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The Strange History of Marble Arch


© 2019 Visiting London Guide.com – Photograph by Alan Kean

Many Londoners and visitors to London are confused by Marble Arch that stands rather forlorn on a large traffic island at the junction of Oxford Street, Park Lane and Edgware Road. The 19th-century white marble-faced arch was built with quite grand intentions which never really were realised.

© 2019 Visiting London Guide.com – Photograph by Alan Kean

John Nash was the favourite architect of the Prince Regent, later King George IV. Nash had successfully designed and planned such landmarks as Regent’s Park, Regent Street, Carlton House Terrace and parts of Buckingham Palace. Therefore Nash was the obvious choice to build a ‘Marble Arch’ which would be a gateway to Buckingham Palace and a celebration of British victories in the Napoleonic Wars.

Nash’s original design was based on the Arch of Constantine in Rome and the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. Nash had a model made which is now in the Victoria and Albert Museum that illustrates his design which was approved by George IV. The arch is faced with Carrara marble with other select marble extracted from quarries near Seravezza. The various sculptures and a equestrian statue of George IV that would crown the structure were commissioned in 1828.

However, after the death of the King George IV in 1830, Nash was sacked by the Prime Minister, the Duke of Wellington, for overspending on the project. The architect Edward Blore was commissioned to complete the works in less grandiose and more practical fashion.

© 2019 Visiting London Guide.com – Photograph by Alan Kean

Blore found himself with a collection of statues and panels, but decided to complete the Arch without using most of the sculpture. The Arch was completed in 1833, the central gates were added in 1837, just in time for Queen Victoria’s accession to the throne.

Blore used some of the friezes made for Nash’s arch in the central courtyard of Buckingham Palace. In 1835 many of the sculptures were given to William Wilkins to use in the construction of the new National Gallery. The Equestrian Statue of George IV, by Francis Chantrey that was due to be on top of the arch now stands on a plinth in Trafalgar Square.

Blore’s revised Marble Arch was erected as a formal gateway to Buckingham Palace in the 1830s but only lasted for seventeen years because when Buckingham Palace was enlarged, the arch seemed small and insignificant.

In 1850, the decision was taken to move the Arch to its current location of Cumberland Gate where it would create a grand entrance to Hyde Park in time for the Great Exhibition of 1851. The removal and reconstruction of the Arch was overseen by architect Thomas Cubitt who completed the complex process in only three months.

With vast crowds of people arriving for the Great Exhibition in Hyde Park, Marble Arch was considered a grand entrance to the park. Marble Arch became a familiar landmark and played its role as an entrance for more than 50 years. However this was to change in 1908 when a new road scheme cut through the park just south of the Arch leaving it separated from Hyde Park. In the 1960s, the roads were widened still further, leaving the Arch in its isolated position and effectively cut off from the park.

© 2019 Visiting London Guide.com – Photograph by Alan Kean

In 1970, the Arch gained its Grade I listed status and small park created around the Arch. Since then there has been a number of ‘ideas’ to relocate the structure but it is still remains a familiar if unusual landmark near the busy roads of Central London.

© 2019 Visiting London Guide.com – Photograph by Alan Kean

Like many London structures, there has been a number of ‘urban myths’ related to the arch. It is often said that the Arch was removed from Buckingham Palace because it was too narrow to allow Queen Victoria’s State Coach through. In reality, Queen Victoria’s coronation procession and Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation procession passed through the Arch with no problems. The second myth is that Marble Arch was a former Police Station. It was used by the police for accommodation and surveillance but was not a police station. Part of the myth can be traced to poet, Sir John Betjeman who filmed inside Marble Arch for a 1960s TV documentary and mentioned it was a police station.

© 2019 Visiting London Guide.com – Photograph by Alan Kean

Marble Arch is one of London’s landmarks and has led to the area around the Arch to be known as Marble Arch with its own tube station on the Central line. The location of the Arch has been a famous site for centuries, nearby was the former site of the Tyburn gallows, a place of public execution from 14th to 18th century.

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