given to the Committee's suggestion. In 1887 various schemes were considered (see pages 86–7), but after the establishment in March 1888 of the Royal Commission to enquire into the Board's workings, the making of decisions appears to have been postponed as far as possible, and the question of a site for the Shaftesbury Memorial was ultimately bequeathed to the London County Council.

Meanwhile the Memorial Committee had commissioned (Sir) Joseph Edgar Boehm, R.A., to execute the marble statue, which was unveiled in Westminster Abbey on 1 October 1886. (fn. 14) Through Boehm's recommendation the commission for the bronze memorial was given to (Sir) Alfred Gilbert. In 1886 Gilbert was thirty-two years old and had consistently refused to debase his art to the level of what he called the 'coat and trousers' style of statuary which was then in vogue. Many years later he related how two members of the Memorial Committee, accompanied by Boehm, called at his studio and offered him the commission. He immediately replied 'I can't undertake the statue of Lord Shaftesbury; I prefer something that will symbolize his life's work. The life of Lord Shaftesbury lent itself to that, rather than the glorification of the tailor; besides, the sum mentioned emboldened me to suggest such an undertaking, being more than three times what I had asked for a simple statue.' Gilbert's visitors were evidently taken aback at his firmness but promised to recommend his suggestion to the Memorial Committee, (fn. 15) which with the active support of its chairman, the Duke of Westminster, subsequently confirmed Gilbert's appointment. (fn. 16)

It is not clear whether the Committee originally intended the memorial to take the form of a fountain, the idea for which may have followed from Gilbert's insistence on symbolism, and may well have been suggested by him; at all events, according to Gilbert the Committee's instructions to him in the spring of 1886 stipulated a fountain. (fn. 17)

It is probable that Gilbert had difficulty in retaining the support of the Memorial Committee for his design. He maintained that it was 'quite impossible to convey any adequate idea of the details and scope of the proposed work by a mere sketch', and asked to be allowed to erect a fullsize plaster model in situ. (fn. 18) The site, of course, had not been settled, and this was one of Gilbert's great difficulties. The site in Cambridge Circus was round, but that in Piccadilly was, as he described it, 'a distorted isochromal triangle, square to nothing of its surroundings—an impossible site, in short, upon which to place any outcome of the human brain, except possibly an underground lavatory! I had this horrible shape on my mind continually, and that is why I determined upon the plan and elevation of my work—an octagon which should by means of treatment really present the same adaptability to any site, just as a circular form would.' (fn. 19) Nevertheless Gilbert wanted the Committee to obtain this site, (fn. 20) and throughout 1887 and 1888 H. R. Williams kept the subject open by a series of letters to the Metropolitan Board of Works (fn. 21) and to The Times. (fn. 22)

Shape was not the only disadvantage of the Piccadilly site. Early in 1885 the St. James's vestry had asked the Metropolitan Board of Works for permission to build public lavatories at or near Piccadilly Circus. When Shaftesbury Avenue was opened early in 1886 and it was apparent that the two triangular pieces of ground in Piccadilly Circus (marked on fig. 8) between Piccadilly and Tichborne Street could not be used for building, the vestry renewed the request, which in January 1888 was refused by the Board. The vestry then discovered that control over the smaller of the two triangular spaces had in fact passed to it under the Street Improvement Act of 1877, and that the permission of the Board of Works was not needed. (fn. 23) The vestry therefore decided to build underground lavatories there, and despite the objections of the Metropolitan Board of Works, the Commissioners of Woods and Forests and a number of local residents, they did so. (fn. 24) The lavatories were opened on 7 August 1889 (Plate 152b), the vestry courteously informing the new London County Council that it would be 'much gratified if members of the Council would inspect the structures on the previous day'. (fn. 25)

This private view was in fact the only occasion when the London County Council, whose first meeting had taken place only five months earlier, had anything to do with the lavatories. Responsibility for this deplorable piece of municipal bad taste has nevertheless been attributed to the County Council, (fn. 1) even by Gilbert himself, who stated that 'this extremely ordinary yet utilitarian product of the practical brain of the County Council cost half as much again in its perpetration as my attempt at street decoration cost my committee'. (fn. 19) (fn. 2)

The London County Council's first meeting with full powers took place on 21 March 1889. In July the Duke of Westminster, as chairman of the Shaftesbury Memorial Committee, formally requested that the larger of the two triangular spaces in Piccadilly Circus might be allotted to the Shaftesbury memorial, which was to take 'the form of a large fountain designed by Mr. Gilbert'. (fn. 26) On 31 July several members of the Council's Improvements Committee visited Gilbert's studio at No. 8 The Avenue, 76 Fulham Road, to view the memorial, (fn. 27) and subsequently Gilbert supplied the Council's architect with written and oral information about the dimensions of the memorial; one of his letters contained the rough sketch reproduced on Plate 156a. In October the Council's architect submitted to the Improvements Committee a plan based on this information and showing the memorial in relation to its proposed triangular site. The octagonal memorial is shown as 10 feet wide at the base, surrounded by a platform 2 feet 6 inches wide which is approached by six steps. There is no basin in which to catch falling water, and apart from the word 'fountain' in an explanatory letter from Gilbert, there is nothing to suggest that water was to be in any way associated with the memorial. (fn. 28)

