London’s Composer Statues: A Cycle Tour

Statues have been in the news quite a bit over the last year or so. In Bristol, the figure of slave-trader Edward Colston was toppled and plunged into a nearby dock. A memorial to the early feminist Mary Wollstonecraft was unveiled in a London park, and attracted widespread criticism for using a nude female form. Meanwhile in the Guardian, Gary Younge made an excellent and very thought-provoking case for getting rid of statues altogether.

I found many of Younge’s arguments convincing. But I can’t quite give up my fascination with statues – for what they tell us about civic priorities, the way they can date so terribly, and how often they are simply ignored. That said, I don’t believe all statues are worth preserving. Colston taking a long-overdue swim was a powerful act of remembrance for his wretched trade, and I was surprised by how much I enjoyed watching the footage of it.

Since I’m staying in London for a few weeks and getting around by bike, I thought it would be interesting to do a cycle tour of statues in the capital dedicated to composers. By this I mean statues in open public spaces, standalone works dedicated to a composer’s memory – rather than the composers in the frieze on the Albert Memorial, for example, who are subsumed into a larger scheme.

If you wanted to guess which composers would have their own statue in London, you might think of someone like Elgar. But the statues I’ve been able to find – and there may be some that I’ve missed – are often more unexpected characters. They show various approaches to problem of how to depict creators of an essentially invisible art, and one for which the typical composing instrument – the piano – is inconveniently bulky.

I started on the South Bank, at the Festival Hall – an obvious place for a composer statue, you’d think. Locking my bike, I made my way down its quiet eastern side, untrodden by most of the people heading to the river. Goods were being unloaded here from vans for a street food market.

By an unassuming side entrance, in between two potted olive trees, is a statue to Chopin. A vaguely human form is merged into what might be leaves of paper, one of which bears some notation of his music – impressively realised, on close inspection. An inscription tells us that this statue, by Bronislaw Kubica, was a gift from the Polish nation in 1975 to thank Britain for its role in defeating Nazi Germany. Having been put into storage for several decades, it was unveiled again in 2011.

Chopin’s face looks like a death mask. If this were music, it would be marked Grave, and from a purely visual point of view, I think it makes an intriguing impression. But for several reasons its context feels odd.

For a start, Chopin is hardly the first composer you associate with an orchestral hall, and his placement out of the way down here suggests that nobody quite knows what to do with him. In this regard it compares poorly to the statue of Laurence Olivier that stands proud in front of the nearby National Theatre, firmly connected to its setting.

And honestly, I’m also not sure how I feel about Chopin being dragged into a conflict that happened a century after his death. While I appreciate the underlying sentiment of gratitude, it doesn’t seem to do much for his musical legacy. Altogether, it seems a bit muddled.

After a quick Pret coffee, and a pain au raisin shoved in my face, I got back on my bike to head across Waterloo Bridge. On the other side of the the Thames is Victoria Embankment Gardens, and after carrying my bike down a long flight of steps, I arrived almost immediately at my next statue.

This park is a strange shape, tapering away from the busy Embankment tube station. Very much at its fag-end is a memorial to Arthur Sullivan, made by William Goscombe John in 1903.

This spot is behind the Savoy Theatre, synonymous with Gilbert and Sullivan’s shows. A bust of Sullivan sits atop a tall plinth, gazing towards it – though like Chopin, he’s shunted away from its busy side.

But the most extraordinary part of this is not Sullivan at all. Beneath his bust, a life-sized woman flings herself against his pedestal, apparently inconsolable at his death. Such is her grief that her own bust has carelessly flopped out of her garment. So here we have Sullivan immortalised, classical and imperious, while this semi-naked woman wilts emotionally beneath him. It’s quite something.

A dramatic mask, sheet music and mandolin lie beside the plinth, a tribute to Sullivan’s sphere of fame, but looking like an afterthought. On one side of the pedestal are words from his collaborator Gilbert:

Is life a boon?
If so, it must befall
That death, whene’er he call,
Must call too soon.

This statue is a bit sentimental and ridiculous, and for that reason I…kind of love it? Its pretensions are popped beautifully by the addition of a children’s playground beside it. Meanwhile Sullivan gazes unperturbed, stiff upper lip intact. As a relic of overwrought Edwardiana, it’s fabulous.

I got on the Embankment cycle lane and made my way around Parliament Square, then on to Victoria Street. A short way down here is Christchurch Gardens, one of those obscure patches of green space in central London mostly untroubled by tourists, and used by office workers as a spot to eat lunch.

Here is the first statue on my tour with real dramatic positioning. A large face guards the entrance to the gardens, with flowery emanations billowing out from its hair. A plaque in the ground reveals this is The Flowering Of The English Baroque, a tribute to Purcell by Glynn Williams.

I quite like the boldness of this – it gives a surreal jolt as you enter the space. The extension of the period wig motif into floral variations makes Purcell look a bit like a catwalk model of an outlandish fashion show. Cool and self-possessed, he stares over to the branch of Itsu across the road – perhaps after several centuries of death, he’s feeling peckish.

