Piccadilly Circus

Shaftesbury Memorial Fountain and Statue of Anteros

The Shaftesbury Memorial Fountain at Piccadilly Circus opened to some controversy in 1893. Atop the fountain was the statue designed by Mr. Alfred Gilbert which was described:

…a life-sized winged youth executed in aluminium, of the weight of about 7 cwt, which has the appearance of silver. The figure is designed as if just alighting on the fountain summit on one foot, and is in the act of discharging an arrow from a bow.

The Pall Mall Gazette, 17 Jun 1893, p. 7

Although praised as having no rival in the metropolis, in less than one month

It has been so appreciated by art-admiring crowds that six out of the eight lovely shell cups have been ruthlessly torn from their chains. Four of them have been stolen, and two are in the hands of the police authorities, who have also taken charge of those remaining.

Birmingham Daily Post, 11 July 1893, p. 3

An act of vandalism has been perpetuated at the Shaftesbury Memorial fountain, just erected at Piccadilly-circus. The light aluminium drinking-cups, all of especially beautiful design, have been wrenched from their chains by some persons unknown. The fountain cannot now be used. The police have some portions of the cups at Vine-street; but they are not able to account for the outrage beyond saying that there was a great struggle for water during the late wedding festivities.

Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, 16 July 1893, p. 5

The recent letters upon the Shaftesbury memorial fountain would be amusing were they not so lamentable. It is but lately that we have learned to erect public monuments with display some amount of taste and beauty, and straightway the bitter cry of Mrs. Grundy is heard in the land. Mr. Russell Endean objects to the nude figure at the top of the fountain! Could the prurient imagination of all “social purity” schemers have produced in one effort a thought to match this? A nude sculptured figure is vice to the “British matron” of mirthful memory. Then let us erect him 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.

The Times, 7 Oct 1893, p. 4
Anteros, Shaftesbury Memorial Fountain by Alfred Gilbert 1893

Piccadilly Circus (the round open space at the street that connects several streets including Shaftesbury) was constructed in 1819 to connect Regent Street with Piccadilly. In addition to the concern that Anteros was ‘naked’, the sculptor was distraught at the high wall constructed around the fountain that he stated was “the painful experience of witnessing the utter failure of his intentions and design” by dwarfing the statue, and of the inadequacy of the water supply. Gilbert requested the reduction of the wall, a 6-inch water main instead of the two 1 1/4-inch mains, and that the space within the enclosing wall be used as an additional basin for the fountains and the openings in the wall be “stopped up in such a manner as to provide for a drinking place at each of the four points.” The 1896 photograph of the fountain and Piccadilly Circus below reflects some of the changes made.

By Unknown author – The Queen's LondonĀ : a Pictorial and Descriptive Record of the Streets, Buildings, Parks and Scenery of the Great Metropolis, 1896., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=322180

While the Improvements Committee agreed to Gilbert’s requests, others on the Council protested. One member called the fountain a “white elephant, which the Council would do well to get off its hands” and said it was ridiculous for them to spend more money on it. Another thought the site unsuitable and suggested it be moved to a park. The first two requests passed, but they declined to enclose the plinth to make another basin. The original purpose of the enclosing wall was “for boys to jump on” and by 1894 it had become “a resting place for loafers” (The Pall Mall Gazette, Apr 10, 1894, p. 2). I do not think they meant anyone’s shoes. The Committee further decided to remove the wall altogether. In an editorial opinion one might well read today, the Weekly Standard and Express wrote:

We have a fountain up here called the Shaftesbury Memorial Fountain. Of course there are others; but this, being useless, is the most celebrated. A certain resemblance between men and fountains may be traced here. It is the fashion to call the fountain names, and the other day a member of the County Council called it first a “tombstone” and then a “lugubrious and unhappy monstrosity,” and asked if the removal of some of the surrounding wall, which had been decided upon, could not be followed by the removal of the monument itself? Perhaps the removal of most of the members of the County Council would result in the improvement of this “public convenience,” not to mention other conveniences which would follow the event.

The Weekly Standard and Express, Apr 21, 1894, p. 3

By July, the Memorial Fountain was back in the news again, this time to report the Improvements Committee had recommended the fountain work an average of ten hours a day and that the block of stone with the inscriptions be removed, the words cast in bronze slips that would be placed on the faces of the fountain’s large chamfer immediately above the lower basin, which was agreed to.

By Unknown author – https://coololdphotos.com/great-photo-of-londons-piccadilly-circus-in-1908/, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=77040781
By Benh LIEU SONG – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=39426162
This entry was posted in landscape architecture, London, Statues and Memorials and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Piccadilly Circus

  1. socialbridge says:

    Suz, I really enjoyed this but couldn’t stop thinking about when son was just starting to talk and kept saying what sounded like ‘BD Expect Us.’ It was a mystery for months until one day at a tricky road to cross here in Tramore he shouted BD expect us just after the lady who was minding him said as she always did at that spot: ‘This is like Piccadilly Circus.’
    He and she are still the best of friends 25 years on and always call the crossing Piccadilly Circus.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Betty says:

    I know I have pictures of this in my slides! Now I have some background information on the sculpture which will further enrich my memories. Thanks!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. peggy says:

    A very busy looking place. That fountain is definitely a work of art. Love that 1908 photo – the difference in how people dressed and how thing change.

    Liked by 1 person

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