Who is this?
If you said Eros, you are incorrect. Probably.
If you — like the clever clogs that you are — said Anteros, then you might still be incorrect. Possibly.
The statue's identity is a bit of a mystery. People will assert, with great authority, that 'Eros' is really 'Anteros', or sometimes the 'Angel of Christian Charity'. But how are they so sure? Where is the evidence?
It is definitely Anteros, though, isn't it?
The Anteros identity makes a lot of sense. Anteros was the god of reflective love, while Eros catered for romantic love. The former is therefore a better fit for the sober, philanthropic character of Lord Shaftesbury, whom the monument commemorates.
This attribution is often backed up with a quote from the sculptor Sir Alfred Gilbert, who wanted to depict 'reflective and mature love, as opposed to Eros or Cupid, the frivolous tyrant'.
Gilbert may well have said this, but no reference is ever given (other than circular links back to the Wikipedia page, or QI). A bit of vigorous googling reveals that the quote comes from a 1921 book about Gilbert. From the short excerpt available, it does not sound as though the author is describing the Eros statue at all, but a pair of statuettes.
Gilbert was coy and contradictory when talking about his famous winged figure. One quote we found suggests that the statue is neither Eros nor Anteros, but a nameless representation of Shaftesbury's love for the people. As Gilbert says in 1903:
...if I must confess to a meaning or a raison d'être for its being there, I confess to have been actuated in its design by a desire to symbolize the work of Lord Shaftesbury; the blindfolded Love sending forth indiscriminately, yet with purpose, his missile of kindness...
Which is a bit odd, as Eros is not blindfolded.
What did people call Eros when they first saw him?
The statue, and the memorial fountain on which it sits, were unveiled in 1893. There are many press reports both praising and trashing the new landmark. While the monument is referred to as the Shaftesbury Memorial Fountain, nobody is keen to name the winged figure on top. No Eros. No Anteros. The statue is described variously as a 'winged figure', a cupid, or a 'genius of place'.
The only ones to name it are the Aberdeen Evening Express and Edinburgh Evening News. They both plump for 'a statue of Lord Shaftesbury', as though the peer possessed a pair of wings and a fondness for naked toxophily. Someone, it seems, had garbled a telegram to Scotland.
The press remain silent on the name of the statue until some 20 years after its unveiling. Only then do we find a few candidates, including Eros.
A 1914 opinion poll
In 1914, a Mr Sigismund Poetz conducted an opinion poll in which he asked 'What is the figure on the monument in Piccadilly Circus?'. The results were published in the 16 June 1914 edition of the Daily Record.
42% of people answered Mercury — a puzzling reply, given that the god Mercury only ever has wings on his hat and heels, not on his back.
29% had no idea.
13% reckoned it was 'some kind of genius' — as in a genius loci, a spirit of place.
11% thought the statue was 'a female', without further elaboration.
Only 5% said 'Eros', which was said by Poetz to be the 'right answer'.
In 1914, then, hardly anyone identified the statue as Eros, even though that was deemed the correct answer. Today, almost everyone calls him Eros, though pedants will tell us this is the incorrect answer. The truth can be a slippery beast.
The statue seems to have taken on its popular identity sometime during the first world war. It was during these years that the name Eros begins to appear in the newspapers, indicating that it had caught on with the public.
One memorable incident occurred just after the war. Eros was returned to his perch in 1919, having been been placed in storage as a precaution against bombing raids. Unfortunately, he was positioned with his bow pointing towards his own chest.
An article from that same year reports a 'popular delusion' that the figure is Mercury or Cupid, when in fact it is Eros.
An Illustrated London News article from 6 February 1971 adds a further twist. It claims that the identity of 'Eros' was chosen by Gilbert himself, and that the sculptor had confided this to his friend Sir Seymour Hicks.
Angel of Christian Charity
Yet another name for the statue is the Angel of Christian Charity. This seems to have taken hold fairly early on, as the most tasteful interpretation of a naked youth. During the memorial's unveiling in 1893, The Times described the wider fountain as 'illustrative of Christian charity', and this may be where the 'Angel of Christian Charity' identity for Eros first came from.
By the middle of the 20th century, this name seems to have been adopted as a pseudo-official title, while 'Eros' was still acknowledged as the popular name. A syndicated article in 1923 would have us believe that Gilbert himself came up with the name though. Again, no further reference is given.
What, then, of Anteros?
The idea that the statue represents Anteros, brother of Eros, does not seem to have held much sway until very recently. We can find no historical record, in the newspaper archives or elsewhere, to support this identity until a passing mention in a 1984 edition of the Illustrated London News. This is the earliest story we can find that links Anteros with Piccadilly Circus — except for the dubious citation to the 1921 book mentioned above.
It's quite possible that Gilbert did have Anteros in mind. He had sculpted representations of the deity in the past, and Anteros is a good fit for the embodiment of Shaftesbury's selfless love. If anybody can track down a reliable, sourced quote, we'd love to hear about it in the comments.
The statue's creator, Alfred Gilbert, was a mischievous gentleman. He seems to have told different people, at different times, that he considered his most famous work to be Eros, Anteros, the Angel of Christian Charity, and a nameless embodiment of love.
That being the case, we have to look away from the artist if we're going to pin down some kind of official name. Westminster City Council, the statue's local authority, consistently refer to it as 'Eros (Shaftesbury Memorial)'. This would also be the democratic consensus. A poll today would undoubtedly show that the statue was most commonly thought of as Eros. Why don't we go with the will of the people and adopt this as the official name?
The alternative is to take up an entirely new identity. We recommend Prince Vultan (from Flash Gordon). It was Gilbert's dying wish, we hear.