The Man Who Carved a Lion. The story of Henry John Wilkinson 1829 – 1911

For over 150 years a seven-foot-tall white Medici lion, carved from coral stone, has drawn locals and visitors to a hillside in St. George, Barbados.  Situated southeast and below the Gun Hill Signal Station, over-looking the beautiful St. George Valley, the lion has stood proudly since it was completed in 1868.  Since that time, it has been a must stop on any island tour, a place to picnic, enjoy the view or most commonly to get a picture standing with or sitting on the lion.

Gun Hill Lion - 1969
Gun Hill Medici Lion – 1969 photo Jim Webster

While little is known about the carving of the full-size lion some clues are contained within the accompanying two inscriptions.

Lion Gun Hill - Latin inscription
Latin inscription – Lion Gun Hill.

The quotation below the lion reads:

+ DOMINABITVR A MARI VS AD MARE
A FLUMINE VS
AD TERMINOS ORBIS TERARVM

This passage occurs twice in the Bible (Psalms 72.8 and Zechariah 9.10), and the Latin translation is as follows:

He will rule from sea to sea
from river to the ends of the earth

With the lion staring out toward the sea, its upraised left front paw resting on a large round ball, it has been conjectured there is another meaning for the quotation – that being the power and scope of the British Empire around the globe.  The sculptor was a lifelong military man having already served in at least four countries before his arrival in Barbados, so he probably had a strong loyalty to crown and empire.

In the centre of the inscription, he has attempted to translate into Latin his military rank, the post that he was holding and the date the carving was completed.

HEN IOA WILKINSON
CEN COH PED IX BRITAN
TRIB CASTR SCULPSIT
AD MDCCCLXVIII

We know from other sources including the rank he held in Barbados, how this part of the inscription could be translated:

Henry John Wilkinson
Captain in the 9th Regiment of Foot (The Norfolk Regiment)
Deputy Assistant Quartermaster-General (Sculptor)
carved this 1868 A.D.

To the right of the lion and to the side of the steps are the names of the four military labourers / assistants:

Military Labourers Lion Gun Hill

M BROWN
D NICHOLAS
D HARRIS
PR WILLIAM
 MIL LAB COOP

Maybe these are the four military labourers / assistants: M. Brown, D. Nicholas, C. Harris and Private William.

Also carved into the stone bench behind the lion is an often overlooked Warri gameboard – a game which originated in Africa that became very popular in Barbados.

Warri gameboard Gun Hill Lion seat Barbados
The carved bench to the rear of the Gun Hill Lion with a built in Warri gameboard. For more details on how to play Warri click here.

The Military and Gun Hill

Gun Hill was originally named Briggs Hill, after an early landowner.  From as early as 1697 and again in 1747 it was one of the hills selected for the placements of guns to fire an alarm in case of an invasion.  At each place there was a small barrack, sufficient for no more than two or three officers and a small number of men.

Gun Hill Infantry camp

After the slave rebellion in 1816 and the establishment of martial law, a series of signal stations were established under the direction of Lord Combermere when he became governor of Barbados in 1817.  Gun Hill Signal Station was built in 1818.  At this time the government was able to acquire a total of 20 acres from local landowners and the barracks at Gun Hill were enlarged to accommodate more troops, many sleeping in tents.

Barbados Signal Stations
The network of Barbados Signal Stations.

By 1848 Robert Schomburgk, in his book, “The History of Barbados” indicated that both Moncrieffe and Gun Hill were being utilized for convalescence purposes by the military.  With various epidemics, yellow fever and cholera,  it was advantageous to move troops away from the Garrison.  During one instance in 1862, with the outbreak of yellow fever near the Garrison at St. Ann’s Fort, over 900 troops were relocated to Gun Hill within a period of two days.

 Captain Wilkinson had been in Barbados from as early as 1863, with his daughter Mary, born 2nd January 1864, baptized 14th February 1864, at St. Ann’s Fort, The Garrison.  His wife, Leonora nee Elster subsequently had another daughter, Lilian, born 25th April 1868, baptized 7th June 1868, also at St. Ann’s Fort.

As assistant quartermaster he would have had responsibility for supplies of equipment and food for the regiment. It may well have been in this capacity that he spent some of his time stationed at Gun Hill, thus giving him the time and resources to undertake the sculpturing of the lion.

It is possible that the sculpture could have been carved over a period of time beginning as early as 1864, either in stages or during a period of concentrated work up to its completion in 1868.  By 1870 Wilkinson was stationed in Bermuda.

Henry John (Harry) Wilkinson – who was he?

Henry was born 14th May 1829 at the Wilkinson family home: Harperley Park, Durham. In 1858 his father, George Wilkinson, published the book “The Old Inmates of Harperley Park” which describes in the style of Homer some of the characters who frequented the place.   The book also contains eight early sketches and paintings by young Henry.   Dr. Edward Cecil Harris’ 2017 book, “The Sphinx of Inverurie” also describes in colourful detail the characters of Henry’s time at Harperley.

Lieutenant Henry John Wilkinson - 1854
Lieutenant Henry John Wilkinson – 1854 Crimea
Photographer Roger Fenton – Library of Congress.

In 1856 Henry married Leonora Elster.  In addition to his military records, we are able to piece together some of the family travels through the birth records of their eight children, born between 1858 – 1880, two of whom were born in Barbados. 

Henry and his family travelled extensively over the course of his 30+ years in the military. After leaving the Military and at some stage during retirement Henry and Leonora appear to have gone to live in Florence, Italy where they both died and are buried. Henry died in 1911 and Leonora in 1914.

