Charles II

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The neglected king of King’s Square

Statue of Charles II, Soho Square, W1

Charles II by Caius Gabriel Cibber
Charles II, look­ing for­lorn

The Guide depicts two works by the 17th-cen­tu­ry Dan­ish sculp­tor Caius Gabriel Cib­ber. One is the piece enti­tled Rav­ing Mad­ness, which is on dis­play at Beth­lem Roy­al Hos­pi­tal Muse­um along­side its coun­ter­part Melan­choly. The oth­er is this stat­ue of Charles II, which stands, look­ing weath­er­beat­en and grim­ly for­lorn, in Soho Square Gar­den.

The son of the cab­i­net mak­er to the king of Den­mark, Cib­ber stud­ied carv­ing in Rome (where he adopt­ed a Lati­nate ver­sion of his birth name), came to Lon­don around 1660 and estab­lished his own stu­dio fol­low­ing a sev­en-year appren­tice­ship in Long Acre. His clas­si­cal­ly influ­enced style made him a favourite for offi­cial com­mis­sions and one of his last works, which he com­plet­ed a year before his death in 1700, was the recent­ly restored phoenix on the south ped­i­ment of St Paul’s Cathe­dral.

Many of Cibber’s works have not sur­vived – or at least not sur­vived well – because he was often asked to pro­duce out­door sculp­tures yet he usu­al­ly chose to work in Port­land stone, which is eas­i­ly and quick­ly carved but even­tu­al­ly suc­cumbs to dete­ri­o­ra­tion in the open air.

Amid Soho Square’s plen­ti­ful trees and flower beds, an eye­catch­ing mock-Tudor fol­ly and the crowds of bench-fill­ing break-tak­ers (who spill abun­dant­ly onto the lawns in sum­mer), it’s easy to over­look Cibber’s time-worn roy­al stat­ue. Yet it formed the cen­tre­piece when the gar­den was first laid out in the ear­ly 1680s, when Charles was still on the throne. At that time it stood atop a high pedestal in the basin of a foun­tain, and the square was called King’s Square after the stat­ue.

By the begin­ning of the 19th cen­tu­ry the foun­tain was no longer func­tion­ing, its basin had prob­a­bly been filled in and the stat­ue was already look­ing much the worse for wear and van­dal­ism. Nev­er­the­less, Charles remained in his focal posi­tion until 1875, when a hor­ti­cul­tur­al restora­tion project forced him to make way for the present glo­ri­fied gar­den­ers’ shed.

The food mag­nate Thomas Black­well (of Crosse & Black­well fame) bought the unwant­ed stat­ue as a gift to Fred­er­ick Goodall, his neigh­bour in Har­row Weald (now part of north-west Lon­don). The wealthy artist installed it on an island in a stretch of orna­men­tal water in the lush gar­dens of his new­ly built home, Grim’s Dyke (which is now a hotel). There it remained until Feb­ru­ary 1938, when it was restored to Soho Square accord­ing to the bequest of Lady Gilbert, wid­ow of the libret­tist WS Gilbert, who had bought Grim’s Dyke in 1890. It now stands just to the north of its orig­i­nal posi­tion, in the mid­dle of the path, with the king’s reat­tached, black­ened face resem­bling a spooky mask.

Soho Square Garden, London W1
Open from 8am until around dusk
Admission free
Nearest station: Tottenham Court Road (Central and Northern lines)
NearbyDenmark Street