The (in)famous nymphs of Leeds City Square have been controversial ever since they were put up in 1903 to mark the town gaining city status.
The eight scantily clad nudes were commissioned as part of the creation of City Square and were meant to represent ‘Morn’ and ‘Even’ (four of each) and stood alongside the statues of Joseph Priestley, James Watt, John Harrison and Dr Hook.
They were sculpted by Alfred Drury (1858-1944) but in 1961 all eight were removed and put into storage, a move which prompted protest from thousands.
Just over 18 months later, however, the eight statues were reinstalled on their plinths, thanks to a campaign which garnered the support of thousands of Loiners.
Their reinstatement followed a proposal from the then city architect J R Sheridan, supported by Alderman T A Jessop, chairman of the town planning committee, who commented at the time: “We think this is the best way forward.”
The nymphs were put into storage, residing at a depot on Kirkstall Road for about 18 months, following their removal.
The controversy began in 1957 after the council revived a pre-war plan to remove all statues from City Square, save that of the Black Prince. But the plan itself was controversial and two years later, there was still no agreement on how to proceed and in December of that year, a plan was approved (albeit with a narrow majority) for a £20,000 scheme which would see the statues remain in place.
Work began on the project in January 1960 and as a precaution, all statues were removed. When the work was complete in early 1961, the four statues of Harrison, Hook, Priestley and Watt were returned but the nymphs were noticeable only by their absence. In March 1962, two businessman offered to buy the nymphs but the bids were rejected. Thousands signed a petition calling for their return. The statues resumed their original home on July 23 1962, lowered into place on a 60ft job by a 25-ton crane.
But that wasn’t their only brush with controversy. In 1973, council leaders promised “an investigation” after students stuck ‘Rag Week’ stickers on the nipples of some of the nudes, later arguing: “We thought this was a good place to advertise the Rag.”
In 1978, there was a new storm after they were all given white umbrellas to protect them against erosion.
In December 1983, one of the ‘Morn’ statues was knocked over by a reversing truck and damaged.
Even today, the statues remain a point of concern. In July 2013, the nymphs were covered while English Defence League members marched through the city. And only last year, hand knitted yellow jumpers were added to the nymphs as part of the city’s celebration at being part of the start of Le Tour de France.
All in all, the nymphs have largely been celebrated, not least because they appear to be a continuation of the Victorian and Edwardian obsession with cavorting statues of all kinds, which, if one is so inclined, are visible to this day, adorning the frontages of buildings across the city, depicting both female (and male) nudes.
Lastly, they perhaps add weight to the view that Leeds has one of the finest ensemble of Victorian statuary outside London.