Woburn Abbey and film prop makers help us recreate Addison's Lion

Joseph Addison's once-celebrated Lion Head is among the array of treasures in the Duke of Bedford's collection at Woburn Abbey. It hangs above a doorway that leads into one of the most striking rooms at the abbey – a "Grotto" that is decorated with sea-monsters in shells set in stucco. The grotto is so elaborate and unusual visitors might be excused for missing the historic object next door that was the talk of all London when Addison installed it at Button's Coffee House in 1713 for contributions to his daily paper The Guardian.

Picture copyright His Grace, The Duke of Bedford, and Trustees of The Bedford Estate

As you can see from the photo above, a decorative gold starburst was added behind the lion some time after the Duke of Bedford acquired it in 1837. So it's not obvious to the casual visitor that the lion was once a postbox unless you go up close and read the plaque underneath: "The original Lion's Head erected by Addison at Button's Coffee House in Russell Street, Covent Garden, July 1713. Vide Guardian No. 71, 98, 114, 124, and 134. Purchased at the Sale of Richardson's Library, June 23 1837."

Russell Street – the thoroughfare that links Drury Lane with Covent Garden – is named after the Russell family, who have held the Dukedom of Bedford since 1694. The Duke of Bedford owned much of the land in the area and leased it to the owners of the coffee shops that were popular with the great literary figures of the 18th century.

The 6th Duke purchased the Lion's Head from the son of Charles Richardson, whose father – also named Charles – owned a hotel on the site of what is now the Apple Store in the Great Piazza at Covent Garden. Richardson's Hotel was once the residence of a famous member of the Russell family: Edward Russell, Earl of Orford.

Richardson Senior bought the Lion's Head in 1804 from the owner of the Shakespeare Tavern on the north-east side of the Piazza. The Lion had been moved to the Shakespeare Tavern when Button's Coffee House closed and was kept there in retirement – apart from a brief stint in 1751 at the Bedford Coffee Shop next door, when it was borrowed to be used as a post box for another paper, The Inspector.

Picture by permission of His Grace, The Duke of Bedford, and Trustees of The Bedford Estate

The Lion's Head was hung above a fireplace at Richardson's Hotel, as can be seen in the watercolour above, which is also in the collection at Woburn Abbey. The painting, by Joseph Wigley, is dated 1811 and is titled "Evans's Coffee House, Covent Garden" – a subsequent name for Richardson's Hotel. A label on the back of the watercolour says the room that housed the Lion's Head was "called in the slang of the day the Star from the number of men of rank by whom it was frequented". So the Lion has gazed on many VIPs in his time!

Picture by permission of His Grace, The Duke of Bedford, and Trustees of The Bedford Estate

Richardson's son published a book in 1828 setting out the history of the Lion, largely he said as he was fed up of having to take so much time telling the story to fascinated visitors to his home in Golden Square where he'd put it on display. Richardson's book – complete with many pages of written annotations – is also at Woburn Abbey.

Picture by permission of His Grace, The Duke of Bedford, and Trustees of The Bedford Estate

In it Richardson says that after his father's death he "became possessed of the curious relic of the days of Addison and Steele".

He said his father had collected papers with lots of facts about the lion's history "with a view of ultimately arranging them in some form in which they could be submitted to the public notice".

He wrote: "Therefore, in completing this task, the author feels that he is only discharging a filial obligation, by fulfilling the testator's known wishes and intention; but at the same time he must confess he is also impelled by another motive.

"When he became the owner of this interesting Addisonian relic and, proud of its possession, placed it in a conspicuous part of his house, he soon found that in attracting the notice of his friends, it involved him in a long story and explanation, much oftener than suited either his leisure or inclination. So that in addition to the motive he has just mentioned, he has also been prompted by self-defence, to adopt this method of economising his time and labour."

Richardson concludes his story of the Lion's Head by saying: "Its classical roarings are heard no more. But whether it is destined again to become the medium of literary communication. and inspire the pages of some future Spectator or Guardian of the morals of the day, time can only discover."

The team who curate the collections at Woburn Abbey helped us piece together the full story, and let us examine Addison's Lion up close so we could create our own Lion's Head as close as possible to how the post box would have looked in 1713.

We worked with specialist film prop makers Dick George Creatives – who've worked on movies including Into The Woods, Fury, Hugo and The Mummy – to create our Lion's Head. They began by sculpting his head in clay, then used this to create a silicon mould. The final Lion's Head is made of fibreglass but finished to look exactly like gilt-covered carved wood. Finally, he was attached to a wooden box accessed by a key, just as Addison used to collect and retrieve contributions to The Guardian.

The first outing for the Lion's Head was the South by Southwest Interactive Festival in Austin, Texas, where he attracted lots of fascinated attention in discussions about the power of story-telling.

We're very grateful to the team at Woburn Abbey for all their help and support.

The Lion that was at the centre of 18th Century coffee house culture is roaring again at SXSW 2017.
Read all about him and post your own stories in the Lion's mouth.
More about the Lion
Read more of the Lion's Roarings

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