Historicist: Here Comes the Equestrian Statue

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Historicist: Here Comes the Equestrian Statue

Toronto erects a statue of King Edward VII—in 1969.

Erecting the statue in Queen’s Park. Toronto Telegram, May 21, 1969.

“A five-ton equestrian statue of King Edward VII has arrived in Toronto from India and is now lying in crates on the waterfront, ready for assembly in a city park,” announced the Toronto Star on January 16, 1969. The statue, the Star explained to its bemused readership, had stood atop a plinth in Delhi, and had been given to Toronto by the Indian government, which was “in the process of getting rid of reminders of the days of British rule.” Torontonians had not been expecting an equestrian statue of Edward VII, and now had to figure out how and where, if anywhere, to display it.

Edward VII’s reign was relatively brief, lasting from the death of Queen Victoria in 1901 until his own death in 1910. His long period as the Prince of Wales, however, involved an extended tour of North America in 1860, which included a visit to Toronto that September. In anticipation of his arrival, Mayor Adam Wilson held a series of special committee meetings to determine an appropriate schedule of events for the 18-year-old prince.

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At Wilson’s first meeting, former mayor William Henry Boulton suggested having the prince formally open the new park that had just been offered to the City by the University of Toronto. This idea was met favourably, although one member of city council felt a more appropriate gesture would be to name the new park “The Prince’s Park” in the Prince of Wales’s honour. Unfortunately, Councillor Baxter lamented, the City had recently given this name to another park previously known as the “Fair Green” near the Home District Jail, at what is now Berkeley and Front. The Globe quoted Baxter as saying it was “a disgrace to the city to think that the park where the gallows had been so often erected should have been lately dubbed with the name ‘The Prince’s Park.'”

(Right: The Prince of Wales, ca. 1890. Library and Archives Canada, MIKAN 3215266.)

The City eventually chose to name the new park “Queen’s Park,” and Wilson’s committee agreed that it would be formally opened by the Prince of Wales, who would also lay the foundation stone for a new statue of his mother, Queen Victoria. An elaborate ceremonial trowel was commissioned with a black walnut handle and various ornamentations including the prince’s coronet and Toronto’s coat of arms. Rain delayed the ceremony, scheduled for Saturday, September 8, until the following Tuesday, when a crowd of between 5,000 and 6,000 people endured another rainy day for the event. Following several speeches, the prince applied the mortar with the trowel, after which an upper stone was lowered down by pulleys. According to the Globe, “The prince then applied the square and plumb, and taking a mallet… gave the stone three blows, and pronounced the stone duly laid and the Park inaugurated.” It would have been difficult to imagine that, more than 100 years later, the City would decide to erect a bronze equestrian statue of the same man in Queen’s Park.

King Street during the Princes of Wales’s visit to Toronto in 1860. Courtesy of Toronto Public Library.

The origins of the Edward VII equestrian statue go back to July 1910, when the All-India Memorial Committee sought to commemorate the late king with a statue in Delhi. They turned to Thomas Brock, an established English sculptor nearing the end of a very successful career. A 2002 essay by John Anthony Sankey notes that Brock was one of Great Britain’s leading sculptors in the early 20th century, associated with the new sculpture movement which placed a renewed focus on naturalistic representation. Brock’s other notable sculptures include the Victoria Memorial outside Buckingham Palace, and an equestrian statue of Edward, the Black Prince, in Leeds City Square.

Brock worked on the design for the Delhi statue over the next year, electing to depict Edward atop his horse Kildare, wearing a Field Marshal’s uniform and holding his hat in his hand.

The statue took several years to create, and production was further delayed by the First World War, which curtailed bronze casting operations. Although many sources give the year of the statue’s creation as 1919, Sankey’s research indicates it was not actually completed until 1921. In his diary, King George V recorded a 1921 visit to Brock’s studio to see the finished statue before it was shipped to India, and the Times of London reported its official unveiling in February of 1922, an event attended by the Prince of Wales, the future Edward VIII. “The bronze equestrian statue, itself on a high red sandstone pedestal, is distinctly good,” wrote the Times, “and the whole spectacle, with the glittering staffs and double guard of honour of the Seaforths and Gurkhas and the massed spectators, was very striking.”

