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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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!