By Don Grant
The statue in Piccadilly Circus is possibly one of the most famous and recognisable in the world, and he is popularly and mistakenly known as Eros. In reality, the Shaftesbury Memorial Fountain, depicts Anteros, Eros’s twin brother, as ‘the Angel of Christian Charity’ and the ancient Greek symbol of Selfless Love. Gilbert described Anteros as portraying ‘reflective and mature love, as opposed to Eros or Cupid, the frivolous tyrant.’ Gilbert was commissioned to create a memorial to Anthony Ashley-Cooper, the 7th Earl of Shaftesbury, a philanthropist and social reformer; in 1886 he came up with the idea of a fountain, but since its unveiling by the Duke of Westminster on 29 June 1893, it has been beset with controversy, vandalism, acrimonious rows between the sculptor and the County Council and a serious loss of money to Gilbert. He had envisaged the whole of the upper part of the sculpture enclosed within a glassy dome of water, on which Eros appeared to hover, but with problems of water pressure, wind blowing the jets over passers-by and splashing over the already mucky surrounding streets. There was a protracted argument about the shape and size of the bronze base of the fountain and cups that were attached to the fountain from which people could drink, were immediately liberated. Gilbert’s commission was £3,000, but additions and alterations cost him around £7,000, which all but ruined him. He went to Bruges in 1901, only returning to England in 1926, during which time he wrote, ‘I am the unfortunate author of the fountain, and I designed it years ago and ruined myself for a sentiment.’ He honestly felt that he had done Lord Shaftesbury, and all his good works in housing the poor of London and a campaigner against child labour conditions, a disservice.
The figure atop the fountain, having presumably fired his arrow into the ground, is cast in aluminium, an unusual metal for that era, as the delicate balance could not have been sustained had it been cast in bronze. It stands on a paved octagonal platform reached by two short flights of low steps and the bronze pedestal stands within an octagonal basin, rising upwards to a platter, made up shells, fishes, dolphins and other marine life, which it turn is over sailed by a richly-decorated upper basin. A further basin holds a ‘tazza’, or cup-like, carving, with a small domed finial, on which is poised the delicate figure of Anteros. The model for this was Gilbert’s diminutive Anglo-Italian studio assistant, Angelo Colarossi, whose father also posed as a model for Lord Leighton. Public reaction was loud and vociferous, calling the boy ‘hideous, indecent and ludicrous’, and the memorial ‘ugly, pretentious, unsuitable, and a decided nuisance.’ In 1925, Eros was moved to Embankment Gardens while the Piccadilly tube station was being constructed, with the base stored in Clapham, and it was returned in 1931 with a slightly higher base. During the Second World War, Eros was again moved and ended up in Egham, leaving the base boarded up and covered in propaganda posters. There are, in fact, four Eros statues around the world, the second casting in aluminium being in Sefton Park in Liverpool. There was a further casting in Liverpool’s National Conservation Centre, which is now in storage, and another in Fleetwood near Blackpool, recently replaced by one in bronze, with a fourth, cast in 1986-88, acquired by the Art Gallery of South Australia in 1992 and displayed in one of its galleries.