Cabbie’s Curios: Achilles’ Willie

In the south-eastern corner of Hyde Park, gazing across the constant din of traffic roaring between Park Lane and Hyde Park Corner, there towers this mighty effigy… the Achilles Statue:

The monument was unveiled in 1822 as a tribute to Arthur Wellesley- aka the Duke of Wellington; the politician and Field Marshal who led the coalition armies to victory at the Battle of Waterloo in June 1815; a monumental clash which marked the end of Napoleon Bonaparte’s increasingly tyrannical reign.

The Duke of Wellington, painted by Sir Thomas Lawrence shortly before the Battle of Waterloo

The 18ft tall figure was forged by the renowned sculptor, Sir Richard Westmacott at his workshop in Pimlico.

Sir Richard must’ve had trouble reading his tape-measure because when the monumental artwork came to be installed, it transpired that it was far too big to squeeze through Hyde Park’s gates! This problem was quickly overcome however by knocking a great big hole in a nearby wall!

The bronze used to create the statue was obtained by melting down twenty-two French cannons which had been seized at the battles of Salamanca, Vittoria, Toulouse and Waterloo.

Construction cost a hefty £10,000- approximately £490,000 in todays money, the cash being raised solely by the ‘women of England’.

The unveiling ceremony was carried out by King George III; the monarch who famously suffered from poor mental health throughout his life.

Achilles in full glory. Combined together, the statue and plinth reach an impressive height of 36 ft.

In Greek mythology, Achilles was the powerful warrior from Homer’s Iliad, a hero of the Trojan War who liked a good scrap and was practically invincible (except of course, for the small matter of his troublesome heel).

It was this grand reputation, which the Georgians believed was comparable to their own victorious Duke, that led to the statue sharing the ancient hero’s name. 

An Ancient Greek representation of Achilles

However, on closer inspection the powerful character turns out to be more Roman than Greek.

As a young man, Richard Westmacott had spent four years in Rome where he was taught his craft by the Italian sculptor, Antonio Canova.

Westmacott’s statue of Achilles is actually based on the two ‘Horse Tamer’ statues (known as ‘Castor’ and ‘Pollux’) which stand on Rome’s Quirinal Hill and with which the Pimlico based sculptor would’ve been most familiar.

One of Rome’s ‘Horse Tamers’, upon which London’s Achilles statue was based (photo: Wikipedia)

It is also said that the head of the Achilles statue is based upon that of the Duke of Wellington himself. What do you think?…­

Of course, the most important fact about the Achilles statue is this:

It was London’s first public, nude statue…

At the time, this was something which caused quite a stir (especially considering the generous financial contribution from the nation’s ladies as mentioned above!)

A fig leaf was later added to cool down the flustered Georgians… and so far there have been two incidents (in 1870 and 1961) in which several cheeky Londoners have attempted to chisel off the organic codpiece.

Georgian censorship…

Shortly after being revealed in 1822, the saucy statue was lampooned in a cartoon by George Cruikshank entitled, ‘Making Decent!’ in which the politician, William Wilberforce is depicted holding his top hat over Achilles’ privates!

‘Making Decent!’ (image from cityoflondon.gov)

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2 responses

  1. What, I wonder, was Arthur Wellesley’s “Achilles’ Heel”? Did he have one and is the choice of this Greek hero as his symbol meant to convey a subtle criticism? Probably not, but it’s an intriguing thought.

    It is interesting that we accept nudity in sculptured figures as long as these are purely symbolic. A naked Achilles is allowable but one cannot imagine, for example, a statue of the Duke standing proudly naked on his plinth. I often think how ironic it is that war memorials often carry figures of women showing off their bare breasts. It seems inappropriate somehow but is accepted as long as they are deemed to be representations of “Wingèd Victory” or some other allegorical beings and not actual human females.

    Perhaps, in these days of more liberal attitudes towards sex and the naked form, the time has come to release Achilles’ male attributes from their prudish imprisonment. The “women of England” would surely agree.

    1. Very interesting thoughts indeed.

      If Achilles every is allowed to bear all though, he’ll have to be careful where he waves that rather large sword ;-)

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