The best of London’s statues

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Image © Jackie Buckle via Flickr

Hiding in plain sight London Calling investigates the best of London's statues

London’s rich cultural history can be told through the wealth of statues decorating its pavements. While many of these artworks can be taken for granted, they’re a vital part of the capital’s character and provide excellent meeting points with friends. Plus, it’s actually possible for a statue to disappear: a Michael Jackson sculpture was last year moved from outside Fulham’s football stadium to a museum in Manchester (which Mohammed Al Fayed used to blame for the club’s relegation). So what’s stopping you from catching some of these on your way to work tomorrow morning?

HODGE THE CAT Gough Square, EC4 Sculptor: Jon Bickley

Samuel Johnson, having created the English Dictionary, deserves some slack for spoiling his cat with expensive seafood. Hodge had a particular taste for oysters (or at least was fed them by Johnson, and didn’t say no, because he’s a cat) as can be seen by the empty shell by its paws. Although he’s perched upon an enormous dictionary, tourists tend to be more enthused by putting spare change in the oyster shell. A very fine cat indeed.

WILLIAM GLADSTONE Bow Churchyard, EC4M Sculptor: Albert Bruce-Joy

Gladstone was still alive when a statue was erected in 1882 in his honour (which must be like turning up to your own funeral), but the stony body now commemorates a different chapter of history. Noticeably, the grey sculpture has red hands, which harks back to an 1888 strike at a nearby factory. Young workers, some only 13 years old, discovered their wages were lowered to pay for the statue, and thus cut themselves to smear blood across the figure’s hands. It’s an urban legend you want to be true - aside from the suffering of lowly paid youngsters - which is why, as a tribute, the hands are still painted red to this day.

TAICHI SPIN KICK Old Park Lane, W1 Sculptor: Ju Ming

One of the more abstract displays in the area, Ju Ming’s geometric creation is a tribute to Taichi boxing (which he discovered at 38) and how the martial art revitalised his life. Shaped pensively, as if honing in on the essential aura of a human being’s physicality, the statue was designed in Taipei as part of a series, but flown all the way to its new home in London. It made the journey, so you should probably find it.

JAMRACH’S TIGER Tobacco Dock, E1 Sculptor: Tanya Russell

The sight of a young boy standing in front of a Bengal tiger refers to an actual incident that occurred on the docks in 1857. Shops around the area were designed to attract sailors on fleeting visits, which encouraged local businessman Charles Jamrach to sell exotic animals. However, when a tiger escaped, it stood face to face with a bemused child. The boy survived (the statues isn’t commemorating a very public, tragic death) and successfully sued for £50. Things were slightly different in those days...

ACHILLES Park Lane, W1J Sculptor: Richard Westmacott

For Arthur Wellesley, being 1st Duke of Wellington meant quite a stressful life, but he was rewarded with a surprising number of statues in his honour. There are a few in London, including one in Bank in which he’s riding a horse (constructed from melted down enemy canons), but Achilles, by Hyde Park, gains extra notoriety for being 36ft tall and breaking artistic ground: it was the capital’s first nude statue, and had a fig leaf added after an onslaught of complaints.

GUY THE GORILLA Crystal Palace Park, SE21 Sculptor: David Wynne

The original gorilla, a longstanding attraction at London Zoo, was named as such by zookeepers due to its arrival on Guy Fawkes Night in 1947. He became a minor celebrity - extra impressive, given he’s an animal - that was studied by actors for the prehistoric opening of 2001: A Space Odyssey. In fact, Crystal Palace Park is almost a zoo in its own right; explore a bit further to find a gigantic collection of 15 dinosaur sculptures (not fossils) by a mini-lake.

OSCAR WILDE Charing Cross, WC2N Sculptor: Maggi Hambling

Wilde’s disembodied head, sticking out of a sarcophagus, may look like an artistic accident, but it was dreamed up by meetings involving Sir Ian McKellen and Dame Judi Dench. That also explains why no one turned down a peculiar design that’s reminiscent of Santa Clause getting stuck in a chimney. It’s up/down there with statues so bizarre, they’re worth a visit - including The Meeting Place (the kissing couple at St Pancras Station), which its creator called an homage to the film Love, Actually. We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the statues.

PETER PAN Kensington Gardens, W2 4RU Sculptor: Sir George Frampton

The author J.M. Barrie created the Peter Pan character after befriending a family (including their son Peter) in Kensington Gardens. The statue’s location, picked by Barrie, represents where the childhood icon was born. So you too can go to Neverland by visiting the sculpture - he’s stood upon rabbits, fairies and other weird things - and coming up with your own idea for a bestselling children’s story that will spur a moneymaking franchise. Perhaps about a statue that will never grow up?