On 27 November 1889 members of the Improvements Committee again visited Gilbert's studio (fn. 29) and in January 1890 they submitted a report to the Council. Previous to receiving the Duke of Westminster's letter they had decided that the site could be appropriately used as an ornamental fountain so constructed as to avoid splashing or carrying spray by the wind, and after visiting Gilbert's studio they had felt assured that his model would fulfil this condition. (fn. 3) But Gilbert hesitated to complete certain details until the site had been finally decided upon, and in its unfinished state the committee could not come to a definite decision as to its artistic suitability. They therefore recommended that the Memorial Committee might be allowed to erect the fountain in Piccadilly Circus, on condition that if it proved unsuitable it should be removed elsewhere. This recommendation was accepted by the Council. (fn. 30)

It is hard to understand how the Improvements Committee can have thought that the fountain would not splash or spray the roadway. They were envisaging, on information supplied by Gilbert himself, a fountain 10 feet wide at the base, surrounded by a platform 2 feet 6 inches wide and approached by six steps, but with no basin of any kind. Gilbert, on the other hand, stated some years afterwards that 'I had provided for a great supply of water, thinking very little of the cost of it to the ratepayers, and it was my intention that my fountain from all its salient points should distribute jets of varied shapes and forms upwards, inwards, downwards and crossways, and indeed in every direction, and through the overflow create a perpetual cascade round the part now occupied by steps into a large basin.' (fn. 19) Why this great basin was not even mentioned when the County Council considered the matter seems to be only explicable on the assumption that there had been a misunderstanding between Gilbert and the Improvements Committee; whatever the reason may have been, it is clear that much of the later trouble arose from this confusion of intention.

The conditional consent granted by the County Council was very awkward for the Memorial Committee. Subscriptions had been disappointing, and in a letter to The Times in March 1890 the Duke of Westminster appealed to the public 'to meet a deficiency of about £1,200'. (fn. 31) (fn. 4) In the same month the Commissioners of Woods and Forests (who administered the Crown land adjacent to the proposed site) consented to the erection of the memorial, their decision being based upon a personal visit to Gilbert's studio, a tracing of the plan made by the County Council's architect in the previous October, and another rough sketch by Gilbert (Plate 156b). (fn. 32) Neither plan nor sketch showed either the basin or the low wall which were subsequently incorporated. In October the Duke of Westminster informed the County Council that his Committee would accept the site upon the conditions mentioned above, but that he was unable to say when the memorial would be ready. (fn. 33)

At some date between January 1890, when the Council gave its conditional consent, and November 1891, the existing small octagonal bronze basin was added to the design (Plates 154a, 158a). Gilbert himself stated that 'The bronze base was an afterthought, for when the work was nearing completion I was made acquainted with the fact that provision should be made for the refreshment of the thirsty man and beast. I never originally intended this base to be in such confined relation or near proximity to the rest of the work. I had no alternative but to make it so, and the question of supplying the wandering cur with cool refreshment retarded me for weeks in the making of this portion.' (fn. 19) This insistence on the provision of water for drinking as well as for ornament evidently came from the Memorial Committee, for there is no record of any such demand in the archives of the County Council.

Meanwhile, in September 1891, the Improvements Committee sensibly decided that the triangular plot should, after the unveiling of the memorial, be shaped to the octagonal base, leaving a footway 9 feet all round. (fn. 34) At about the same time it was also realized that the Act which provided for the preservation of the plot as an open space, (fn. 35) stipulated for the 'enclosure' of the ground. The Improvements Committee agreed that Gilbert should design the necessary fence, wall or railing, (fn. 36) but the plan which he submitted in November 1891 is signed by an architect, Howard Ince, (fn. 37) who designed Gilbert's own house and studio at Maida Vale, (fn. 38) and who had presumably acted in consultation with the sculptor over the design. This plan shows a low wall (with four openings) enclosing the outermost steps; it also shows that, with the addition of the bronze basin required for 'the refreshment of the thirsty man and beast', the width of the base of the memorial had been increased from 10 feet to 17 feet 9 inches, and that the total width, including the steps and wall, had been increased from 23 to 38 feet. This took the memorial outside the area reserved for it and into ground which had been dedicated as a public foot-way; the agreement of the St. James's vestry to an exchange of ground would therefore be needed. The wall, too, was not what the Improvements Committee had envisaged, and they therefore asked Gilbert to reduce the area of the steps and to substitute an open fence ('to prevent climbing over') for the dwarf wall. The Council's architect was also instructed to make a plan in which the total width of the memorial, steps and wall was not to exceed 31 feet 6 inches. (fn. 39)

When Gilbert was told of these decisions he addressed to the Council's architect a letter in which he 'appeared to object very strongly to any modification of his plan of the memorial fountain'. The architect reported that the letter was 'written under a misapprehension of the circumstances', and admitted that he did not fully understand it. (fn. 40) Nevertheless the Improvements Committee informed Gilbert that he must 'conform to the decision that the memorial fountain should not occupy a length of base of more than 31½ feet', and that the committee adhered 'to its former resolution that the fence around the memorial fountain shall be an open one'. (fn. 41) But a week later, after Gilbert had personally explained his views, the Improvements Committee agreed to accept the wall in preference to the open fence, and to allow him a total width of 34 feet 10 inches, which, Gilbert had stated, was the absolute minimum physically possible. (fn. 42)

These acerbities stemmed from the earlier misunderstanding over the treatment of the base of the memorial. The Council was annoyed because, as they thought, the width had been increased from 23 to 38 feet, and Gilbert was incensed by attempts, as he thought, to confine and circumscribe his work.

