Around London In 14 Lions And Lionesses

One of Gillie and Marc’s temporary lion installations near Waterloo in 2022.

London contains at least 10,000 lions. How do I know? Because I once interviewed Valerie Colin-Russ, who went on a mission to photograph and catalogue them all.

Fielding just 14 of the beasts feels, in comparison, a little lame. But here we’re going for quality over quantity, with a selection of London’s greatest lion sculptures. We start with the very obvious and get progressively more obscure.

See also: Around London in 12 elephantsAround London in 12 dragonsAround London in 13 tigersAround London in 11 swansAround London in 11 horsesAround London in 12 rabbits and haresAround London in 13 pigeons

1. The Trafalgar Square lions

The most famous lions in the world? They probably were until Simba, Mufasa and Co. came along. The leonine quartet who guard Nelson’s Column were sculpted in the 1860s by Edwin Landseer. Landseer was a famous painter, not a sculptor, but Queen Victoria liked him, and so he got the gig. Climbing on the lions is strictly prohibited, and is therefore one of the most popular things to do in Trafalgar Square.

2. The South Bank lion

It’s not as famous as its Trafalgar brethren, but this handsome beast is seen by just as many tourists, thanks to its prominent location on Westminster Bridge, and below the London Eye. It’s also older. From 1837, the lion perched on top of the Lion Brewery a little to the east of here. The brewery was torn down in the 1940s to make way for the Royal Festival Hall, but the symbolic cat was saved. After a brief stint outside Waterloo station, it took up permanent home on Westminster Bridge in 1966. The South Bank lion is made from artificial Coade stone, which retained its clean-white appearance even during the London pea-soupers of yore.

3. The Tower menagerie

Sticking with London’s most-spotted lions, we turn next to the mini-pride outside the Tower of London. The three lions at the royal palace are, of course, symbolic of the nation. But they’re also a reminder of the Tower Menagerie, a kind of early zoo. The menagerie lingered on at the Tower from the 12th century until the 19th, when its animals became part of the founding stock at London Zoo. The lions were sculpted by Kendra Haste from galvanised wire, along with numerous other beasts throughout the Tower precincts.

4. The Imperial lions

Imperial College in South Kensington has its own pair of lions, and these ones come without all the clamber-nannying of Trafalgar Square. According to the peerless London Remembers website, the lions were originally part of a quartet, sculpted by Harry Dixon in 1892. They guarded the entrance to the Imperial Institute, the forerunner of Imperial College. The animals, and the adjacent Queen’s Tower, were saved from demolition in the 1960s by the Victorian Society and John Betjeman.

5.  Elephant-scaring lion of King’s College

Imperial isn’t the only university with a lion up its sleeve. King’s College on Strand can field this rubicund roarer, which guards a stairwell in the main building. Reggie, as he’s called, has long been the official mascot of the university. He’s had quite a history, including the time in 1930 when he caused an elephant stampede on Embankment.

6. The boxed lion of Bishopsgate

And now for something completely different. This is the grave of William Rawlins, Sheriff of London; an upholsterer, a knight of the realm, founder of the Eagle Insurance Company and a convicted electoral fraudster. Quite a life. His tomb — which he helped to design — holds its own eccentricities. The crowning casket has a protruding lion’s head and feet, as though the king of the jungle has been coerced into a magician’s “sawing in half” trick. You’ll find this bizarre tomb in St Botolph’s churchyard, just off Bishopsgate.

7. A lion attack in Camden

“Man attacked by lion near London Zoo” could be the headline. This curious relief-sculpture decorates the bridge over the now-vanished Cumberland Basin, half way between Camden Town tube and the zoo. It purports to show the martyrdom of St Pancras which… raises some questions. According to tradition, Pancras was a 14-year-old boy who was beheaded by the Romans, not a strapping, muscle-bound man savaged by a lion. Who knows? Whether slain by tooth or axe, the holy boy went on to gift his name to the local church and parish, and thence the famous railway station.

8. Lions of Fiveways Corner

Fiveways corner is a choked interchange of major roads in the smoggy valley between Mill Hill and Hendon. For some reason, a pride of sculptural lions have made their home here. Each is raised on stilts, like a circus animal. Big cats in a concrete motorland. It’s JG Ballard meets Madagascar. The bronze beasts are the work of sculptor David Annand, to fulfil a commission from the Highways Agency. You can read more about them here.

9. Leo the Lion of Alexandra Park

This is Leo the Lion, the anatomically questionable guardian of Alexandra Park in north London. The seal-headed beast was the work of Charles Wheeler in 1973, a year before he died. It was intended as an entrance piece for a children’s zoo that was never built. Even so, he remains popular with children; generations of clambering have worn his back smooth.

10. Embankment lions

Poke your head over the Embankment wall — or, better yet, get on a boat — and you should spot these gigantic copper lion heads. The work of sculptor Timothy Butler, the lions are an original embellishment to Joseph Bazalgette’s grand reclamation project of the 1860s, which incorporated a sewer, roadway and underground railway line. According to tradition, “when the lions drink, then London shall sink”. It’s not quite true, as the tide occasionally does reach their mouths without incident.

11. Christian the lion

In 1969, Australian friends Ace Bourke and John Rendall bought a lion cub from Harrods for the equivalent of £3,000 in today’s money. They named it Christian, and the lion lived with them in their flat on King’s Road in Chelsea. Christian was often seen around the area, and enjoyed regular walks in the Moravian burial ground, just off King’s Road. If you visit the burial ground during an open day you might, like us, be lucky enough to find an information board about the Chelsea lion.

12. The Law Society lions

Unless you’re a solicitor, or like hanging out with solicitors, you might never have noticed the Law Society building on Chancery Lane. It’s quite a quirky building when you look at it — part Victorian neo-classicism, with a matching but more playful extension by Charles Holden (architect of 55 Broadway and so many tube stations). But we’re here for the lions. Thirteen golden guardians stand upon the railings, made to an 1852 design by Alfred Stevens. The four outside the Holden extension are Stevens’ originals, created for the gates of the British Museum, and later salvaged for the Law Society. The design is a popular one, and you can see later copies all over the place.

13. The Lioness and Lesser Kudu

Samuel Johnson once observed that “there is in London all that life can afford”. When he penned those words, I dare say that London did not contain a sculpture of a lesser kudu in the last seconds of its life. It does now, though, thanks to this exceptional artwork by noted animal sculptor Jonathan Kenworthy (he also carved Whittington’s cat on Highgate hill). The kudu bounds away from a hungry lioness in Upper Grosvenor Gardens, near Victoria station. The piece was gifted to the area by the Duke of Westminster, who has another casting in the grounds of his Cheshire estate.

14. Red lions

No list of London lions would be complete without mention of the many Red Lions dotted around town. A few years back, we counted 26 of them, including the famous theatre pub at the Angel crossroads, the one with the roof terrace in Hoxton, and the two almost-neighbourly Red Lions in St James’s. Our favourite, though, is perhaps the Red Lion of Barnes, which distinguishes itself with two scarlet door guardians, one of whom is shown above.

No one is sure quite why the country has so many Red Lions. Some writers note that the beast is among the most common devices on coats of arms. The widespread name probably has many origins, that can be traced back to different nobles and land-owners.

All images by Matt Brown

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