Monuments on the Move

Several months ago, the grade II listed monument of Prince Albert by Charles Bacon (c.1822-1886), which has stood at the centre of Holborn Circus since it first was unveiled by the Prince of Wales on 9th January 1874, was hoisted from its pedestal and removed for cleaning. It has recently returned, conservation complete and was freshly unveiled on 29th April this year by Alderman Fiona Woolf CBE, The Right Honourable The Lord Mayor of the City of London. The monument did not go back to its former site, however, but has been relocated 20 metres to the west of it between the two carriageways in Holborn, because of traffic accident concerns.

The City had wanted to erect a monument commemorating the work of Prince Albert and in 1868 a London merchant, Charles Oppenheim, came forward conveniently offering to pay for it, but his probity was questioned by some and, perhaps as a result of this, he subsequently formally withdrew the offer. The matter appeared to have been dropped, but then a further offer to provide the monument was made in a letter of 1869 through the sculptor, Charles Bacon of Sloane Street, to the Lord Mayor with the condition attached that the Corporation should pay for the pedestal. This time, the proposal was accepted and the monument went ahead. Whether the statue was in fact still funded by Oppenheim remains a mystery. When it was unveiled the press identified Charles Oppenheim as the anonymous donor, although this was refuted by The Times in an article entitled, ‘The Donor of the Holborn Statue’ which issued a formal denial that the merchant had paid for the statue. No-one by the name of Oppenheim was listed amongst the guests at the unveiling ceremony, which tends to endorse this denial. For those who would like to read more about this intriguing commission, Dr. Philip Ward-Jackson’s Public Sculpture of the City of London in the Public Sculpture of Britain series provides a thorough detailed account.(pmsa publications). In any event, the matter of the donor remains cloaked in mystery. If Oppenheim were the donor, he was deeply undercover and hid behind the sculptor Charles Bacon.

Other works by the little-known Charles Bacon include the statue of the Arctic explorer, Sir John Franklin, at Spilsby in Lincolnshire and the equestrian statue of the politician, John Earle-Drax at Olantigh Towers, Wye in Kent, the pose of which, with top hat raised, served as precedent for this equestrian monument of Prince Albert. Bacon received a fee of £2,000 for the Holborn monument which is his most important sculpture by far. 

The statue has met with mixed reviews over the years. Arthur Byron in his 1981 guide to London statues describes it as ‘delightful’, but some nineteenth century opinion was less enthusiastic. The Art Journal of 1874, for example, commented sceptically that on the ‘principle that one must not too narrowly examine a “gift horse”, we abjure criticism.’

Prince Albert is portrayed dressed as a Field Marshal mounted on his charger, Nimrod, and doffing his plumed hat in what Byron calls ‘a most unmilitary manner’, but one which makes him ‘the politest statue in London.’ The Sunday Times columnist of the day, known as ‘Rambler’, by contrast, was outspoken in his criticism: ‘The Thames Embankment is a magnificent work, so too is the Holborn Viaduct, which would be an ornament to the City if it were not for the nonsensical figure of Prince Albert taking off his hat to it as if it were a lady .’

At the unveiling , the Town Clerk gave a detailed account of the monument, which was reported in The Times next day. The bronze statue he said was ‘somewhat over-life size; the Prince is…in the act of returning a salute. The pedestal is slightly under 15 feet high, in granite, and composed of stones weighing from two to ten tons each; the base in light Shap, with fine axed arrisses and rusticated panels; the whole of the upper portion (with the exception of the rock on which the horse stands) is in Ross of Mull granite, highly polished …’ He then described the two longer sides of the pedestal which carry bronze bas-reliefs (figs 4 & 5). One he said ‘represents the first public act of his Royal Highness within the City… laying the first stone of the Royal Exchange, 1842; the other…Britannia distributing awards to the successful competitors in the Exhibition of All Nations, 1851.’ The Town Clerk explained that the statuettes at each end of the pedestal represent Peace, which holds in her right hand a cornucopia and in her left a palm branch, and History which records the events of the Prince’s life in a book, on the corners of which are the dates of the two Great Exhibitions 1851 and 1862. 

The bronzes were cast in what was probably the first major art-foundry in England, Messrs Young and Co. of Pimlico. These founders were later to sue Charles Bacon for outstanding payment for works which included this statue of Prince Albert. The monument was erected in Holborn Circus by Messrs. Field, Poole and Sons of Westminster.

Designed in 1867 by the civil engineer, surveyor and architect, William Haywood, who had also worked on the Viaduct, Holborn Circus marks the point where six roads converge on the border of the City of London and the Borough of’ Camden. It is a notorious black-spot with the highest accident rates in both the City and Camden. The monument is being moved because this will improve sight lines at the junction and reduce the accident levels.