In May 1892 the Council agreed to pay £1010 for laying the foundations of the memorial and connecting water, (fn. 43) the Memorial Committee's funds being exhausted. (fn. 44) But this conciliatory attitude was abandoned in July when the Council refused to accept Gilbert's suggestion that gates should be provided in the four openings of the enclosing wall. (fn. 45) Shortly afterwards Gilbert passed on to the Council a contractor's bill for £152 for providing a protective hoarding round the memorial during its erection. The Council had not authorized this expenditure—the memorial was not yet the Council's property—and it was only after acrimonious correspondence that the matter was smoothed down by the secretary of the Memorial Committee, who finally persuaded the Council to pay. (fn. 46)

By the summer of 1893 the memorial was at last ready to be unveiled, the castings having been made at the foundry of George Broad and Son. A large tent was erected nearby ('the restricted space was very fully occupied', commented The Times), and on 29 June the Duke of Westminster presided over a distinguished company, from which Gilbert himself was conspicuously absent. The honorary secretary read the report of the Memorial Committee, and the Duke, on behalf of the inhabitants of London, asked the chairman of the County Council to accept the monument. He 'then unveiled the fountain, and the Duchess of Westminster set the fountains in motion and, amid cheers drank the first cup of water from them'. Other speakers included Sir Harry Verney, who was aged ninety-one and had been at school at Harrow with Shaftesbury; he said 'I think this fountain is remarkably well designed, and it is a remarkably suitable memorial to Lord Shaftesbury, for it is always giving water to rich and poor alike at all times of day and night.' (fn. 47)

At its unveiling the aspect of the memorial was not as it is now (Plate 154a). The base was surrounded by the low stone wall, which had four openings. On its west side the wall was surmounted by a plinth to which was attached an inscribed bronze tablet, above which was placed a life-size bust of Lord Shaftesbury; 'a handsome canopy supported by four columns' (fn. 47) completed this peculiar arrangement, which owed its existence to the Memorial Committee secretary's 'hankering for some effigy representing Lord Shaftesbury'. Gilbert related afterwards that 'I was anxious to humour Mr. Williams's earnest desire, and I offered, with Boehm's approval and his bust, to make a canopied tablet for the inscription which I thought I could introduce on this parapet. It was put up, and there followed a fearful howl against the parapet and addition I had made.' (fn. 48) The inscription was written by the Prime Minister, Mr. W. E. Gladstone, and although the tablet was later recast to fit a new position, the wording was unaltered:


On the day of the unveiling there were eight drinking cups which, in the Memorial Committee's words, had been supplied 'for the convenience and use of thirsty pedestrians . . . while below a gentle stream will flow from each angle into a shell-like basin for the refreshment of the canine race'. (fn. 16) The drinking cups proved immediate victims of the prevailing public philistinism. 'On the opening day', Gilbert subsequently recollected, 'there existed eight drinking cups of more or less elaborate fashion, attached to the main body of the work, secured by a very carefully hand-wrought chain, specially designed and made for the purpose. The next morning I believe only two of the cups were left, but the fragments of a third were found carefully broken and deposited in one of the basins, carrying clear evidence that the damage had taken some considerable time to effect, and was no doubt meant as a malicious criticism, if not a protest against the work itself.' (fn. 19)

The aspect of the fountain must indeed have been disappointing. The Illustrated London News said that 'the feeble "squirts" . . . which discharge themselves round the Shaftesbury fountain are as ludicrous and contemptible as anything to be found in Trafalgar Square or elsewhere'. (fn. 49) A correspondent of The Times complained that every breath of wind drenched the drinkers and sprinkled passers-by; the flower girls had to hold up umbrellas and the fountain itself was 'a dripping, sickening mess'. (fn. 50) Hooliganism soon broke out. Within a fortnight of the unveiling, a gang of thirty or forty boys turned the memorial and its surrounding pavement into 'a sort of pandemonium'. When the secretary of the Memorial Committee (who since the unveiling had had no responsibility for the fountain) arrived, they 'were chasing one another round the steps, stopping only to fill their mouths with water from the lower basin to eject it over their fellows'; others were 'daubing the newly-erected stonework over with mud; the steps were disgracefully dirty'. (fn. 51) On 16 July the County Council placed one of their park keepers on guard at the memorial, and this protection was continued until 24 March 1894. (fn. 52)

On 2 July, three days after the unveiling, Gilbert wrote to the County Council as follows: 'Since the ceremony of unveiling I have had the painful experience of witnessing the utter failure of my intention and design, the first through no fault of mine and the second in consequence of this fault; I would most respectfully, gentlemen, draw your attention to the views I expressed when the question of the stone enclosure and the curtailment of the diameter of my Bronze base was discussed and the necessity of both forced upon me; these obligations the fatal result of which I always foresaw have brought about the painful and disappointing effect of the work as a "fountain" upon which everyone is commenting, in that they necessitated the suppression of many jets of water upon which the effect of the work depended, and rendered the necessity of making others so small that they are practically valueless.' The surviving drinking cups were useless because of spray, and he therefore asked to be allowed to stop up the four openings in the stone balustrade and to use it as the boundary for an additional basin. He also wished to fit a six-inch water main (for which he had previously stipulated) in place of the existing two one-and-a-quarter-inch mains, and offered to make these alterations at his own cost. (fn. 53)

