Not before time

Nelsons ColumnWhile waiting to enter Trafalgar Square via Admiralty Gate it occurred to me that this public space has always been about time delays.

Now that north side has been pedestrianised the flow of vehicles approaching King Charles Statute has been restricted due to the re-phrasing of the traffic lights (Red: 1 minute, 3.1 seconds; Green 8.3 seconds if you’re interested) that allows only six vehicles at a time to enter the square. This triumph of traffic management, which creates a line half way down The Mall, has the bonus that it gives more time to study this celebration of a national hero.

The area around Charing Cross had mostly been a maze of ramshackle dwellings, alleyways and shops when the Prince Regent engaged the landscape architect John Nash to design a square in the area to commemorate the Battle of Trafalgar. By the 1830s it had begun to take shape, with the new National Gallery built along the northern side of the quadrangle in the spot where the King’s Mews (stables for royal horses) had previously been located since the 13th century.

[T]he original construction of Nelson’s Column was delayed by budgetary difficulties and rows over taste and artistic merit, the time taken to begin was seen as a national disgrace. Immediately after Nelson’s death at Trafalgar in 1805 there had been calls for a tribute to over sea victory over the French. Time taken for building work for Trafalgar Square has never been “of the essence” for it took nearly 40 years to raise enough money to begin construction, even then the Tsar of Russia had donated a quarter of the monies raised while a certain Mrs. Beeby is recorded to have given 2s 6d.

The eventual cost of the memorial was £47,000 (the equivalent of £4 million today), indeed that seems relatively good value compared with some modern public monuments: for example the ArcelorMittal Orbit observation tower planned for the 2012 Olympic site will cost around £20 million.

At 145ft tall it is still the world’s tallest Corinthian column but not tall enough for William Railton who won £200 for his design, its full designed height was deemed to be dangerously high, and 30ft was lobbed off its proposed height. Other submissions included a gigantic pyramid, an octagonal Gothic cenotaph, mermaids playing water polo and an immense globe.

The sculptor for the statute was Edmund Baily who was forced to modify his plans when no shipper could be found to transport the massive piece of stone required, in the event the stone broke in two solving the problem at what height Nelson should finally be. While Landseer’s bronze lions, modelled from a dead big cat from London Zoo (his neighbours complained at the time of the smell from the decaying animal) were not added until 1863.

In 1888 poor old Nelson was hit by lighting and his remaining left arm broken, a temporary repair was effected using metal braces, but in true Trafalgar Square tradition it was not until 2006 that the repair was carried out properly. Fortunately, the monument being made of granite and sandstone is immune to acid rain and the 2006 inspection found the monument to be in a well preserved condition for anything made from marble or limestone would have been in a dreadful shape by now as evidenced by King Charles’ plinth by Admiralty Arch, the one opposite the traffic lights that give me so much time.

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