Little Nell and the British Empire

Here’s poor lil’ Nell

  With a fresh fish under each arm

Crazed, scarred, and cracking

CAN YOU BELIEVE that although we have walked through London’s Hyde Park so many times (in order to take exercise as is recommended by our great leader, a biographer of Winston Churchill, and his government) that there are still many things in it for us to discover? Walking in the southwest corner of the park recently, we saw four man-made items that caught our interest.

An octagonal Victorian bandstand, which was built in 1869 and stood in Kensington Gardens, was moved to its current location in Hyde Park not far from Hyde Park Corner in 1886 (www.royalparks.org.uk/parks/hyde-park/). It is said that this bandstand has good acoustics; I have yet to hear music played here. In the 1890s, concerts were held at the bandstand three times a week. Currently, in normal times, that is when there is no pandemic, the bandstand is used occasionally for concerts and other events as well as becoming part of the annual Winter Wonderland fairground held in Hyde Park.

The bandstand, which was/is often used by military bands, is about 100 feet northwest of a black coloured bronze equestrian statue depicting St George slaying a mammoth dragon. Its coiled, scale covered body, my wife considered accurately, resembles a haphazard pile of discarded lorry tyres. The stone base is surrounded by a frieze depicting cavalrymen in action. The equestrian sculpture stands in front of a low wall which bears the names of cavalry regiments involved in WW1. The monument, though erected before WW2, also those involved those:

“… in the war / 1939-1945 / and on active service thereafter.”

The monument, The Cavalry Memorial, which used to stand nearer Park Lane was unveiled in 1924 by Field Marshal, The Earl of Ypres (formerly Sir John French; 1852-1925) and the Prince of Wales (the future Edward VIII, who reigned for 11 month). The knight on the horse was modelled on:

“…a 1454 effigy of the Earl of Warwick, mounted on horseback holding an uplifted sword, and the horse on a C15 century engraving by Albrecht Dürer.” (https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1278118).

The sculptor was Captain Adrian Jones (1845-1938). Jones was an army veterinary surgeon between 1867 and 1890. He took up painting and sculpting after he retired, specialising in depicting animals. His best-known work, created in 1912, is not far from the cavalry monument: it is the Quadriga that adorns the top of the Wellington Arch at Hyde Park Corner.

The cavalry monument is a mere 200 yards north by north-east of a modest memorial to a fairly recent tragedy that stands beside the South Carriage Drive. It remembers the eleven soldiers who were killed by a bomb planted by IRA terrorists near this spot on the 20th of July 1982.

Returning to a path that leads north from a spot between the Cavalry Memorial and the bandstand, you will quickly reach a small art-nouveau structure. Formerly a fountain, this is a depiction of an almost naked girl wearing a hat and holding a fish under each of her arms. We asked a gardener working nearby if he knew anything about this curious garden sculpture. He informed us that it was a sculpture of Little Nell, a character in “The Old Curiosity Shop” by Charles Dickens and that it used to stand in Hyde Park’s Rose Garden.

The sculpture, created by William Robert Colton (1867-1921) has been variously known as the ‘Memorial Fountain’, ‘The Mermaid Fountain’, ‘The Colton Memorial’, and, much later, as ‘Little Nell’ (www.victorianweb.org/sculpture/colton/7.html). It is not clear why Colton’s sculpture should be associated with Dicken’s character, Nell.  What we see today is a concrete cast of the original that was made in 1897. It looks as if it could do with a lot of tender love and care as it seems to be crazed, cracked and scarred.

Colton created various public sculptures in London, but his work is found further afield. I read (www.speel.me.uk/sculpt/coltonwr.htm) that:

“Important in his career was a series of Indian portraits in the mid-1900s, including statues and busts of the Maharajah of Mysore and the Dewan of Mysore, and a monument to J. Tata, including allegorical figures, for Bombay.”

I have probably seen some of his Indian works both in Mysore and Bangalore but took little notice of them. A website (http://mysore.ind.in/chamaraja-circle) extolling the virtues of Mysore reveals:

“The French born celebrated sculptor of the time, William Robert Colton was commissioned to execute a statue in memorial of the maharaja. He is the same sculptor who executed many famous sculpture in India including the statue of Sir K Seshadri Iyer, at Cubbon Park in Bangalore, who was the Dewan of Mysore State from 1883 to 1901. Also the 8 bronze tigers of Mysore Palace too are the works of Colton.

He spend[sic] some three months in Mysore during 1912 for the preliminary study for making the statue of Chamaraja Wodeyar. The statue was executed in white Italian marble in England … In the statue the maharaja is portrayed in standing posture in military uniform.

Though Colton was famous for executing lifelike sculptures, one glitch was the in the appearance of the face of the maharaja. There was not much resemblance between face of the maharaja and the face of the statue. When the statue finally arrived in Mysore in 1918, the queen the late maharaja Chamaraja Wodeyar was not happy with this aspect.”

Colton, whose father was an architect, was born in Paris, but was taken to England when he was three years old. He studied art first at the Lambeth School of Art and then at the Royal Academy.

Three of the items, which I have described, have connections with Britain’s former empire. Some of the cavalrymen remembered on the Cavalry Memorial, fought in not only in WW1 but also in Egypt, South Africa, and British India. Several major cavalry units were based in India and included soldiers of Indian origin. The other item with an association with part of the former British Empire is the small lady with two fishes, created by an artist who has sculpted some notable Indians. The bandstand near these two park features is typically Victorian and octagonal, and not markedly different in appearance from one that stands in Cubbon Park in Bangalore (India). And all of these are but a few minutes leisurely stroll from Apsley house, the former home of Arthur Wellesley (1769-1852), who fought in India in the late 18th century.

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