There’s a mystery animal outside St Paul’s Cathedral in central London. What is it? The best, first historical source describes it as an alligator. Seriously?
To locate it, visit St Paul’s Cathedral churchyard. Move to the West Front of the building; this is the forecourt (map). Here is the main entrance for visitors today. Locate the Baroque statue of Queen Anne (1665-1714). Most people identify this as a statue to Queen Victoria, but that’s wrong.
This statue has had a checkered history. Visitors today see a replica of an 1712 original statue created by Francis Bird, who also created some of the sculptures on the west portico of the cathedral. The version on display, which meticulously follows the original, was unveiled in 1886. It now is Grade II listed.
The original statue survives as well. It is located at Holmhurst St Mary, near Hastings in East Sussex, though its current condition is quite poor. Augustus Hare gave an account for how he came to purchase the original statue and relocate it to his home. Hare’s brief mention of how he came to acquire Bird’s original for Holmhurst in his memoir: Augustus J. C. Hare. 1896-1900. The Story of My Life. In six volumes. (London: George Allen), 6: 347-8 quoting a diary entry on 16 August 1894.
O’ My America
Visitors will see Queen Anne standing atop a plinth. Below Queen Anne are allegorical depictions of nations. David Henry’s (1762: 33) An historical account of the curiosities of London and Westminster describes them as “Britannia with her Spear; Gallia with a Crown in her Lap; Hibernia with her Harp; and America with her Bow.” Wikipedia wrongly asserts these figures are Britannia, France, Ireland, and North America. The classical allusions were essential for the original concept of the piece.
America sits with her naked foot resting on the decapitated head of an unspecified victim.
Alligator? Lizard? Or something else?
Also under America is a mysterious animal confidently peering out towards the viewer. Philip Ward-Jackson (2003: 375), in his book, Public Sculpture of the City of London, offers a clear description:
Her naked right foot rests on a severed, bearded male head, behind which stands a large lizard. An eighteenth-century guide gives a colourful account of these attributes on the original statue:
‘She has the head of an European under her foot, with an arrow sticking in it; supposed to have been just shot from her bow. There is likewise an allegetor creeping from beneath her feet; being an animal very common in some parts of America, and which lives on the land and in the water.’
The source Ward-Jackson gives for “allegetor” is The History of St. Paul’s and An Account of the Monument of the Fire of London (printed for Thomas Boreman in 2 volumes, London, 1741, vol.I, p.70). The animal is shown in a photograph on p. 376.
The reptile, American alligator (Alligator mississippiensis), is often depicted in art. Published decades after Bird’s original sculpture, Mark Catsby’s (1754) The Natural History of Carolina, Florida, and the Bahama Islands, presents a similarly nondescript image (volume 2, plate 63). Alligator specimens were known in Europe well before Bird’s work, famously Ferrante Imperator’s (1599) Dell’Historia Naturale. though it is not clear if Bird studied such a specimen firsthand. The commonly referenced example, by Maria Sibyl Merian, dates 1705-1710. However, it is, in fact, a caiman. It also depicts animals from Suriname in South America.
Describing America in Bird’s original 1712 sculpture, Public Sculptures of Sussex writes, “Her naked right foot rests on a severed, bearded male head, behind which stands a large lizard,” which simply repeats Ward-Jackson (2003). Augustus Hare (1834-1902) described it, “a little beast of Lizard type creeps from behind her feet which rest upon the gory head of an enemy.” (source)
Bird’s sculpture strikes some more as an iguana in size, shape, and general representation. However, as with the alligator, it’s hard to believe Bird would have avoided the inclusion of scales, spines, or bumps on the skin surface. The genus, Iguana, was not described until 1768.
One possible source for this animal depiction is some variant of the Mediterranean house gecko (Hemidactylus turcicus), common to the Mediterranean region, also known as “Turkish gecko” or “moon lizard”. It fits the shape of the snout. These are common in the northeastern Mediterranean, and live and dried specimens were relatively easy to transport to northwestern Europe in the seventeen and eighteen century. The scale in Bird’s depiction is greatly exaggerated.
A second option for Bird’s representation is some variety of salamander, i.e., an amphibian and not a lizard as we understand the term today. The anatomy matches more closely, though admittedly it is not especially close. The salamander was well known in European folklore, and it offered distinct allegorical value for classical allusion. Possibly a reference is to alliances that will lead to defeat of the French royal house in the Americas. Or, possibly it is some opaque reference to an alternative death by fire for heresy, the salamander being associated in European mythology with fire. The scale in Bird’s depiction is greatly exaggerated.
David Henry’s (1762: 33) An historical account of the curiosities of London and Westminster provides a detailed account of animals from the Americas on view at the Tower of London, which operated a popular menagerie.