But if you didn’t know who Purcell was, or why he matters, you would not glean much from this. An information panel in the far corner reminds us he was organist at nearby Westminster Abbey, which is a bit tenuous. It’s a fun and whimsical piece, but the floral metaphor does not make up for a lack of strong musical storytelling, and it feels like a missed opportunity.From here I made my way around the busy road system encircling Victoria station – never a pleasant experience by bike – and managed to get myself onto the quieter Ebury Street, and to its far end, Orange Square.

Here, surrounded by a few benches, is the first full-body composer of my tour. He’s in period dress, and holds a violin to his chin – unmistakably a musician. But he’s only a young boy.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart visited London while touring Europe as a child prodigy, and for several weeks he lodged with his family near this spot. He commands the space over this little paved square – you can imagine an audience assembled below, ready to listen. On the day I visited, an impolite spider had spun a web between his face and the violin. But little Wolfgang nonetheless looks down confidently, ready to impress.

A panel tells us that Mozart is thought to have composed his first two symphonies while in London, but I like the fact that this statue, by Philip Jackson, doesn’t make any claim on his more celebrated later works. It tells us a specific story of this back-street location, and of Mozart’s extraordinary childhood. Definitely the Ronseal sculpture of the tour – I found it refreshing.

I was now in Kensington and Chelsea, a borough not exactly known for cycle-friendly infrastructure, but I found my way through a maze of small streets to King’s Road, and from there to South Kensington tube station.

A little way outside the station stands a tall, thin man. His hands are in his long coat pockets, a wide-brimmed hat on his head. He could be straight out of film noir, and he seems to have disembarked from the tube on some mysterious private business. But he is standing on metal leaves, with a small bird attached. His plinth tells us that this is Béla Bartók, made by Imre Varga. Peter Warlock first brought Bartók to London, and the Hungarian stayed at a nearby house whenever he visited.

Truth be told, I’ve never really warmed to Bartók’s music, but as with Purcell, there is little in this statue to tell you about it anyway. Still, I like the strangeness of this figure, caught in a moment of making his way to his lodgings. I noticed that his plinth was garnished by a slice of red onion and olives, spilled from someone’s recent takeaway. Welcome to London, Béla.

From here it’s easy to head up Exhibition Road to see the facade of the Royal College of Organists, which includes busts of several composers, and the frieze on the Albert Memorial. But there was one last statue I wanted to visit near here, and in a departure from my own rules, it was in the V&A Museum.

It’s by far the oldest statue of the lot, and it originally stood across the Thames in Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens. This was a fashionable destination in 18th-century London, a place for festivities on summer evenings, with a reputation for less wholesome goings-on in its gloomy corners.

In 1738, the Garden’s proprietor Jonathan Tyers installed a life-size statue of Handel, made by the French sculptor Louis-François Roubiliac. And it was extraordinary for several reasons. Firstly, Handel was very much alive at the time – to get some sense of it, imagine a marble Andrew Lloyd-Webber being erected in Hyde Park’s Winter Wonderland.

Secondly, he is depicted with remarkable informality – unwigged, crossed-legged, in slippers. He plays an Apollonian lyre, symbol of Orpheus, which provides an elegant symbolic solution to the keyboard problem. A little putto sits at his feet among instruments and scores.

Thus hewn, Handel squatted for some time near the Gardens’ orchestra stand, underneath an ornate arch representing Harmony. The statue caused something of a sensation. An alarming number of poetic odes were composed in tribute.

Seeing this sculpture in the more sober surroundings of the V&A, I got the eerie feeling of really being in the presence of Handel from the 1730s. There’s undoubtedly a classiness to carved marble too, that shames the duller metals on my tour.

As Werner Busch notes in a fascinating article on the statue, Handel’s music was seen as a civilising, harmonising force in his own lifetime, and this monument may have been intended as a way to counter the Gardens’ reputation for vice. But recent research into Handel’s investment in the slave trade has cast a more uncomfortable cloud over our understanding of him. Beautiful marble cannot hide the fact that his civilising sheen has dimmed now.

So what do London’s composer statues tell us? Those who had short stays in the capital feature alongside those who were active here for decades. Home-grown composers are better served by their links to provincial England: Elgar stands in Worcester, Holst in Cheltenham, Britten has his sea-shell on Aldeburgh beach. A new Ethel Smyth statue has been made for Woking – and unlike Wollstonecraft, she is fully clothed. But London tells a more global story, of its ability to attract talent from overseas, which seems to chime with how the city still sees itself today.

As Younge notes in his piece, statues tend to emphasise the problematic ‘great man’ lens of history, and minimise collective efforts. That is undoubtedly true. But I nonetheless get some enjoyment from their hubris; their vain attempts to maintain dignity and relevance in the face of their changing environments, widespread public indifference, and the accumulated excretions of pigeons. Quite often, I like their sheer oddness too. Perhaps one day they will all be torn down, or put in museums. But for now, they have a lot of tales to tell.

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