A Closer Look At Some Of London's 10,000 Lions

Laura Reynolds
By Laura Reynolds Last edited 14 months ago

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A Closer Look At Some Of London's 10,000 Lions

The lions are coming back! After a brief hiatus, lions are returning to London Zoo this month with the opening of the shiny new Land of the Lions exhibit (we've had a sneak preview and we were thoroughly impressed). You can even spend a night with them if you're feeling brave enough.

To celebrate their return, London Zoo is running a competition: take a selfie with one of London's 10,000 lion statues, and you could win tickets to see the zoo's real lions.

To get your creative juices flowing, we've taken a closer look at some of London's most well-known lions.

Embankment mooring ring lions

Photo: Stephanie Sadler

Ever noticed these lion head mooring rings on South Bank embankment, outside County Hall? They're well worth keeping an eye on.

They're used as a river flood level monitor. Superstition has it that when the water gets high enough that the lions start drinking, London's at risk of flooding.

The lions were sculpted by Timothy Butler for Sir Joseph Bazalgette’s Victorian sewage works programme in 1868-70.

“When the lions drink, London will sink” “When it’s up to their manes, we’ll go down the drains”

The Westminster Bridge lion

Photo: Clara on the Road

For a lion that weighs around 13 tonnes, the Westminster Bridge lion has been around a bit.

It started its leonine life on top of the Lion Brewery, which sat on South Bank until it was demolished in 1949 to make way for the Royal Festival Hall.  

The lion then took up residence near Waterloo Station, at the entrance to the 1951 Festival of Britain. Here it was painted red, and stayed put until 1966, when it was stripped of the red paint and moved to its current location.

When it was removed from the brewery, the initials of the sculptor William Frederick Woodington and the date, 24 May 1837 were found engraved under one of its paws.

The statue was given a Grade II* listing by English Heritage in 1981.

This lion was one of two that were salvaged from the Lion Brewery, known collectively as the Coade Stone Lions. The other stands near the Rowland Hill Memorial Gate at Twickenham Stadium.

The second of the Coade Stone Lions, in situ in Twickenham. Photo: Peter Denton

The Sotheby's lion

Above the entrance to Sotheby's auctioneers in New Bond Street is a carving of a lion. Not only does this lay claim to being London's oldest lion, it's also London's oldest outdoor statue.

The basalt carving depicts Sekhmet, the ancient Egyptian lion goddess. It dates back to around 1320 BC, making it over 3,000 years old.

How did it come to be on New Bond Street then? In the 1880s, Sekhmet was sold at a Sotheby's auction for £40, but the buyer never collected it. Presumably it was left gathering dust somewhere for a couple of decades before being installed in its current vantage point in 1917.

Trafalgar Square (Landseer) lions

Photo: David Holt

The most famous lions in London, possibly the world, are the Trafalgar Square lions, which are the subject of thousands of tourist photos every day. They're also known as the Landseer lions after the sculptor, Sir Edwin Landseer.

When Nelson's Column was built in 1840-1843, the original plan was to have the four lions surrounding it, but they weren't constructed until 25 years later, in 1868.

Landseer worked from real lion corpses and was often seen at what is now London Zoo, observing the behaviour of the living lions there. The sculptures have concave backs, but in real life, lion’s backs are convex when lying down. It's also been said that the lions' paws more closely resemble those of a domestic cat.

Leeds Mercury - Friday 14 November 1902 Image © THE BRITISH LIBRARY BOARD. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

As the newspaper article above shows, the lions were showing signs of wear and tear at the grand old age of 35, which caused outrage among the public, due to the amount of money that had been spent on them in the first place.

For more information about London's lion statues, we recommend reading London Pride: The 10,000 Lions Of London by Valerie Colin-Russ. For more information about Land of the Lions at ZSL London Zoo, which opens on 25 March, head to the ZSL website.

Last Updated 21 September 2016

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