The Improvements Committee, to which this letter was referred on 5 July, decided to cut off the water from the upper portion of the fountain and to ask Gilbert to supply plans of his suggestions; subsequently the committee decided to view the fountain on 26 July and discuss the matter there with Gilbert. (fn. 54) By this time, however, the latter had been deeply offended by the damage to the fountain through the neglect of the Council, by the insulting remarks made by C. T. Beresford Hope at a meeting of the Council on 11 July, and also by the misrepresentation to the press of his letter of 2 July by the chairman of the Improvements Committee. On 24 July he therefore wrote to protest, and ended 'I must here decline most absolutely and entirely to have anything more whatever to do with the matter'. After meeting at the fountain the committee decided to set up a sub-committee to confer with Gilbert and to take steps for 'the present security of the Fountain'. (fn. 55)

Nevertheless Gilbert did attend the first meeting of the sub-committee, which was held on 1 August. He was mollified by a promise that Mr. Beresford Hope would withdraw his offensive remarks, and repeated his suggestions for the fountain. (fn. 56) A week later Gilbert and the sub-committee met at the memorial, and eventually they agreed that the height of the wall should be reduced, the four openings stopped up and the space within the wall used as an extra basin; experiments were to be made with the water supply and jets. These sensible ideas were accepted by the Improvements Committee, (fn. 57) but on 10 October the full Council rejected the use of the space within the wall as a basin. (fn. 58)

This unfortunate decision produced the final rupture between the Council and the creator of the fountain. In the course of a long letter which he wrote to the Council on 23 October Gilbert stated that 'The suggestion which the Council did not see their way to adopt is the only one of any importance. They have deliberated upon detail when the larger issue was in question; for I hold that this curtailment of my original intention is the very cause of all the trouble. . . . Surely it is a travesty upon all that is reasonable and just, that an artist is to be dictated to by those who have never done aught but talk and criticise that of which they have no conception, it is now between the County Council . . . and me; they may beat me, by the majorities who side with them, yet I will stand alone; if it must be, let them take the Fountain down, it will content them, and I shall be contented and not hurt by such a victory as will be theirs.' And he ended unequivocally with 'I must have absolutely a free hand otherwise I stir no farther in the matter'. This condition was not accepted; thereafter Gilbert had no part in the treatment of the memorial. (fn. 59)

In considering Gilbert's relations with the County Council it is necessary to take into account the comments which had been made upon his work and the depth of suffering which many of them had inflicted upon so sensitive a man. Much of the comment had been favourable—The Daily Telegraph, for instance, said that as a work of monumental decorative art it was 'not only amongst the finest that the metropolis possesses, but altogether a new departure in the adornment by means of sculpture of a public thoroughfare'— and some of the criticism had been directed not so much at Gilbert as at the site and at the County Council. But a society periodical considered that 'the figure on the summit' was 'hideous, indecent and ludicrous', and the memorial was 'ugly, pretentious, unsuitable, and a decided nuisance, so that it is devoutly to be hoped that the entire memorial will shortly follow the lost cups, and that something more worthy of the Great and Good Earl will be erected in its place'. With masterly inappositeness a provincial newspaper closed a facetious paragraph with the comment that the memorial was 'a near art Kinsman to the Lady of the Quoits, who commemorates the Crimean heroes at the bottom of Regent-street'. (fn. 38) But perhaps the most wounding remarks of all were contained in a correspondence in The Times which was started on 23 September 1893 by Edmund Gosse with a criticism of the County Council: 'Can you explain to a pensive citizen what principle inspires the London County Council in its conduct of what are called our fountains?' The new memorial in Piccadilly was 'as dry as autumn dust can make it' and was 'dingy and decayed'. (fn. 60) To this J. Russell Endean, writing from the National Liberal Club, replied that it was 'one of, if not the very ugliest monument that can be found in any capital in Europe', that the proper place for the 'nude human figure' was 'over the entrance to the Oxford-street Music-hall', and much more of the same sort. (fn. 61) Subsequent correspondents supported this substitution of abuse for criticism, and William Robinson, the famous gardener, himself the author and inspirer of much beauty, wrote that 'the dreadful monument in Piccadilly' was the work of 'somebody who has no idea of the dignity of design and the simplicity that mark all pure design'. (fn. 62) Another onslaught from Endean suggested that 'The best thing that can be done with it is to return the bronze to the melting-furnace, and the "compo" to its pristine elements'. (fn. 63) But a defender of Gilbert probably came near to at any rate part of the truth when, in referring to the implied objection to nudity, he suggested ironically 'let us erect … a statue decorous in frock coat and trousers; let not the absence of a boot button suggest to the pure Nonconformist conscience that man is ever naked', (fn. 63) and another intelligent correspondent pointed out that 'To make a big fountain also a drinking fountain [as the Memorial Committee had insisted] and therefore approachable is not possible.' (fn. 64)

For Gilbert the Shaftesbury Memorial was, in his own words, 'financially a great débâcle'. (fn. 19) His commission was for £3000, but the memorial is said to have cost him £7000, partly because he had to pay a very high price for the copper. (fn. 48) In one of his later reminiscences he preferred to 'draw the veil here over the cost of the fountain; everyone has to pay for the whims of his spoiled child'. (fn. 19) His expenditure on the memorial marked 'the beginning of his financial difficulties, from which he was never able to free himself whilst living in London'. (fn. 65) In 1901 he withdrew to Bruges, visiting London periodically. He finally settled in Bruges about 1909, and did not return to live in England until 1926. (fn. 66)

