Been past the Wellington Arch at Hyde Park Corner recently? It's wearing a giant polythene top hat. See:
Our initial fears — construction of an exclusive new penthouse — were calmed by English Heritage, who told us that the gigantic sculpture on top of the arch is undergoing restoration work. Known as the Quadriga, it depicts a chariot of war pulled by four horses, and stalked by an angel of peace. Here's how it normally looks, as depicted by Stuart Sunley in the Londonist Flickr pool.
As you can see, it's hard to fully appreciate this monumental bit of bronze from ground level. It's very high up, and the arch tends to get in the way. The public galleries inside the arch do offer a view from the balconies — but even then, you only really get a view up the horses' nostrils. So when English Heritage invited us up into their scaffolding to inspect the Quadriga, we said 'yes'.
On first clambering up onto the roof, it's clear that we're in the presence of a monumental bit of sculpture. The chariot's wheels, which you can't even see in the photo above, are as tall as a garden shed.
The level of sculptural detail is astonishing, given that only the pigeons, sparrows and occasional maintenance workers are ever up here. Sculptor Adrian Jones recognised that the Quadriga, completed in 1912, would be seen as his life's masterpiece, and he clearly hasn't cut any corners. That said, the emblems around the rim of the wheel include the rose of England, the thistle of Scotland and the shamrock of Ireland (then part of the UK), but nothing for the Welsh. And he calls himself Jones?
We actually got to clamber up inside the chariot. There's not much to see — other than a plaque from the last clean-up in 2000 —but here's a shot, just to prove we did it.
There's room to hold a small tea party inside. In fact, Adrian Jones did just that — joining two of his assistants inside the plaster mould of one of the horses.
The four horses are magnificent, with or without tea. Before turning to sculpture, Jones served as a military vet. His anatomical expertise is apparent in every stretched sinew and throbbing artery. Again, bear in mind that this statue gets seen by perhaps a dozen humans every decade.
Eerily, the legs were warm to the touch, thanks to conducted heat from a blow torch elsewhere on the sculpture. English Heritage's team of conservation experts is giving the ensemble a deep clean, removing years of grime, pollution and applying a protective layer of wax.
It's a mighty task, given that this is one of the largest bronze sculptures in Europe. In a peculiar if inspired partnership, the project is supported by Cif (the cleaning product still widely known as Jif). No bathroom mousse will be touching our historic monuments though; the relationship is purely financial.
And so, up to the angel herself. She's a real beaut, simultaneously peaceful and powerful, unfazed by the careering horses and roaring engines below. Her smooth bronze skin belies over 100 years' exposure to wind, rain and pigeon poop. We gave her a peck on the cheek when no one was looking.
Still one storey higher, a conservationist is busy polishing up a wing tip. Here we find the laurel wreath, straining through the planking like a scene from a Terry Gilliam cartoon.
This major renovation should see the Quadriga good for another few decades. It is a remarkable piece of art, up close or from afar. The largest bronze sculpture in London deserves to be better known. As if to emphasise its eminence, we were treated to a drive-by from the Queen — taking a short cut around Hyde Park Corner. She lives next door, but we suspect even Her Majesty has never been up close and personal with the Quadriga.
The Quadriga is out of bounds to the public, but you can visit Wellington Arch during normal opening hours. The visit includes access to viewing balconies just below the Quadriga, as well as an exhibition about the history of the arch.