Wellington Arch was originally built in 1825-7 by Decimus Burton as an entrance to Buckingham Palace and, twenty years later, it became, in effect, a very large plinth for a gargantuan, equestrian statue of the Duke of Wellington by Matthew Cotes Wyatt, which was totally disproportionate, being a massive eight metres high. The statue did not meet with public approval, and when the Arch was moved to a new site in 1883–5, to relieve traffic congestion, it was taken down and ended up in Aldershot. Even 130 years ago, London had problems with the sheer number of vehicles on the road.
For twenty-five-odd years the Arch was unadorned, and then, the Prince of Wales, later King Edward VII, saw a sculpture of a four-horsed chariot driven by an Assyrian at the Royal Academy. It was made by an army veterinary officer, Captain Adrian Jones, commissioned, at the instigation of the POWs, to build a monumental Quadriga for the Arch.
Jones was a soldier, horseman, horse surgeon and artist, but had never attempted anything on this scale before. He was Chairman of Chelsea Arts Club in 1905 and had a studio in his garden next door to the Club in Old Church Street, and there was apparently no shortage of advice from sculptor members as to how to tackle the work, which was started in 1907. He had already fallen foul of Sir Frederick Leighton, the President of the RA, who had accused him of using ‘ghosts’, or assistants, who contributed more to the work than the sculptor himself, something he fiercely denied, but, he certainly used ‘helpers’ for this mammoth task.
Throughout its construction, Edward VII was a regular visitor to the studio to see this great work come to fruition. It actually took another four years to assemble the various pieces, with full-size plaster moulds of the horses and figures, being taken to the foundry in Thames Ditton for casting in bronze. There is on display in the Wellington Arch Museum, a photograph of Jones and an assistant, taking tea in the belly of one of the horses, such is the scale of piece. The completed work was the largest bronze sculpture in Europe, and it is astonishing in its dynamism, epic scale and poetry.
It is not a war memorial, as it depicts the Angel of Peace descending from heaven onto the Quadriga (a chariot drawn by four horses abreast) of War being led by a small boy, actually modelled on the son of Lord Michelham the man who funded the sculpture. It was finally erected in 1911-12.
Within a few hundred feet, to the west, is the most astonishing and powerful war memorial ever made, the monument to the Royal Artillery, the gigantic Portland stone Howitzer with its four sentinels, designed by Charles Jagger. A few more feet to the north is the memorial to the New Zealanders, a simple assembly, but poignant, nonetheless. Diagonally opposite, and on the path down to the Jagger work, is a semicircular curved wall of grey-green Western Australian granite, with the names of 47 battles in which Australia was involved and the names of 23,844 towns in which the soldiers were born, carved into it with water running down over the names. The final monument on this traffic island is another, more modest, statue of Wellington, seen seated astride his faithful steed Copenhagen, sculpted by Sir Joseph Edgar Boehm, and facing the Duke’s London residence, Apsley House. A place with a singularly economical address, No. 1, London.
The Quadriga is one of the most recognisable sculptures in the world, but there was a certain sadness attached to it, as the sculptor himself was marginalised, possibly as a result of a longstanding enmity and political manoeuvring by the RA, and this iconic piece never received an official, public unveiling.
Jones was never made an Academician either, which must have rankled this talented and inspirational gentleman, and it is to their shame to this day. He celebrated his 90th birthday at Chelsea Arts Club and some well-meaning members obtained a letter of congratulations from George V, which was some consolation for the lack of recognition that he deserved for this truly magnificent work.