I’m a little puzzled by the proliferation of sphinxes in the urban landscape of London. You see them on statues, buildings and even benches. But – what do they mean? Most of the classical sculpture and architectural decoration in London is inspired by Roman designs. The British Empire was following the styles of the great Roman Empire. But sphinxes weren’t a common Roman sculptural decoration.
The sphinxes you normally see in London are Greek ones – the head and chest of a woman with the body of a lion. Egyptian sphinxes are usually male – like the Great Sphinx of Giza that lies in front of the Pyramid of Khufu.
In early Greek mythology the sphinx was a figure who came from the underground and was a demon of destruction and bad luck. Surely that’s not what it means in London. Later on she became the emblem of some Greek city-states and statues of sphinxes guarded the entrance to some Greek cities such as Thebes. In the classical Greek play Oedipus by Sophocles, she is shown as the mysterious guardian of Thebes who asks passersby to answer riddles before they can continue on their journeys. She strangled and devoured anyone who couldn’t answer her questions. The most famous of her riddles was “Which creature has one voice and yet becomes four-footed and two-footed and three-footed”. (Answer below “Riddle Answer” )
So – sphinxes came to be used as emblems of protection on temples and royal tombs, and that’s probably their main symbolic use in London.
The London obelisk was presented to the United Kingdom in 1819 by the ruler of Egypt in commemoration of the victories of Lord Nelson at the Battle of the Nile and Sir Ralph Abercromby at the Battle of Alexandria in 1801. Neither the British nor the Egyptian governments wanted to take on the huge cost of transporting the obelisk to London – it is 69 feet high and weighs 224 tons! So, it stayed in Alexandria until 1877 when Sir William James Erasmus Wilson, a distinguished anatomist and dermatologist, sponsored its transportation to London from Alexandria at a cost of some £10,000 (worth approximately £1 million in 2015).
The Victoria Embankment had been completed in 1870 and the great new public space seemed an appropriate place to erect the monumental sculpture. It stands on the riverside near the Embankment Underground Station. The other obelisk of this pair was presented to the United States in 1877 and now stands in Central Park near the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Two Victorian replicas of sphinxes crouch on either side of Cleopatra’s Needle. The sphinxes are cast in bronze and have hieroglyphic inscriptions. They were designed by the English architect George John Vulliamy and were installed when the obelisk was erected on the bank of the River Thames in 1878.
Unfortunately, the position of the two sphinxes seems to indicate a misunderstanding of their role. Because they both face the obelisk, they seem to be looking at the Needle rather than guarding it.
In London sphinxes can be found as decoration on offices and theatres.
This little sphinx sits high up on the roofline of Wyndham’s Theatre on Charing Cross Road, guarding the spirits of the theatre, no doubt.
Here are two watchful sphinxes guarding a large and impressive building in Pimlico.
The Tate Gallery was opened in 1897. The impressive classical building was designed by the architect Sidney R.J. Smith who designed several buildings for the museum’s founder, Sir Henry Tate.
It’s actually pretty funny. The pose of the sphinx is just like that of a faithful dog guarding a home.
Grander houses also used sphinxes as garden decoration.
The Right Honourable Richard Boyle, 3rd Earl of Burlington designed Chiswick House in west London. When it was completed in 1729 the interior and gardens were decorated with the large collection of classical sculpture that Lord Burlington brought back in hundreds of packing cases from his Grand Tours of Italy. Lord Burlington was a talented and devoted student of the history and arts of the classical period, and was inspired by the architecture of the 16th century Italian Andrea Palladio who was instrumental in the rebirth of the classical style of building. Burlington worked closely with the English landscape gardener William Kent in designing the gardens at Chiswick House. These gardens were believed to reflect the form of the gardens of ancient Rome, which were in turn based on the gardens of Greece.
In the 18th century the Emperor Augustus was considered the greatest of all Roman emperors, and the fact that Augustus had invaded Egypt and brought back Egyptian objects to Rome made the Egyptian style popular with the English aristocracy. So – Lord Burlington put sphinxes in his garden at Chiswick House.
Chiswick House also had a pair of lead sphinxes that stood guard on the top of the imposing gate posts that protected the public entrance to Chiswick House on Burlington Lane in Chiswick. The lead sphinxes were created by John Cheere and were clearly based on the stone sphinxes in the garden.
These sphinxes have had quite a peripatetic existence – they’ve moved around a lot.
Lord Burlington died in 1753, and in 1759 Chiswick House was ceded to William Cavendish, 4th Duke of Devonshire, widow of Lord Burlington’s daughter Charlotte. In 1740 his father, the 3rd Duke, built a grand London palace on Piccadilly – Devonshire House, which stood across the road from today’s Ritz Hotel.
In 1897 a famous ball was held at Devonshire House to celebrate Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee, and the lead sphinxes were moved from Chiswick House to an elaborate new gate built in front of the London house.
After the First World War, Devonshire House, with its famous crystal banister, became a burden on the Cavendish family. It was basically abandoned by 1919; the house and its three acres of land were sold to property developers and in 1920 the house was demolished. But – the gates were preserved and moved across the road where they stand, now as an entrance to Green Park. The lead sphinxes from Chiswick House still sit guard on top.
It did become popular for the grand gardens of stately homes to have sphinxes with faces of the lady of the house.
This sphinx is not in London, but I really wanted to show it – and tell the incredible story that goes with it.
This sphinx is on the terrace of Oldway Mansion, a grand house in Paignton, Devon. It was built in 1871 for Isaac Singer, the American inventor and entrepreneur who improved the domestic sewing machine and became one of the wealthiest men in the world. He had a fairly chaotic personal life and fled from the US after being arrested for bigamy. By 1871 he was married to Isabella Eugenie Boyer, a French woman who abandoned her husband to live with Singer. He decorated the terrace at Oldway with two sphinxes that had Isabella’s face.
After Singer died in 1875 Isabella inherited a huge fortune. She returned to Paris and met the sculptor Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi. He was the man who sculpted the Statue of Liberty, and it is rumoured that Isabella Boyer was his model!
This sphinx at Blenheim Palace is really very odd. It was put here in the 1920s by Charles Spencer-Churchill, 9th Duke of Marlborough. The face is that of either (1) Consuelo Vanderbilt, his first American wife, whose large fortune saved Blenheim, but whose marriage to Spencer-Churchill was unhappy and ended in an annulment after 20 years, or (2) Gladys Deacon, his second American wife, who married the Duke in 1921. This marriage also became very unhappy and Gladys reportedly kept a revolver in her bedroom to discourage the Duke from visiting. She spent her last years in a psychiatric hospital.
Sometimes a portrait can be a personal statement that represents a great ego. Here it’s Mohamed Al-Fayed, former owner of Harrod’s. The Egyptian-born shop owner is shown as a pharaoh with a model of the department store between his paws. This male sphinx sits in the lower ground floor of Harrod’s, in the room which still has the Dodi and Princess Diana memorial. VERY WEIRD!!
Finally – here are two Egyptian-inspired decorative sculptures. They aren’t really sphinxes but do show that Egyptian style.
(Riddle Answer – And now the answer to the Sphinx of Thebes’ riddle: “Which creature has one voice and yet becomes four-footed and two-footed and three-footed”.
It’s MAN – who crawls on all fours when a baby, walks up right when an adult, and uses a cane to walk when old.)
All photos were taken by Cathey Leitch – except those otherwise attributed.
@Cathey Leitch, 2015