London’s Shaftesbury memorial

A vintage postcard view of Piccadilly Circus in 1904.

This image was taken in 1904 when ‘Eros’ was just eleven years old. Arthur Mee, writing a little more than 30 years later when advertising hoardings had begun to creep over the architecture, had this to say about Piccadilly Circus……

It is better to see it by night, when the glow of the lights blots out its shabbiness, for half the Circus is a noble spectacle and half is worthy of a third-rate town. London in the grip of private interests moves slowly to its destiny, but the time is coming when Piccadilly Circus will be worthy of the millions of money that have been poured into it in our own time. It has three or four fronts fit for any site in any city; it has the most marvellous Underground Station in Europe, and it has, enthroned in the centre of it, a delightful cupid worthy of the Golden Age of Greece. It is Sir Alfred Gilbert’s Eros, set up in this scene of gaiety in memory of the Earl of Shaftesbury who tried to bring a little more brightness into the lives of children.

Eros rises as a winged archer above a bronze fountain with two octagon basins set on steps, the basins decorated with little cupids. It was the first aluminium figure in the streets of London, if not anywhere. The monument was set up in the last years of last century [1893], in the days of the old Board of Works, and there was much trouble concerning it. Sir Alfred Gilbert received £3000 for it and it cost him twice as much. There were such annoying small experiences as the stealing of the drinking-cups, and the sculptor was displeased with the setting of his lovely figure, and finally, when the powers that be required that he should surround it with a parapet, Sir Alfred shook the dust of England from his feet and went into exile, leaving behind this letter to the Board of Works:

“There is more than £3000 worth of copper in the memorial. Take it, melt it, turn it into pence, and give it to the unfortunate people who nightly find a resting-place on the Embankment, to the everlasting shame of the greatest metropolis in the world – and cease torturing an artist.”

Sir Alfred remained in exile for 20 years and came back to finish a monument at Windsor at the personal request of George the Fifth.
‘London’, Arthur Mee, Hodder and Stoughton 1937.

There is more to the story of Gilbert’s exile in 1901 and his return in 1926 (25 years later) than Arthur Mee reveals here. Follow Gilbert’s link to find more.

Dating the imageThis postcard has not been used but the horse-drawn ‘omnibus’ at bottom right advertises a play, the Fairy’s Dilemma, at the Garrick Theatre. This was a comedy written by W. S. Gilbert that had a short run from 3rd May to 22nd July 1904.
The two Gilberts are not related, as far as I know. It’s just an odd coincidence that both names pop up in connection with this card.


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