They’ve become an icon of Nottingham’s image – but little is widely known about the talented recluse who designed them. In the first of a new series, Mathias Balslev tells the fascinating story behind the man who sculpted the Old Market Square lions, and created a piece of Nottingham legend.
They have long been immortalised in Nottingham folklore as an iconic meeting place.
Almost everyone has gazed up at them as children, taken a photo with them as an adult, or even attempted to scale them.
But the man behind the two lion sculptures was himself not as roaringly obvious as his work.
In comparison with his bold, even grandiose creations, Joseph Else’s story is one of a man who avoided the limelight and never got the attention his skills brought him.
Else was born in Nottingham in 1874 and grew up to spend much of his professional life working in the city at Nottingham School of Art where he himself had studied in the late 1890s.
Else was the son of a Leicestershire leather cutter, presumed to have worked in the shoe industry, starting his career as a lace designer before taking up sculpting during his time at the art school.
In 1910, Else was elected a member of the Royal Society of British Sculptors. He was also a member and vice president of Nottingham’s Society of Artists before being succeeded by his son Theodore Else, who was a painter.
In the early 1900s Joseph attended the Royal College of Art in London which has since been attended by the likes of Alan Rickman, Christopher Bailey and Ridley Scott.
He spent the start of the century dividing his time between London and Nottingham up until the war in 1915.
After the war Joseph settled permanently in Nottingham and took up teaching at the Nottingham School of Art, which is now the Art & Design department at Nottingham Trent University.
When he returned to Nottingham to teach at the Nottingham School of Art on Waverley Street in 1919 he taught classes in modelling and sculpting. He later became principle of the school in 1922.
When the decision came to build the grandest building in all of Nottingham who better to do the sculpting than the local city boy who made it in the big city before returning to his roots to teach others his mastery.
Between 1927 and 1929, Else was put in charge of all carvings on the new design for Nottingham Council House, including the lions, the frieze on the arch of the building and twenty-one other figures all displaying arts and public services.
Kevin Powell of Nottingham Civic Society recalls the role the lions had in Nottingham in the late 1920s and how they gained their reputation as a meeting point. He said: “One has to remember at the time when the Lions were created, traffic was banned from the rounds around the Square.
“The Old Market Square was laid out differently and traffic was allowed all around the Square with bus stops and taxi ranks along Long Row an South Parade.
“The square was the centre of Nottingham, the main focal point for people to gather and meet. One needs to remember people say the ‘Square’ today, but for centuries it was the Market Place and that was its origins.”
The four groups of sculptures around the dome of the Council House which represent Commerce, Civic Law, Prosperity and Knowledge, were also done by Else and three of his former students.
In folklore the left lion has had more recognition but back when only busses were allowed near the Old Market Square residents from the south side of the city would meet by the right lion and people from the north met by the left lion.
Dr David Cross, founder of the Nottingham Ghost Walk explains that there are different tales connected to each of the lions. He said: “The left lion is known for roaring loudly when a virgin walks past while the right lion is said to roar when an honest politician walks by.”
The lions were original named Agamemnon and Menelaus after the two Greek kings but have been shortened to Leo (Left) and Oscar (Right).
The lions weigh two tons each and are designed in an art-deco style hugely popular between the 1920’s and 1930’s.
Else was known for being a shy character and was often referred to as a ‘gentle giant’ for his six foot three brawny figure.
Very few photos exist of Else himself, contrary to much of his work which has been captured across the decades.
One of the only current nods to Else’s contribution to Nottingham is a Wetherspoon’s pub named after him, only a stone’s throw away from the iconic lions he sculpted.
As with his shy personality, Else never had more than a few students in his class at a time. He would often work on his pieces alongside the students but also had his own sculpting room in the art school. This room was open for all to view at anytime.
Else held the role of principal of the school until 1939. During his farewell reception he received a sword from his students for his contribution to the school.
Else passed away in 1955 here in Nottingham but not before leaving a legacy behind through his sculpting that will be a part of the city’s history forever.