London’s love affair with lions

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    Are you a cat person or a dog person?

    It’s the sort of question that you might ask on a first date or as an ice-breaker at a party. While you can’t actually ask London whether it prefers dogs or cats, the answer is still very clear: London is a cat person.

    Big cats, to be more precise. The city is full of lions and some experts estimate there to be around 10,000 of the ferocious felines about. While most of the lions are made from stone or bronze, there are a few more lively ones to look out for too – so where should you start if you want a closer look at London’s big kitties?

    The Landseer Lions

    Landseer Lions

    Probably the most famous of London’s big cats, the Landseer Lions are the four enormous bronze felines that surround Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar Square.

    They’re named after the artist – Sir Edwin Landseer – who designed them, and they were finished in 1868. When Landseer designed the lions, he based his sketches on a combination of real lions that he observed at the London zoo and corpses supplied by the zoo.

    The lions seem identical, but if you look closely, each one is slightly different. Landseer also seems to have gotten two parts of the lions’ anatomy wrong – when real lions lay down, their backs curve upwards. However, the sculptures have concave backs. Also, critics say that the lions’ paws look like those of a domestic house cat, rather than the king of the jungle. Some experts say this is because the specimens Landseer was working from may have started to decay before he got to the feet.

    Although climbing up to sit astride these big kitties is a popular tourist activity, it’s dangerous and actually causes damage to the statues – so why not just stand back and enjoy their magnificence from ground-level?

    Westminster Bridge lion

    Westminster Bridge lion

    Standing at the south end of Westminster Bridge, this 13-tonne stone lion was one of two big cats salvaged from the Lion Brewery, which was located on the South Bank. The building was demolished in 1949 and this massive moggie moved to a new spot near Waterloo Station where it sported a new coating of red paint.

    In 1966, the red was removed and the sculpture was moved to its current location. The other lion has been shrouded in gold and now stands near the Rowland Hill Memorial Gate at Twickenham Stadium, and together the two colossal kitties are known as the Coade Stone Lions.

    Embankment mooring rings

    Embankment mooring rings

    On the Southbank embankment, outside County Hall, there’s a series of mooring rings shaped like lion heads. They were sculpted by Timothy Butler for Sir Joseph Bazalgette’s Victorian sewage works, and are used as a flood level monitor for the river. If water gets up to the lion’s mouths, the city is at risk of flooding and there’s a saying that goes: “If the lions drink, the city will sink”.

    Sotheby’s lion

    lion goddess Sekhmet

    The oldest lion in London is more than 3,000 years old and is located above the entrance to Sotheby’s auctioneers in New Bond Street. Dating to around 1320 BC, the lion is actually an Egyptian carving of the lion goddess Sekhmet. In the 1880s, it was sold at auction, but was never collected by the buyer. A few decades later, in 1917, it was installed in its current position.

    Lions at the Tower

    lions at tower

    For around 600 years, beginning in the early 1200s, the Tower of London had a royal menagerie, which was home to all sorts of exotic creatures, including elephants, tigers, kangaroos and pelicans, as well as lions.

    In the 1930s, excavations from the moat around the tower turned up bits of lion skulls. More recently, the DNA of the bones has been analysed and it indicates that the big cats were Barbary lions from northern Africa.

    Today, three sculptures of lions stand near the entrance to the Tower, and the bones are on display at the Natural History Museum.

    Queen Victoria’s lions

    queen victoria lion

    A monument to Queen Victoria stands in front of Buckingham Palace. At the corners of the monument, there are four bronze figures representing Peace, Progress, Agriculture and Manufacture – each one stands with a lion.

    Chinatown lions

    chinatown lion

    Statues of lions guard the entrance to London’s Chinatown. The big cats are considered to be good omens, which is why these stone sculptures probably aren’t the only ones you’ll see in the area. And, if you visit during Chinese New Year celebrations in February, you might be lucky enough to see a Lion Dance – a ceremonial dance featuring drums and ornate lion costumes.

    Lioness and lesser kudu

    A short walk from Victoria station, you’ll find Lower Grosvenor Gardens. The gardens date back to 1864 and were designed to complement the French Renaissance style houses nearby. At the centre of the garden is a life-size sculpture of a lioness chasing a lesser kudu.

    The bronze sculpture by Jonathan Kenworthy is a static piece of art, but its composition gives it a sense of movement and urgency that makes it one of the more exciting of London’s big cat sculptures.

    Cromwell’s lion

    Oliver Cromwell lion

    Erecting a statue of Oliver Cromwell was a controversial act in the 19th century, and there are critics of it still today. After all, Cromwell has been accused of war crimes, religious persecution and ethnic cleansing. So it’s no wonder his statue outside the House of Commons needs a lion to protect it. This bronze cat sits at the bottom of the plinth and is dated 1899.

    British Museum lion guardians

    British Museum lion

    Sitting regally outside the lesser-used north entrance to the British Museum, these lion sculptures by Sir George Frampton RA have an early Art Deco style with angular curves and a simplified appearance.

    London Zoo

    London Zoo

    In March 2016, the London Zoo opened its state-of-the-art facilities for a breeding group of endangered Asiatic lions. Only 100 of these beautiful big cats live in the wild and it is hoped that the project will help protect them from extinction. The enclosure covers more than 2,500 square metres and is home to four lions. Bhanu, the male, was born in 2010. The females are Rubi, who was born in 2009, and sisters Heidi and Indi, who were both born in 2011.

    The entire multi-million pound exhibit was modelled after the Gir Forest National Park in India, the lions’ natural habitat. Visitors will feel transported to the location thanks to interactive displays, detailed set designs based on real Indian villages and native plant species.

    The Lion King

    This award-winning musical has been at the Lyceum Theatre on the Strand since 1999.

    The musical is based on the 1994 Disney animated film of the same name and features music by Elton John and Tim Rice. It makes use of elaborate animal costumes and giant hollow puppets, which have a distinctive style that combines the human performers with their animal characters. The show is the third-longest running in Broadway’s history and is the highest grossing Broadway production of all time, having brought in record figures.

    Basketball

    If you’re looking for something on the sportier side, why not book tickets to watch the London Lions? The city’s professional basketball team, the Lions compete in the British Basketball League and have been around since 1977. Over the years, they’ve been based in Hemel Hempstead, Watford and Milton Keynes., but these days, their home is the Copper Box, which was built for the Olympics in 2012.

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