small large larger
The statue in Trinity Church Square garden

card 4The statue in the garden of Trinity Church Square, said to be one of the oldest statues in London, has been the subject of some controversy. The statue is shown on an engraving of the church by Whittock, published in Allen’s Complete History of Surrey in 1830, and referred to as a statue of King Alfred of unknown origin. The prevailing theory is that the figure is one of eight medieval statues from the north end of Westminster Hall, five of which disappeared without trace while Sir John Soane was clearing the north front of the hall in 1820–25. The plain back of the statue, as if it were made to be placed in a niche, seems to support this theory.

An alternative theory is that it is one of a pair of statues representing Alfred the Great and Edward the Black Prince made for the garden of Carlton House in 1735. Carlton House was demolished and its grounds were cleared in 1827–29.

The lower part of the statue is of natural stone but the whole of the upper part and most of the sides and back are a restoration in Coade stone, an artificial stone made in the late 18th century and early 19th century by Coade and Sealy of Lambeth, the formula for which is now long lost.

The statue in TCS garden: a new theory

Extracted from an entry in Public Sculpture of South London by Terry Cavanagh, Vol. 10 of Public Monuments and Sculpture Association National Recording Project, Liverpool University Press, 2007. Subheadings added.

Why we think it is medieval

[In 1921] Aleck Abrahams advanced the astonishing theory that [the statue] was medieval. ... In outline, he alleged that the statue was one of those ordered by Richard II for the niches of the new north front to Westminster Hall in 1395. When, at a later date, other buildings were erected right up against the north front, the niches and their statues were completely obscured and subsequently forgotten about, only to be rediscovered in 1825 when those later buildings were demolished.

Just at that time, [Abrahams] wrote, Trinity Church Square in Southwark was being laid out and so, there being a need for ‘some ornament’ for the centre of the ‘grass plot’, the statue was re-erected there. Abrahams’ theory was later taken up in the 1954 volume of the Survey of London covering this part of Southwark, the compilers supplying the information that Sir John Soane, who had been charged with the clearance of the buildings in front of the hall, was an acquaintance of the developer of Trinity Church Square, William Chadwick.

But perhaps it isn’t

As plausible as this all might sound – and Abrahams’ theory has gained something like general acceptance – the statue in Trinity Church Square is nothing like the surviving medieval kings which have been re-installed inside Westminster Hall, all of which have slim bodies, narrow chests and rounded shoulders. The Southwark statue, by contrast, has very broad shoulders and a contrapposto stance that strongly suggests a familiarity with classical and Renaissance models. The carving of the hair, particularly that in front of the ear where the hair of the head joins the beard, is very unlike that of the rest of the kings, even to the extent of looking like early nineteenth century sideburns. Abrahams’ theory, completely unsupported by any documentary evidence and contradicted by the visual evidence, must therefore be discounted.

So what is it?

I would argue that the Trinity Church Square statue of Alfred the Great is the work of the sculptor James Bubb. In c.1822, Bubb had been approached by his friend, the architect Francis Goodwin, to tender for the statuary for his new Manchester Town Hall. Goodwin planned for a large group on the top of the building and two niche statues to go over the entrance doors. Bubb suggested that, in token of the function of the building, the niches should contain statues of law-givers, namely Solon and Alfred the Great.

Having obtained approval from the building committee, Bubb set to work with enthusiasm. Unfortunately he made the statues too large for the niches and, desperate not to compromise his reputation, made a second pair at his own expense in 1824. The replacement pair were installed and survive at Heaton Park, where part of the main facade of the Town Hall was re-erected following the building’s demolition in 1912.

Manchester statueA comparison of the Manchester with Trinity Church Square statue (see shows them to be identical in all but scale, the latter being somewhat larger. While there is the possibility that the similarity may be due to Bubb copying the Southwark statue, the fact that Bubb, whose finances were at the time in a parlous state, had to recoup some of the money he had lost through his mistake in Manchester, makes it much more likely that he was fortunate enough to find a buyer for his over-large Alfred, in the guise of William Chadwick, the developer of Trinity Church Square.