London is full of monuments to wars and battles, but one is conspicuous by it’s absence, Waterloo – but there was a plan for a triumphal arch in central London.
There is a bridge, although it was designed before the battle and was originally going to be called Strand Bridge, only renamed Waterloo bridge in 1817, a couple of years after the battle. Waterloo station was originally Waterloo Bridge Station, and while it has the grand memorial to the dead of WW1 above the main entrance, nothing to the battle it is indirectly named after.
The absence of so momentous a battle in the catalogue of monuments might seem odd to our eyes, but at the time, it was seen to be rather less triumphal than it does with the distance of history between us.
The scale of the battle and the huge number of dead, some 15,000 British, Belgians, Dutch and Germans, and around 25,000 dead French, the battle was seen as a horrific slaughter. Not worry of celebrating, but tolerated. It was also not seen as a British victory at the time, being an alliance of nations and the defeat only narrowly averted thanks to the arrival of the Prussian army.
With other major monuments taking sometimes several decades to raise money for, and those were the popular ones, a monument to the unpopular Waterloo seemed a distant prospect.
But one was designed.
The popular artist, John Martin planned a monument to sit above the new road leading from Regent’s Park to Oxford Circus, and he showed off the plans at the Royal Academy in 1820, the same year he started work on his most famous painting, Belshazzar’s Feast.
Although today John Martin is remembered for his massive fantastical paintings of biblical scenes, most of his time was given over to engineering and architecture, although was rather less success. So it’s not a huge surprise that such a man would turn his attention to a monument, which on a small scale would be a physical manifestation of his grand paintings.
Part of the difficulty with the plans as shown is that they don’t include the buildings that would eventually line the road being built. It’s shown more atmospherically than it would really have been, and John Martin simply couldn’t resist a decorative ruin in the background of one of his drawings.
What’s also less clear until you see a side elevation is that this monument was also a grand bridge over the road — as the sides were in fact steps leading up to the pillar on top of the arch.
As an artist, John Martin was successful, but as an architect, as interesting as his plans were, and there were many of them, he was utterly unable to persuade anyone to pay for them.
So this massive monument to the Battle of Waterloo, which today would be a huge tourist attraction in central London was not to be.
Monuments to the Battle of Waterloo were eventually erected, just not in London, although London did get a painting, in the Palace of Westminster, but not until 1861.
When researching, you sometimes come across the same name in an unrelated field, and it’s a remarkable coincidence that the Waterloo monument was designed by John Martin, and there is a brewery at Waterloo brewing Waterloo beer, established by a totally unrelated person, also called John Martin.
What were the chances?