London’s extraordinary sculpted creatures – great and small, historic and modern – are hiding in plain sight; easy to miss when the city is full of the bustle of human activity.
Here we take a look at ten hidden creatures to spot on your next walk through London.
1. Leopard, Gresham Street, City of London
The image of the leopard’s head is the historic London hallmark of the Goldsmiths’ Company Assay Office.
The Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths – one of the City of London’s twelve ancient livery companies (trade and guild associations) – has owned the land here since the 14th century. Their livery hall is on the other side of the road. The site was first transformed into a garden by Fire Wardens after the Blitz during the Second World War.
In 1994/1995, the Company created a new layout for the secret sunken garden which now includes a fountain, sculpture, public seating and an arch set with a leopard’s head made by apprentices managed by the Blacksmiths’ Company.
2. Mice, 23 Eastcheap, City of London
Very little is known about the origin of these tiny mice, but they may have been carved when the building – offices and warehousing – was constructed 1861-1862 by architects Young & Sons for the spice merchants, Messrs. Hunt & Crombie.
Why the mice are there is the subject of various enjoyable urban myths. Most popular is that two of the builders got into a fight over a cheese sandwich, with each accusing the other of theft, causing them to fall to their deaths from the building. Mice were the true culprits of course.
3. Insects and other creatures, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, Bloomsbury
All the creatures pictured are ‘vectors of disease’ – living organisms that can transmit dangerous infectious pathogens between humans, or from animals to humans – and include tsetse fly, flea, mosquito and rat.
They are powerful symbols of the work of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine – a world-renowned research and education centre dedicated to public and global health. The names of eminent medical scientists are carved high around the building.
The School was designed 1926-1928 in Art Deco style by architects Percy Morley Horder and Verner Rees and is their most celebrated building.
4. India House Menagerie, India House, Aldwych
India House houses the High Commission of India. The building was inaugurated on 8 July 1930 by King George V who was also the Emperor of India.
India House was designed by architect Herbert Baker who, together with equally celebrated architect Edwin Lutyens, designed the key administrative buildings of New Delhi, which became the capital of the British Raj in 1931.
5. Endangered animals, Northumberland Avenue, Trafalgar Square
The Portland stone panels, including the Marine Life ‘Endangered Species’ panel pictured below, were created by sculptor Barry Baldwin over three a year period around 1990.
Baldwin also carved a stone self-portrait on the central keystone above the panels showing him clutching his head, with his wristwatch displaying eleven o’clock – the ‘eleventh hour’ – symbolising how little time is left for mankind to save these species.
6. Creatures great and small, Natural History Museum, South Kensington
By the mid-19th century, the natural history collection of the British Museum had outgrown its premises, with many new specimens flooding in from expeditions, alongside a rapidly expanding knowledge of the natural world.
Its Superintendent (later the Natural History Museum’s first director), Richard Owen, proposed the idea of a ‘cathedral to nature’ in a new location. The young little known architect, Alfred Waterhouse, was appointed in 1865 to realise Owens’s vision.
Waterhouse designed a strikingly unusual building in Gothic revival and colourful Romanesque style.
The museum’s extraordinary terracotta decoration, interior and exterior, is based on a teeming variety of mammals, reptiles, insects, aquatic creatures and plants – living, extinct, fossilized. Waterhouse’s exact designs took inspiration from specimens and scientific illustrations supplied by Owen. The London architectural modelling company, Farmer & Brindley – working with French sculptor Dujardin – created the models which were then cast by Gibbs & Canning, Staffordshire, manufacturers of architectural terracotta.
The museum opened to visitors 18 April 1881.
7. Frogs, Clerkenwell
These unusual frogs – which may seem more at home on a Gothic cathedral – appear to have been carved of the same stone as the line of moulding to which they are attached. Their history is lost.
The sawtooth panel of brickwork is equally unusual. Normally such brickwork is used in a single or double decorative row, following the line of a house’s eaves, typically in the 1870s/1880s. This building’s carved plaque dates it to 1876.
8. Swans and camels, Albert Embankment
The Albert Embankment (1869), along with the Victoria (1870) and Chelsea (1874) Embankments, were created by reclaiming marshy riverside land and muddy foreshore to accommodate low lying sewers – part of a vast new sewerage system for London designed by Sir Joseph Balazgette, chief engineer of the Metropolitan Board of Works (MBW).
The MBW’s Superintending Architect was George Vulliamy. As an integral part of the riverside scheme, Vulliamy designed street furniture -including the pictured benches, as well as the tall cast-iron lamps (originally gas), with their elaborate wide-mouthed curved sturgeons, that stand along the Victoria and Albert Embankments. He also designed the two great bronze sphinxes that guard Cleopatra’s Needle on the Victoria Embankment.
9. Boar, 33-35 Eastcheap, City of London
Designed by English architect Robert Roumieu, this building was constructed in 1868 as a warehouse for vinegar merchants Hill & Evans, the largest vinegar brewers in Britain during the Victorian era, growing to be the largest in the world.
The boar’s head sculpture is a reference to the building standing on the site of the former Boar’s Head Tavern, supposedly the favourite inn used by Falstaff in Shakespeare’s Henry IV Part 1, later destroyed by the Great Fire of London in 1666.
10. Horse, Unilever House, 100 Victoria Embankment
Lord Leverhulme, commissioned Unilever House as the headquarters of his soap company, Lever Brothers. Designed in Neo-Classical Art Deco style, the building overlooks Blackfriars Bridge with a sweeping curved façade. It opened 18 July 1932.
Each sculpture required large blocks of Portland stone being raised up high to the plinths – one at each end of the building – before being built into a rough approximation of the sculpture. Reid Dick’s assistants then removed superfluous stone before he chiselled and created the forms.
Written by Nicky Hughes.
Many thanks Nicky for these super pictures and annotations. Hope to see more in a future blog.
Shame that we seem to have lost this spirit of inventiveness and fun – and craftsmanship.
Incredible historical facts and wonderful images that go unnoticed. Great piece
A fascinating article. Can I add the City of London griffons that mark, on major routes, the entrance to the Square Mile e.g. near Finsbury Square where Moorgate changes to City Road.
Richard Owen’s NHM was ‘crowned’ by the figure of Adam as the culmination of God’s created order.It was taken down c1945.