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Travelogue I8

June 30, 2016

Another ten minutes’ walk brought me to Berkeley Square, originally cut from a lush water meadow fronting Tyburn Stream, another of London’s lost waterways which had escaped my census the year before. At its southern end, I took pleasure in wandering through a phantom river, London’s one-time “common sewer” and long since gone to ground, while pausing now and then to read more of the signage provided here and there to inform visitors of history, species and displays.

Though a dwarf wall, wooden rails and palisades set the square off from the general public, as soon as 1747, the wall and rails swiftly gave way to trespassers and 1766 found the square in a state of ruin. Perhaps to keep favor with the aristocracy, Parliament authored an Act which put in place a Berkeley Square Trusteeship. Said trustees then saw to the square’s renewal and upkeep. Their first act as trustees proved the new 1767 layout, for which they foresaw a grass plot, devoid of statue or basin and bounded by concentric rings: the inner, a gravel walk; the outer, an iron palisade to replace its wooden predecessor.

The grass plot’s virgin appearance did not last long. As soon as 1772, an equestrian statue of George III came to adorn the plot’s center. As I read, I learned this sculpture to be surprising on no fewer than three counts. Not only had the sculptor cast the statue in lead, which I had never known to be a noble material, but the sculpture came from the hand of a French artist in the years following the Seven Years’ War and the colonial rancor between the two powers. Still, the most surprising fact was still to come, for the rider’s great lead weight, as well as the weathering due to London’s peculiar mixture of moisture and pollution, brought the horse’s legs to buckle one day in 1827. Not wishing to leave the statue partially collapsed on itself, the Trustees ordered its removal and subsequent replacement with a pumphouse and gazebo.

Indeed, I might remark more generally of London’s king statuary that their stone and metal depictions fared little better better than the originals. To the story of the lead George III, I will add that of the stone Charles II which had given Soho Square its original name of Kings Square. Erected in 1681, the statue stood as the centerpiece of a fountain powered by a nearby windmill. Though the statue held up well enough through the 17th century, the city’s increasingly corrosive air and, so I supposed, sparing vandalism left the statue in a most wretched and mutilated state, to the point that the illegible inscriptions at the statue’s base even left some in doubt as to the person depicted, Charles II or his bastard, the Duke of Monmouth.

During Soho Square’s 1875 renovation and layout, Charles II gave way to the gardener’s hut described above and took up its retirement on an island in a lake at Grim’s Dyke, in northwestern Greater London. There, for more than fifty years, the statue occupied a place neither wholly within nor without human society, and the circumstances of its place within that lake would seem to confirm as much, as the then-owner was keen to remark upon the mysterious air and lakeside reflection given off by Charles II in the twilight. Only in the 1930’s did the statue return to Soho Square, its ruler’s baton long since lost from the right hand and its face overlaid by a second, mask-like substitute cemented on. Perhaps former doubters were right, after all, to entertain their questions as to the identity of a man robbed of identifying features.

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