The Story of Marble Arch Begin
Discover the truth behind one of London’s most recognisable landmarks as we uncover the story of Marble Arch
A Triumphal Arch
John Nash (1752-1835) was the favoured architect of the Prince Regent, later King George IV. Under George’s auspices Nash designed and planned such landmarks as Regent’s Park, Regent Street, Carlton House Terrace, much of Buckingham Palace and Marble Arch. Marble Arch was designed to be both a grandiose gateway to an expanded Buckingham Palace and an exuberant celebration of British victories in the Napoleonic Wars – a Triumphal Arch. But the Grade I listed Arch that we see today is nowhere near as grand as Nash originally intended.
This model, now in the Victoria and Albert Museum, gives an impression of how Marble Arch might have looked. Nash had it made to illustrate his intended design to George IV.
Bristling with sculpture, including an imposing equestrian statue of George IV crowning the structure, the overall design was approved and sculptures were commissioned in 1828.
Had George IV lived a little longer we would certainly have a very different Marble Arch today.
A sculptural puzzle
By 1830 most of the statues and panels were complete and Nash’s work at Buckingham Palace and on the Arch was progressing. And then the King died.
Shortly after the King’s death Nash was sacked by the Prime Minister, the Duke of Wellington, for overspending on the project. The architect Edward Blore was commissioned to complete the works in a more economic and practical fashion.
Finding himself in possession of a jumbled collection of statues and panels, Blore tried to get Nash to provide drawings to explain how the jigsaw was intended to fit together but Nash, unhappy about his dismissal, would not cooperate.
All Blore really had to go on was Nash’s model and the assortment of sculptures in his yard.
The model has a "military side", celebrating the Duke of Wellington’s victories, including the Battle of Waterloo and a “naval side” putting Lord Nelson’s achievements centre stage. Both sides were to have friezes of battle scenes and allegorical panels along with a selection of “winged victories” and other figures.
On each end of the Arch these two themes were to have been repeated. One end bearing the word "Waterloo" and the other the word "Trafalgar" and under each, the names of commanders and battles.
The model was never intended to be a definitive plan but rather to give an overall impression of how the finished article might look. It contains at least one big mistake, the military side is topped with the portrait of Nelson and the naval side with one of Wellington.
Blore eventually decided to complete the Arch but without most of the sculpture. So the Arch today has only four allegorical panels and a little decoration. The ends are blank except for three laurel wreaths.
The Arch was completed in 1833 although the central gates were not added until 1837, just in time for Queen Victoria’s accession to the throne
What happened to the rest of the sculpture?
Blore incorporated most of the battle scene friezes high up in the central courtyard of Buckingham Palace. In 1835 the rest of the sculptures were given to William Wilkins to use in the construction of the new National Gallery.
Wilkins did manage to use some of the statues but wanted less military symbolism so he adapted many of them. Figures representing Asia, seated on a camel, and Europe sat upon a horse with an empty frame between them can still be seen above the main door of the gallery.
Above both the western and eastern doors of the gallery are some figures of “winged victories”, many shorn of their wings, some have had their laurel wreaths replaced, one now holds a painter’s easel and brushes.
A portrait of Wellington that was to have filled the empty frame between Europe and Asia is now inside the staff entrance to the gallery.
On the eastern end of the gallery at roof level is the figure of Britannia who was to have held a portrait of Nelson. Nelson is gone and Britannia’s trident has been replaced with a spear to transform her into Minerva, goddess of wisdom.
The sculptures that Wilkins didn’t want or couldn’t use were dispersed. The whereabouts of many remain unknown. One panel, “The Battle of St Vincent” has been incorporated into Regent’s Place, next to Regent’s Park on Euston Road where it hosts a raised planter.
The other significant surviving remnant is the Equestrian Statue of George IV, by Francis Chantrey, which stands on a plinth in the north-eastern corner of Trafalgar Square.
A New Home For Marble Arch
Marble Arch stood as a formal gateway to Buckingham Palace for seventeen years, but it was overshadowed by Blore’s enlarged Buckingham Palace and seen as unsatisfactory.
In 1850 the decision was taken to move the Arch to its current location of Cumberland Gate where it would form a grand entrance to Hyde Park in time for the Great Exhibition of 1851.
The stone by stone removal and reconstruction of the Arch was overseen by architect Thomas Cubitt who completed the entire complex process in just three months.
The removal was a success, vast crowds of people passed through the Arch en route to the Great Exhibition in Hyde Park and Marble Arch remained a grand and direct entrance to the park for more than 50 years.
In 1908 a new road scheme cut through the park just south of the Arch leaving it completely separated from Hyde Park. In the 1960s roads were widened still further, leaving the Arch in its current isolated position, no longer part of a Royal Park. The grounds around the Arch are today maintained by Westminster City Council. In 1970 the Arch gained its Grade I listed status.
