London’s Strangest Sculpture
Along the Thames Path – specifically, Glaisher Street in Deptford – it’s not easy to miss what just might be London’s strangest sculpture.
There’s a naval figure and a canon. Well, we’re in the Docklands, so that seems legit.
But then you see he’s got a teeny tiny head.
Ok. Then you spot the inexplicable dwarf. And then you’re lost.
LONDON’S STRANGEST SCULPTURE?
So what on earth is the story…
The statue was erected in 2000, it was designed by Mihail Chemiakin (sculptor) and Viacheslav (Architect).
A gift from the people of Russia, it commemorates Tsar Peter the Great’s visit to London.
TSAR PETER THE GREAT in LONDON
Peter the Great was in England from 11 January 1698 until 21 April that same year. His trip (taking in the shipyards of Holland as well as London) was mean to be one of research, the end goal to establish the first Russian Navy.
You’d expect that Kings wouldn’t look to kindly on foreign visitors poking around for trade tips, but William III – the Dutch Prince turned English King in 1688 – was keen to welcome increased trade with Russia.
While here he went by the name of Peter Mikhailov. This has been taken as a sign he was trying to hide is true identity, but it could’ve simply been a tactic to avoid the time-sucking ceremonies of an official State Visit.
This makes sense because even with a name change Peter the Great would’ve stood out. He was apparently 6ft 7” tall so the chances of this Russia Tsar blending in seem slim!
Portrait of Russian Tsar Peter I the Great by Godfrey Kneller (1698). Credit: Wikipedia Commons
Peter and his entourage landed at York Water Gate by Embankment Station.
At the time this would’ve met the River Thames, but Bazalgette’s embankment now means it’s stranded 100m away from the water.
The ‘entourage’ needs some further explanation as it sheds light on some strange aspects of the sculpture.
It included; “Four chamberlains, three interpreters, two clocksmiths, a cook, a priest, six trumpeters, 70 soldiers as tall as their monarch, four dwarves and a monkey.” (Telegraph)
I suppose that explains the shorter figure on the left.
From February the group had moved to Deptford, staying in Sayes Court, close to the shipyards.
The house was owned by John Evelyn but sadly the pair never met. A shame because Evelyn’s diary could have provided some further insight.
However the Servants at Sayes Court shed light on the behaviour of the Russian court in Deptford. The following passage is from Ian Grey’s ‘Peter the Great in England’ (1956) reproduced in Sarah Young’s article which has further information about Peter in London.
“No part of the house escaped damage. All the floors were covered with grease and ink, and three new floors had to be provided. The tiled stoves, locks to the doors, and all the paint work had to be renewed. The curtains, quilts, and bed linen were ‘tore in pieces.’ All the chairs in the house, numbering over fifty, were broken, or had disappeared, probably used to stoke the fires. Three hundred window panes were broken and there were ‘twenty fine pictures very much tore and all frames broke.’ The garden which was Evelyn’s pride was ruined.”
Maybe it’s better that Evelyn never met Peter, it sounds like they were the Airbnb guests from hell.
The Sayes Court estate was broken after Evelyn died (1706) and today Sayes Court Park survives on the spot.
Understanding a little of the history, it becomes slightly clearer as to why this sculpture is so strange. However, according to the Russian inscription on the plinth – translated at London Remembers – the original intention was to have several dwarfs baring their buttocks!
What a missed opportunity…
Watch my YouTube video below about two more intriguing riverside statues along this stretch of Thames Path