OPINION - John Darlington on London Monuments: the tangled history of Marble Arch

London possesses at least nine monuments celebrating the lives of two of the country’s military heroes: Arthur Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington, and Horatio Nelson, Vice Admiral, and fleet commander. Nelson, of course, has prime position on his column overlooking the square named after his famous victory in 1805, while Wellington has his triumphal arch on the corner of Hyde Park — which was originally capped by a huge statue of the duke on his horse, Copenhagen. And, but for the death of the high-spending George IV, our city would have had another in a great arch hailing both men — Marble Arch.

The story starts in 1826, not close to Speaker’s Corner in Hyde Park where Marble Arch currently stands, but at Buckingham House, which George IV decided to remodel as a fully blown palace with the help of his architect John Nash. Nash produced designs for the King that included a dramatic state entrance to the palace in what is now the area of the famous Royal balcony.

Marble Arch, as pictured in the Illustrated London News of 1842 (Public Domain)
Marble Arch, as pictured in the Illustrated London News of 1842 (Public Domain)

Modelled on the classical triumphal Arch of Constantine in Rome, the new monumental gateway, clad entirely in Italian marble, would celebrate recent British military accomplishments, with one side adorned in a long, carved frieze of the Battle of Waterloo, and the other depicting Nelson’s great naval victories.

The names of their commanding officers would adorn the monument, alongside winged victories, laurel wreathes, the figure of Britannia as well as stone portrait busts of the two leaders. George IV would preside over the whole ensemble mounted in bronze on his horse. In all a flamboyant welcome to Buckingham Palace… and a very expensive one.

Construction began on the arch in 1827, with many of the statues commissioned and prepared off-site by specialist masons ready for installation. But in 1830 the King died, and his successor William IV was unwilling to take on the spiralling costs of Nash’s projects, including the new triumphal arch to Buckingham Palace. Nash was fired and a new architect, Edmund Blore was brought in by the Prime Minister — none other than the Duke of Wellington — who was charged with delivering a cheaper, scaled back scheme. The irony was that the new scheme was one that would no longer celebrate Wellington or his compatriot, Nelson.

We know Nash’s ambitions for the arch, because the architectural model he prepared as part of his original pitch to George IV is now in the V&A. But Blore’s desire for economy and less triumphalism, stripped the structure of most of the statuary, including the King on his horse, and the entire attic frieze celebrating Waterloo, Trafalgar and the two commanders.

Nash’s model Marble Arch (Victoria and Albert Museum)
Nash’s model Marble Arch (Victoria and Albert Museum)

However, mindful not to waste the already completed statues, many of the now redundant carvings were found new homes — the frieze of Waterloo and scenes from Nelson’s life were recycled in the great courtyard at Buckingham Palace, while several of the statues were placed in the new National Gallery, albeit they had to be modified to look less bellicose, with the winged victories shorn of their wings and Britannia transformed to Minerva, Goddess of Wisdom. George IVs statue that was once to top the arch, now sits on one of the famous plinths in Trafalgar Square — a partial reunion with Nelson above.

Buckingham Palace with the Marble Arch (left) (Public domain)
Buckingham Palace with the Marble Arch (left) (Public domain)

The arch was completed in 1833, looking very much as it does now, but with one obvious difference… its location. Further improvements to Buckingham Palace by Blore soon meant that the arch looked out of place alongside the growing Royal residence, so after just 17 years it was moved to its current location where it would form an impressive entrance for crowds heading to the Great Exhibition of 1851.

It took just three months to move the entire monument, stone-by-stone, under the watchful eye of another famous London architect, Thomas Cubitt, who was also responsible for many of Belgravia and Pimlico’s great residential squares.

Sadly, the need for new roads led to the Marble Arch being detached from Hyde Park in 1908, when a new carriageway was constructed to the south, and it became further isolated by road widening in the 1960s. Orphaned not once, but twice — first from the palace it served, then from the park.

To add insult to injury, in 2021 Nash and Bloore’s much changed monument was obscured by The Mound

To add insult to injury, in 2021 Nash and Bloore’s much changed monument was obscured by The Mound — a 25m high artificial hill. This temporary structure, designed to boost tourism in a post-Covid world, cost £6M and attracted 250,000 visitors for the six months that it was open.

There is a final twist in the story of Marble Arch’s changeable fortunes: one that ironically begins with it becoming even less visible. Last year English Heritage, who look after the arch, enclosed it in scaffolding. Over the decades the toll of pollution from the surrounding traffic, water damage, unwanted plant growth and the unforeseen impact of earlier attempts at cleaning have left the monument in a sorry state.

English Heritage therefore launched a thorough conservation campaign to restore it to its former glory — the Blore version, not the Nash one. The hoardings are due to come down later this year, when at last, we will all be able to enjoy this great London monument unhindered by scaffolding, roadworks or large artificial mounds of earth. And as for the future: English Heritage are considering how they might open the inside of the structure to more visits from the public — so hopefully we will be able to see much more of Marble Arch than ever before.

John Darlington is Director of Projects for World Monuments Fund