Thursday, 16 September 2010

The Lion and the Cock Statue on Blenheim Palace

Jonathan Foyle's fantastic program 'Climbing Great Buildings' last night centred on Blenheim Palace in Oxfordshire, one of Britain’s most famous stately homes. Blenheim was awarded to the Duke of Marlborough for his victory over the French and Bavarians at ... you guessed it... the Battle of Blenheim. Foyle began the program (available on BBC iPlayer) by looking at how ‘the tale of the Duke’s heroism was translated into stone through flamboyant sculpture’. The best example of this is perhaps the statue of the English lion savaging the French cock.

Climbing Great Buildings, 8.Blenheim Palace: http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b00tv99n/Climbing_Great_Buildings_Blenheim_Palace/ 
 
The symbol of the English lion – and later the British lion – as a representation of state victories was relatively original in the eighteenth century (A blog on the history of the symbol is forthcoming, hopefully). As with all novelties, the statue of the lion devouring the cock attracted much attention- most of it negative. Joseph Addison writing in The Spectator in 1711 regarded it as a ‘blemish’:

Such a Device in so noble a Pile of Building looks like a Punn in an Heroick Poem; and I am  very sorry the truly ingenious Architect would suffer the Statuary to blemish his excellent Plan with so poor a Conceit.[1]

Eighteen years later complaints were still being levelled that the device was ‘A conceit so low in so noble a Pile of Building...in an Age, when Arts, Learning and Politeness shine with the greatest lustre’.[2] Alexander Pope also refers to the statue in his poem ‘Upon The Duke of Malborough’s House at Woodstock’:

                ‘See, sir, here’s the grand approach,
                This way is for his Grace’s coach:
                There lies the bridge, and here’s the clock,
                Observe the lion and the cock,
                The spacious court, the colonnade,
                And mark how wide the hall is made![3]
 
But to Pope, and many others, the building was simply too extravagant for British tastes and the lion statue was a particularly fitting example of this pomposity. The baroque phase did not last long in Britain as it was seen to be too flamboyant, grandiose and had a certain lack of charm and purpose as Pope concluded:

   ‘Thanks, sir,’ cried I, ‘‘tis very fine,
                But where d’ye sleep, or where d’ye dine?
                I find by all you have been telling
                That ‘tis a house, but not a dwelling.’[4]


[1] Joseph Addison, The Spectator, vol.1, No.59, May 8, 1711
[2] ‘An Enqiry into the original Meaning of cock-throwing on shrove-Tuesday’, The Present State of the Republick of Letters, Volume 04 , Article. 10,  February 1729, p.94 (pp.90-98)
[3] Alexander Pope, Upon the Duke of Malborough’s House at Woodstock.
[4] Alexander Pope, Upon the Duke of Malborough’s House at Woodstock.

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