The Achilles Statue

Overview

Heritage Category: Listed Building

Grade: I

List Entry Number: 1231393

Date first listed: 14-Jan-1970

Date of most recent amendment: 02-Sep-2015

Statutory Address: Off Park Lane and to the north of Hyde Park corner screen, Hyde Park W2

Map

Ordnance survey map of The Achilles Statue
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Location

Statutory Address: Off Park Lane and to the north of Hyde Park corner screen, Hyde Park W2

The building or site itself may lie within the boundary of more than one authority.

County: Greater London Authority

District: City of Westminster (London Borough)

Parish: Non Civil Parish

National Grid Reference: TQ2830680015

Summary

1822. Sir Richard Westmacott, sculptor. Colossal statue of bronze, with black patination, standing on a base of grey (Dartmoor) and pink (Peterhead) granite.

Reasons for Designation

The Achilles Statue, Hyde Park, 1822 by Sir Richard Westmacott, is listed at Grade I for the following principal reasons: * Historic interest: this was the first memorial in England to the Duke of Wellington, and shows the triumphalism abroad in Britain at the time of the defeat of Napoleon. This is one of the most unusual memorials to be erected anywhere in Europe after the final defeat of Napoleon; * Sculptural interest: an extremely rare colossal bronze statue, modelled and realised by one of the pre-eminent sculptors of late Georgian England, which was alleged to be the largest classical bronze statue cast since antiquity; * Cultural interest: an important essay in sublime neo-classicism, commissioned by female subscribers led by Countess Spencer; * Materials: the use of bronze, taken from captured French ordnance, is highly symbolic and is an early instance of such use; * Group value: ‘Achilles’ stands a short distance to the north of Apsley House (Grade I), Wellington’s London residence, and has subsequently been joined by other listed memorials in the vicinity. Hyde Park has a long history of association with the Army which further compounds the importance of this martial monument.

History

The idea of a gigantic statue in honour of Wellington, cast from captured cannon, and based on the Dioscori or Alexander and Bucephalus colossal statues on the Capitoline Hill, Rome, came from Countess Spencer in 1814. From the outset, the commission was to be funded by collections raised by women. Westmacott was approached early on, and a cast of the group was obtained from Rome. The initial plan was to reproduce both gigantic warrior, and the horse of the Roman original: although £10,000 was raised, there was insufficient money to execute anything beside the former element which was then adapted into a fighting warrior figure, which was dubbed ‘Achilles’. The rectangular recess on the rear of the pedestal may have been intended to receive a relief which was never produced. The closest comparison for the figure is with Canova’s colossal bronze portrait statue of a naked Napoleon as Mars, now in the Brera, Milan, cast in 1811-12: a marble version was presented to Wellington in 1816 and is now in Apsley House, his London residence, which stands nearby. The ‘Achilles’ memorial was conceived in advance of its installation, however.

Initially the location was to have been on Horse Guards Parade: a more solid spot was found in Hyde Park, close to Apsley House. Government funding paid for the pedestal (at a cost of £3,360), using income from a public festival celebrating the end of fighting in 1814, which took place in St James’s Park. The statue was cast in 1821, using captured bronze from seven French cannon, and was believed to be the largest bronze statue to have been made since antiquity (in Europe, at least). The installation was completed in July 1822 (and not on the seventh anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo, as recorded in the inscription: raising the 33 ton statue into position took considerable effort). The figure’s nudity aroused considerable comment: the subscribing women voted to conceal the statue’s manhood with a fig-leaf.

Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington (1769-1852) was the most successful general of the Napoleonic wars, and has retained his reputation as an outstanding commander. His hard-fought victory at Waterloo brought twenty years of conflict to a close, and secured Britain’s position as a leading world power. The concept of the memorial came from Lavinia, Countess Spencer, herself an artist of some repute, who sought contributions solely from other (mainly aristocratic) women. The fund was launched in 1814, prior to Waterloo, in honour of Wellington’s victories in the Peninsular War and subsequent invasion of south-west France. Sir Richard Westmacott RA (1775-1856) trained under his sculptor-father and spent time in Rome in the 1790s, becoming friends with Canova and absorbing many classical influences. On his return to London in 1796 he commenced a highly successful career, producing nearly 300 funerary monuments (including prominent national memorials in St Paul’s and Westminster Abbey), beside many other commissions: among the latest was the pediment sculpture for the British Museum (1847-51). Westmacott was elected RA in 1811, becoming Professor of Sculpture in 1827 until his death. He was knighted in 1837. As well as running a very busy practice (which included a bronze foundry in Pimlico), Westmacott was an authority on classical art and was much involved in the reception in London of the Elgin Marbles: he was nicknamed ‘Westmacotteles’ by his fellow connoisseur the Earl of Egremont. ‘Achilles’ was his most important work in the vein of sublime classicism, and is a rare example of a heroically-scaled project actually being realised.

Details

The 6m high statue depicts a heavily muscled naked warrior, a circular shield raised in his left hand, and an archaic sword (added in the 1860s) in his right. A cloak is draped over his left arm, and behind his right leg stands his armour. His head is turned to the left, and his legs are wide apart. A fig-leaf conceals his modesty. The three-staged base carries inscriptions on the south-facing front. These read (upper): TO ARTHUR, DUKE OF WELLINGTON. / AND HIS BRAVE COMPANIONS IN ARMS / THIS STATUE OF ACHILLES, CAST FROM CANNON TAKEN IN THE VICTORIES / OF SALAMANCA, VITTORIA, TIUYLOUSE AND WATERLOO, / IS INSCRIBED BY THEIR COUNTRYWOMEN and (lower) PLACED ON THIS SPOT / ON THE XVIII DAY OF JUNE MDCCCXXII / BY COMMAND OF / HIS MAJESTY GEORGE III. Around the base, which is constructed of massive blocks, are sixteen granite posts with linked chains.

Legacy

The contents of this record have been generated from a legacy data system.

Legacy System number: 406533

Legacy System: LBS

Sources

Books and journals
Haskell, F, Penny, N , Taste and the Antique, (1981), 136-140
Ward-Jackson, P, Public Sculpture of Historic Westminster Vol 1, (2011), 81-84
Other
The Gentleman’s Magazine vol 94 part 2 (1822), 70-71

End of official listing