The Lions of London

My father would tell me of a time at the London Zoo, where he worked as did his father before him, of an old lion inadvertently falling out of his cage. The old lion house [right] had the creatures raised on platforms about chest height which allowed for better viewing by the public.

The head keeper, who was not unacquainted to alcohol, decided to give his drinking partner a close-up view of an old arthritic lion.

[I]t was after losing time and upon opening up the cage, the ancient near toothless creature started to slide out. Witnesses claim to have seen these two inebriated individuals with the lion on their backs trying to push the creature back onto his platform.

With this little anecdote in mind, I’ve picked out London’s most famous large felines. But the first mention must be made of a book by Valerie Colin-Russ: London Pride: The 10,000 Lions of London in which the author has identified at least 10,000 representations of lions in the capital.

I’ll restrict myself to just a handful.


Landseer’s Lions

Queen Victoria’s favourite animal painter took some persuading to undertake the commission to sculpt London most famous lions. He insisted on having a still ‘model’ for his working drawings and eventually one of London Zoo’s male lions died and the body was duly delivered to the artist’s home. Landseer started sketching and all was going swimmingly that is until the neighbours complained of a rather strong smell, and Landseer’s model had to be removed. As a footnote, when you touch those mighty paws, they were modelled from a little domestic cat.


The Southbank Lion

This rather aristocratic creature has travelled more widely than his Trafalgar Square brothers, starting life outside the Lion Brewery. When the brewery was demolished in 1951 to make way for the Festival of Britain Exhibition, he was put outside Waterloo Station at the request of King George VI. Coade’s Lion got itchy feet and once more was moved to his present site at the southern end of Waterloo Bridge. The technical skills for Coade Stone, a kind of terracotta, have been lost with the death of the last member of the Coade family, almost indestructible by the weather and always remaining white, a fortune could be made if you practised those skills hard enough.


The Thames Lions

These lion heads line both sides of the Embankment, staring out over the River Thames. Their mouths hold mooring rings which are located higher above the water than would seem necessary. They are for mooring boats should the River rise above its normal level. This rhyme explains:

“When the lions drink, London will sink”
“When it’s up to their manes, we’ll go down the drains”

The lion heads were sculpted by Timothy Butler for Bazalgette’s great sewage works in 1868-70.


The Wolff Statue

Returning to our start is this rather gruesome, slightly racist statue depicting an African man in a loincloth bearing a primitive weapon and sparring with a lion.

Quiet what that has to do with The Zoological Society of London. On its plinth is a plaque by way of explanation:

This statue by the sculptor Henri Teixeira di Mattos (1856-1908) was presented to the Zoological Society of London by Mr. J. B. Wolff in 1906

I suggest he should have presented the zoo with a simple animal sculpture.

One of my passengers seems to agree, Thandie Newton has taken to Twitter suggesting it: “enforces questionable representations of race . . . in these times I wonder if this should be in a public space, it saddened me to see. Representation is important.”

I think Mr. J. B. Wolff would have been wiser to present the zoo with a statue of a canine species – A wolf?

5 thoughts on “The Lions of London”

  1. As usual a brilliant trivia article from Gibson. I totally disagree with ‘Thandie Newton’ or anybody else who wants to destroy or move ‘historical legacies’ because of their criminal or at least despicable connections. Where do you draw the line? Do we demolish Harewood House built by the Lascelles on the back of slave trading? How about going into the Codrington Library, All Souls College, Oxford & first burning 12,000 ancient volumes & then knocking the library down & continuing on to the College itself because just about everything was donated by Christopher Codrington an 18th century slave trader. What about that Stonehenge place, sacrificing virgins. Disgraceful. That’s got to go etc. etc.. [I say that last bit in jest of course.] Unfortunately the vast majority of recorded history relates to bad stuff. In 1,000 years time history books will recall Kim Jong Un. Theresa May or Jeremy Corbyn? I doubt it.


    1. I think you might have omitted Henry Tate’s edifice on Millbank. He certainly made his money on the backs of slave labour in the sugar plantations. And while you’re at it let’s close down Tate Modern.


    2. Amazingly since your ‘prescient’ article this exact scenario is playing out here in the USA with Confederate/Unionist statues & debates now about how many & which ones should be demolished. Of course the problem will be “where is the line drawn & which ‘politically correct’ politician will decide what the line is’. As Donald Trump said this week [Not known for his enlightened comments but correct on this occasion.] “So we pull down George Washington’s statue next do we?”


    3. George Washington’s statue in Trafalgar Square is rested upon ‘American’ soil, as the great man once remarked “that he would never again set foot upon English soil”. Are we to dig this up? And is there a Thomas Jefferson image we could also obliterate as he also was a slave owner?


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