The story of London’s best-known and best-loved statue and fountain did not begin with a chorus of acclaim. The statue was criticized as ugly and the basin below it was too small to catch the full flow of the water, so that passersby were sometimes soaked. The fountain was created by the brilliant sculptor Alfred Gilbert and the statue on top is made of aluminum, which was still a novel material at the time.
The winged figure was not intended as a celebration of the Greek god of love—the area around Piccadilly Circus was heavily frequented by prostitutes—but as a memorial to Lord Shaftesbury, the great philanthropist. Perched on one foot on top of the fountain, he was meant to be the Angel of Christian Charity. Originally he aimed his arrow, to “bury his shaft” as was punned, up Shaftesbury Avenue—but this would have become more difficult when he was moved from his original location in the 1980s. Lower down on the fountain is a lively display of fish and marine creatures.
The figure did not remotely resemble an angel and was scon dubbed Eros, which stuck. The monument was supposed to be paid for by public subscription, but Gilbert ended up having to pay much of the cost himself. Although he was immensely highly regarded and almost overwhelmed with commissions, he went bankrupt in 1901 and escaped abroad. However, in 192S he designed the striking memorial to Queen Alexandria in Marlborough Gate, beside St. James’s Palace.
Piccadilly Circus itself was created in 1819 by the architect John Nash as a circular open space linking Regent Street with the shops and malls of Piccadilly. Much altered since then, from 1910 it was dominated by giant advertising signs for Bovril and Schweppes. It came to be regarded as the hub of London, and Is one of the world’s most famous meeting places.