Toronto’s acquisition of the statue was largely orchestrated by the Indian government and Canadian governor general Roland Michener, but the credit is generally given to Harry Jackman, who financed its transportation from Delhi to Toronto. Jackman, a former MP for Rosedale and chairman of the board of Empire Life Insurance, reportedly paid $10,000 to have the statue disassembled and shipped across the Atlantic. Available correspondence indicates that the statue was in Toronto by late 1968 and stored in a building on Cherry St. owned by the Harbour Commission. In December 1968, Ivan Forrest, the Commissioner of the Department of Parks and Recreation, wrote to Mayor William Dennison, verifying the statue’s present location and acknowledging Jackman’s preference for the statue to be erected in the northern section Queen’s Park, in a location which had previously housed a bandstand.

Queen’s Park, ca. 1920, showing a bandstand where the equestrian statue is today. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244, Item 3137.

Following some discussion behind closed doors, knowledge of the statue became public on January 16, 1969, when Dennison formally accepted its donation on behalf of the Parks and Recreation Committee. Initial concerns, besides agreeing upon a home, was the cost of installation; although Jackman had paid for its transportation, it required a suitable plinth, and initial City estimates for construction and installation ran as high as $25,000.

The Board of Control unanimously agreed to accept the donation of the statue, but rejected Dennison’s proposal to spend City money on a plinth, instead recommending that Toronto set up a special fund to collect donations for the cause. Ivan Forrest was tasked with investigating suitable sites and designing a platform. While the fundraising began, Toronto newspapers offered various ideas as to where the statue could be placed and how it should be considered. Public reaction to the statue was mixed; while some hailed it as a welcome addition to the cityscape, others were confused as to why Toronto wanted to erect a statue of a king who had died more than 50 years ago.

Representatives of both the ROM and AGO expressed the belief that the statue should not be in a museum but outdoors in a public place, as it was intended to be seen. The Globe and Mail spoke with York University art consultant Michael Greenwood, who said, “I think it would be delightful if the statue were installed as a kind of playground. It would be disastrous to regard it as a work of art, but as a campy symbol of the British Empire it would be perfect. Particularly if it were painted in Sergeant Pepper colours!”

Cartoon suggesting the Toronto public might be more enthusiastic about a statue of Lorne Greene. Toronto Telegram, January 27, 1969.

The Star also consulted local art experts, including Franklin Arbuckle, President of the Royal Academy of Art, who expressed disbelief that the City had acquired the statue, and was one of many to suggest that the City should have instead commissioned a work of art by a local artist. Local gallery owner Jack Pollock told the Star, “I can’t imagine why the hell they’d accept such a thing.” Pollock also claimed the only significance the statue had was that it was large and made of bronze, adding, “That’s the tragedy of it, because bronze lasts forever.”

One thing which soon became apparent in the discussion of the statue was that Edward VII was completely secondary: what really mattered was the horse.

On January 20, Col. William J. Stewart wrote to Dennison in his capacity as chairman of the Toronto Historical Board, supporting the installation of the statue noting that “the acquisition of an equestrian statue was recommended by the Toronto Historical Board in 1966 with strong support from persons closely associated with the Royal Agricultural Winter Fair, the Ontario Racing Commission, and other responsible parties who have an interest in the active role the horse has played in this community.”

In the Globe and Mail, columnist Bruce West defended the acquisition of the statue following those criticisms that it glorified the monarchy: “Let’s forget this statue is of a British monarch and is therefore a reminder of our shameful colonial status during a pitiful period in which we were glad to grow and prosper under the protection of the most powerful empire in world history… Let’s just look upon it as a dandy big statue of a king on a horse. We don’t have a good supply of statues of kings on horses.”

