Today we visit Victoria Tower Gardens next to The Houses of Parliament in Westminster, London, to take a look at a bronze sculpture by the French artist August Rodin.
The piece is called “The Burghers of Calais” and it has been placed within the shadow of Victoria Tower, which creates a very powerful juxtaposition indeed.
In today’s audio broadcast from Westminster we take an in depth look into the history of the sculpture, the location and the story which inspired Rodin to create this powerful work.
Make yourself a nice cup of tea and press play on the video above! The video includes a slideshow of various photographs taken by myself at the location as well as a great photograph of Victoria Gardens being constructed in the 1870s.
French sculptor Auguste Rodin (1840–1917)
Auguste Rodin was a French sculptor born in Paris on November 12, 1840. His realistic bronze, plaster and stone creations had a big impact on 20th century sculpture, modern art in general and his influence is still seen around the world through his famous pieces to this day.
Rodin is most famous for “The Thinker,” “The Kiss” and “The Gates of Hell”. In fact some of these individual works are inspired directly from his previous work “The Gates of Hell”. We will investigate this later in depth whilst looking at each individual piece, on location. The 3 works that I have mentioned (especially “The Thinker”) are probably some of the most famous recognisable sculptures ever.
Rodin became famous late in his life when he was in his forty’s and he would go on to become extremely wealthy.
He received 200,000 Francs per year for portraits alone! Compared to Amedeo Modigliani (a wonderful painter from the same time period, in Paris) who received 20 Francs per day or the magical pianist and eccentric composer Erik Satie who could not afford his rent of 35 Francs per quarter. All alive at the same time and became famous artists. Rodin was alive with the birth of the French impressionist movement and like Pablo Picasso was one of the few who benefited financially within his own lifetime and became fabulously wealthy.
The Rodin Museum, which opened in August 1919, in the Paris mansion that housed his studio during the last years of his life, is still open today. Rodin is regarded as the number one pioneer of modern sculpture by experts.
I will be visiting various Rodin sculptures and works around the world but today we start our journey with “The Burghers of Calais”.
Monument to The Burghers of Calais at Victoria Tower Gardens, next to Houses of Parliament in London
The sculpture can be found in Victoria Tower Gardens, Houses of Parliament in London. It was originally cast 1908 and unveiled on the 19th July 1915. Rodin personally came to London to advise on the installation.
The Gardens were created in the 1870s by the English civil engineer Joseph Bazalgette and it is part of the Thames Embankment.
Victoria Tower Gardens stands next to the Houses of Parliament, the Thames, Millbank and opposite Lambeth Palace, on the other side of the river.
I love the fact that the park officially opens at “dawn” and closes at “dusk”. Opposite, Millbank, which houses many International news studios (I’ve been interviewed many times in the building with Sky News), Westminster Abbey. This is a place of power.
Originally commissioned by the French city of Calais in 1885
Rodin was commissioned, in 1885, by the French city of Calais, to create a sculpture that commemorated the sacrifice and heroism of a prominent citizen called Eustache de Saint-Pierre, during the Hundred Years’ War (1337 to 1453) between England and France.
“Burghers” are defined as “a citizen of a town or city, typically a member of the wealthy bourgeoisie”.
Some say that Eustache de Saint-Pierre was the Mayor of the city, others that he was the richest citizen and others still that he was just a prominent man in the town. Possibly he was all of them! He, along with five from the city were to be sacrificed to save the rest of the city from complete annihilation from the army of King Edward III, who had besieged Calais.
The story which inspired the sculpture – a story of terror, death and sacrifice!
After King Edward III besieged Calais he ordered that the town’s population be wiped out completely. However, he later changed his mind and agreed to spare the majority if six prominent citizens would march to his camp to their deaths, bareheaded, barefooted, keys to the city in hand and with ropes around their necks!
When they came, he ordered that they be executed but was persuaded by his queen, Philippa of Hainault, to spare their lives because she thought it would bring bad luck on the family!
“The Burghers of Calais” depicts the men as they are walking to their deaths, towards the king’s camp, carrying the keys to the city gates. The King wasn’t a nice guy! However, at least he listened to his advisers and eventually spared their lives. They didn’t know that though and you can see there dread and terror.
Wikipedia tells us about the war:
“The Hundred Years’ War was a series of conflicts waged from 1337 to 1453 by the House of Plantagenet, rulers of the Kingdom of England, against the House of Valois, rulers of the Kingdom of France, for control of the latter kingdom. Each side drew many allies into the war. It was one of the most notable conflicts of the Middle Ages, in which five generations of kings from two rival dynasties fought for the throne of the largest kingdom in Western Europe. The war marked both the height of chivalry and its subsequent decline, and the development of strong national identities in both countries.”
The Sculpture itself was originally refused
The bronze sculpture weighs about two tons (1,814 kg), and its figures are 6.6 ft (2 m) tall. Rodin originally made them out of plaster and it was cast by Alexis Rudier Foundry – his favourite foundry. (They physically cast the sculpture in bronze from the original plaster).
Legally, there can only 12 copies made of a Rodin sculpture at any time in the world. They are currently all of over the world from the United States, to his own museum, to London, to the “original” in Calais. They are in different configurations.
The London version has them placed upon a pedestal. Rodin originally wanted them at ground level so that we, the observer can participate in the experience and see the suffering and emotion on the faces, at our own face level.
The population of Calais originally rejected the piece because they felt that it did not portray their heroes in a heroic way at all! The only way they could “dampen” the terror and obvious torment of these 6 walking to their deaths was to raise them up off the ground.
Another interesting thing is that you can’t view the sculpture from any one specific standpoint. You need to walk around it. You can take a listen to my thoughts and opinions, on location from the sculpture, as well as lot’s more history and details in my podcast.
THE LOCATION: The Burghers of Calais by Auguste Rodin
If you are passing by or looking for interesting free things to do in London, why not take a look?
Victoria Tower Gardens
Opening times: Dawn – Dusk
Nearest Underground: Westminster Station and Pimlico
Did you enjoy today’s broadcast? See you Wednesday!
By Anthony King (c)