The Bestiary Of London
I have a book somewhere of all London’s stone lions, but there are many other carved creatures lurking around the eaves of the city. These include gryphons, dragons, elephants, sharks, unicorns, beavers, eagles, sphinxes, ants, mice, fish, grasshoppers, ships, angels, farmers, camels and something outside the Natural History Museum that looks like a pterodactyl.
In some neighbourhoods houses which have been built by a single planner have objects incorporated into them, like the obelisks and sphinxes of Barnsbury.
Outside the Royal Automobile Club is an angel driving an early motor car. The Michelin Man remains a symbol of South Kensington, and Leadenhall Market has more cross-breed dragon-creatures than you can wave a stick at.
The Albert Memorial has an entire menagerie, intended to represent the riches of the empire, and there are pack-camel benches all along the Victoria Embankment.
The new ones that appear, from the gold divers of Leicester Square to the horses of Camden, which represent the canal horses that used to tow the barges (Camden being on a canal network) tend to be rather anodyne and safe. The main reason, I think, is because we no longer venerate politicians on pedestals. The annual fight to preserve the dignity of Sir Winston Churchill on Pall Mall is just one example of political protest.
This winter angels have made a big return to the capital, and the ones on Regent Street with flapping wings are especially spectacular. As opposed to the glowing globes on Oxford Street, which are now so old and tired you wonder if they’re not kept in a biscuit tin somewhere.
Winter has bypassed London this year, so now’s a good time to go bestiary-spotting. Here’s one of my favourites – the grasshopper is the crest above the Gresham family’s coat of arms. This insect has sat on successive versions of the Royal Exchange since around 1565 when it was first built. The original building was destroyed in the Great Fire of London (1666) but the grasshopper still survives.
The only statue I can remember seeing of an animal in situ was the one of Guy the gorilla at the London Zoo. If we were to build a new statue to a person in London, who would you choose to honour and how?