George II Statue

Okay. What would you do if you captured a ship whose booty turned out to be an enormous lump of stone?

After the obvious curses that it wasn’t a big chest full of pieces of eight or barrels of rum, and once you discovered that it was a rather good lump of stone – marble, in fact, and that it had been intended to be a giant statue of your enemy, you might just be tempted to lug it home and make something of it yourself…
Which is exactly what Sir George Rooke did in 1734. The vessel in question was French, taken in the Mediterranean, and the enemy-to-be-immortalised in question was Louis XV.

Admiral Sir John Jennings, who was the head honcho at Greenwich Hospital at the time, came up with the idea that the best snook that could be cocked would be to have the marble cut into a representation of the English king, even if that English king actually happened to be German (Royalty gets even messier than ever in the 18th C…)

I guess it was a sound theory – though frankly I can think of better subjects to grace Greenwich, since the guy didn’t seem to have much time for England, let alone our fine town. But it wasn’t entirely altruistic. Years earlier, George’s father had pardoned the Admiral for an embarrassing incident where he’d accidentally allowed the Old Pretender to escape from Edinburgh. Jennings clearly considered some toadying was in order.

And once Sir John got an idea in his head, he ran with it. He got the sculptor Michael Rysbrack (if you’re ever in Chelsea, check out his statue of Sir Hans Sloane, BTW) to do the actual carvery, and paid him himself.

The statue doesn’t look that big – but it’s actually 8ft tall. The rather odd outfit is down to the fashion at the time for bigwigs to have themselves painted or sculpted as Roman Emperors – if you look around Greenwich, you’ll find all sorts of cod-Roman stuff from the time. It’s all leather skirts, wreaths and drapery – nicely Classical – and presumably quite good for covering unsightly bulges…

He’s got a sceptre and orb, and he’s standing next to a Doric column (I’m guessing it’s to give the structure some stability) and when the sculpture was unveiled on 1st August 1735, it had much detail and a lot of carving at the bottom, which tells the story of the making of it, plus a rather lovely pair of extracts from Virgil and Horace:

“This restful place receives the weary into safe anchorage.”

“Let this place be rest for my old age, let it be the end to me, tire of the sea and the ways of war.”

Definitely the most Greenwich-appropriate part of the statue. Not, of course, that any of that’s legible now. In the 1920s, much of the detail was still visible, though Time had, according to Lord Edward Gleichen, “imparted an oddly perky expression to his face,” but the writing was already in really poor condition. Now the poor old thing is as blank as our sad cherubs, and probably way beyond the repair that Gleichen advocated in 1928.

I understand that George was pretty pleased with his likeness. When the Earl of Derwentwater was executed a couple of years later, his cash somehow found its way into the hospital coffers…
Below is a rather unusual view of the statue. I took it whilst sneaking around one of those long night-shoots for Wolf Man last year. George is surrounded by a charming ‘garden’ – trees and railings and rustic walls. All polystyrene, folks – but rather pretty…

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