That the fountain was for Gilbert one of those searing episodes of life from which, for people of deep feeling, there is never complete recovery, is suggested by the following cri de coeur, written in about 1911: 'I am the unfortunate author of the fountain, and I designed it years ago and ruined myself for a sentiment. That sentiment was suggested to me by a knowledge of the life of the Earl of Shaftesbury, in whose memory the work was erected. He was a friend of the poor, and encouraged all sorts of labour which should help them to help themselves. The earl had the betterment of the masses at heart, and I know that he thought deeply about the feminine population and their employment. Thus, with this knowledge, added to my experience of Continental habits, I designed the fountain so that some sort of imitation of foreign joyousness might find place in our cheerless London. I have been doomed to disappointment from start to finish. I not only ruined myself, but I have brought upon my head periodical attacks on my poor work, the best I could do years gone by.

'Why not pull down the whole work, and reduce it to copper, of which metal there are hundreds of pounds' worth, and place the sum realized by the sale to a nucleus fund to provide night shelters for the poor creatures who year in and year out congregate on the Embankment nightly?' (fn. 67)

The symbolism of the memorial has been much discussed, and Gilbert himself gave more than one explanation of it and of how it expressed Shaftesbury's life and works; one of these accounts is contained in the last quotation above. Some ten years after the unveiling of the memorial Gilbert told his friend Joseph Hatton that 'It is futile to pretend that I started out to make that design with a view of illustrating any particular or symbolical meaning. Knowing that it was to be a fountain, I naturally selected a form which should be most appropriate to the purpose, and it only required a slight stretch of imagination to determine that fish and the offspring of the mermaid would be best adapted to my purpose. … As to the figure surmounting the whole, if I must confess to a meaning or a raison d' être for its being there, I confess to have been actuated in its design by a desire to symbolise the work of Lord Shaftesbury; the blindfolded Love sending forth indiscriminately, yet with purpose, his missile of kindness, always with the swiftness the bird has from its wings, never ceasing to breathe or reflect critically, but ever soaring onwards, regardless of its own peril and dangers.' (fn. 19) Such an idea is more easily understood in the mid-twentieth century than in the last decade of the nineteenth, and it was perhaps inevitable that at that time so subtle and delicate an intention should be derided and abused.

The Shaftesbury Memorial Committee said firmly that 'The fountain itself is purely symbolical, and is illustrative of Christian charity', (fn. 16) and made no mention of the winged figure, whose downward pointing bow has been, and still is, widely regarded as forming a rebus upon the name of Shaftesbury. (fn. 68) The absence of any 'shaft' or arrow has been quoted in support of this theory: clearly the shaft has been discharged and is now 'buried' in the ground. (fn. 69) In 1947 A. L. Champneys, in a letter to The Times, referred to the memorial and stated that 'Shortly before its unveiling I was walking with my father, Basil Champneys, in Piccadilly when we happened to meet Gilbert, who invited us inside the hoarding to see the memorial. He then explained the rebus on the name Shaftesbury intended by the downward direction of the arrow, which would bury its shaft in the earth.' (fn. 70) Unfortunately, however, there is a direct conflict of evidence over what Gilbert said on this subject, for in 1903 he had, according to his friend Hatton, stated that after the unveiling there 'followed a storm of abuse of the work itself, with no attempt at just criticism, but inspired by, and given utterance to, through the grossest form of ignorance. For instance, the figure surmounting the whole design was stated by some ingenious Solon as intended to convey a silly pun on the name Shaftesbury, because it has discharged its shaft from the bow.' (fn. 19)

But there undoubtedly was symbolism in the detail of part of the fountain, for Gilbert, in discussing the drinking fountain, the cups and the chains by which the cups were attached, stated (again in 1903 to Hatton) that the 'angle-pieces, where the drinking places for man and beast appear, I confess are the outcome not of the suggestion of a pun on the name Shaftesbury, but of the ancient form of rebus, whereby a builder, or a monarch, or any other important person chose to leave the impress of an individuality on his work without scrawling his name; and, to be frank, I have chosen the form which the chain [? by which the cups were attached] composes to represent a sort of monogram of the word Shaftesbury, the little figure being merely an echo of the work above and the link between the two S's'. (fn. 19) Unfortunately the chains to which this passage appears to allude have long since been removed or stolen, but it was probably to this idea that Sir David Murray, R.A., referred when in 1930 he stated that Gilbert had 'had a pretty and delicate idea, which he skilfully carried out, of making every part of the memorial form the letter S, but where it was placed that had been unnoticed'. (fn. 71)

After the final rupture with Gilbert in October 1893 the County Council had to make its own arrangements for the fountain. In November the height of the wall was reduced, but the Council refused to agree to the recommendation of its Improvements Committee that the wall should be altogether removed. (fn. 72) Experiments with the water supply and the jets were made throughout the winter, (fn. 73) and in April the Council accepted a second request from the Improvements Committee for the complete removal of the wall (fn. 74). (fn. 5) In July the Council decided that, as the experiments had shown that whatever was done, water from the upper fountain frequently blew over the roadway, the water supply must be limited to the lower jets, and that in this limited fashion the fountain should play for ten hours daily at an annual cost of £234; the supply of drinking water was, however, to be constant. The Council also decided that the large stone block to which the inscription tablet had been fixed should be removed, and that the inscription should be re-cast in bronze slips and placed upon the faces of the fountain on the large chamfer above the lower basin. (fn. 75) In 1895 the shape of the pavement round the memorial was given an octagonal conformation. (fn. 76) In all the County Council spent £1558 upon the erection, adaptation and protection of a monument which had originally been offered by the Shaftesbury Memorial Committee as a gift. (fn. 38)

At the unveiling ceremony the secretary of the Memorial Committee had hoped that the County Council would 'allow the flower girls, to whom Lord Shaftesbury was always a friend, to retain their position at Piccadilly-circus, so long as they conducted themselves properly, as they had hitherto done'. (fn. 16) In 1903 a friend of Gilbert described the steps as 'a slovenly flower market . . . strewn with scraps of paper' and the pedestal as 'defiled with dirt'. (fn. 77) In 1911 there was another complaint about the untidiness caused by the flower girls, but by now they, at least (if not the memorial), had become an immutable ingredient in the national conception of Piccadilly Circus, and The Times published a protest at any attempt to evict them. (fn. 78) In February 1925, when the removal of the monument for the construction of the new tube station threatened their livelihood, there were ten flower girls; six found new stands round the Circus, two went to Leicester Square, and the others to a site near Park Lane specially provided by the Duke of Westminster. The Times marked these events with a leading article. (fn. 79)

After the removal of the memorial, Eros was erected in the Embankment Gardens on a concrete stand, (fn. 80) while the base was stored at No. 195 Clapham Road. (fn. 81) Although the monument was not replaced for nearly seven years—Eros was replaced on 27 December 1931 (fn. 82) —it was far from forgotten, and was frequently the subject of correspondence in The Times. Eventually, after prolonged consideration, the County Council decided to re-erect it slightly further east than before, (fn. 83) and (to balance the greater height of the new buildings surrounding the Circus) to increase the height of the base 16 inches by the addition of extra steps. (fn. 84) (fn. 6) In 1930 Gilbert, who was then living in London again, said that 'if he had his wish, his statue of Eros would be returned to its original site at Piccadilly-circus', and in a letter to the County Council he subsequently expressed his approval of the increased height of the new base. (fn. 85) (fn. 7)

In December 1930 the Works Committee of Westminster City Council decided not to renew the flower sellers' licences to trade round the memorial—the traffic was too dangerous. There were immediate protests and a leading article in The Times, (fn. 86) and in January 1931 the City Council reversed this decision. (fn. 87) The interest of The Times and its readers in the memorial and its surroundings has indeed been remarkable, for its artistic merit, its neglect, its creator's intentions, its fountain, the origin of its popular name, 'Eros', (fn. 8) the correct pronunciation of Eros, and the direction in which Eros should face have all at various times provided a theme for letters or leading articles.

On 31 December 1931—four days after the restoration of the monument—a man climbed the memorial and damaged Eros's bow. (fn. 88) This was the first (but unfortunately not the last) occasion on which the memorial, which had previously suffered so much from its detractors, was damaged by its admirers. In 1937 the County Council decided to erect a hoarding 12 feet high round the fountain on New Year's Eve and on the occasions of the University Boat Race and of the Association Football Match between England and Scotland. (fn. 89)

In 1932 a full-size replica of the memorial was erected in Sefton Park, Liverpool; it was the gift of Mr. George Audley.

Shortly after the outbreak of war in 1939 Eros was removed to safety at Cooper's Hill, Egham, and the base of the fountain was suitably protected in situ. (fn. 90) On 28 June 1947 Eros was reerected in Piccadilly Circus in heavy rain and in the presence of several thousand spectators; two flower girls, who each claimed to have spent more than fifty years there, took up their old places. (fn. 91) During the festivity connected with the coronation of Her Majesty the Queen in 1953 the fountain was protected by a decorative cage designed by Sir Hugh Casson. (fn. 92)

Since the re-erection of the memorial in 1931 there have been several attempts to adjust the jets and the water supply so as to fulfil Gilbert's intention of a shining statue poised upon a dome of water; but always it has been found that the upper jets, which should spout from the top of the tank half way up the fountain, cannot be used because they scatter water and spray over a wide area. In 1932 the fountain, even in its attenuated form, only played for three months in the year for three hours on Saturdays and Sundays, but in 1935 the County Council announced that in future the fountain would play daily for eight hours throughout the year. (fn. 93) In 1950 fresh experiments were made, in preparation for the Festival of Britain, but they were not successful, and the display had to be limited to that of falling water, which was run day and night during the six-month Festival in 1951. (fn. 94)

As long ago as 1901 Gilbert's friend M. H. Spielmann, in writing of the memorial, said that 'few sites and surroundings could show it to less advantage than the position it at present occupies'. (fn. 95) The site is, at present, far too small for the great spouting jets and sparkling cascades of the artist's intention, and the surroundings, at least on the north-east side, are vulgar and tawdry in the extreme—hardly, in fact, a suitable setting for what Sir Reginald Blomfield described as 'the finest work of outdoor monumental sculpture ever designed and executed by any English sculptor'. (fn. 96) Yet (such is the affection with which it is now universally regarded) the removal of the monument to a worthier position is now unthinkable. So, if justice is to be done to the memorial, the setting will have to be made to fit the gem.


