Eros, Anteros and the Shaftesbury Memorial

This week’s mid-week study was on the life and times of one of Victorian Britain’s greatest men: the seventh Earl of Shaftesbury. He saw no conflict between his dual roles of social reformer and leading evangelical Christian. The man who campaigned for better working-class housing, shorter hours, and higher standards of living was known as ‘the poor man’s earl’. When he died in 1885, it was the poorest in London who lined the streets to see his coffin pass.

In 1893, a memorial to him was erected at Piccadilly Circus, topped by a Greek god. Designer Alfred Gilbert unusually chose a nude adolescent to represent Shaftesbury’s virtue. The god in question is Anteros, portraying "reflective and mature love, as opposed to Eros or Cupid, the frivolous tyrant." Offering a sop to those who felt the statue was out of kilter with the Earl’s legacy, it was renamed the Angel of Christian Charity, but neither this nor the original name stuck. Instead, it is known as Eros, the god of sensual, romantic love. This fits in well with the loose morals of Soho, but not the Earl, who enjoyed a loving, harmonious marriage and stood for Biblical ideals.

It is typical of this country to take the memorial to a godly man and make it a shrine to the god of our promiscuous age, the idolatrous worship of which the Earl would never have stomached.

Thursday’s notes can be found here: