Vic Keegan’s Lost London 237: A century of waiting for the statue of William III in St. James’s Square

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What took so long…?

St James’s Square, just north of Pall Mall, was built by Henry Jermyn, Earl of St Albans and the man credited with inventing London’s West End. In 1661 he had received a lease from Charles II to build on what had previously been mostly open land. The square was built, shamelessly, to attract quality residents – the nobility and the gentry – likely to patronize the king. At the beginning of the 18th century, six dukes and seven earls lived there and, over time, 15 prime ministers, three of them in the same household (not all at the same time). The east, north and west sides of the square contained some of London’s most desirable homes.

In the center of the square today stands a statue of King William III, a Protestant hero and, from his birth, Prince of Orange. He became king in 1689 after the overthrow of the Catholic James II in the so-called Glorious Revolution. It was unusual but unsurprising that the proposal to erect a statue in William’s honor in the square was made shortly afterwards, in 1697: unusual because he was still alive, unsurprising because many his strongest supporters lived there. The official notice board tells us that it was finally erected only in 1808. Could this be a misprint? Could it have taken 111 years old erect a statue?

The answer is yes. Money, as usual, was part of the problem. William died in 1702 of pneumonia, which he contracted following a hunting accident. His horse would have tripped over a molehill, a mishap represented by the statue (bottom photo). But a series of attempts to fund a memorial failed. A solution seems to have been found in 1724 when Samuel Travers MP bequeaths in his will an equestrian statue “in the glorious memory of my master William III” to be built either in St James’s Square or in Cheapside. However, no one could agree on the details.

In 1728 an ornamental water basin 150 feet in diameter was installed in the square, and in 1732 a pedestal followed – but still no statue. In 1739, one was apparently ordered from Henry Cheerehis brother John Cheere, or maybe both. Made of lead, it depicts William on a horse which, for some reason, never managed to gallop to the Place Saint-Jacques. It may be the mounted likeness of William who may be today seen in Petersfield. Other statues of William are in Kingston-upon-Hull, Glasgow, Bristol, Portsmouthin Ireland (north and south), Amsterdam and Kensington Palace, the latter an untimely gift from Kaiser Wilhelm II, who later led Germany against the Allies in World War I.

Lambert’s story and London study claims that during the Gordon Riots of 1780 mobs threw the keys to Newgate Gaol in the water in the square and they were not found until several years later. It was not until 1794 that a statue of William for St James’s Square was finally successfully commissioned. The task was given to the eminent sculptor John Bacon Senior, who died inopportunely before he could complete it. However, the statue was eventually completed by Bacon’s son, John Junior, using his father’s design and cast in bronze.

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Where the money comes from is still a bit of a mystery. The antique dealer John Stamps tells us that it was erected only in 1808 because “the bequest in 1724 [presumably the Travers donation] for the cost having been forgotten, until the money was found in the list of unclaimed dividends”.

The statue, Grade I listed, still stands serenely among the plane trees (the pool of water has long since disappeared). Bacon Senior was influenced by the equestrian statue of William in Bristol produced by the Flemish sculptor John Rysbrack, who also created the monument to Isaac Newton at Westminster Abbey. As in the Rysbrack play, the William of St. James’s Square is depicted as if he were a Roman general holding a staff in his right hand.

No one seems to know why Bacon’s work took so long to build. Maybe there should be a special category for it in the Guinness Book of Records. Surely you won’t mind waiting.

All previous episodes of Vic Keegan’s Lost London can be found here and a book containing many of them can be purchased here. Follow Vic on Twitter.

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