Council row and architect's cheek gives us our beautiful unicorns
What an impressive sight the Bristol unicorns on the roof of the Bristol Council House, now City Hall, on College Green are.
Apparently the story goes that when the gilded sculptures, 3.6m high, were about to be hauled into position there was a rumpus in the local and national newspapers.
On October 25 1950 the front page of the Bristol Evening Post described them as "gleaming lantern-jawed, wild-eyed, stiff-legged …"
The architect, Mr E Vincent Harris, had ordered them without informing the council and, even worse, he was now on holiday in Italy!
Another Bristol paper said: "No-one knows, or at any rate no-one will say, who ordered the unicorns and why."
The City Architect, J Nelson Meredith, told the press "The whole thing is a complete mystery to me. Unicorns have never been mentioned for the Council House. I do not know who ordered them."
The Western Daily Press contacted sculptor David McFall in his Glebe Place studio in Chelsea, but this threw no light on the inquiries.
Installation of the sculptures was halted until a council meeting accepted that the unicorns had been considered in the planning stages, but shelved when the War intervened.
When Vincent Harris, who was 71 at the time, came back to Bristol he explained to the council that he had commissioned the unicorns, at the cost of £2,400, in place of long and expensive ornamental ridging that would have cost £600 more.
We should applaud Harris's autocratic behaviour on this occasion because half a century later they sparkle splendidly on a sunny day, and the Council House would be duller without them.
The unicorns are identical and are set facing each other.
McFall's single 44.5cm model was exhibited at the 1951 Royal Academy Summer Exhibition and is now on show in the Lord Mayor's parlour.
Why unicorns? We ask. They have been significant to Bristol ever since unicorns first appeared as supporters on the city's common seal in 1569. In heraldry they have many attributions, but the city chose them to represent virtue, as the city motto is 'Virtute et Industria'.
Listing the Council House as Grade II* in 1981, English Heritage praised the building as "an important work by the most celebrated civic architect of the first half of the 20th century", but described the unicorns as "Epstein sculptures".
Two Portland Stone finials, on the rear parapet of the building, of a boy and a girl riding seahorses, are also by David McFall.
D F .Courtney, Weston-super-Mare
Thanks for that! Readers may or may not be aware of a rather wonderful local legend associated with the unicorns. Architect E Vincent Harris was not universally popular in the profession. Many considered his work dull, while he detested modern architecture.
The story goes, and we have no idea if this is true or not, that one of his rivals lived in nearby Unity Street. One of the great advantages in the unicorns for Harris was not just saving the Council £600. It was also that every time his enemy walked out of his front door, the first thing he would see would be … a unicorn's backside.