Girls About Town: Women In London’s Public Art

By Ellie Broughton Last edited 96 months ago
Girls About Town: Women In London’s Public Art

The statue of Louisa Aldrich-Blake in Tavistock Square. Photo by firstnameunknown from the Londonist Flickr pool.

Who are the caryatids on the Euston Road, which pub was named after a Titanic survivor, and whose statue now stands on the site she burned to the ground?

Images of women can be found in London’s parks, churches and on pub signs, and their stories often go untold even though we pass them daily. Not every woman immortalised in stone or paint is being celebrated, but they have all been chosen to be remembered by London’s sculptors, architects and artists.


While some women in our public art are heroes or other notable people from history, others are characters from fiction. In the corner of Hyde Park, Jacob Epstein’s sculpture — extremely controversial when it was first unveiled — is dedicated to the writer and ornithologist WH Hudson. The avant-garde nude in bas relief depicts Rima, a character from his 1904 novel Green Mansions.

Also fictional are the four statues that guard the crypt at St Pancras New Church on Euston Road, which have gazed down on Londoners for over a century. The caryatids, to give them their proper name, are Victorian statues from the Ancient Greek revival of the 19th century, and are inspired by the Erechtheion temple on the Acropolis, Athens. One of the originals on which these were based was until recently held at the British Museum as part of the controversial Elgin Marbles collection. Fun fact: the statues were originally too tall for the space they were going to occupy, and required a section to be cut from their midriffs in order to fit, hence appearing more stocky than their Greek counterparts.

Away from fictional characters, there are many statues of inspiring women in the capital. One such as is that of Louisa Aldrich-Blake, one of the first women in the UK to work as a doctor. Blake was a surgeon and anaesthetist at a now-defunct hospital in Bloomsbury that was run by the University College Hospital. Her life has been commemorated by a statue in nearby Tavistock Square. Like many women during World War One, she found that the chaos of the period helped her gain hands-on experience that would likely have been denied to her in peace time.

Boudica by Joep Roosen from the Londonist Flickr pool.

Speaking of war, Boudica is (probably) the only person whose statue has been raised close to the spot she had razed to the ground. Her statue at Westminster Bridge is one of the most iconic in the capital, and as well as inspiring the artist Marc Quinn's fourth plinth statue of Alison Lapper, was reimagined by Matt Bannister, sitting stuck in a traffic jam.

Less noble, but just as important, are the statues of the bluecoats. They represent locations of free schools, which pioneered free education to both sexes in the UK. You can see bluecoats girls at a number of locations including St Andrew's in Holborn, Raine Street School in Wapping and St Mary Rotherhithe. Among those who profited from a charity school education were the explorer David Thompson, who went on to map nearly 4 million square miles of the Canadian wilderness.

The Caryatids at St Pancras New Church. Photo by Lindsey from the Londonist Flickr pool


Sticking with inspirational women, the mural at Stockwell roundabout features an image of Violette Szabo, a French migrant whose family settled in Brixton before the Second World War; who then became a special agent for the Allies.

But the people depicted don’t have to be outstanding in their field. Louise Vines’ mural on Noel Street, Soho, based on Shelley’s Ode to the West Wind, features a woman who is Vines’ friend.

Pub signs

Less noble than marble sculpture or memorials to war heroes, are London’ pub signs. Despite the fact women haven’t always been welcome in them, they have lent their names to a number of drinking establishments over the years, and still appear on the artwork outside. The Betsey Trotwood in Clerkenwell adopted its name relatively late — dropping its old identity as The Butcher’s Arms in 1983 — and with its new Dickens-derived name (she's a character in David Copperfield) came poetry nights and book launches.

But pubs can remember other notable women: for example the Wetherspoon pub in Chadwell Heath, The Eva Hart, took its name from a Londoner who survived the sinking of the Titanic aged just seven. The Charlotte Despard in Archway is named after the suffragette, pacifist, vegetarian, and tireless anti-poor campaigner. It was the road which the pub is on which was named first, but as she is such an inspirational woman it's no surprise she has the double honour.

What are your favourite women in public art? Have we missed any important examples? Let us know, leave a comment below or send us an email at

Last Updated 23 September 2014