Alfred Gilbert's fountain now stands on a paved platform of octagonal plan, surrounded by two short flights of steps. From the platform rises the bronze pedestal containing the large octagonal basin, its profile boldly moulded and each angle enriched with a finely modelled drinking fountain for man and dog. Within the basin stands a smaller octagonal pedestal, canted inwards and rising to the underside of an octagonal platter with serpentine-curved sides, heaped high with a complicated assembly of shells, dolphins, fishes and other marine creatures. This platter is oversailed by the upper basin, again an octagon, with a richly wrought pedestal front, the die decorated with cartouches and the angles projecting like miniature bastions. From the upper basin another pedestal rises with a concave-canted die, to support a tazzalike urn, its finial a conch on which is lightly poised the figure of Eros. Gilbert envisaged the whole of the upper stage enclosed within a glassy dome of water, on which Eros appeared to hover.

Gilbert, a sculptor trained in the Italian tradition but influenced by the art nouveau movement, was a superb technician who fully appreciated the different natures of metals, the opportunities they offered and the limitations they imposed. For the fountain he used bronze, but for the aerial figure, aluminium—probably its first use for permanent, free-standing sculpture; the supporting leg is solid, the rest of the body hollow.


  • 1. Joseph Hatton, writing in 1903 and referring to Gilbert's design, stated that the London County Council 'mocked it and ruined a noble open space with a public lavatory, emphasized in its ugliness by what they conceived to be the realistic treatment of a ventilator surmounted with a cluster of street lamps'.
  • 2. Gilbert received £3000 from the Shaftesbury Memorial Committee. The estimated cost of the lavatories was £3500.
  • 3. Two models of the base of the fountain survive, but Gilbert almost certainly made others. One is in the possession of the Royal Academy (Plate ), and the other is now in the City of Perth Art Gallery and Museum (Plate ). The Tate Gallery possesses a model of the figure of Eros (Plate ).
  • 4. At about this time Gilbert was involved in a misunderstanding over the possible gift by the government of gun metal for the statue. Many years later he stated that 'the Government said they would give me old guns to be melted down for metal—a promise that was not kept'. In his letter to The Times the Duke of Westminster stated that the Memorial Committee 'had hoped that the metal might have been given by the Government, but no exception is allowed to be made to their rule that voluntary effort in these cases is not to be supplemented in any way; moreover, as I understand, there is no metal available for the purpose'. In a private letter written on 29 March 1892 to Lord Rosebery he stated that the Committee had 'trusted in vain to the liberality and ability of the Government through the War Office to help us.'
  • 5. It is difficult to understand how this wall, whose erection had been deemed necessary, despite Gilbert's objections, in 1891 in order to comply with the terms of an Act of Parliament, could be removed in 1894 without any intervening change in the law. Gilbert acidly described the wall as 'a somewhat costly experiment on the part of the Council'.
  • 6. The existing four lamp standards which are grouped round the memorial, and the twelve which stand at various points on the circumference of Piccadilly Circus, were erected in 1932 to the design of Arthur Davies, F.R.I.B.A. The lavatories erected by the St. James's vestry were swept away during the construction of the new tube station.
  • 7. Too much importance should not be attached to these reassuring statements, for some five years earlier Giblert had told a reporter that 'I refuse to enter into controversy concerning the statue of Eros. The statue has haunted me all my life. . . . After so many years I am become indifferent.'
  • 8. Ten days after the unveiling of the fountain in 1893 The Sunday Times suggested that the Eros of the Greeks was Gilbert's inspiration for the winged figure, and in September 1893 the Magazine of Art referred to 'the flying Eros at the summit.'
  • 9. The Times, 10 Oct. 1885.
  • 10. Ibid., 29 Oct. 1885.
  • 11. M.B.W. Minutes, 22 Jan. 1886, pp. 88, 90.
  • 12. Ibid., 12 Feb. 1886, p. 275.
  • 13. Ibid., 12 Feb. 1886, p. 295.
  • 14. The Times, 3 March 1886, 2 Oct. 1888.
  • 15. Isabel McAllister, Alfred Gilbert, 1929, pp. 104–5.
