My home away from home these days is in the Marylebone neighborhood of London. A key feature of this burgh is The Marble Arch, a 19th-century white marble-faced triumphal arch. It sits, rather isolated, on one edge of Hyde Park.
But, once upon a time, the Marble Arch was located in a much more regal place. This rather simple triumphal arch is neither in its intended location, nor was it completed in the intended way. Nevertheless, during their coronations, the processions of both Queen Victoria and Queen Elizabeth II passed through the arch.
John Nash (1752-1835) was the favoured architect of the Prince Regent, later King George IV. Under George’s auspices Nash designed and planned such landmarks as Regent’s Park, Regent Street, Carlton House Terrace, much of Buckingham Palace and Marble Arch. Marble Arch was designed to be both a grandiose gateway to an expanded Buckingham Palace and an exuberant celebration of British victories in the Napoleonic Wars – a Triumphal Arch. But the Grade I listed Arch that we see today is nowhere near as grand as Nash originally intended.
This model below, now in the Victoria and Albert Museum, gives an impression of how Marble Arch might have looked. Nash had it made to illustrate his intended design to George IV.
Bristling with sculpture, including an imposing equestrian statue of George IV crowning the structure, the overall design was approved and sculptures were commissioned in 1828.
By 1830, most of the statues and panels were complete and Nash’s work at Buckingham Palace and on the Arch was progressing. And then the King died.
Shortly after the King’s death Nash was sacked by the Prime Minister, the Duke of Wellington, for overspending on the project. The architect Edward Blore was commissioned to complete the works in a more economic and practical fashion.
Alas, had George IV lived a little longer we would certainly have a very different Marble Arch today.
Edward Blore found himself in possession of a jumbled collection of statues and panels. Blore tried to get Nash to provide drawings to explain how the jigsaw was intended to fit together but Nash, unhappy about his dismissal, would not cooperate.
All Blore really had to go on was Nash’s model and the assortment of sculptures in his yard.
The model has a “military side,” celebrating the Duke of Wellington’s victories, including the Battle of Waterloo and a “naval side” putting Lord Nelson’s achievements center stage. Both sides were to have friezes of battle scenes and allegorical panels along with a selection of “winged victories” and other figures.
On each end of the Arch these two themes were to have been repeated. One end would bear the word “Waterloo” and the other the “Trafalgar” and under each, the names of commanders and battles.
The model was never intended to be a definitive plan, but rather to give an overall impression of how the finished arch might look. It contains at least one big mistake, the military side is topped with the portrait of Nelson and the naval side with one of Wellington.
Blore eventually decided to complete the Arch but without most of the sculpture. So, the Arch today has only four allegorical panels and a little decoration. The ends are blank except for three laurel wreaths.
The Arch was completed in 1833, although the central gates were not added until 1837, just in time for Queen Victoria’s accession to the throne.
Blore incorporated most of the battle scene friezes high up in the central courtyard of Buckingham Palace. In 1835, the rest of the sculptures were given to William Wilkins to use in the construction of the new National Gallery.
Wilkins used some of the statues, but he wanted less military symbolism so he adapted many of figures. Statues representing Asia, seated on a camel, and Europe sat upon a horse with an empty frame between them can still be seen above the main door of the National Gallery. Above both the western and eastern doors of the gallery are some figures of “winged victories,” many shorn of their wings. Some of the statues even had their laurel wreaths replaced; one now holds a painter’s easel and brushes.
A portrait of Wellington that was to have filled the empty frame between Europe and Asia is now inside the staff entrance to the gallery.
The other significant surviving remnant is the Equestrian Statue of George IV, by Francis Chantrey, which stands on a plinth in the north-eastern corner of Trafalgar Square.
The Marble Arch stood as a formal gateway to Buckingham Palace for seventeen years. But, it was overshadowed by Blore’s enlarged Buckingham Palace and seen as unsatisfactory.
In 1850 the decision was made to move the Arch to its current location of Cumberland Gate where it would form a grand entrance to Hyde Park in time for the Great Exhibition of 1851.
The stone by stone removal and reconstruction of the Arch was overseen by architect Thomas Cubitt who completed the entire complex process in just three months.
The relocation was a success, vast crowds of people passed through the Arch en route to the Great Exhibition in Hyde Park and Marble Arch remained a grand and direct entrance to the park for more than 50 years.
In 1908 a new road scheme cut through the park just south of the Arch, leaving it completely separated from Hyde Park. In the 1960s roads were widened still further, leaving the Arch in its current isolated position, no longer part of a Royal Park.
The whole Arch is clad in ravaccione, a grey/white type of Carrara marble from Italy. This was the first time marble had been used in this way on any British building. The eight enormous Corinthian columns were each cut from a single slab of marble.
North side of the Arch:
The sculpted panels on this side are by Richard Westmacott, who also produced the statue of Achilles nearby at Hyde Park Corner.
Three female figures representing England (center) wearing Britannia’s helmet, Ireland (left) with her harp and Scotland (right) with the shield of St Andrew.
“Peace with Trophies of War” Peace stands on a heap of shields, helmets and weapons. She holds an olive branch and two cherubs hold her gown. The cherub on the right side makes me laugh; he looks like he is on a carnival ride.
Above each of the three arches are pairs of “Victories” with their laurel wreaths.
The central keystones of the lower arches are the heads of warriors wearing Greek helmets pushed back in the manner of statues of Athena. The central arch has a magnificent lion’s head carving as its keystone, with clawed feet protruding from under its mane.
South side of the Arch:
On this side the panels are by E.H. Baily, who is perhaps best known for the statue of Nelson in Trafalgar Square.
“Virtue and Valour” Virtue is the figure on the right holding the fasces (a bundle of rods around an axe) that symbolise strength through unity and on the left stands a soldier in Roman dress representing valour.
“Peace and Plenty” The Angel of Peace is to the left. Plenty with her cornucopia to the right. The flame in the middle represents liberty.
On this side, between the Victories, the keystone of all three arches is a bearded male head, possibly Neptune.
The Central Gates:
Originally planned to be cast in “mosaic gold”, the gates were actually cast in less expensive bronze. Each gate features the same three designs: a lion at the top, George IV’s cypher in the middle and St George slaying the dragon at the bottom.
The smaller side gates were added in 1851.
Above: Coronation procession of Queen Elizabeth II passes through Marble Arch, 1953 © Press Association.
The arch at night, below:
Today, the neighborhood around it is called Marble Arch, particularly the southern portion of Edgware Road and also to the underground station.