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Signs and Symbols: ‘Emperor’ Charles II

A statue of Charles II as a Roman emperor, commissioned by the King himself, was destroyed by flames in 1838, but a replica exists in the courtyard today

A Peter Vandrebanc engraving of Grinling Gibbons' sculpture of Charles II in Roman dress An engraving by Peter Vandrebanc of Grinling Gibbons' sculpture of Charles II in Roman dress, which was unveiled at The Royal Exchange in 1684

In 1669, just three years after the Great Fire of London destroyed the first Royal Exchange, a second building, designed by Edward Jarman, was constructed on the original site. The first incarnation had been filled with statues of British monarchs, and replacement sculptures were gradually introduced to the new Exchange, featuring works by Dutch sculptor Caius Gabriel Cibber (his rather weathered Charles II still stands in Soho Square), the eccentric John Bushnell and later John Michael Rysbrack and Joseph Wilton.

The statuary included a Portland stone rendering of Charles II styled in full Roman dress, complete with laurel wreath headdress and with classically cropped hair, rather than the usual French-inspired wig. His father, Charles I, had also commissioned a likeness of himself as a Roman general – it was considered a symbol of the monarchy’s imperial power, an echo of a previous empire.

‘Emperor’ Charles II was unveiled in the quadrangle of The Royal Exchange (the second building, like its predecessor, was enclosed on all four sides by arcades but roofless) to great acclaim, in 1684. The sculptor was the Anglo-Dutch Grinling Gibbons (1648-1721), famed for his exquisite wood carvings and noted for his work on Windsor Castle and Hampton Court Palace, St. Paul’s Cathedral and other London churches.

"The statuary included a Portland stone rendering of Charles II styled in full Roman dress, complete with laurel wreath headdress and classically cropped hair"

The London Gazette reported that Charles II himself was ‘well satisfied’ with the result and forbade anyone from making an engraving, etching or mezzotint of it without Gibbons’s express permission. Luckily, the very well-regarded engraver Peter Vandrebanc (1649-97) was allowed to execute an image of the monument, for the real thing was destroyed in a second fire that engulfed The Royal Exchange in 1838.

Vandrebanc’s engraving, the only accurate record we have of Gibbons’s piece, is now held in the Royal Collection Trust at Buckingham Palace. A 1792 copy of Grinling’s Charles II by John Spiller was featured in the second Exchange and it did, in fact, survive the subsequent fire and is to be found today in a niche in the Great Courtyard.

You may not be able to see the long-lost Gibbons original, but there is a gilded brass effigy of Charles in Roman garb in the middle courtyard of the Royal Hospital Chelsea, again executed by Gibbons, in about 1682 (although it was not originally displayed at the hospital) that is a decent substitute. It is Grade 1-listed.

Image reproduced with thanks to the Royal Collection Trust © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth

Officially opened by HRH Queen Elizabeth I in 1571, The Royal Exchange celebrates its 450th anniversary this year. Our Signs and Symbols series, by author and journalist Rob Ryan, explores the design secrets in and around The Royal Exchange’s magnificent façade.

Visit our heritage page to learn more about the history of The Royal Exchange and keep an eye on our 450 Years site, journal and Instagram for more fascinating facts and insights about The Royal Exchange’s past and present as we commemorate this special milestone throughout the year ahead.

We look forward to welcoming you during 2021, for a considered shopping and dining experience in spectacular and historic surroundings. Please visit our boutiques page for regular updates on our retailers’ opening information and hours, as well as details about virtual appointments and click and collect services.