1850The decision was taken to move the Arch to Cumberland Gate
1908A new road scheme separates the Arch from Hyde Park
1960Roads were widened leaving the Arch in an isolated position
1970Marble Arch gains Grade I listed status
The whole Arch is clad in Ravaccione, a grey/white type of Carrara marble from Italy. This was the first time marble had been used in this way on any British building. The eight enormous Corinthian columns were each cut from a single slab of marble.
North side of the Arch
The sculpted panels on this side are by Richard Westmacott who also produced the statue of Achilles nearby at Hyde Park Corner.
Three female figures representing England (centre) wearing Britannia’s helmet, Ireland (left) with her harp and Scotland (right) with the shield of St Andrew.
"Peace with Trophies of War" Peace stands on a heap of shields, helmets and weapons. In her hand she holds an olive branch. Two cherubs hold her gown. Above each of the three arches are pairs of “Victories” with their laurel wreaths.
The central keystones of the lower arches are the heads of warriors wearing Greek helmets pushed back in the manner of statues of Athena. The central arch has a magnificent lion’s head carving as its keystone, with clawed feet protruding from under its mane.
South side of the Arch
On this side the panels are by E.H. Baily who is perhaps best known for the statue of Nelson in Trafalgar Square.
"Virtue and Valour" Virtue is the figure on the right holding the fasces (a bundle of rods around an axe) that symbolise strength through unity and on the left stands a soldier in Roman dress representing valour.
"Peace and Plenty" The Angel of Peace is to the left. Plenty with her cornucopia to the right. The flame in the middle represents liberty.
On this side, between the Victories, the keystone of all three arches is a bearded male head, possibly Neptune.
The Central Gates
Originally planned to be cast in “mosaic gold”, the gates were actually cast in less expensive bronze. Each gate features the same three designs: a lion at the top, George IV’s cypher in the middle and St George slaying the dragon at the bottom.
The smaller side gates were added in 1851.
Over the years a number of stories about Marble Arch have emerged and been popularised but are simply not true.
It is often said that the Arch was removed from Buckingham Palace because it was too narrow to accommodate Queen Victoria’s State Coach. In fact, Queen Victoria’s coronation procession passed easily through the Arch on its way to Westminster Abbey in 1838 and Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation procession also travelled with ease through the Arch in 1953.
Marble Arch is sometimes referred to as a former Police Station. It never was a fully functioning police station, i.e. a place to report crimes, a building with holding cells or interview rooms. It was used occasionally by the police for accommodation but more often as a useful outpost during demonstrations.
The myth may have grown out of confusing Marble Arch with the Wellington Arch at Hyde Park Corner, which did house a working police station until the late 1950s.
Poet, Sir John Betjeman was also filmed inside Marble Arch for a 1960s TV documentary and mischievously repeated the myth.
Sir John Betjeman
Sir John Betjeman (1906-1984) was Britain’s Poet Laureate from 1972 until his death. When his Collected Poems came out in 1958 they made publishing history and have since sold over two and a quarter million copies.
But Betjeman was not only a poet. Through his broadcasting and journalism he opened people’s eyes to the value of the buildings and landscape around them and became Britain’s grand champion of its heritage.
This poem was written specially for the 1968 documentary, “Contrasts: Marble Arch to Edgware” and recited by Betjeman from the roof of Marble Arch.
Poem by Sir John Betjeman
How beautiful the London air, how calm and unalarming This height above the archway where the prospects round are charming. Oh come and take a stroll with me and do not fear to stumble. Great Cumberland, your place I see, I hear your traffic rumble. See Oxford Street on my left hand, a chasm full of shopping. Below us traffic lights command the starting and the stopping. And on my right the spacious park, so infinitely spacious, So pleasant when it isn’t dark but when it is - good gracious! What carriages below these skies came rolling by on Mondays. What church parades would greet the eyes here in Hyde Park on Sundays. And trodden by unheeding feet a spot which memory hallows:
Where Edgware Road meets Oxford Street stood Tyburn’s fearsome gallows. What martydoms this place has seen, what deeds much better undone. Yet still the greatest crime has been the martyrdom of London. For here where once were pleasant fields and no one in a hurry Behold the harvest Mammon yields of speed and greed and worry. The rights of man, the rights of cash, the left, the right, the centre; Come on, let’s off and make a dash, and meet it where we enter The road that no-one looks upon, except as birds of passage: Oh Edgware Road be our abode, and let us hear your message.
© John Betjeman, 1968
We are indebted to the scholarship of Philip Ward-Jackson in his book Public Sculpture of Historic Westminster, Liverpool University Press (2011) and to Roger H. Bowdler and Steven P. Brindle’s English Heritage guidebook, Wellington Arch, Marble Arch and Six Great War Memorials (2015). www.english-heritage.org.uk