In 1893, Alfred Gilbert unveiled his memorial to the philanthropist Lord Shaftesbury. Titled ‘The Angel of Christian Charity’ and modelled on the iconic image of Agape, the Greek God of selflessness, it has been mistaken for ‘Eros’ by tourists and Evening Standard journalists ever since. The tale that lies behind it is a sad one. Public scandal over the sculpture’s explicit use of the naked male form dominated its reception, and Gilbert never received credit for its innovative design and revolutionary use of aluminium as a casting material for public sculpture. The sculptor’s subsequent bankruptcy and self-imposed exile in Belgium curiously foreshadowed later events relating to a statue in this location.
Almost 100 years later Piccadilly Circus found itself at the forefront of sculptural experimentation of a different kind. At the opening of Madame Tussaud’s Rock Circus in the old London Pavillion ten life-sized statues were unveiled on the balcony the building. Representing the pantheon of rock greats, these statues sparked a remarkably similar public debate. The argument split along two lines: ‘Is it right that we should elevate mere entertainers to the status of national heroes?’ and, more importantly, ‘Did they pick the right ones?’ Cast in fibreglass and treated with a paint specially created for the commission by Courtauld Chemicals, the statues were the work of James Butler, RA (b.1931) and took just over a year to complete.