Trafalgar square, the largest in the capital, is often considered the heart of London. The square was originally called Charing. Later it became known as Charing Cross, after a memorial cross on the square. The nearby underground station is still named Charing Cross. In the 1820s, George IV engaged the architect John Nash to redevelop the area. Nash cleared the square as part of his Charing Cross Improvement Scheme. The present architecture of the square is due to Sir Charles Barry and was completed in 1845. At the center of the square is the tall Nelson's Column which was built to commemorate the victory of Admiral Horatio Lord Nelson over the French fleet at the Battle of Trafalgar on the 21st of October 1805.
The pedestal is decorated with four bronze relief panels, each 18 feet square, cast from captured French guns. They depict the Battle of Cape St Vincent (upper left), the Battle of the Nile (upper right), the Battle of Copenhagen (bottom left) and the Death of Nelson at Trafalgar (bottom right). The sculptors were Musgrave Watson, William F Woodington, John Ternouth and John Edward Carew respectively. I find these to be quite beautiful and I recommend a look if you visit.
Nelson's Column is 169 ft 3 inches tall from the bottom of the pedestal to the top of Nelson's hat constructed between 1840 and 1843. The 18 ft 1 inch statue at the top was sculpted by Edward Hodges Baily from three pieces of Craigleith sandstone. The statue stands on a fluted column built from solid blocks of granite from the Foggintor quarries on Dartmoor. The Corinthian capital is made of bronze elements, cast from cannon salvaged from the wreck of HMS Royal George.
The column is surrounded by bronze 4 crouching lions designed by Sir Edwin Landseer who, having never seen a real lion, gave them dogs paws by mistake. The kids love to climb on them as you can see.
When the square was laid out in the 1840s, the fountains' primary purpose was not aesthetic, but rather to reduce the open space available and the risk of riotous assembly. In 1939 Sir Edwin Lutyens added the present fountains. The old fountains were bought for presentation to the Canadian government, and are now in Ottawa and Regina. In 2009 a new multicolored LED lighting system was installed during restoration to reduce the cost of lighting maintenance. Worth a night visit.
In addition to the central fountains, each fountain has two groups of statues. The two to the left are in the left fountain as you face the National Gallery and the two to right in the right fountaind. Both sets by by William McMillan RA and unveiled in 1948, having been delayed by the 1939-1945 WWII. I personally like the ones on the left, the children gushing water from their mouths is a little unappetizing.
A bronze equestrian statue of George IV by Sir Francis Chantrey, originally intended for the top of the Marble Arch, was installed on the north-eastern plinth in 1844, while the north-west plinth remained empty until the late twentieth century.
Two more statues on plinths were added during the nineteenth century; General Sir Charles James Napier by George Cannon Adams in the south-west corner of the square in 1855, and Major-General Sir Henry Havelock by William Behnes, in the south-east in 1861. In 2000, the then Mayor of London Ken Livingstone controversially expressed a desire to see the two generals replaced with statues of people “ordinary Londoners would know”. Personally I think the silly hats really make these unremarkable statues work, they should stay, maybe without the statues.
Since 1998 the empty plinth in the north-west corner of the square – which has become known as the “Fourth Plinth” – has been used to show a series of specially commissioned artworks. The scheme was initiated by the Royal Society of Arts and continued by a Fourth Plinth Commission, appointed by the Mayor of London. I think this might be one of the most successful sculptures in the square.
On the south side of the square, on the site of the original Charing Cross on a traffic island, is a bronze equestrian statue of Charles I by Hubert Le Sueur. It was cast in 1638, and placed in its present position in 1675. By the time of the English Civil War between the Roundheads and Cavaliers it had not yet been erected, and so upon the Parliamentary victory the statue was sold to a metalsmith in the Holborn area by the name of John Rivet who was supposed to destroy it and did not. It was rediscovered, purchased by the King and in 1675 was placed in its current location.
At the north-east corner is the St. Martin-in-the-Fields parish church. A grave has been found dating to about 410. The church was rebuilt by Henry VIII in 1542 to avoid plague victims from the area having to pass through his Palace of Whitehall. At this time, it was literally “in the fields” in an isolated position between the cities of Westminster and London. The current church, with a large white steeple, was built in 1721 by James Gibbs and was used as a model for many churches, especially in New England in the United States. It is the fourth church at this site, the first was built in the 13th century.
If you swing your camera a little to the right, you can see “Big Ben” over the tops of the trees.
In the end, Trafalgar Square is a little bit of a mystery to me. It is a large open space but unadorned by landscaping, seating and cafes. For a people like the British who love to garden, it seems odd that there is no grass, few trees and no flowers. The buildings are large but mostly unadorned and seem a little forlorn. Given that the National Gallery fronts on the square, there are no statues of famous artists and the square itself is named after a naval battle. There are no Greek allegorical myths, no Latin and really no intellectual thought at all. The buildings are just pretty much square boxes with a few columns thrown in. No celebration of English writers, intellectuals, artists or historical figures. I could name many but Chaucer, Shakespeare, Thomas Becket, Newton, Beardsley, Byron, Bacon and Turner to name just a few. In Paris you cannot find a place or a street that does not celebrate someone or some piece of history, usually with a large statue, here is none of that. Just the military figures that built the English empire, now gone, leaving little to to remember and apparently no one interested in remembering.