The dolphin lamps lining the Thames embankments (1) in London have arguably become just as iconic symbols of the city as its more high-profile monuments, such as Big Ben, St Paul’s Cathedral or Westminster Abbey. But how do commonplace objects like lamps gain such symbolic resonance?
Built in stages between 1862 and 1874 by the Metropolitan Board of Works, the Thames Embankment transformed London’s riverscape by reclaiming marshy land next to the river and constructing wide carriage- and foot-ways and a high granite retaining wall, stretching over three miles in total. After they had considered the question of lighting the embankment, the Board of Works took the unusual step of displaying proposed designs for lamp standards on the Victoria Embankment in March 1870, in order to gauge public opinion before selecting a final model; and the lamps were widely illustrated in the building and metropolitan press (2 & 3).
Central to the responses to the lamps was how they would be affected by mass repetition in cast iron; after all, many hundreds would be required to fill the three miles of the new riverfront. The Illustrated London News clearly favoured the lamp manufactured by the Coalbrookdale Company: an ornamental fantasia consisting of an altar-like support, surmounted by cornucopias, overflowing with ‘their gifts of plenty’, and the central lamp pillar entwined with the figures of two boys, exchanging a burning torch (2). This newspaper, and others, was impressed by this lavish ornamentation, the cornucopias symbolising the ‘rewards of British commercial industry, as displayed on the banks of the Thames’; the trident and caduceus in the adjacent panels, ‘the mercantile spirit and maritime enterprise of the nation’; the two boys symbolising the ‘energy of the nation’, one that was clearly derived from its industrial prowess.
In the event, the Coalbrookdale lamp was rejected in favour of the other two designs: a dolphin lamp designed by George Vulliamy, architect to the Board of Works; and a rather more restrained design by the engineer Joseph Bazalgette, comprising a base of bent lion’s legs and paws (3). As commentators argued, the aesthetic impact of both of these designs would benefit from repetition, as opposed to the Coalbrookdale example; in large numbers, Vulliamy’s dolphin lamps would create an ‘admirable effect’ from a distance (1); while Bazalgette’s tripod, because it was ‘well drawn, modelled and finished’, ‘will certainly bear repetition better than either of the others’ (4). In addition, both of these designs were modelled on established precedents: Vulliamy’s entwined pairs of dolphins were adapted from the Fontana del Nettuno (1822-23) in the Piazza del Popolo in Rome; while Bazalgette’s came from the more general model of the classical tripod, usually employed in antique vases and candelabras.
When the Victoria Embankment was opened in 1868 it was celebrated in the press as directly comparable – even superior – to the engineering feats of ancient Rome and also as superior to similar developments in contemporary Paris, itself being remodelled and promoted as a new kind of imperial city. Thus, the new lamps on the embankments, modelled on Roman precedents but with their visual impact enhanced by insistent repetition, were perceived as enhancing London’s status as the preeminent imperial city ‘to which no other European capital presents a rival’.
The symbolic potency of Vulliamy’s lamps was significantly enhanced by the addition of further cast-iron street furniture in the late 1870s, to mark the opening of Cleopatra’s Needle, an Egyptian obelisk installed on the Victoria Embankment in 1878 after its tortuous four-year voyage from Egypt. In 1874, anticipating the arrival of the obelisk, Vulliamy designed benches that featured sphinx and camel-shaped armrests (5 & 6). This collection of street furniture extended the historicist concept of the obelisk, enhancing both its spatial reach and its overtly patriotic and imperial associations; the obelisk and its associated benches in effect reappropriated Napoleon’s imperial ambitions to Britain, with London’s new monument also vying for visual supremacy with an existing obelisk in the Place de la Concorde in Paris. Moreover, the older dolphin lamps also gained an enhanced status through the new Egyptian ornaments; their own imperial associations with Rome were now conjoined with those of Egypt and the implied succession of Britain over France as the pre-eminent imperial nation.
Not all critics were impressed by this overinflation of significance of the lamps: Percy Fitzgerald, writing in the Magazine of Art in 1880, argued that the lamps on the embankment were ‘too trifling in character to need such massive bases’ and, in a telling comparison, condemned Vulliamy’s ‘attenuated’ lamp posts in contrast to those found in Paris, which he regarded as ‘elegant’ objects. In Fitzgerald’s view, the magnification of the significance of the embankment lamps through their constructional forms did not match up with their aesthetic or symbolic ambition: in short, they were not worthy representations of the preeminent world city. The fact that they have since become iconic symbols of London suggests that this critic was misplaced in his opinions.