Feeling Sorry for Marble Arch

If it’s possible to feel sorry for a pile of stones, the Marble Arch is probably deserving of sympathy.

Like a Hollywood megastar now scratching a living doing rep in Cleethorpes, this was once one of the biggest architectural stars of its time, but is now marooned on a forsaken traffic island at the end of Oxford Street.

Its former glories are unknown to most of the millions who pass by it, but it was conceived as a grand triumphal arch that would celebrate the victories of Trafalgar and Waterloo, a grandiose entranceway to John Nash’s grandiose Buckingham Palace.

Things went awry early. Before the arch was even completed, George IV, who had commissioned Nash, died. The new king, William IV, and the Prime Minister, the Duke of Wellington, wanted to put an end to George’s extravagant plans and the Duke “made a hash of Nash”, firing him from the project.

Edward Blore was chosen to finish the work on a much reduced budget and the Arch, intended to have friezes celebrating the Napoleonic victories, and to be topped with an equestrian statue of George IV, was completed with much of its planned decoration and sculpture dispensed with. (One can see a model of Nash’s original conception for the Arch in the V+A.)

Buckingham Palace in the 1830s – The Marble Arch (although partially obscured by a tree) can just be seen in front of the Palace

Completed in front of the palace in 1833, the Arch then had the indignity of being moved in 1850. Legend has it that the decision to relocate came about because Queen Victoria’s coach could not navigate the Arch, but it was actually because the new queen wanted to expand the palace, adding a fourth wing facing St James’s Park, and making the hollow square that still exists today.

It ended up at the northern end of Hyde Park (Cumberland Gate), forming a grand entrance for pedestrians and carriages for over 50 years, but in 1908 the road layout was changed, cutting the Arch off from the Park (although it was still used for grand processions when all the other roads were closed, such as Elizabeth II’s coronation in 1953) and isolating it on a traffic island.

Worse was to come, because in the 1960s the GLC’s obsession with motor vehicles saw Park Lane turned into the monstrous eight-lane motorway it is now, with the Arch on a forlorn patch of ground surrounded by an unpleasant one-way system. (And let’s never forget 2021’s “Marble Arch Mound”, the much-derided artificial hill that Westminster Council spaffed millions on.)

And there it remains, a betrayed memorial to more opulent days. Perhaps it is time for a campaign to plough up one half of Park Lane and reunite the space with the park from which it was taken, and make Marble Arch the grand entrance it once was.

Or perhaps we should relocate it yet again (as was done with Wren’s Temple Bar) – to the middle of The Mall, say, or across the lake in St James’s Park, or even just as a magnificently over the top way in to Green Park from Piccadilly; it is certainly wasted where it is.