My last post on London’s weathervanes ended with a brief mention of the eleven-foot golden grasshopper of the Royal Exchange. Since writing it I’ve been learning more about the grasshopper, and about its relationship with another beautiful old vane, the great nine-foot dragon that flies above Wren’s magnificent steeple of St. Mary-le-Bow:
It’s rather lovely to reflect that the dragon has been up there, taking all that the Thames valley’s gusty weather can throw at it, for more than three centuries, dating back to the rebuilding of St. Mary-le-Bow in 1679 after the Great Fire. Records show that a sum of £4 was paid to Edward Pearce, Mason, for carving the wooden model on which the dragon was based; and that a further £38 was paid to Robert Bird, the coppersmith who made the dragon itself. It is said that when the dragon was raised to its pinnacle it was accompanied by the famous Jacob Hall, a noted trapeze artist of the time, who performed a high wire act to the astonishment of the watching crowd.
In my previous post I noted that it is said that the Royal Exchange grasshopper is even older, possibly dating back to the original Exchange built in 1567. Images of that building (see below) clearly show that there were several similar grasshopper vanes mounted on the roof, but I’ve seen other sources that suggest these were lost in the Great Fire and that the current vane is from the second Exchange dating from 1669. If anyone has the definitive position, please let me know in the comments box!
With the exception of the giants Gog and Magog – and possibly Dick Whittington’s cat – I can’t think of any more deeply symbolic emblems of London’s great history. As explained in my earlier post about the old signs of Lombard Street, the grasshopper is the family emblem of Sir Thomas Gresham, Elizabethan merchant adventurer and founder of the Royal Exchange. The dragon, with its association with the cross of St.George (the badge of Londoners since at least the reign of Edward I) has been depicted as the bearer of the City coat of arms for centuries.
Note that the St Mary-le-Bow dragon also has the red crosses painted on the undersides of its wings, as shown below.
Until the late 20th century the vanes were two of the highest points in the City (the dragon is 221 feet high and the grasshopper 188 feet) and ever since they were erected, Londoners have imagined a relationship between the creatures, often reflecting the uneasy tension between organised religion and commerce. For example, in 1698, a tract, Ecclesia & Factio, was published as a dialogue between dragon and grasshopper about religious freedom:
In the early 19th Century, one Skryme (see note 1), an apothecary known for sensationalist predictions of doom, took to broadcasting a prophesy that ‘when the grasshopper on the top of the Exchange shook hands with the dragon on the top of Bow Church steeple, fearful events would take place’. As luck would have it, in 1820 the same architect happened to be engaged in repairing both creatures and for a time both vanes lay ‘cheek by jowl’ as it were, in the same workshop. And sure enough, within a year Mr Skryme was able to report that:
King George III had died; a royal duke had died suddenly; another, in France, had been murdered; there had been radical meetings in all parts of the kingdom; the bloody scenes in Manchester [Peterloo]; the great plot in Cato Street – and above all, the Queen [Caroline, estranged wife of George IV] had returned to England. All these and similar events are recounted by Mr Skryme with a mysterious look, and a dismal shake of the head…
These great weathervanes take such a battering from wind and rain that it is no surprise that major overhauls are needed from time to time. The dragon was taken down for repairs in 1760 and again, as caused Mr Skryme such consternation, in 1820. On the latter occasion a young Irish labourer accompanied it on its descent by sitting on its back and using his feet to manoeuvre it around the various obstacles, ‘which daring feat was witnessed by many thousand persons’ (see note 2).
The grasshopper has been subject to more recent repairs and I am delighted to be able to share some details and images of the process followed, which were very kindly provided by John Wallis of Dorothea Restorations (see note 3) who carried out the work:
The grasshopper was manufactured from copper and had been badly damaged. The surviving body was panel beaten back into shape and the broken sections repaired using copper and soldering in place using high lead content solder. The legs, which were some of the weakest elements, were reinforced using copper tube and fixed to the main structure. The original paint covering was carefully removed by gently flame cleaning and scraping. The whole structure was then lightly sanded by hand to remove any remaining paint.
An etch primer was applied to the whole structure, followed by several coats of a cream enamel paint to provide a smooth surface of the correct colour for gilding.
The gold was applied on top of an oil based size and was 23.5 ct double thick loose leaf. This is a great image as it really gets across just how huge the vane is.
And finally, here is the grasshopper, resplendent after its makeover, back in its rightful place on top of the Exchange where it can turn in the wind and chat the days away with its fire-breathing friend down Cheapside (the spire of St. Mary-le-Bow can be seen in the photo, just in front and to the right of St.Paul’s).
If you liked this post and enjoy reading about London history, you may like to read about my book The Boss of Bethnal Green: Joseph Merceron, the Godfather of Regency London.
Notes and sources
1. The Edinburgh Monthly Review, Vol IV (Sep1820), p.330.
2. Antiquities and Curiosities of the Church, edited by William Andrews; London : William Andrews & Co., 1897; pp. 175-182.
3. I am very grateful to John Wallis of Dorothea Restorations for sharing these details and allowing me to publish his images.