Monday, 21 August 2017

A statue and small square in
Athens honour George Canning,
‘an Irishman born in London’

The statue of George Canning in Πλατεία Κάνιγγος or Canning Square in central Athens (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Patrick Comerford

Akadimias Street (Οδός Ακαδημίας) in Athens, which runs parallel to Panepistimiou Street and Stadiou Street, runs for more than 1 km from Vassilissis Sofias Avenue at its south-east end in the Kolonaki district, to the junction of Kaningos Square and Tzortz Street in the Exarcheia district at its north-west end.

Following my visit to the Acropolis and the Parthenon at the weekend, I visited Tzortz Street, which is named after the Irish Philhellene, Sir Richard Church, and Tzortz is a poor Greek transliteration of Church.

This street leads off Πλατεία Κάνιγγος (Plateía Káningos) or Canning Square, which I also visited at the weekend. Plateía Káningos is named after George Canning in appreciation of his support of Greece during the Greek War of Independence (1821-1830).

George Canning, who was Britain’s shortest-serving prime minister, once described himself as ‘an Irishman born in London.’ He was born in London on 11 April 1770, and both his father and his mother were Irish-born.

His father, also George Canning, from Garvagh, Co Derry, was a gentleman of limited means, a failed wine merchant and barrister, who was disowned by his own father and renounced his right to inherit the family estate in exchange for the payment of substantial debts. George senior eventually abandoned the family and died in poverty in London on 11 April 1771, his son’s first birthday.

His mother, Mary Ann Costello (1747-1827), an actor, was born in Caher, Aghamore, Co Mayo. Her father, Jordan Costello, has been described as a Connacht squire. Mary Ann was apparently orphaned at an early age, and was brought up by her maternal grandfather in London.

Penniless but renowned for her beauty, she married George Canning in 1768. Their first child, a daughter, died within a few months. On 11 April 1770, Mary gave birth to a son, named George after his father.

When George senior died, Mary was pregnant and penniless again. To support herself and her small child, she became an actress and had her debut in Jane Shore at Drury Lane in November 1773. She toured provincial theatres with Samuel Reddish, and together they five children, including two sets of twins. Although there is no evidence they married, she called herself as Mrs Reddish.

Young George was taken from Mary and was made the ward of his wealthy uncle, Stratford Canning, a Whig banker also from Garvagh. She did not see him for eight years. In February 1783, she married her second or third husband, Richard Hunn, an unsuccessful silk mercer from Plymouth, and had five more children, including another set of twins.

Her career on stage continued to cause public scandal, and at the age of 12 George was told that his mother was unfit for respectable society.

The young George Canning was sent to Eton and then to Christ Church, Oxford. His time at Eton has been described as ‘a triumph almost without parallel. He proved a brilliant classicist, came top of the school, and excelled at public orations.’ In 1789, he won a prize for his Latin poem, The Pilgrimage to Mecca, which he recited in the Oxford Theatre.

At Eton and Oxford, he was acutely aware of his modest beginnings and his mother’s career. Perhaps as compensation, he developed early political ambitions, trained as a lawyer, and became an MP at the age of 23, under the patronage of the Tory Prime Minister, William Pitt the Younger.

He advocated amending the Corn Laws, Catholic emancipation and abolishing slavery. His first ministerial appointment came in 1795 as Under Secretary for Foreign Affairs. During the Napoleonic Wars, he was Paymaster of the Forces (1800-1801), Treasurer of the Navy (1804-1806) and Foreign Secretary (1807-1809).

While he was Foreign Secretary, Canning disagreed openly with the Secretary of State for War and the Colonies, Lord Castlereagh. When Castlereagh learned that Canning was plotting to have him dismissed, he challenged Canning to a duel. The two men faced each other at dawn on 21 September 1809 on Putney Heath. Canning had never before fired a pistol, and Castlereagh wounded him in the thigh.

King George III was furious and both men were forced to resign. Canning was generally blamed for the duel, and remained out of office for many years.

When Lord Liverpool became prime minister in 1812, he offered Canning the post of Foreign Secretary. Canning declined, because he wanted to be Leader of the House of Commons, a post held by Castlereagh. Instead, Canning accepted a diplomatic appointment to Portugal.

When Canning returned to London in 1816, he became president of the Board of Control. He resigned in 1820 in opposition to King George IV’s attempt to divorce Queen Caroline. Canning was her friend and adviser, and may have been her lover, but he was also out of sympathy with government policies on Europe.

Lord Liverpool wanted Canning back in the Cabinet, and in June 1821 tried to offer him the Admiralty or the Home Office to Canning. But King George IV refused, and wanted to get Canning out of the way by appointing him Governor-General of India.

Castlereagh – who was then foreign secretary – completed suicide on 12 August 1822. A month later, despite the king’s objections, Canning became Foreign Secretary and leader of the Commons.

Although Canning was a Tory, his foreign policy alarmed his conservative colleagues. After the Congress of Verona in 1822, he declined to take part in any further European Congresses. He boasted he had frustrated the ambitions of the continental powers, but the Duke of Wellington thought that Canning was trying to destroy the alliance on which the peace of Europe depended.

However, Canning was no forerunner of today’s ‘Brexiteers.’ On the contrary, he encouraged liberal and constitutional movements abroad, and his policies prevented any general interference by the reactionary powers with the development of liberty and national freedom in Europe and overseas.

Canning opposed the 1823 French invasion of Spain, was determined to keep France out of Spain’s Latin American colonies, and advocated the independence of Spain’s colonies, to the point of threatening to resign if Britain did not recognise the new republics. Although most of his colleagues disliked him and King George IV hated him, the Tories found they could not stay in power without him.

