The Favourite statue of Queen Anne?
Queen Anne outside St Paul's Cathedral.
Outside St Paul’s Cathedral stands a statue of until very recently, one of Britain’s less well known monarchs. Following the recent film release “The Favourite”, Queen Anne has become the subject of renewed interest.
A brief historical recap to set the scene. Queen Anne (1702-1714) was the younger daughter of James II and his first wife Anne Hyde. Anne succeeded her sister, Mary II (1689-1694) , joint ruler with her husband William III (1689-1702). William and Mary produced no issue and so the succession moved sideways and Anne became the last monarch from the House of Stuart.
Anne lived a pretty extraordinary not to say utterly tragic life. Following her marriage to “thirsty” Prince George of Denmark in 1685 at the age of 15, she spent the next sixteen years in a state of almost permanent pregnancy. The awful facts are that Queen Anne endured 17 (including one set of twins) pregnancies only five of which survived birth. Of these, only one son, William Henry, Duke of Gloucester, survived beyond infancy only to die in 1700 aged 11. No small wonder that Queen Anne turned to alcohol and hot chocolate to help her cope. The Queen’s health was always poor and throughout her adult life she suffered greatly from gout and severe arthritic pain. Additionally, she was obese and has the dubious distinction of being the only monarch to be carried into Westminster Abbey for her Coronation due to her inability to walk.
None of this you would guess from looking at the many public statues erected to Queen Anne. Sculptures of the Queen at Queen Anne’s Gate, Kingston Town centre, on the Guild Hall at Windsor and in the Long Library at Blenheim Palace all show a perfectly proportioned, flattering representations of Anne. Perhaps the most well known of these is that which stands outside the West front of St Paul’s. The statue shows a svelt Queen Anne atop a plinth wearing the robes of the Order of the Garter and holding an orb and sceptre. Around the base of the statue are allegorical representations of Britain, France, Ireland and America.
The original statue outside St Paul’s was created by Francis Bird, the man responsible for much of the carving that adorns the West front of the Cathedral including the representations of St Paul and his Damascene conversion. The piece was first erected in 1712 a year after the consecration of St Paul’s . It would be fair to say that the statue was not universally admired. In what could be described as early 18th century trolling, a vociferous section of society objected to the statue. The basis for this was twofold. Firstly, she had failed to produce an heir. A vicious accusation given poor Anne’s dreadful obstetric history. Secondly, Anne was the subject of gossip around her alcoholism. A nasty little rhyme gained some currency in the immediate aftermath of the statue’s appearance.
“Brandy Nan, Brandy Nan.
You left us in the lurch,
Your face towards the gin shop,
Your arse towards the church”
For the next 150 years the statue was exposed to the worst of the English weather as well as the steady erosion of atmospheric pollution. Other indignities were inflicted by a succession of vandals, who managed to snap off some fingers, chip her nose and remove the orb and sceptre. By the early 1880s, the Queen’s statue was in a pretty dire state and a decision was taken by the Corporation of the City of London and the Dean and Chapter to replace it.
The old grouping was tidied away and removed to a masons yard in Vauxhall Bridge Road. And there it remained awaiting disposal until it was “discovered” by Victorian author Augustus Hare. Hare clearly coveted the statue and made strenuous efforts to obtain permission to acquire and move the pieces to his country estate in Sussex. Those authorised to dispose of the statue were no lesser personages than the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Bishop of London and the Lord Mayor of London. Astonishingly, all three appear to have donated the piece to Hare but he paid £400 to transport the Queen’s statue and £50 each for the four attendant figures to Holmshurst, his country house near St Leonard’s on Sea. That represents a figure of around £55,000 today.
The original statue is still to be found in the grounds of Hare’s former house but is reportedly in a very poor state. It is however, Grade II* listed and is subject to the protection that such listing affords.
All of which leaves us with the history of the statue that now stands outside St Paul’s. Here the story gets a little mysterious. Once the authorities had resolved to remove the old statue they embarked on sourcing a replacement. The man they turned to was a controversial sculptor, one Richard Belt. Belt had a reputation for subcontracting other artists to carry out work for which he later claimed credit. In fact this reputation was tested in a scandalous libel case when Belt was accused of exactly this in Vanity Fair magazine. His opponent Charles Lawes, a rival sculptor, was defeated and Belt won the then vast sum of £5000, worth around well over half a million pounds in today’s money. Belt’s victory was only fleeting as Lawes had very little money. The result was that after legal costs, Belt was bankrupted. This might go some way to explaining how Belt than became involved in a fraud.
In the intervening period, Belt had won the commission to produce the replica of Bird’s Queen Anne statue. But back to Belt’s criminal imbroglio. Belt had been introduced to a Baronet, Sir William Abdy. His wife was a lover of fine jewellery. Belt alleged that he could source some beautiful gems that were going cheap in a fire sale. The uxorious Abdy was taken in. Belt did obtain some jewels that were of reasonable but not top quality. Sir William did however pay top prices. Belt pulled off this scam on several occasions against the gullible Abdy. However, eventually Abdy realised what was going on and called in the authorities. Belt was convicted of fraud and was sent to prison for a year.
The story of the Queen Anne statue gets murkier at this point. One version states that the unfinished marble was taken to Belt’s prison where he continued to work on it. Another states that Belt was let out on some kind of day release to complete the sculpture at a studio somewhere on the Embankment. A third, and for my money the most likely version, is that Belt withdrew from working on the statue and it was completed by a Frenchman, Louis Augusta Malempre. Old habits died hard for Belt however and on his release from prison he attempted to get his name engraved on the replica. He failed, as indeed did Malempre and the only artistic credit that remains is a plaque citing Francis Bird.
And that concludes the convoluted story of the St Paul’s Queen Anne statue. As with so many monuments in London, the history is often unexpected, but always fascinating. For me, I hope that Queen Anne gets a much more sympathetic recognition. Her life was littered with ill health and tradgedy. She deserves a little more respect.
Copyright Richard Ing. Photography by Richard Ing