If you look at any photo of Trafalgar Square you will notice that the imposing Nelson’s Column is surrounded by four rather casual-looking lions. But do you know why these lions were chosen?
Don’t? Never fear, because we are about to reveal the hidden secrets of the Trafalgar Square lions.
The popular tourist hotspot Trafalgar Square is no stranger to interesting sculptures – such as The Fourth Plinth or the smallest police station in London – but these lion sculptures have a very interesting history that is worth a visit.
Seriously, it’s a wonder they’re still here today.
Each of the four lions is pretty much identical, except for slight differences in mane and head (whether this was intentional or not, no one knows for sure). Although these creatures have no official names, they have been nicknamed “The Landseer Lions” after the man who sculpted them.
It is said that each of these 7-ton statues will awaken if Big Ben ever rang 13 times… and that’s not even the strangest secret these big cats have in their paws.
So buckle up, because it’s going to be a very wild ride.
Why did it become the Trafalgar Square lions?
When planning Nelson’s Column, the committee in charge had decided that four lions at the end of the pedestal would be a brilliant addition to the design.
They wanted something to represent the heroism of Lord Nelson and decided these creatures were more than fitting. Funding and disagreements, however, made it very difficult to make an informed decision.
And so, in 1839, Nelson’s column was erected without the four lions. The committee continued to debate the lions until 1846, when they finally received enough money to commission their ideal design.
So why were the Trafalgar Square lions so controversial?
Simply put, the planning and design of the Trafalgar Square lions was a complete shambles. Absolutely everything from the initial meetings to the actual design process was fraught with obstacles and disagreements that the committee had to overcome.
Although funding for the Lions had been secured 12 years earlier, it took until 1858 to finally get the ball rolling.
The House of Commons funded £6000 for the completion of the lions and then announced that six of the most talented sculptors should submit their ideas, from which the winning design would be selected.
As you can imagine, the Board of Works did not agree. They turned completely against the House of Commons and instead chose to select Sir Edwin Landseer to design the lions. Job done, right? Wrong thought.
This was a controversial decision because although Landseer was famous for his portraits of Queen Victoria and his handsome paintings of various animals, he had yet to prove himself as a talented sculptor.
Landseer was also in poor health and the committee suffered from even greater financial problems, which further delayed the unveiling of the lions.
It was originally assumed that the lions would stand in the crowd with their mouths wide open. Although it was much cheaper for them to put them down, and rumor has it that Queen V thought the roaring pose was far too shocking for a public square.
Local newspapers reported the whole saga and branded it a “national disgrace” and a “scandal.” This was further perpetuated when an additional £11,000 was needed for Baron Carlo Marochetti (a real sculptor) to carry out the casting of the lions.
After decades of theatrics, the Trafalgar Square lions were finally unveiled to the public on January 31, 1867, albeit to a mixed reception.
What material were the Trafalgar Square lions made of?
Although there was much debate at the time about what the statues should have been made of, it was eventually decided that the Lions of Trafalgar Square should be made of cannon.
This decision was made after Thomas Milnes had previously unveiled four lions made of stone. His lions were said to be unimpressive – the committee felt that Nelson deserved bigger and better – and instead his lions were bought by Titus Salt and sent to the village of Saltaire.
Funnily enough, you can still see what were technically the original lions in the village near Bradford today.
When it came to Nelson’s dazzling lions, however, plain old stone cannons wouldn’t do. Oh, no. The felines were cast in bronze that came from the French and Spanish ships that were defeated at the Battle of Trafalgar. It’s basically a big, humble boast sitting right in the center of the capital.
At the time, it was extremely rare to see a lion in real life, and obviously, Landseer couldn’t just turn to Google to get a reference image. So he had to get creative.
To solve this conundrum, he spent some time making requests to the London Zoo, which eventually agreed to provide him with a dead lion to use as inspiration for the four lions in Trafalgar Square. He had to wait two years for the poor creature to die.
However, if you look closely at the statue, the paws of the Trafalgar Square lions look a bit strange and have a sphinx-like quality. Another major problem with the design was that the lions’ backs were concave in shape, although in real life they are convex when lying down.
These were popular observations that brought much criticism at the time. Landseer’s lack of sculpting skills was again questioned, however, by then it was a bit late – it would have been like closing the gate after the lions had run away.
It is believed that the paws of each lion were sculpted last, and it is thought that Landseer took his time sketching the animal.
When he finally got around to looking at the paws, the dead lion had already begun to decompose. So Landseer was forced to create the final lion statues using only his imagination and some rather odd-looking paws as a template.
The lions of Edwin Landseer?
As we have already noted, Landseer was not known as a brilliant sculptor.
He had previously painted a number of lions but, as far as is known, had no experience with a chisel. Which was rather disconcerting, considering that he would be responsible for one of London’s main squares on an expensive commission (which far exceeded the budget).
Still, he was a respected friend of Queen Victoria and the royal family, so he agreed to finish the sculptures.
He worked incredibly slowly, drawing the lion for four years – no wonder the paws weren’t very accurate. He was also often seen at the Zoological Gardens studying the (very much alive) lions and their behavior.
None of these things proved very helpful in sculpting, although the lions are now a popular tourist attraction.
Today, the lions lie proudly in Trafalgar Square, attracting hordes of tourists who love to climb all over them. Be sure to take a look at the feline paws the next time you visit and appreciate the decades of effort it took to finally make them happen.
Hopefully, you’ll agree it was worth it.