Copy Cats

The Law Society building on Chancery Lane, has some fine railings with some splendid lions, which sit on top of them. These lions however, are copies of the original ones which Alfred Stevens did for the British Museum, but are they all they appear to be?

The main railings and gates of the British Museum were erected in May 1852; that summer a miniature railing ornamented with twenty-five lions was erected to mark the limits of the Trustees' property. When the museum authorities planned their forecourt, they commissioned Sydney Smirke, the younger brother of Robert Smirke (the architect of the British Museum). Sydney was unable to resolve the difficulty of modelling a lion 24 inches high within a base 14 inches square, the commission was given over to Alfred Stevens, who was well known for his sculptural metal-work, whose designs were highly acclaimed at the Great Exhibition of 1851. Stevens realised that only a seated lion would fit the required measurements and that lions never sat in this position. Rather than admit defeat he borrowed a friendís cat to model the body and added a lionís head on the top.

The miniature railing was dismantled at the end of 1895, to make room for pavement improvements. Eight of the twenty-five lions were placed in various parts of the Museum, while the remaining seventeen were put into storage. In 1899 twelve of these were removed to St Paul's Cathedral, together with their connecting lengths of the railing, to stand around the Wellington Monument, which Stevens had designed in 1856. In 1937 two lions were deposited on loan at the Dorset County Museum in Dorchester, where they are still on display. One lion is in the Natural History Museum, the whereabouts of the remaining two are unknown. Stevens always spoke of the finished work as his "cat" and it was only in recent years that his secret became known.

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