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The story behind Derby Arboretum’s wild boar statue

PUBLISHED: 00:00 15 June 2017

The Derby Arboretum Boar unveiled in 2005 which sculptor Alex Paxton nicknamed 'Charlie'

The Derby Arboretum Boar unveiled in 2005 which sculptor Alex Paxton nicknamed 'Charlie'

peter seddon

Derbyshire Life goes hunting for wild boar in Derby Arboretum

The original Arboretum Boar in 1935 nicely refurbished. But six years later he lost his head and was unceremoniously removedThe original Arboretum Boar in 1935 nicely refurbished. But six years later he lost his head and was unceremoniously removed

Derby Arboretum is one of Derbyshire’s most historic enclaves. Yet many county residents – even Derbeians themselves – have never visited it. In its Victorian heyday the Derbyshire Advertiser described the leafy haven as ‘an emerald oasis in a red-brown Sahara of bricks and mortar.’

The Arboretum was created by Joseph Strutt (1765-1844) – textile magnate, philanthropist and former Mayor of Derby. He donated it to the Town Council on 16th September 1840 for the ‘enjoyment and education of the people’. Considered to be the first urban recreational public park in England, it is Grade II listed in the English Heritage Register of Parks and Gardens.

At its heart reposing languidly atop a stone plinth is rather an incongruous surprise – a splendid bronze figure of a wild boar. It was unveiled on 21st November 2005 – nicknamed ‘Charlie’ by its local creator Alex Paxton.

But Charlie is not the first of his breed. His ancient ancestor the ‘Florentine Boar’ – a rather more erudite name – stood in The Arboretum on the very day it opened. That original ‘Pig in the Park’ suffered countless indignities, divided opinion, and was ultimately destroyed. Now Charlie encapsulates the ‘Florentine Boar’ story for new generations.

The Arboretum's heyday - William Coffee's original 'Florentine Boar' surveys the scene with boys and nanny in attendanceThe Arboretum's heyday - William Coffee's original 'Florentine Boar' surveys the scene with boys and nanny in attendance

Like many industrial magnates of old Joseph Strutt was a keen patron of the arts – his particular passion the Renaissance. At his home Thorntree House in St Peter’s Street he created a public gallery of his fine collection of paintings and sculptures.

In 1806 Strutt commissioned renowned Crown Derby modeller William John Coffee (1774-1846) to create a copy of the ancient ‘Florentine Boar’ which had already stood in Mercato Nuevo (New Market) in Florence since the mid-seventeenth century. That impressive bronze by Pietro Tacca (c1577-1640) was itself a copy of an even older marble brought to Florence from Rome. Wild boar had long held symbolic status in classical history.

All a far cry from nineteenth century Derby, but it is how the ‘Florentine Boar’ came to bring a flavour of Italy to the town’s outskirts. When The Arboretum opened in 1840 Strutt incorporated Coffee’s boar into designer John Claudius Loudon’s elegant layout and there the solitary beast presided from the outset.

Widely dubbed ‘The Pig’ he quickly acquired cult status – particularly fascinating children. Perambulating nursemaids would tell their intractable charges what the boar would do to them if they were naughty – timid toddlers duly gave the ‘fearsome creature’ a wide berth. Braver ones were keen to test the myth that ‘if you stick a pin in it the pig will squeak’.

The plaque at the statue perpetuates the tale that the original suffered bomb damage in 1941 - open to debate as the boar had already lost its head in 1940The plaque at the statue perpetuates the tale that the original suffered bomb damage in 1941 - open to debate as the boar had already lost its head in 1940

The most adventurous youngsters were happily lifted onto the boar’s back, while older youths clambered aloft unfazed and the boldest scrawled rude words on the old boar’s unashamedly prominent nether regions.

Alas this unbidden attention took its toll – for although often described as ‘stone’, Coffee’s boar was of hollow earthenware none too robust. Broken limbs and tusks ensued and by the 1870s the boar had been removed for repair. It returned but again required surgery in subsequent decades – until in 1896 the Arboretum ‘sub-committee’ was forced to admit under duress that it had been ‘taken away’ as it had become ‘a hazard to children’.

