Q:What do Greenwich Hill, Trafalgar Square and The Phantom Loft have in common?
A: They all once had space over which many arguments raged as to what to fill it with. In the case of the latter two, the arguments rage on…
When there’s a useful space, we just have to fill it. And there was Greenwich Hill, a lovely promontory looking out over the Isle of Dogs, without a statue to call its very own. Not that there haven’t been some kooky ideas over the years before settling upon the very splendid
Greenwich Phantom General Wolfe design in the 1930s. And here’s the kookiest…
The year is 1799. Britain has just won the Battle of the Nile and everyone’s gone Nelson-mad, Mr Blackadder. The then Duke of Clarence (who will eventually become William IV) decides it will be a great idea to have some kind of triumphal sculpture to celebrate all things British and announces a competition for Something Nice to go at the top of Greenwich Hill.
There are a couple of half-hearted attempts – Old Father Thames and a bog-standard column being two of them. But nothing’s really cutting it.
Then sculptor/draughtsman/decorator of Wedgewood pottery John Flaxman, the Anthony Gormley of his day, decides to large-it with his literal Big Idea.
It is to be a sort-of Angel-of-the-South-East. Intended to do pretty much the same job as the Angel of the North, a gigantic, 230-foot colossus (is that correct terminology if it’s female?) of Britannia, the guardian angel of Great Britain, is to stand on the main road from the coast to London, framed by the two towers of the Naval College, to tell foreign visitors that they have arrived where the Art is.
Flaxman isn’t convinced that the little maquette he’s mocked-up will quite do the trick though – I mean how can he convince the powers-that-be of its grandeur when it’s only a yard or so high? So he writes a pamphlet, explaining all about why he’s decided to make her neo-classical (to be honest, not a hard sell, surely – can you imagine Britannia in any style other than neo-classical?) and gets his pupil William Blake to do a drawing for it.
It’s the usual stuff – big bird in flowing outfit and helmet, brandishing shield and trident, complete with rather-cute lion. Years later, in 1958, one Malcolm Campbell, writing in the Princetown University journal, is to be quite sniffy about the whole thing, accusing it of being ‘derivative’ – but Flaxman has second-guessed him and harps on instead about the sculpture’s symbolic value:
“It is to be remembered that the port of the Metropolis is the great port of the whole kingdom; that the Kent road is the ingress to London from Europe, Asia and Africa; and that, as Greenwich Hill is the place from whence the longitude is taken, the Monument would, like the first mile-stone in the city of Rome, be the point from which the world would be measured.”
Stirring stuff, eh? And the man’s not short on chutzpah. He reckons his work of art will last “as long as the Trajan Column, the Amphitheatre or the Pyramids of Egypt.” He points out, too, that “it will ensure the praise and admiration of succeeding ages.”
But here’s a thing. Flaxman wasn’t keen to have his colossal figure at any cost. He actually withdrew his suggestion in favour of an art gallery after a couple of years, when the Napoleonic wars started to hot-up again, and he was keen that if anything were to be built – his own or someone else’s design – it should actually be worthwhile.
“It would certainly be far better not to raise any National Monument whatever on the present occasion, than one upon which considerable labour and expense should be laid out, to be the scoff of foreigners, and the disgrace of the country as long as it should exist.”
I hate to bang on about the Olympics and Greenwich Park again – but wise words, don’t you think…
Blake’s picture of Britannia is in the Bodleian Library, but I read that the little maquette of the statue is in Sir John Soane’s Museum, and felt it needed visiting.
I received a serious ticking-off for the following picture – the security guard went absolutely berserk at me – but since I’ve already taken the pain, and to be frank it’s in the basement and, I’m not kidding, so very, very dimly lit that you actually can’t see it properly, I present it here for your delight and delectation. Sadly no lion – a second shot was out of the question – I’d have been hanged for it…
But imagine this, 230 feet high, astride Greenwich Hill and wonder what might have been. Would the images on those split-picture tourist postcards of London have included The Houses of Parliament, St Paul’s, Buckingham Palace, Tower Bridge – and the Greenwich Britannia? It’s a thought, isn’t it…