King Alfred the Great Statue in Winchester, by Hamo Thornycroft

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Hamo Thornycroft’s statue of Alfred the Great in Winchester is undoubtedly one of the most noble memorial statues in the country. It just misses the Victorian era, being put up in 1902, and attracted much positive comment from when models of it were first exhibited. As the Magazine of Art put it:

'The figure of the King is necessarily a purely ideal one, as no portraits of him exist in any form. The artist’s endeavour was, therefore, to typify as closely as possible the character and aspirations of our national hero. King Alfred’s two leading aims were to rid his country of the pagan Norsemen and to advance Christianity and civilisation among his people. The artist has therefore represented him with uplifted sword – the hilt symbolising the cross – addressing his countrymen. As the father and protector of his people he is given a shield, and to represent the simplicity of the age in which he lived his statue is placed on a great half-hewn monolith, which rests upon a huge horizontal unhewn rock cropping out of a barrow-like grass mound. The whole work is encircled by a massive granite curb, which separates it from the traffic of the Broadway of the City. The statue is two and a half times the size of nature, the total height being forty feet. The granite monolith pedestal weighs forty tons.'

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There are of course other statues of King Alfred the Great, but none so impressive as that in Winchester, his capital. Free-standing monuments to King Alfred stand in Wantage, Oxfordshire, where he was born, and in the village of Pewsey, where he was a great landowner. Both statues are in stone. The Wantage Alfred, by Count Victor Gleichen (father of the better known Feodora von Gleichen), is a significant work by this sculptor. Alfred is shown holding a heavy axe resting against the ground in one hand, a scroll in the other. He wears a helmet, a short tunic, has his cloak over his arm, and has shaggy Saxon leggings. The Pewsey statue has him crowned, with sword in hand, point resting on the floor, and the other hand on the rim of his shield. Although both versions are armed, in neither is Alfred in warlike posture, for he is remembered not just for his achievements in battle but also as a bringer of unity and a statesman, a bringer of reform and education.

An interesting older statue of Alfred the Great, or supposed to be him, stands in Trinity Church Square, London, in which he is shown as a peacable, rather religious-looking figure in long robes and wearing a crown; whatever he held in the one hand is lost, but seems unlikely from the posture to have been something as heavy as a sword. This figure may be medieval, from Westminster Hall, but is not mentioned in a late 18th century list of statues there. It is certainly no younger than the 1820s, and may be an 18th Century work by Rysbrack.

I note from the Internet a King Alfred Tower in Somerset, near Stourhead, at the site of one of his victorious battles, with a figure of Alfred in high up in a niche, wearing armour and a crown, hand on the hilt of his sword, other hand against his breast, the whole having some degree of flair.

As well, there exist statues of Alfred as part of a pantheon of kings or historically significant figures, thus on the exterior of the Houses of Parliament (an Alfred and his mother, by J. E. Boehm, is inside but I have not seen it), at Lichfield Cathedral (an unlikely figure seated cross legged and playing a harp, presumably 1890s), and back in Winchester, as one of an ensemble on a portico of the Cathedral in a standing, armoured version. Also in Winchester, the ancient Butter Cross bears four figures, one of which is clearly King Alfred; this again is a 19th Century figure, as in the late 18th Century only a single, clerical figure was emplaced.

So much for figures of King Alfred. We may note that Winchester has other good sculptural things, including as well as the Butter Cross, a series of little scenes featuring King Alfred, above the windows of the Winchester Guildhall, the variety of monuments in the Cathedral, and the best of all Queen Victoria statues, a fantastical enthroned figure with much decoration, by Alfred Gilbert, which stands in the medieval Great Hall. A few of these are noted and pictured on these pages on this page.

There is a separate page devoted to the sculptor, the excellent Hamo Thornycroft, and we only note here that he was particularly good with heroic male figures, including his epic peasants (The Sower, The Mower etc), a noble Cromwell outside the Houses of Parliament, and a martial St Michael, among others.

[This page was originally part of a 'sculpture of the month' series, for February 2012. Although the older pages in that series have been absorbed within the site, if you would wish to follow the original monthly series, then jump to the next month (March 2012) or the previous month (January 2012). To continue, go to the bottom of each page where a paragraph like this one allows you to continue to follow the monthly links.]

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