When Lord Liverpool suffered a stroke in February 1827 and resigned, Canning was the most senior minister in the Commons and was popular with the public. On 10 April 1827, George IV asked Canning to form a government. Once again, the snobbery about his humble origins surfaced, with Lord Grey remarking that ‘the son of an actress is, ipso facto, disqualified from becoming Prime Minister.’

The Duke of Wellington, Sir Robert Peel and five other members of Liverpool’s cabinet declined to serve under Canning, and many other Tories joined them in opposition. The Tories were split between the ‘High Tories’ and the moderates supporting Canning. Canning found it difficult to form a government and invited a number of Whigs to join his Cabinet, including Henry Petty-Fitzmaurice, 3rd Lord Lansdowne (and 4th Earl of Kerry).

Canning initiated a programme of progressive reforms, but he could not see them through. He was already ill when he took office, and he died in London 190 years ago on 8 August 1827. He was 57. He was Prime Minister for just 119 days – the shortest tenure of any British Prime Minister. Huge crowds attended his funeral at Westminster Abbey, where he is buried.

Canning gave diplomatic support to the Greeks in the struggle against the Turks for freedom, and ensured the eventual creation of an independent Greek state. In 1823, he extended recognition to the Greeks as belligerents, giving them rights in international law.

In 1827, he signed the Treaty of London with Russia and France, with the object of securing Greek independence. The treaty isolated Austria and put a check on Russian ambitions in the Eastern Mediterranean.

Two months after his death, Canning’s policy of ‘peaceful interference’ in the Greek War of Independence brought about the eventual destruction of the Turkish and Egyptian fleets by a combined British, French, and Russian fleet at the Battle of Navarino in October 1827.

This was the last great naval battle of the age of sail and was instrumental in ensuring that an independent Greece came into existence, although its precise borders took some years to negotiate.

Canning’s successor as Prime Minister, the Dublin-born Duke of Wellington, tried to undo his work by making a truce with Turkey, but the Treaty of London had secured Greek independence.

The statue of George Canning has a simple inscription: ‘George Canning 1770-1827’. It was unveiled by the Greek Prime Minister, Eleftherios Venizelos, on 6 April 1931, at a ceremony attended by Sir Patrick Ramsay, the British ambassador, and the English builder and developer Charles Boot (1874-1945), who donated the statue to the Greek nation.

Canning’s statue in Kaningos Square is carved in white Carrara marble and is the work of Sir Francis Chantrey. Perhaps Chantrey’s most famous works is ‘The Sleeping Children,’ a monument in Lichfield Cathedral to two girls of the Robinson family asleep in each other’s arms. Chantrey is also sculptor of the statue of Canning in the north transept in Westminster Abbey.

On the left side of the statue in Athens, under Canning’s books, is the discreet signature of the sculptor, ‘Chantrey Sculptor 1834’.

Why did Charles Boot donate the state to the Greek nation? The statue had been commissioned by the Duke of Sutherland, who had served in Canning’s statue. It remained at the Trentham estate until Boot bought it around the same time as his firm opened offices in Athens in 1920. One of the largest contracts his firm received was a £10 million Greek irrigation contract, awarded in 1927.

Boot donated the statue to the Greek nation, the Greek sculptor Dimitrios Perrakis (1893-1965) designed a new podium and plinth, and the statue was unveiled on 6 May 1931 as part of the celebrations of the centenary of the modern Greek State.

However, due to problems in the Greek economy and World War II and the Greek Civil War, Boot’s contract was not completed until 1952, seven years after he had died.

Today the plinth is covered in graffiti, but it is possible to pick out the name of Walter Reginald Basil Long (1918-1941) in a later, smaller inscription below Canning’s name: ‘Walter Reginald Basil Long 1918-1941 Τρισεγγονοσ του Καννιγκ Επεσεν υπερ τησ Ελλαδοσ’. Long was a lieutenant in Royal Artillery, and during World War II he was drowned in Greece on 28 April 1941 during the evacuation of British troops from mainland Greece.

Words at the back of the statue read: ‘Εισ τον Γεωργιο Καννιγκα 1770-1827 εκ των πρωτεργατων τησ Ελληνικησ Ελευθεριασ επι Δημαρχου Σπυρου Μερκουρη 1931,’ ‘In memory of George Canning 1770-1870, Champion of Greek Independence, [unveiled] by the Mayor, Spiros Mercouri, 1931.’

Spyridon Mercouris (1856-1939) was a long-time Mayor of Athens in the early 20th century. He was born into a prominent family that had taken part in the Greek War of Independence in the 1820s.

He became Mayor of Athens in 1899, and held the post until 1914. He was a right-wing conservative royalist, and was accused of complicity in riots in 1916. He was sentenced to death, but this was commuted by the Venizelist government to exile in Corsica in 1917. He was released from prison in 1920, was elected to Parliament in 1928, and was re-elected Mayor of Athens in 1929. He continued as Mayor of Athens until 1932, and died in 1939.

His granddaughter, the actor Melina Mercouri (1920-1994), was Minister of Culture and Tourism (1981-1989, 1993-1994) in the governments of Andreas Papandreou. She was a strong advocate for the return of the Parthenon Marbles to Athens from the British Museum in London. Her statue stands on Leoforos Vasilissis Amalias (Queen Amalia Avenue), near the entrance to the Acropolis and on the edges of the Plaka.

The statue of Melina Mercouri near the Acropolis … her grandfather unveiled the statue of George Canning (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

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