Anyone who has attempted to negotiate Hyde Park Corner and its surrounds in a motor will be familiar with the monumental Peace in her Quadriga, one of the largest bronze sculptures in Europe, that stands atop of Wellington Arch. It was sculpted by army vet turned sculptor, Adrian Jones, whose model of the Foxhound Forager greets visitors to the Kennel Club.
What in all probability they will not be familiar with is one of London’s long-forgotten and unloved statues that stands beneath some trees on the island at the bottom of Park Lane. The tunnel next to the Queen Elizabeth Gate that once gave access to the island has long since been closed up, so anyone wishing to see the statue has to take their life in their hands and cross Park Lane.
It was sculpted by Richard Claude Belt (circa 1852-1920) and was erected by public subscription in 1881 and stands on a pedestal of pink and white marble donated by the Greek government, which is now somewhat pitted and discoloured by pollution. It shows a thoughtful Lord Byron seated, his beloved Newfoundland Boatswain beside him looking lovingly up at his master.
Belt’s life was punctuated with controversy. In 1882 he sued for libel his former employer, sculptor Charles Bennett Lawes, with whom he had once been in a working partnership with, following an article in Vanity Fair in which Lawes claimed that the winning design for the Bryon memorial had been executed by him not Belt. The jury found in favour of Lawes but on appeal the original decision was overturned and Belt was awarded £10,000 in damages and costs. Lawes promptly filed for bankruptcy to avoid making payment to Belt.
In 1886 Belt was convicted of obtaining money by false pretences from Sir William Neville Abdy and sentenced to 12 months hard labour.
Lord Byron and Boatswain are to the Newfoundland in literature, what Sir Edwin Landseer and The Distinguished Member of the Humane Society are to the breed in art. Each in their individual way has become iconic and has contributed to the breed’s everlasting popularity and aura of romanticism that surrounds it. The intrepid adventurer who is prepared to cross Park Lane can view within a short distance of each other, Belt’s statue and Landseer’s picture which is currently on display at the Kennel Club.
Byron acquired Boatswain in about 1803 while living at Burgage Manor, Southwell. His mother had a small terrier called Gilpin and the townspeople of Southwell were used to seeing the large Newfoundland escorting the tiny terrier along the streets of the town. Byron took Boatswain with him whenever he could and when staying with a friend at Littlehampton, Boatswain used to enjoy leaping into the sea from a form of pier some ten feet or more above the water.
There was a degree of friction between the two dogs and when Byron returned to Cambridge leaving Boatswain in Southwell, Mrs Byron decided that it would be prudent for Gilpin to go to one of the tenant farmers at Newstead to avoid any skirmishes between the two dogs. The story goes that one day Boatswain went missing and returned towards evening shepherding little Gilpin, led him straight to the kitchen fire and proceeded to lick him all over. From then on skirmishes between the two dogs ceased.
In 1808 Byron came down from Cambridge and occupied Newstead Abbey taking Boatswain with him. The Abbey had a great lake in which both Byron and Boatswain swam. There are stories of Byron swimming in the lake with Boatswain making repeated attempts to ‘save’ him and pull him out.
In November 1808 Boatswain died from rabies having been bitten by a rabid dog in Nottingham. Byron wrote to a friend, Francis Hodson, saying "Boatswain is dead! He expired in a state of madness on the 18th suffering much yet retaining all the gentleness of his nature to the last, never attempting to do the least injury to those near him.”