For some Fitzrovians crossing the Euston Road is as problematic as crossing the river can be for other Londoners. But our newfound love of permitted exercise means that all this is changing. In the last few months we’ve been as likely to encounter our neighbours on the Broad Walk in Regent’s Park as on our very own Charlotte Street. So in my quest for ‘local deities’ I’ve been venturing into this northern outpost.
In St. John’s Lodge Garden my gaze fell instantly on the lovely Hylas, who stands at the centre of a pool in one of the Garden’s secret spaces. Fellow Fitzrovian Edward Kellow, who volunteers there, has written a companion piece about this delightful haven in Regent’s Park.
Hylas was the same-sex love interest of the musclebound hero Heracles. ‘Arms-bearer to Heracles’ is his official job title. This wasn’t really a euphemism, since bisexuality was widely accepted by the ancient Greeks. They would probably have taken it for granted that there was an erotic element to the relationship. Heracles (Hercules in Roman myth) had plenty of affairs with women, but a supplementary attachment to a young man was nothing out of the ordinary. The Greeks didn’t even have words for ‘homosexual’ and ‘heterosexual’. It was all just sex to them. Not that there weren’t rules – this wasn’t by any means an amatory free-for-all – but a lifelong preference for a particular gender wasn’t usually one of them.
The story of Hylas goes like this. Heracles was one of the Argonauts, the heroic crew who set sail on the Argo for the eastern shore of the Black Sea. Their mission was to help Jason filch the Golden Fleece from the land of Colchis. Hylas went along too, presumably carrying his employer’s club, bow and shield.
But on a comfort stop in Mysia, in present-day NW Turkey, Hylas wandered off, hunting for a source of fresh water. In a glade he found a pool fringed with reeds and marsh-marigolds. As he leant forwards to fill his pitcher, the resident nymphs caught sight of him, and fell in love. Twining their arms around him they dragged him down into the watery depths.
Heracles searched far and wide for Hylas, calling out his name. He became hopelessly lost, ‘so mad a passion on his vitals preyed/ while Hylas had become a blessed god’ (Theocritus Idyll 13). Eventually the other Argonauts got tired of waiting, and left without them. Hylas was never seen on dry land again.
Don’t wish for immortality is one of the morals of this tale. Just imagine, having to spend eternity in the bed of some lustful women. Too much of a good thing, obviously. Hylas may have been transformed into a god, but for him this was little more than a living death.
The Hylas in St. John’s Lodge Garden was created by the sculptor Henry Alfred Pegram. Son of a manufacturer of prams and rocking-horses, Pegram was born in 1862 in Camden Town, on what is now Plender Street. He became an exponent of ‘New Sculpture’, a late 19th century movement which broke away from Classical precedents and introduced more naturalistic and sensuous poses. Gilbert’s Eros in Piccadilly Circus is the most famous example.
Pegram produced scores of sculptures, including statues for Golders Green crematorium, Cardiff City Hall, and Oriel College, Oxford. This last piece, a figure of Cecil Rhodes, remains one of the UK’s most notorious artworks, the prime target of the protest group which aims to decolonise our public spaces.
The bronze Hylas made by Pegram is probably less controversial. Dating to 1894/5, it was presented to the Park by the Royal Academy in 1933. It captures the youth at the moment when a merciless nymph has him gripped by the legs, and he’s about to disappear.
For me the most striking element in the Hylas story is its typical Greek depiction of the ‘femme fatale’. Women are grasping, clinging, insatiable. They swallow men whole and deflect them from their important, manly quests. Odysseus provides the best illustration. The main reason why it takes the hero ten years to get home from the Trojan War is that he’s detained by a succession of amorous females – Circe, Calypso, the Sirens … Oh the poor chap.
On occasions Hylas can be almost as newsworthy as Cecil Rhodes. A furore over ‘woman as sex object’ thrust him into the headlines in 2018. At the height of the ‘MeToo’ campaign, curators at Manchester Art Gallery took down a much-loved painting by J.W.Waterhouse showing the innocent youth cornered by a posse of bare-breasted nymphs. The Gallery was just making a point, apparently, and the picture was soon back on display.
If there’s a sex object on the loose in St. John’s Lodge Garden it probably isn’t the nymph. I’m generally quite keen on political correctness, but I do hope that nobody ever dreams of removing Hylas. He’s definitely the star of this particular show.
Sue Blundell is a playwright and lecturer in Classical Studies. sueblundell.com