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A guest post by LH Member Valerie Colin-Russ.

London’s oldest lion statues are not native Londoners but took up residence here many years ago.  The very oldest pair, five thousand years old, were two of three brought to London at the end of the nineteenth century by the eminent Egyptologist, Sir Flinders Petrie.  Both unfortunately broke into fragments on the journey and remained in the crates in which they arrived until archaeologists reconstituted them between 1980 and 1982, since when they have found a home in University College.  The third lion was smaller and arrived intact and was used as a model for the others’ reconstruction.  This smaller one now lives in the Ashmolean at Oxford.

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London’s oldest lion, one of two held in University College London.

Various London museums are home to several other ancient foreign lions (who have not been shattered and reconstructed) who are now long-established London residents.   For instance in the British museum can be found several such, including two beautiful Egyptian ones, made of  red granite, dating from 1400 BC, an Assyrian lion dating from 860 BC  and one from Halikarnassos from the fourth century BC.  One from Knidos (the date is disputed between the fourth and second centuries BC) stands in the museum’s Great Court.

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Halikarnassos Lion in the British Museum.

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Egyptian Lion, British Museum.

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Assyrian Lion, British Museum.

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Knidos lion in the Great Court of the British Museum.

The oldest native London lion dates from Roman London and was found in Camomile Street  in a bastion of the City wall but probably came from a Roman cemetery nearby and was  then reused as building material in the construction of the wall.  This lion has an animal in its mouth and is thought to represent the all-devouring jaws of death.  He dates from the fourth or fifth century AD and now lives in the Museum of London.

The oldest London lions still in their original position, although inevitably considerably weathered, are the pair on the York Watergate dating from 1626.  The gate is all that remains of York House, the home of the Duke of Buckingham, and once led from his garden to the river when the Thames was much wider before the construction of the Embankment.  One other seventeenth century lion survives in much better condition, standing guard (with a companion unicorn) at the beginning of Palace Avenue, the road leading from Kensington Road to Kensington Palace while a rather grumpy-looking pair sit atop the Lion Gate at Hampton Court and date from about 1700.

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York Watergate near Victoria Embankment.

However, the heyday of London’s lions was from the beginning of the nineteenth century until the start of the second world war; it was essentially in the days of Empire that the London lion really flourished!


DSC00653_250These facts have been extracted from a book by one of our members, Valerie Colin-Russ,  which was published in 2012 by Frances Lincoln Ltd called “London Pride”; she had tracked down over 10,000 lion statues in Greater London. All images in the above article are by Valerie Colin-Russ.

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