In 2010 colourful elephants appeared all over London. I was lucky to find a few but if you are interested, you can check out the whole herd at http://www.elephantparadelondon.org/
There were 260 of them – decorated by all sorts of famous people. After parading for several months they were auctioned off, with great success, and the proceeds donated to a charity that supports the conservation of Asian elephants.
These colourful elephants no longer decorate the streets of London – but these are LOTS of permanent elephants in town, and tell stories about England and its connection with far-flung corners of the world.
Here are two pubs named The Elephant and Castle Pub opposite sides of London.
The name “Elephant and Castle” appears in lots of spots around London, especially around the large roundabout in Southwark, where the local underground station bears the name.
People may tell you that it is a corruption of the “Infanta de Castilla” – a Spanish princess who came to England. In fact, no Spanish Infanta ever came to London. In 1254 Eleanor of Castille DID marry Prince Edward, son of Henry III. Edward later became King Edward I, but Eleanor was never an Infanta.
Wikipedia says this is an urban legend, and that the name probably comes from the sign of the Worshipful Company of Cutlers. It seems that a blacksmith and a cutler (knife-maker) had a business in Newington (south London) – and people would say “I’ll meet you at the sign of the Elephant and Castle”. Here’s the Cutlers’ coat of arms and the sign that hangs on their livery hall on Warwick Lane –
There it is, plain to see – an elephant with a castle on top. Why this odd combination? Wikipedia says the Cutlers used an elephant as part of their coat of arms because they made knives that had ivory handles.
This little elephant is one of a pair that stand guard appropriately at East Smithfield on the gateway to “Ivory House” at St. Katherine’s Dock near the Tower of London. He is a reminder of the vast international trade in all kinds of exotic goods that came through the Port of London.
In addition to ivory, this dock handled luxury goods like perfume, shells and wine. Until the late 19th century London was one of the main importers of ivory in the world. 1870 was the peak of the trade which saw 500 tons of ivory imported into the city every year, mainly from Africa.
A new memorial on Park Lane commemorates the work done by animals during the Second World War. The memorial commemorates the countless animals that have served and died under British military command throughout history.
Beneath the large words “Animals in War”, the memorial has two separate inscriptions; the first and larger reads:
“This monument is dedicated to all the animals
that served and died alongside British and allied forces
in wars and campaigns throughout time.”
The second, smaller inscription simply reads: “They had no choice.”
Upon the rear or outside of the memorial an inscription says:
“Many and various animals were employed to support British and Allied Forces
in wars and campaigns over the centuries, and as a result millions died.
From the pigeon to the elephant, they all played a vital role in every region
of the world in the cause of human freedom.
Their contribution must never be forgotten.”
Here are an elephant with a camel, mountain goat, dog, donkey and homing pigeons.
The elephant was used to illustrate the links between England and the exotic eastern reaches of its empire.
On the front of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office on Whitehall, an elephant looks over the shoulder of an Indian woman who symbolises “Asia”. (In British terminology “Asia” includes India and Pakistan – which can be confusing to Americans who think of Asia as the countries of the Far East.)
India House on Aldwych houses the High Commission of India. The building is decorated with elephants supporting balconies and 12 colourful roundels that represent the states of India.
The somewhat whimsical panels once decorated a building at 133-137 Fetter Lane. Among the offices in the building were the publishers Sampson, Low, Marston, Searle and Rivington. In 1876 they published the English translation of Jules Verne’s book “Around the Word in Eighty Days”. Perhaps they commissioned this series of panels, designed by the Arts and Crafts artist and book illustrator Walter Crane, one of the most famous designers of the period. It’s really lovely that they were saved when the building was demolished in 1905 to make way for a larger office block.
The panels are decorated with the symbols of world cultures. Rather surprisingly the largest end panels represent America and Canada, and the others are Europe, Africa, India, Asia and Australasia. They all feature animals native to the regions; the India panel has two elephants above the head of a man wearing a turban.
The Prince Albert Memorial in Kensington, finished in 1872, has an impressive group of works by the best artists of the day. There are all kinds of sculpture – angels, portraits of famous artists, architects and musicians, along with mosaics – and a gold plated statue of Prince Albert. It was a grandiose and symbolic memorial to Queen Victoria’s husband Albert who died in 1861 at the age of 42.