  • 16. The Times, 30 June 1893.
  • 17. The Easter Art Annual, 1903, pp. 13–17; press cuttings in the possession of Mr. Adrian Bury, R.W.S., author of Shadow of Eros, 1952.
  • 18. M.B.W. Works Committee Papers, 14 Feb. 1887, item 73.
  • 19. The Easter Art Annual, 1903, pp. 13–17.
  • 20. The Times, 25 Nov. 1887.
  • 21. M.B.W. Works Committee Papers, 14 Feb. 1887, item 73; Works Committee Minutes, 9 Jan. 1888, item 33.
  • 22. The Times, 25 Nov. 1887, 6 Aug. 1888.
  • 23. Thirty-second Annual Report of the Vestry . . . of St. James, 1888, pp. 56–7.
  • 24. Thirty-third Annual Report . . ., 1889, pp. 67–9.
  • 25. L.C.C. Improvements Committee Minutes, 25 Sept. 1889, item 24.
  • 26. L.C.C. Improvements Committee Minutes, 10 July 1889, item 16.
  • 27. Ibid., 31 July 1889, item 18; 25 Sept. 1889, item 24.
  • 28. L.C.C. Improvements Committee Papers, 25 Sept. 1889, item 24; 23 Oct. 1889, item 25 (both in vol. 11a).
  • 29. L.C.C. Improvements Committee Minutes, 27 Nov. 1889, item 6.
  • 30. L.C.C. Minutes, 14 Jan. 1890, p. 5.
  • 31. The Times, 8 March 1890.
  • 32. C.E.O., file 14044.
  • 33. L.C.C. Improvements Committee Minutes, 22 Oct. 1890, item 33.
  • 34. Ibid., 23 Sept. 1891, item 36.
  • 35. 52 and 53 Vict., c. 147, local and private, section 8.
  • 36. L.C.C. Improvements Committee Papers, 30 Sept. 1891, item 16.
  • 37. Ibid., 4 Nov. 1891, item 15.
  • 38. Press cuttings in the possession of Mr. Adrian Bury, R.W.S.
  • 39. L.C.C. Improvements Committee Minutes and Papers, 4 Nov. 1891, item 15.
  • 40. Ibid., 17 Feb. 1892, item 16.
  • 41. L.C.C. Improvements Committee Minutes, 24 Feb. 1892, item 2.
  • 42. Ibid., 1 March 1892, item 4.
  • 43. L.C.C. Minutes, 3 May 1892, p. 370.
  • 44. L.C.C. Improvements Committee Papers, 6 April 1892, item 18.
  • 45. L.C.C. Improvements Committee Minutes, 13 July 1892, item 15.
  • 46. Ibid., 21 Dec. 1892, item 15; 15 March 1893, item 9.
  • 47. The Times, 30 June 1893; press cuttings in the possession of Mr. Adrian Bury, R.W.S.
  • 48. McAllister, op. cit., pp. 106–7.
  • 49. The Illustrated London News, 8 July 1893, p. 46.
  • 50. The Times, 17 July 1893.
  • 51. Ibid., 12 July 1893.
  • 52. L.C.C. Improvements Committee Minutes, 2 May 1894, item 24.
  • 53. Ibid., 1 Aug. 1893, items 2, 3; Improvements Committee Papers, 5 July 1893, item 25.
  • 54. L.C.C. Improvements Committee Minutes, 5 July 1893, item 24; 19 July 1893, item 27.
  • 55. L.C.C. Improvements Committee Minutes and Papers, 26 July 1893, item 14.
  • 56. L.C.C. Improvements Committee Minutes, 1 Aug. 1893, items 2, 3.
  • 57. Ibid., 8 Aug. 1893 (no item no.); 4 Oct. 1893, item 16.
  • 58. L.C.C. Minutes, 10 Oct. 1893, pp. 948–9.
  • 59. L.C.C. Improvements Committee Minutes and Papers, 1 Nov. 1893, item 43.
  • 60. The Times, 23 Sept. 1893.
  • 61. Ibid., 30 Sept. 1893.
  • 62. Ibid., 3 Oct. 1893.
  • 63. Ibid., 7 Oct. 1893.
  • 64. Ibid., 13 Oct. 1893.
  • 65. McAllister, op. cit., p. 107.
  • 66. Information supplied by Mr. Adrian Bury, R.W.S.
  • 67. The Times, 7 Aug. 1923.
  • 68. Ibid., 8 June 1927, 26 Jan. 1953.
  • 69. Ibid., 9 Feb. 1953.
  • 70. Ibid., 1 July 1947.
  • 71. Ibid., 22 March 1930.
  • 72. L.C.C. Minutes, 21 Nov. 1893, p. 1144.
  • 73. L.C.C. Improvements Committee Minutes, 19 Dec. 1893, item 13; 10 Jan. 1894, item 5; 4 April 1894, item 15.
  • 74. L.C.C. Minutes, 17 April 1894, p. 410.
  • 75. Ibid., 10 July 1894, pp. 784–6; 24 July 1894, p. 853.
  • 76. L.C.C. Improvements Committee Minutes, 27 March 1895, item 17.
  • 77. The Easter Art Annual, 1903, p. 5.
  • 78. The Times, 15, 21 Feb. 1911.
  • 79. Ibid., 12, 13, 16 Feb. 1925.
  • 80. Ibid., 25 May 1925; L.C.C. Minutes, 2 May 1933, p. 630.
  • 81. L.C.C. Minutes, 3 Feb. 1931, p. 189.
  • 82. The Times, 28 Dec. 1931.
  • 83. Ibid., 15 May 1931.
  • 84. L.C.C. Minutes, 16 Dec. 1930, p. 1004.
  • 85. Ibid., 26 March 1930; 12 Feb. 1936.
  • 86. Ibid., 17–20 Dec. 1930.
  • 87. W.C.C. Minutes, 28 Jan. 1931, p. 25.
  • 88. The Times, 2, 28 Jan. 1932.
  • 89. L.C.C. Minutes, 23 March 1937, p. 350.
  • 90. Ibid., 17 Oct. 1939, p. 268; 29 Sept. 1945, p. 2.
  • 91. The Times, 30 June 1947.
  • 92. Ibid., 19 June 1953; The Builder, 29 May 1953, p. 824.
  • 93. The Times, 4, 25 Jan. 1932; 23 Dec. 1935.
  • 94. Ibid., 31 July 1950; 17 March 1951.
  • 95. M. H. Spielmann, British Sculpture and Sculptors of To-day, 1901, p. 82.
  • 96. The Times, 12 Oct. 1928.
  • 97. McAllister, op. cit., p. 106.
  • 98. L.C.C. Improvements Committee Papers, 6 April 1892, item 18.
  • 99. The Times, 18 April, 5 May 1932.