In the Telegram, McKenzie Porter suggested that “in former colonies of the British Empire there must be scores of fine statues now deemed redundant or in appropriate by the contemporary governments. Torontonians should get their hands on as many of these as soon as possible.” Porter felt that the acquisition of the equestrian statue would give the city “an air of dignity, virtuosity, and antiquity. Even statues of villains, or statues badly carved, are to be coveted.”

Jackman himself admitted that it did not really matter to him who it was a statue of. “I was not really after Edward VII,” he told the Globe and Mail. “I was after a great horse.”

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The City had little trouble fundraising for the statue’s plinth. A great many of the donations were under 10 dollars, although some notable Torontonians, including racehorse breeder E.P. Taylor, gave considerably more.

(Left: Thomas Brock seen at left, with King George V and his wife, Queen Mary. The man at the right is A.B. Burton who ran the foundry where the statue was forged. May, 1921. Wikimedia Commons.)

Enthusiasm for the statue came from some unlikely quarters. Included in Dennison’s correspondence is a letter of support from Veeren Adhiya, president of the Know India Cultural Society, a local cultural group whose activities included producing a newspaper and radio show, and organizing performances at the Mariposa Folk Festival. Adhiya wrote: “As the statue of King Edward the VII is a gift from India to the city of Toronto, we, the landed immigrants from India now living in Toronto feel it as our moral duty to help raise funds towards the expense of placing this work of art in a prominent place in Toronto.” While it is unclear how empowered Adhiya may have been to speak for the city’s entire Indian community, he was confident enough to suggest an “India Night” fundraiser, claiming such an event might raise several thousand dollars for the cause. He furtherd added: “Mahatma Gandhi always said that the struggle for India’s independence was against the British system of government and was never against the British people; we want to assure you that we in India have no personal enmity or prejudices against the British people or its things.”

While the columns and letters in the Globe and Mail and Telegram were largely supportive of the equestrian statue, the Star ran a variety of criticisms. Many of the letters simply decried the old-fashioned statue as silly or “campy,” while others readers were upset about the lack of public consultation. Several wrote to denounce the statue as representing the worst of British imperialism. Ruth Cohen, of St. Mary’s Street, wrote that “it was in the Edwardian age that all self-respecting Britons rejected the values of Gung-Ho imperialism, which is the mindless acceptance of phony outward forms with no inner reality.” This prompted a series of responses from readers debating the merits of the British Empire.

The Star also gave more coverage to alderman Anthony O’Donoghue, one of the few on City Council to criticize the statue. Amongst the mocking suggestions of O’Donoghue’s that the Star reported were setting it up at Woodbine Racetrack “to keep the other horses company,” placing it directly outside Mayor Dennison’s window so that he would have to look at the rear end, and turning it into a children’s ride at Nathan Phillips Square.

Mayor William Dennison takes a photo of the completed statue. Toronto Star, May 26, 1969.

In the midst of the debate, Jackman took it upon himself to write to the Star and reiterated that his decision to acquire the statue “was not made with the idea of adding to the growing art of our fine city, but as a tribute to that noble animal, the horse.” Jackman also attempted to discourage people criticizing it for aesthetic reasons: “There are almost as many tastes in art as there are people, and if we are to avoid endless arguments and have Toronto really a cultural centre, we should agree to have the subject removed from the field of inevitable controversy.”

On balance, it appears that public sentiment supported the erection of the statue. At the end of January, Mayor Dennison told the Globe and Mail that the letters he was receiving about the statue were “running about 8 to 2 in favour of having the statue.”

In April, Forrest reported back the City, formally recommending the Queen’s Park site for the statue, citing the park’s pedestrian traffic and noting Edward’s opening of the park in 1860. Forrest also outlined the plans for how it would be displayed. “The base would be 14 feet high,” wrote the Globe and Mail, “but 11 feet of it would be concealed—four feet of it below the present ground level and seven feet inside the sloping mound of earth,” which was to be landscaped around the statue. This design would allow people to get quite close to the base of the statue, even though Dennison had initially requested that the new plinth be designed to be “unclimbable.” However, the approved design was cheaper than the initial estimate, costing only around $18,000. This resuled in nearly $1,000 in surplus funds from the fundraising drive, which were later given over to the Toronto Historical Board to be used for any necessary maintenance of the statue or its base.