It seems that the Circus was always an impractical and dangerous place. The Sunday Times columnist, ‘Rambler’ wrote on 21st February 1875: ‘Have you ever stood upon the Holborn Viaduct …If not; don’t. What with the roar of cab and ’bus, the heavy artillery of Pickford’s and Railway vans, the vibration of the bridge… there is at that particular place such a combination of horrors as you had better not encounter if you have any regard for your bodily health or peace of mind.’

At the unveiling ceremony in 1874,The Town Clerk of London had described the reasons the site had been selected for the monument: ‘The advantages of this site are that the statue can be seen from St. Sepulchre’s Church, a distance of about 400 yards; from Holborn, a distance of 500 yards; from St. Andrew’s street 200 yards; and from Charterhouse street 250 yards; in fact, it terminates the vistas of all those thoroughfares.’

Aesthetically the Circus and the monument had its admirers. Charles Dickens Jr, son of the famous novelist, wrote: ‘Holborn terminates at the circus of the same name, a handsome architectural feature, with an equestrian statue of the Prince Consort in the centre…With the exception, perhaps, of Queen Victoria-street, this is the finest piece of street architecture in the City of London, and its effect is greatly increased by the fact that it is built in a curve. There is a uniformity in the general architectural design of the houses upon either side, which … is very rare in London; indeed, of the great thoroughfares, Regent-street and Holborn-viaduct are the sole examples.’

Sadly the ‘uniformity in the general architectural design’ was destroyed when the Circus suffered heavy bomb damage in the Blitz and the building line praised by Dickens has been all but lost due to both the bombing and the demolition of buildings over the years. Many of us, for example, remember the department store, Gamage’s closing in 1972 and the subsequent redevelopment.The result is that much of Haywood’s design has already been lost.

There was some opposition to the recent re-siting of the monument based on the opinion that it should remain at the heart of the Circus. A point of view that one can relate to, but not perhaps one which is wholly realistic in the densely built-up and traffic congested London of today. Indeed as we have seen, it was not even a particularly practical solution in the nineteenth century. Where perhaps there is more to question is over the re-siting of the monument, because it is now placed between two busy carriageways and is still in a rather inaccessible location. There is a pedestrian crossing near where it stands now so the monument can be seen up close and indeed safely viewed from further away, but the area where one would most probably have the best view would be from the middle of the road! Given that it has had to be moved for safety reasons and can no longer terminate ‘the vistas of all those thoroughfares’, perhaps it might have been better placed outside the Church of St. Andrew Holborn away from the traffic, where it could better enjoyed by the public. That location, however, would have been further from its original site and it was felt that the monument should remain as close as possible to the Circus, facing as originally intended towards the City which had erected it.

The restoration work on the Monument of Prince Albert was undertaken by Rupert Harris Conservation Ltd.

Rupert has kindly answered some further questions about the conservation process and findings for PMSA:

What is the quality of the casting like? I believe it is quite an early Young cast, how does this compare with others you have seen?

The bronze castings were very good: fine, thin-walled castings, well assembled with no failing joints, no problematic casting flaws or patches, and little gas porosity. Those of Young’s casts that we have been able to examine – C.H. Mabey’s two sphinxes for Cleopatra’s Needle (1881) and his three reliefs on the Temple Bar Memorial in Fleet Street (1882) – demonstrate great technical skill. I believe Young & Co. were established in 1871 and so were a new firm at the time of this commission.

Was there any interesting evidence of old repairs or previous cleaning- if so what?

There were no old repairs at all – it survived astonishingly well considering its vulnerable position and long-term lack of maintenance. The bronzes had received at least one coat of paint in the past and the paint at least seems to have helped preserve the surface beneath. The painting of it was the only treatment of which we found evidence. The thick dirt and degraded remains of paint on the bronzes removed easily, revealing a remarkably well-preserved surface of original dark brown patina, mixed with a stable, naturally formed green patina. Almost no active corrosion was found (only a few pustules on the horse’s underbelly).

What was the most challenging part of this project for you?

My colleague, Simon Cottle, who took charge of all the practical conservation works on this project is not here today, but I’m sure he would say that it was challenging to work in the centre of such a busy traffic interchange. Very noisy! We were ably and generously helped by JB Riney, the main contractors on the highway enhancement scheme, who were responsible for providing us with safe working area. It took careful organisation to co-ordinate the HIABlorries to collect the plinth blocks as they were carefully dismantled – all the work on site was organised in such a way as to cause the least possible disruption to traffic for the shortest possible length of time.

And the most interesting part..

At some point in the past, the Prince’s sword and the quill pen from the hand of History had been stolen. One strap from Albert’s sword belt and one of his spurs was also missing. I carried out research to find evidence of the exact nature of the missing pieces, then we modelled replacements and had them sand cast in bronze.

Main image: Charles Bacon, Monument of Prince Albert, Holborn Circus,London, (photo: Bronwyn Claridge)

Aurora Corio