At the corner of the base of the memorial are four large sculpture groups representing the four corners of the earth and the various cultures that were part of the British Empire. The Asia group, by J.H. Foley, has a large Asian elephant carrying an Indian woman. She is surrounded by a seated Chinese man with a tea caddy, a turbaned Arab and an Assyrian.
In addition to trading and political connections – elephants can be used as advertising symbols.
There are lots of other elephants to be found in surprising places – like the window of this very exclusive and expensive shop on South Audley Street in Mayfair. A pair of pachyderms grace the windows of Thomas Goode & Co. – one of the oldest speciality shops in London. The store was opened in 1875 and Thomas Goode travelled the world seeking out the finest porcelain and bone china. Maybe that’s why he used the exotic porcelain elephants to decorate the shop windows. This elegant and prestigious shop had the most impressive list of clients, including the Czar of Russia and Queen Victoria.
Few people take the time to look up and appreciate the fascinating group of figures. Titled “The Wealth of the East and the West”, the frieze was modelled by Charles Doman and Thomas Clapperton in 1914 and carved by G. Hardie and Son at their yard in Shepherd’s Bush. Surprisingly, this grand Edwardian Empire-style building on Regent Street was the original Liberty store;the mock-Tudor building on Great Marlborough Street was built in 1925.
The enormous frieze features larger than life-size figures with Britannia in the centre receiving exotic goods from the people of her empire. The people looking over the parapet add even more theatricality to the scene.
In the section of goods from India, an elephant kneels to be loaded with goods being placed by a woman in a sari.
The scene on Africa House (64-78 Kingsway) shows a very different story.
Installed when the building was put up in 1921, the figures were designed by Benjamin Clemens,assistant master at the Royal College of Art. This group also has Britannia at the centre, but if you look closely, you realize that the figures to the right are quite disturbing. A big game hunter sits oiling his rifle while a native bearer carries the tusks taken from the poor elephant that lies at his feet.
I wonder if the Animals’ Rights protesters have ever noticed this sad scene.
The pediment of the Hilton Hotel Paddington, 146 Praed Street, also has a scene with Britannia at the centre, but here the point is to advertise the exotic parts of the Empire that travellers can experience when they go abroad.
The hotel was designed by the architect Philip Hardwick. It opened in 1853 as the Great Western Royal Hotel – the first great railway hotel in Britain. The next year Prince Albert and the King of Portugal officially opened the luxurious hotel, giving it the right to add the “Royal” to its name.
Over the years as Paddington became a less desirable area, the hotel began to lose business and became quite run-down. For 60 years, from 1930-1990, it gradually lost its beautiful interiors in various schemes of “modernization” and cost-cutting – but it DID survive. In 1998 Hilton Hotel took over management of the hotel, and invested £60 in the refurbishment of the building. It reopened in 2002.
You can find other elephants in London if you look closely –
This little scene of a seated elephant with an Indian woman beside him is in a lunette in the courtyard of Drapers’ Hall, the impressive home of the Worshipful Company of Drapers on Throgmorton Street. A series of lunettes above arches show small scenes with religious or work themes related to the Drapers, who were originally wool or cloth merchants.
The Worshipful Company of Drapers is one of the oldest livery companies in London. There was an informal association of drapers as early as 1180; it was formally founded in 1361 and was incorporated under a Royal Charter in 1438. Today’s beautiful Drapers’ Hall was built in 1772 and enlarged in the 19th century on land owned by the Drapers since 1543. It is a large, impressive building with grand interiors that have been used as a stand-in for Buckingham Palace in films.
This modern outline elephant stands in a plaza on Notting Hill Gate, next to the Waterstones Book Store. He is called “Carnival Elephant” and was created in 2003 by Nadim Karam and his firm Atelier Hapsitus.
Here’s a little house elephant that guards a house just off West Cromwell Road.
Sadly the two elephants below are no longer on view – but they may return.
These exotic animals – intelligent, hard-working and loyal – decorate London, and serve to remind us of their place in the history of the Empire.
All photos by Cathey Leitch @Cathey Leitch, 2015