The Statue of Eros in London's Piccadilly Circus
A remarkable memorial to a remarkable man
The status of Eros in Piccadilly Circus is one of the best-known “sights of London”, especially since it ceased to be in the middle of a roundabout at one of the capital’s busiest junctions. It has several features of interest that relate to its construction and significance.
A memorial to a remarkable man
The statue is part of a memorial to the 7th Earl of Shaftesbury (1801-85) who worked to improve conditions for children who worked in factories and mines. Shaftesbury Avenue, which is one of the streets that leads into Piccadilly Circus, was also named in his honour.
Anthony Ashley Cooper came from a highly privileged background but was horrified when he discovered the conditions under which some of the poorest people in Victorian England were forced to earn a living. He was particularly concerned with the plight of children, some as young as seven or eight, who were forced to work for long hours in unsafe and insanitary conditions in mines and factories.
It seems incredible to us today that he faced strong opposition to his proposal to limit the working day of children aged nine (and up to 13) to only ten hours, but that was the case. Eventually he won through, and he also instigated major reforms in education for the poor and in provision for people with severe mental illnesses.
The statue of Eros
The statue dates from 1893 and was the work of Sir Alfred Gilbert. He used as his model a 16-year old boy who was his studio assistant.
Oddly enough, the statue is not really “Eros” at all. The image of a winged boy armed with a bow and arrow, who makes people fall in love when an arrow finds its mark, is a familiar one from works of art going back to classical times. However, the statue in Piccadilly Circus was intended to portray the “Angel of Christian Charity”.
Sir Alfred had already created a statue of Anteros, who is Eros’s twin brother in Greek myth, and he simply made another Anteros when asked to produce a suitable memorial to Lord Shaftesbury. Anteros, as the god of selfless love, was a far more suitable image to commemorate a man who displayed that sentiment so openly, but in the public mind the statue was always that of Eros, the much less appropriate god of physical love!
The name Eros is the root of “erotic”, and there is a strange coincidence in that this district of London has long been associated with love of a much earthier kind than is commemorated by the memorial. Only a few yards away are the remnants of London’s former red light district, with its still existing peepshows, massage parlours and other such entertainments.
Sir Alfred may also have had in mind a pun on Lord Shaftesbury’s name, given that the figure is seen “burying a shaft”. Needless to say, this supposed meaning has nothing at all to do with the origin of the name of the town in Dorset from which the family took its title.
A novel feature of the statue is that it was cast in aluminium (the first public memorial ever to have been made from this material) and is thus very light in weight. Despite being seven feet tall it could be carried around Sir Alfred’s studio by one person.
The lightness of the statue is one reason why it can be displayed as it is. It stands atop an elaborate fountain, supported on the ball of one foot with the other leg extending in one direction and the bow arm in the other, and the two huge wings stretching upwards and outwards. Had the statue been cast in bronze it is doubtful if Eros’s ankle could have stood the strain of wind and weather for more than a century.
That said, the statue did require repair in 1993 after a drunken reveller climbed up the fountain on New Year’s Eve and swung from the outstretched leg!