Pocahontas was an unlucky princess. She wowed London when she arrived from Virginia with a retinue in 1616 on the arm of Norfolk adventurer John Rolfe. She had reputedly saved the life of Captain John Smith, one of the earliest settlers in Virginia, in 1607. She was brought to London as a kind of ambassador for the Virginia Company, hoping to attract new investment. She was feted by London society and met Queen Anne, wife of James I several times.
A lovely nude statue of her by David McFall, which once graced the front of 38 Red Lion Square in Holborn, hasn’t been heard of since it was sold at auction at Christies 1996. The actual body of Pocahontas was buried at St George’s Church, Gravesend, in 1617 where she died of a disease – possibly pneumonia or smallpox – which struck her at the very start of what was meant to be her voyage home.
A century later, the church was destroyed in a fire and rebuilt on a different site. No-one knows for certain where the old church was located. It is thought her body might be lying beneath nearby Domino’s Pizza. There is a more recent statue of Pocahontas in the church yard, donated by the people of Virginia.
Why was the statue in Red Lion Square? It was commissioned in 1954 to grace the new head office of Cassell Publishers. The spot was chosen because their previous head office had been in Ludgate Hill on the site of an ancient inn called the Belsavage or Belle Savage where Pocahontas had stayed during her visit to London. In 1575, the poet George Gascoigne referred to the “veine delights” of Belsavage fayre”.
In the 18th century the essayist Joseph Addison renamed it “La Belle Sauvage” (“The Beautiful Savage”) in praise of a heroine nurtured in a natural environment, but the actual name can probably be traced back to a proprietor of the inn called Savage.
McFall’s statue was moved from Red Lion Square to Greycoat Place, Victoria and then to Villiers House in the Strand before being auctioned. No-one seems to know where it is now. It could be in a private house or a gallery or maybe even in America. It would be fitting if this lovely sculpture could be displayed once again as a public sculpture in London to commemorate a historic happening.
All previous instalments of Vic Keegan’s Lost London can be found here.
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