From King George I to Jimi Hendrix in a Single Leap
The British Monarch
It’s not of ten we see a British monarch dressed like a Roman Emperor. But there are two Kings, not too hard to find, invested in their Roman ‘Sunday best’. They are both represented in statue form and one doesn’t have to look very hard at all for the first sculptured sovereign.
Outside the National Gallery, on the north side of Trafalgar Square, are two statues. The gentleman on the east side that looks a lot like George Washington is, in fact, George Washington, represented in his true 6 feet 2 inches height. It’s said the statue is set on earth bought over from the United States so that the first President’s form is standing on American soil. I’d like it to be true.
The statue on the west side, the one dressed as a Roman Emperor, is a bronze of King James II (1685-88) sculpted by Grinling Gibbons. Gibbons is famous for his discreet but more celebrated wood carvings in St Paul’s Cathedral, Hampton Court Palace and other Restoration buildings.
James II was an unlucky King in that he was deposed during the Glorious, or Bloodless, Revolution of 1688. Said to be rather hubristic, which is quite permissible if you are the King, it was the fact that he was a Roman Catholic with a baby male Catholic heir that finally did for him. His grandson was ‘Bonnie’ Prince Charlie.
Unfortunate, James may have been. Not quite as unfortunate as his father King Charles I, who’s own statue sits on horseback at the southern edge of Trafalgar Square. He lost his crown in January 1649, literally, when he was beheaded but yards away outside Banqueting House in Whitehall. This statue marks the very centre of London, from which all distances are measured.
The second King, dressed in Roman Emperor style, is in plain sight as long as you look up. In Bloomsbury Way stands the church of St George, built by Nicholas Hawksmoor in 1731. Atop his pyramidic steeple, with entwining lion and unicorn, stands King George I (1714-27), actually representing St George.
George I was not particularly notable, and only useful because he was a Protestant monarch descended from King James I. Amongst the German Hanoverian Court that he bought over to England with him, however, was a young composer by the name of George Frederick Handel (1685-1759).
Handel eventually became a naturalized British citizen, composed some of the greatest music of the baroque period and bought himself a lovely new townhouse in Brooke Street, Mayfair (now the Handel House Museum). Just over 200 years later, in a most brilliant case of serendipity, the like of which can only really happen in London, Jimi Hendrix moved in next door.