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Hercules Re-built: Gilbert White’s Statue

One of the more unusual features of the garden here at the Wakes is the ‘statue’ of Hercules. Situated at the southern end of the park adjacent to a strip of woodland known as the Piddle it was erected in 1999 as part of the Kim Wilkie Garden Restoration project of Gilbert White’s landscape garden. It is, of course, not a proper statue at all, but a cut out of a picture of Hercules painted on a board. Originally designed & built by sculptor David Swinton, the whole, pedestal and fibre-glass cut out is some 12 feet tall.

hercules

Hercules is a famous figure from classical Greek mythology, and one could fill many pages relating his story. Sufficient to say this immensely physically strong character carries out twelve labours to cleanse himself of his sins. The first of these labours is to kill the Nemean lion, and the eleventh is to take the golden apples of Hesperides. One of the popular statues used in English Landscape gardens  is the one depicting… ‘Hercules caught in a rare moment of repose- leaning on his knobby club which is draped on the pelt of the Nemean lion, he holds the apples of Hesperides, but conceals them behind his back cradled in his right hand’ so after much discussion amongst Trustees, this was the statue used in Gilbert’s Landscape garden- although being a picture painted on a board to be viewed from one direction only, you will look in vain for the apple behind his back!

We first hear of Hercules in Selborne in 1757 when the Hercules board statue was cut (& possibly painted & designed?) by John Carpenter; a neighbour of Gilbert White’s who lived on the plestor  One reference in a letter from White’s friend John Mulso indicates this:  Letter to Rev Mr White, Selbourne, Oct 25th 1757:

 ‘ We hope that John, Carpenter, & Hercules are both on their legs again: I do not take them to be congenial, tho’ the Carpenter seems a pretty Stick of wood enough, & I wish he had no more Pain than the subject matter that he works on’

 As with many of Mulso’s letters (and what a shame it is that the letters from Gilbert White to John Mulso appear not to have survived)  there are some difficult to interpret in jokes here I think, but this  seems to refer to an illness or accident befalling the carpenter.

The actual erection of the statue is from Diary entry in the Garden Kalendar, 24 January 1758

 Set up about 20 yards into the hanger, in a line with the six gates, a figure of Hesperian Hercules, painted on a board, eight feet high, on a pedestal of four feet & an half. It looks like a statue, & shows well over our outlet.’ 

 The six gates, referred to in this note, were actually erected four years earlier in 1754, in another letter from  John Mulso (Oct 4th 1754)

‘…yet I could not help being diverted by one advantage which you describe, for I believe that the gaining of six gates one above another in perspective is as full new as it is agreeable….’

 

Gilbert’s Hercules survived until the 1830’s (evidence: Magazine article). It may have been sold or rotted away after 1839 when the last member of the white family vacated the Wakes. In the intervening years, the importance and significance of the landscape garden was largely forgotten,  until the late 1960’s & 1970’s when an awareness of the value of this type of landscape gardens was rekindled. Thus  my enthusiasm, in early 1980’s, with others, for re-establishing Gilbert White’s landscaping achievements!

In 1996, as part of the re-construction of the wakes garden as planned by Kim Wilkie, a very large picture of a naked Hercules about 8ft tall  was  unfurled in front of an astonished and amused group of Trustees & staff. After some discussion (and hesitation!) it was decided to make the statue out of fibre-glass so that repairs from vandalism, or even a replacement could be made. The original mould was using a plywood cut out (this original, with sketched on Hercules, also survives!).

The six gates (although not in perspective, one above another, as described by Mulso) were then re-erected in the restored Gilbert White garden of the late twentieth century.  The Fibre glass Hercules (complete with wooden plinth, totalling 12ft high) was also re-built (although not placed 20 yards into the hanger as White described). The original  fibre glass cut out model had a steel armature which slotted into specially designed base of marine ply. Erecting the original was carried out with some difficulty using a garden tractor, ropes & poles. Of course a very detailed risk assessment was carried out! Some, considering that the 12ft high statue of a naked man was rather shocking, attached some red paper shorts to the figure to restore his modesty: these, of course, did not last! The operation (excluding the shorts!) had to be repeated some ten years later as the wooden plinth, under the drip line of the neighbouring beech trees, rotted away: when this repair failed to last very long (evidence of wildlife was found nesting inside the rotting plinth!) neighbour Tim Elderton volunteered to make a more substantial concrete block version of the plinth with rendered sides. This was completed  very recently. In addition, the six field gates in perspective were also replaced this summer as the 1996 originals had weathered very badly.

hercules

Hercules, as re-rected today, is a convenient way to display something of the effect of Hercules seen through several gates , but I believe it is not placed where Gilbert White originally erected it. The gates are not ‘one above another’ as described by Mulso, and Hercules is certainly not ‘20 yards into the hanger’. Tentative research indicates that on the ground a series of parallel lynchets across the present parkland coincide well with the hedges deduced from Grimm illustrations, Satellite and O S Maps, and also with the remains of old hedges. The old brickwalk leading out into the fields at the southern end of the stone haha may well have led to an outer wicket from which  six ridges can be seen- if these ridges were hedges or fences in White’s time then this would have a good place to erect the six gates in perspective. Furthermore, at the end of this vista, about 20 yards into the hanger, is a distinctive mound with a flat top that needs further investigation! It could have been the mound on which Hercules and his plinth was placed.  This conclusion is also reinforced by some other clues. In a letter to Sam Barker Gilbert White makes the following comment:

‘the wicked woodcutters… Last year they cleared as far as the shop slidder, and will now strip as far as Hercules’ (Bell, 1877 Letter XLVII, Jan 8 1788)

This shop slider is located in another of Gilbert White’s letters, this time to his neice Molly White, in which he writes

‘the shop slidder at the corner of the Wadden’ (Bell 1877, Letter XXX, Sept 30 1780)

The hanger appears to have been systematically felled, and White warns in the same letter

‘if my niece does not come and see the remains of that sweet pendulous covert next summer, she will never be able to concieve how lovely and romantic it had once been’

 

All this evidence suggests that Hercules may well have been located in a rather different position than that in which it has been placed today, and although not fitting in well at present with the restored garden layout, at least gives us more of an idea the actual location of Hercules in White’s time.

Hercules and his gates now stand as an interesting (and amusing!) eye catcher in the restored landscape garden of Gilbert White: a unique memory of a forgotten time- long may he last!

©D Standing 2016