Grist to the Mill

08 June, 2005


There is a beautiful bridge in Budapest (the Szécheny), and at either end are two large reclining lions, carved from stone. In a municipal park in Reading there is a bronze statue of a prowling lion. Both sculptors are rumoured to have committed suicide for the same reason (anatomical inaccuracies - of their work, not of their own bodies I should point out). Here is a quick summary of each case:

The popular story says that the sculptor, János Marsalkó, who carved the stone lions committed suicide by throwing himself off the bridge after it was discovered that he had forgotten to carve tongues inside their slightly opened mouths and that they were therefore imperfect. It is a popular legend but there is no truth in it, however, as the lions do have tongues, though they are only visible from above.

[George Blackall-Simond] created the works for which he is best known in Reading. The Maiwand Lion in the Forbury Gardens celebrates the valiant last stand of the Royal Berkshire Regiment at the Battle of Maiwand in Afghanistan in 1880. A massive 31 feet long it is one of the world’s largest bronzes, taking two years to design and complete. Lord Wantage unveiled it in December 1886. According to urban legend, the sculptor of the lion got the stance of the legs wrong and a real lion would fall over. Realising his mistake after he creating it, Simond committed suicide. Recent investigation by staff at Reading Museum has revealed that Simonds’ work on lion anatomy was in fact correct, being based on the careful observation of real lions, not to mention the fact he actually had another forty-three years to live.

So, if you know any sculptors engaged in lion-carving projects, best take them to one side and have a quiet word to make sure everything’s okay. But, joking and coincidence aside, why do these rumours persist, I wonder? I’m sure everyone’s aware of one. The architect of the crooked spire church near Sheffield is a well-known example. Two obvious conclusions: there is something enduring about the notion of a tormented genius and something very comforting in the idea that even the very talented make mistakes. Also, for these myths to resonate, they must attach to the public ‘furniture’ of a town – common symbols that are in the collective consciousness of a people and hence, instantly recognisable. I think it would be a paper for a psychologist.

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