This Week in London – London’s history of executions; myth-making around Alexander the Great; and, Édouard Manet’s ‘Eva Gonzalès’ examined…

Charles I vest, Executions 2022 © Museum of London

• The history of public executions in London – spanning a period of some 700 years – is the subject of a landmark new exhibition at the Museum of London Docklands in West India Quay. Executions explores how capital punishment became embedded in the city’s landscape – from the first recorded public execution in 1196 to the last in 1868 – and looks at the rarely told and often tragic human stories behind them. Items on display include an intricately woven silk vest said to have been worn by King Charles I at his execution outside the Banqueting House (pictured), a 300-year-old bedsheet embroidered with a love note in human hair and personal items which once belonged to prison reformer Elizabeth Fry. Visitors can also stand in front of the Newgate Prison door, marking the last steps for prisoners heading to the scaffold, and see a dramatic recreation of the Tyburn “Triple Tree” gallows. Visitors will also learn about the 200 offences that became punishable by death and the spectacle and rituals of execution days as well as what led celebrity criminals to the gallows. Admission charge applies. Runs until 16th April next year. For more, see https://www.museumoflondon.org.uk/museum-london/whats-on/exhibitions/executions.

Marble head of Alexander © Museum of Classical Archaelogy

The first exhibition exploring the rich history of story-telling around one of the most famous figures of the ancient world – Alexander the Great – opens at the British Library tomorrow. Alexander the Great: The Making of a Myth features almost 140 exhibits from 25 countries including astrological clay tablets, ancient papyri and medieval manuscripts as well as comics, films and video games. It reveals how Alexander’s character has been adapted and appropriated by different cultures and religions, with conflicting interpretations. Runs until 19th February. Admission charge applies. A season of in-person and online events accompanies the exhibition. For more, see www.bl.uk/events/alexander-the-great-the-making-of-a-myth.

• Portraits of the Euro 2020 England men’s football squad and its manager, Gareth Southgate, will be shown at the City of London Corporation’s Guildhall Art Gallery from today. The free exhibition, This is England, features the most successful men’s national team – finalists in Euro 2020 – since the winners of the World Cup in 1966, from Harry Kane and Jude Bellingham to Bukayo Saka and Raheem Sterling. The paintings are the work of artist Matt Small and were commissioned by the FA and exhibited at the St George training ground during the Euro 2020 finals. The paintings can be seen until 19th February. For more, see www.cityoflondon.gov.uk/events/this-is-england.

Edouard Manet, ‘Eva Gonzalès’, 1870

Édouard Manet’s 1870 portrait of Eva Gonzalès is the subject of a new exhibition at The National Gallery opening on Friday. The painting was considered by the early 20th century to be the most famous modern French painting in the UK and Ireland. The exhibition, the first in a new series of ‘Discover’ exhibitions to be staged in the Sunley Room with the aim of exploring well-known paintings in the collection through a contemporary lens, examines the lifelong artistic dialogue and the complexities of the friendship and mentorship between Manet and Gonzalès, his only formal pupil. It also looks at the broader context of female self portraits from the 18th to early 20th centuries, alongside portraits of women artists by male friends, husbands, and teachers The free exhibition includes works by Eva Gonzalès, Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun, Edouard Manet, Berthe Morisot, Alfred Stevens and Laura Knight. Runs until 15th January. For more, see www.nationalgallery.org.uk/exhibitions/discover-manet-eva-gonzalès.

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A Moment in London’s History – The last execution at the Tower of London…

The Tower of London. PICTURE: Nick Fewings/Unsplash

This month marks the 80th anniversary of the last person to be executed at the Tower of London for treason.

Injured when he was shot in the chest while serving as a conscript in the German army during World War I, Josef Jakobs worked as a dentist after the war (and was briefly imprisoned in Switzerland for selling counterfeit gold). Following the Nazi Party rose to power in Germany during the 1930s, he was arrested in 1938 by the Gestapo for selling black market passports to Jewish people fleeing the country and sent to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp.

After two years, Jakobs was released after he agreed to work as a spy in England for the German military intelligence.

Having flown from Holland, Jakobs parachuted into England at a located near Ramsey in what was then Huntingdonshire, in late January, 1941. Breaking his ankle during the landing and in pain, he fired his pistol into the air early on February 1st and was subsequently apprehended by members of the Home Guard.

Among the items he was found with were a wireless transmitter, a small torch with a flashing device, a map marking positions of nearby RAF airfields and a German sausage.

Jakobs was taken to a local police station before being transferred to London where he was subsequently interrogated by MI5 during which he claimed he had escaped to England with the intent of securing passage to America. He was later taken to a hospital and treated for his injuries.

His court martial before a military tribunal was held at the Duke of York’s headquarters in Chelsea on 4th and 5th August. After hearing from eight witnesses in a closed court (due to intelligence sensitivities), he was convicted of spying and sentenced to death.

Jakobs’ execution was carried out at the miniature rifle range at the Tower of London – the same place where death sentences had been carried out on 11 spies executed during World War I – on 15th August.

Jakobs was blindfolded and tied to a chair (which can still be viewed in the White Tower) with a white target pinned over his heart. A firing squad of eight – all members of the Scots Guards – carried out the sentence at 7.12am (five of those in the squad had live rounds). He is said to have died instantly.

Jakobs was subsequently buried in an unmarked grave at St Mary’s Catholic Cemetery in Kensal Green.

Jakobs was the only spy executed at the Tower in World War II and the last person to suffer such a sentence there.

Lost London – Newgate Prison

The most notorious of London’s many prisons, Newgate remained in use for more than 700 years.

The prison – located on the corner of Newgate Street and Old Bailey on the site of what is now London’s Central Criminal Court (known as the Old Bailey thanks to its position on the street known as Old Bailey) – was apparently first constructed around the end of the 1100s on the orders of King Henry II at the site of one of the gates in the Roman wall (see picture).

It was enlarged and renovated several times over the ensuing centuries (including a complete rebuilding after the Great Fire of London in 1666 and another to the design of George Dance after the prison was badly damaged during the Gordon Riots of 1780, sparked by opposition to Catholic emancipation).

The prison, which was infamous for the squalid conditions in which prisoners were housed, was used for a range of purposes including housing debtors and the incarceration of people awaiting execution (by the 18th century, it’s said that more than 350 crimes had become punishable by death).

In 1783 public executions were moved from Tyburn, west of the city, to a site just outside the prison. In 1868, executions were no longer open to the public at large and the gallows moved inside. The prison closed in 1902 and was eventually demolished in 1904.

Famous prisoners who spent time in Newgate include Shakespeare’ contemporary Ben Jonson (for killing a man in a duel), 17th century author Daniel Defoe (for his authorship of political pamphlets), Captain William Kidd (for piracy), and William Penn, Quaker and founder of Pennsylvania (for contempt of court during a case brought after he was accused of having illegally preached ).

But perhaps the most infamous is the 18th century criminal Jack Sheppard, known for having escaped from the prison several times before finally being hanged at Tyburn (close to where Marble Arch now stands).

The only surviving part of the prison in its original location is part of the prison wall which can be seen in Amen Corner.

PICTURE: Wikipedia.com