This smacked of a permanent removal by stealth under the banner of early Health and Safety. Newspaper debates followed. One correspondent hailed the ‘timely demise of this horribly-leering creature’. Another countered that ‘this God among pigs must be preserved at all costs.’

The poor creature’s harshest critics called him ‘an awful boar’ and ‘sorry swine’ – one punning hack dubbed these detractors ‘the Arboretumoaners’. But they failed to prevail – always the ‘Florentine Boar’ regained his lofty place.

The Derby Arboretum Boar unveiled in 2005 which sculptor Alex Paxton nicknamed 'Charlie'The Derby Arboretum Boar unveiled in 2005 which sculptor Alex Paxton nicknamed 'Charlie'

Although regular repairs remained necessary, by the 1920s and 30s the ‘Old Boar’ had become a veritable Derby institution – for those in the Rose Hill and Normanton areas ‘meet me at the pig’ became a familiar watchword for romantic assignations. Some said that explained the unerring twinkle in his eye.

But despite being fully reconditioned in 1932 his end finally came. In April 1940 the boar’s head was completely severed when a young boy climbed aboard. It was considered an accident of ‘horseplay’ rather than ‘wilful damage’. Indeed in 2002 an elderly correspondent to the Derby Telegraph heritage pages – William ‘Bert’ Whitehurst – claimed to have been the unwitting ‘culprit’.

The ‘Florentine Boar’ was broken up and removed to woods adjacent the Rolls- Royce Welfare Allotment Association’s land. Over the years pieces have turned up – some say the head still survives intact… whereabouts unknown!

There is a twist though. Nine months later on 16th January 1941 a German bomb destroyed the Arboretum bandstand. By the end of the war the two stories had been conveniently conflated and in 1948 the Derby Daily Telegraph confidently recalled how the old ‘Tuscan Boar’ had been decapitated by shrapnel from the bandstand explosion. The ‘German atrocity’ narrative kept currency for over half a century – until ‘Bert’s’ conscience finally got the better of him!

What prompted his ‘confession’ was renewed debate about the Arboretum’s future. Since the 1970s the ‘emerald oasis’ had entered a seemingly terminal decline and in the ensuing decades the park received increasingly bad press – routinely-labelled a refuge for ‘undesirables’ and considered a ‘no go’ area.

But the park’s genuine historical importance proved its saviour. With the aid of almost £5 million from the Heritage Lottery Fund it was gradually restored for the 21st century. A ‘Friends of the Arboretum’ group worked tirelessly to promote its ‘new image’, and early in the Millennium a campaign was launched to reinstate the ‘Florentine Boar’. It won the day.

Derby engineer Alex Paxton of City Engineering modelled the new ‘Florentine Boar’ from drawings linked to the Florence original. He generously completed the project at cost and mirrored the spirit of Joseph Strutt by donating ‘Charlie’ as a gift to his home city. The replacement ‘Florentine Boar’ was put in place on 18th November 2005 and unveiled three days later – ending a hiatus of 65 years.

The sculpture is undeniably impressive – ‘Charlie’ is definitely in charge. One admirer observed that he appears ‘both cheerful and manic at the same time’.

Certainly there is a touch of ‘wicked’ in his demeanour. His Italian counterpart – now also a more recent copy – remains a major celebrity in Florence where he is affectionately known as ‘Il Porcellino’ (‘The Piglet’). And there are now hundreds of ‘Florentine Boar’ figures all over the world – their noses progressively thinning from the obligatory ‘rubs for luck’.

But the ‘Derby Boar’ lays claim to special status, for the town set the trend – its original 1840 model considered the first copy of the Florentine original to adorn a public space. One good reason why the current incumbent ‘Charlie’ needs to be cherished – and with his robust construction longevity should be assured.

In 1934 the Derby Daily Telegraph described the original Arboretum Boar as having ‘a quiet, complacent, reposeful attitude, unmoved by the doings of men and nations’. Signs are that super-sub ‘Charlie’ is a chip off the old block.

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