Unpacking Kildare in Queen’s Park. Toronto Star, May 20, 1969.

Installing the statue on the plinth took place during the week leading up to Victoria Day, drawn out because removing the statue from India had necessitated dividing it into four pieces. The horse was split into two sections, and the Telegram reported that “King Edward’s head had to be removed in India to fit under some railway bridges.”

The first section of the statue to be taken to its new home was the body (but not the head) of the horse. After Kildare was set in place, Edward was brought to the park and lowered onto the horse by crane, the Telegram observing that “despite the motorcycle escort by three policeman, the occasion somehow lacked dignity and circumspection one would expect when a King is in transport.” Kildare’s head was added on May 23, and the completed statue was thus dedicated in a small ceremony on May 24.

Jackman’s monumental generosity was not yet exhausted. He caused more mild controversy in 1977 when he donated another statue to the City, this time a likeness of Winston Churchill by Oscar Nemon which was installed in Nathan Phillips Square. Years later another Nemon statue paid for by Jackman, the Canadian Airmen’s Memorial, was installed on the boulevard of University Avenue near Dundas Street, and was harshly attacked by art critics and the general public, derisively nicknamed “Gumby Goes to Heaven.” These controversies contributed to the formation of the Toronto Public Art Commission in 1986, which continues to advise the City on public art matters.

Children playing on the statue. The Globe and Mail, March 14, 1970.

While some in Toronto disliked the statue on aesthetic grounds, John Sankey describes it, along with Brock’s other two later equestrian statues, as “among his finest and most original works. Sankey does note, however, that the other two statues, still in their original locations, are “placed on pedestals high enough to give a monumental effect and to deter vandalism.” While Dennison had hoped that the equestrian statue would be unclimbable, Toronto newspapers soon featured photos of children playing amongst Kildare’s legs. By the 1980s the papers also reported on acts of vandalism, often in the form of painting the horse’s testicles.

In 1986, Matthew Hart wrote a piece for the Globe and Mail, citing several examples of public art in Toronto which had generated local debate. In assessing the public’s attitude to Brock’s sculpture of Edward VII, Hart says, “Behind the Legislature stands an equestrian statue of Edward VII. Never mind why… The thing was free and that’s all that matters. The Jackmans gave it to us for nothing. And now someone has stolen in there with a can of Day-Glo paint and overstated the horses’s gender, which is masculine. Thank God the King was smart enough to keep his pants on.”


Additional material from: The Globe (and Mail) (June 2, June 5, June 14, June 21, September 7, September 10, September 12, 1860; January 17, January 18, January 23, January 27, January 30, February 6, February 14, April 4, April 9, May 23, May 26, October 2, 1969; March 14, 1970; October 27, November 2, 1977; April 19, November 23, 1979; March 27, 1980; July 14, October 5, 1984; August 29, 1986); City of Toronto Council Minutes, (1969, 1970); King Edward VII statue correspondence, City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 200, Series 1512; John Sankey, Thomas Brock and the Critics: An Examination of Brock’s Place in the New Sculpture Movement, Volume 1, PhD Thesis, (2002), The University of Leeds Fine Art Department; The Toronto Star (January 16, January 17, January 21, January 22, January 23, January 24, January 28, February 12, February 27, April 5, April 22, May 14, May 17, May 20, May 21, May 23, May 26, 1969; September 25, October 2, 1977; November 23, 1979; October 5, October 13, 1984; June 12, 1990); Telegram (January 17, January 24, January 27, January 28, February 1, April 8, April 9, May 17, May 21, May 26, 1969); The Times (of London) (February 17, 1922); John Warkentin, Creating Memory: A Guide to Outdoor Public Sculpture in Toronto (Becker Associates, 2010: Toronto).


Every Saturday, Historicist looks back at the events, places, and characters that have shaped Toronto into the city we know today.

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