Sir Arthur Sullivan (1842-1900) was the composer half of “Gilbert and Sullivan” who wrote a series of comic operas in the late 19thcentury that have been performed to great acclaim ever since. Sullivan was also a composer of note in other fields, particularly choral church music. His best-known contribution in this genre was probably the hymn tune to “Onward Christian Soldiers”.
The Gilbert and Sullivan operas were staged at the Savoy Theatre in London’s Strand, so it is appropriate that the memorial to Sir Arthur stands in the Embankment Gardens facing in the direction of the Savoy Hotel and Theatre, although his bronze bust, if granted the gift of sight, would find that his view was obscured by high buildings.
The memorial is conventional enough in concept, in that it is a bust on a stone plinth, but there are features that make it somewhat unusual.
At the base of the plinth, to one side, is an extra piece of bronze consisting of a mandolin, a mask of Pan, and a score of one of Gilbert and Sullivan’s works, namely The Yeoman of the Guard.
However, what catches the eye to a far greater extent is the figure of a young woman clasping the plinth in a pose that conveys great distress. Even more remarkable is the fact that her emotional state has caused her costume to fall to her waist, leaving her upper portion naked.
One has to ask – why? The figure of the girl was not originally modelled with the Sullivan memorial in mind, having been made in Paris in 1899 when Sir Arthur was still alive, but somebody clearly though that it would convey the sorrow that many people felt at the loss of the great man. Whether they would be adequately represented by a half-naked young woman is a matter for conjecture.
It might have been thought that the figure was reminiscent of one of the Gilbert and Sullivan operas, namely Patience, which features “rapturous maidens” draping themselves over the object of their affection, the poet Reginald Bunthorne who was loosely modelled on Oscar Wilde. If that is so, potential opera-goers need to be reassured that – in the vast majority of performances –all such maidens stay fully dressed throughout the show!
At all events, the afterthought of adding the maiden to the plinth has resulted in what is probably one of the more erotic memorials to be found in London!