View of Harperley Park by Henry Wilkinson
View of Harperley Park by Henry Wilkinson. Published in “The Old Inmates of Harperley Park”

Henry John (Harry) Wilkinson – The Military Man

Henry’s military career started in 1848 at the age of nineteen. After staff college he purchased a commission as an Ensign with the 1st Battalion 9th Regiment of Foot (The East Norfolk), enlisting 23rd May 1848. He subsequently purchased a commission as a lieutenant on 31st October 1851 and was promoted to Captain on 6th January 1855.  On 1st April, 1870 he was promoted to Major.  He was subsequently made an Honorary Colonel and retired in 1877.  Throughout the course of his career he served in Ireland, Crimea, Malta, Canada, Barbados and Bermuda.

For his time in Crimea he was awarded the Crimea Medal, with 2 clasps – Alama clasp, 20th September 1854 and Inkerman Clasp 5th November 1854. (The Crimea Medal was a campaign medal approved on 15th December 1854, for issue to officers and men of British units (land and naval) who fought in the Crimean War of 1854–56 against Russia.)

Henry John (Harry) Wilkinson – The Sketch Artist and Painter

A prolific artist, in Crimea (1854/55), he sketched and painted many scenes from the campaign, in particular, the Siege of Sevastopol, which lasted from 17th October 1854 – 11th September 1855. 

A number were published as lithographs in The Illustrated London News, founded in 1842.  The publisher would take original paintings and have them engraved in wood as stamps for printing.  This often required some simplification from the original so they would print clearly.

Many of Wilkinson’s military paintings are held at the National Army Museum, in London with a number available on-line. 

For more on Crimean War art see: Drawn on the spot: War Artists and the Illustrated Press.

Truce for Burial of the dead before Sevastopol by Henry Wilkinson
Truce for Burial of the dead before Sevastopol – National Army Museum Chelsea.
Truce for the Burial of the Dead at Sevastopol
Lithograph of Truce for the Burial of the Dead at Sevastopol.

Paintings and sketches by Henry John Wilkinson.

Henry John (Harry) Wilkinson – The Sculptor

Henry John Wilkinson is known for two sculptures:

1. The Lion at Gun Hill in Barbados sculpted while stationed in Barbados in 1860s.

2. His beloved British mastiff dog, “Sphinx” sculpted while stationed in Bermuda in 1870s. 

Col. Wilkinson’s Mastiff “Sphinx”
Col. Wilkinson’s Mastiff dog “Sphinx” in the grounds of Inverurie House.

“For almost 100 years, “Sphinx” presided undisturbed over the tranquil scene of a forest of cedars, a rolling lawn and grass tennis court and the Frith house, Inverurie”, the family home in Bermuda.

In the 1960s when the property was being converted to a hotel, “Sphinx” was removed from his pedestal to make room for a pool and placed in storage. 

The mystery of “Sphinx” was solved by Dr. Edward Cecil Harris MBE, JP, PHD, FSA, Founding Executive Director Emeritus National Museum of Bermuda. The story is detailed in the booklet he published in 2017, “The Sphinx of Inverurie” that also includes a section on the Lion at Gun Hill in Barbados.

Col. Wilkinson’s Mastiff “Sphinx”
Col. Wilkinson’s Mastiff “Sphinx” carved in Bermuda 1877.

In Conclusion

It seems much of the life of Henry John (Harry) Wilkinson has remained a mystery to be pulled together by those of us interested in his work and the very interesting life he lived.

What we know is that he was a very well travelled person with an artistic gift who has left us with a lion that is still visited and enjoyed to this day.  Hopefully, in the future, more of his art will be discovered or made available for future generations to enjoy. 

Jim Webster – Boxing Day 2021

The Lion at Gun at Hill Through the Years

Henry John (Harry) Wilkinson’s Medici Lion at Gun Hill through the years.


Sources:

How Gun Hill Was Acquired – Warren Alleyne, Nation Newspaper, 6th October 1983

Gun Hill and the Signal Stations – Barbados National Trust brochure circa 1982

Looking Back at Old Lookouts – Lady Chandler, Bajan Magazine, November 1982

The Sphinx of Inverurie, Edward Cecil Harris, The Royal Gazette, 8th July 2017

National Army Museum, Chelsea / Family Search / ancestry.com

5 thoughts on “The Man Who Carved a Lion. The story of Henry John Wilkinson 1829 – 1911”

  1. I am very glad to see that you were able to research Capt. Wilkinson’s life. I hope the Barbados National Trust are interested.

  2. My paternal grandparents, George Allan and Daisy Deane Dash, where born, raised and married in Barbados.

    They migrated to the United States in 1900 and settled in Philadelphia. The couple had six children who, in celebration of their parents’ 50th wedding anniversary, sent them home to their birthplace for a six-week visit. For the last 10 days, my parents, Ruth and George Allan Dash, Jr. and I, GADIII (10 years old) joined George and Daisy and met a lot of the new friends they made.

    Among all the places we all visited was the Wilkinson Lion. Here’s a picture someone took. I was there, but I can’t find me!

    Dash Family reunion Barbados 1949

    Alan Dash

    1. I thank Alan for sharing your picture. It is hard to imagine how many thousands of others have taken pictures of themselves and families with the Lion.

      Jim

  3. David Miles Hanschell

    David Miles-Hanschell. Well researched and interesting article.I have visited ‘The Lion’ and Gun Hill on several ocassions.Three members of my family’s bones and ashes rest in St George’s church yard.

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