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Marble Arch, once the site of the Tyburn gallows, is in the north-east corner of Hyde Park (q.v.), near Speaker's Corner. The Tyburn Gallows Tree was used from the C12th until 1783, a 12-ft high triangular structure capable of hanging 8 people on each of its sides. The land of Hyde Park was enclosed by Henry VIII as a deer park, prior to which it was monastic land. Originally c.248ha, the site dwindled to c.138ha, partly through encroachment by Kensington Gardens (q.v.) to the west. Hyde Park was first opened to the public in 1637 and landscaping was undertaken c.1730 for Queen Caroline, which included the creation of the Serpentine and Long Water, made from damming the River Westbourne. Hyde Park has numerous C19th entrance gates and lodges.
Marble Arch was built in 1828 to designs by John Nash as part of his scheme to upgrade the early C18th Buckingham House as Buckingham Palace in 1825-30. The Arch was based on the triumphal Arch of Constantine in Rome. Nash’s scheme proved a financial disaster and was taken over by Edward Blore in 1830, who designed the east range of the Palace that faces down the Mall in 1847. As a result, Nash's triumphal gateway in front of the Palace was moved to its present position in 1851 at the north-east corner to form the northern triumphal entrance to Hyde Park and the western terminus of Oxford Street. Improvements to Hyde Park undertaken in the 1820s by Decimus Burton also included reorganisation of the Park Lane edge of the park. The railings of Hyde Park were first set back converting the Marble Arch corner into a square in 1908.
In the 1960s this area was re-configured as part of the traffic improvements, as a result of which the Arch became marooned on what was essentially a traffic island, conveying little of its original role. The landscaping of the site created two islands accessible only by underpass. To the east Marble Arch was within an extensive Portland stone pavement, with raised stone planters, terraces and beds containing shrubs, roses and flowers. A small flight of steps and line of Portland stone planters mark the western edge of the piazza and lead down to a slightly lower grassed terrace. The second more westerly island has a lower grass terrace, reached via another underpass, with a tank containing three fountain jets, and a sunken area containing public toilets. The surviving Decimus Burton lodge is within the shrubberies, and the garden has several mature London plane trees.
In June 2009 the fountains, which had not been operational for at least a decade, were completely refurbished and reinstated as part of public realm improvements and the two islands are now linked by a new York stone path along the north end of the site, creating a constant level route across the entire space. The refurbishment also included new lighting of the Arch and the road that divides the space is now limited to buses. Adjacent to the piazza space a similar-sized area of lawn at a slightly lower level has been laid out, protected from the road to the south by planting. Seasonal bedding displays on the sides facing the road provide visual interest at street level. A changing programme of sculpture is displayed on the eastern lawn, which in 2011features a 27ft bronze statue of a horse's head by artist N. Fiddian-Green. The level of the western lawn is once again slightly lower and is also contained and protected by a planting bund along the south side that tapers out as it leads up to the refurbished fountain, allowing views of the fountain from both the lawn and the adjacent road. The original axis of the 1960s scheme ends with the path becoming a bridge over the pool and adjacent to the fountains. A memorial plaque set into the ground at the road crossing towards Edgware Road commemorates those who died at the gallows, many of whom were catholic martyrs.
Royal Parks Review, Hyde Park & Kensington Gardens, 1992; Harold Clunn, the Face of London (c1950), pp. 205-06; Edward Jones & Christopher Woodward, A Guide to the Architecture of London, London 1983, p. 167; Braybrooke N, London Green, 1959, 49-100; Cole N, Royal Parks and Gardens of London, 1877, 19-24; Davies H, A Walk Round London's Parks; Williams G, Royal Parks of London, 1978, 64-77, 91-133; WCC Royal Parks Conservation Area 41 leaflet