Boy on a Tortoise
Margaret M. Giles (1868-1949)
Jenkins Building, Engineering Department, Oxford University
Corner of Banbury Road and Parks Road, Oxford
Photograph by Rita Harris
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Commentary by Rita Harris
He sits astride a turtle on the gable of the Engineering Department's Jenkin Building at the corner of Banbury Road and Parks Road. I reckon I must have passed him at least twelve thousand times over the past forty years and became aware of him only a few weeks ago. Of course it's a busy junction and I have to look where I'm going, while he has his head in the clouds and doesn't need to watch out for traffic.
I understand The Boy on the Tortoise, as he is known, was sculpted by Miss Margaret Giles, who married Professor Jenkin, after whom the building is named. What is the significance of the statue's iconography? No one seems quite sure, but one suggestion is that it represents youthful engineering subduing the natural world. The turtle or tortoise is a symbol of strength, endurance and perseverance in several cultures and in more than one mythology supports the world on its back. It is also known to live to a very great age so is unsurprisingly associated with longevity. The Department of Engineering celebrates its centenary this year so has made a good beginning and, with the tortoise as its symbol, can look forward to a robust and long future.
I wanted to find out more about the figure, at least who sculpted it — and when; but it hasn't been at all straightforward. My enquiries produced some information from people connected with the Department, but I haven't yet unravelled it all. This is as far as I've got.
I was told the sculptor was Miss Margaret Giles who was the wife of Charles Frewen Jenkin, the first Oxford Professor of Engineering Science, appointed in 1908. I heard a story that the first statue was in bronze but this was stolen and replaced by the present one. A bronze statue on this rooftop? Not very plausible. Delving further (on the web naturally) I came on the account of the sculptor in The Victorian Web, which reports that Miss Giles, according to Who Was Who, was recorded as marrying Bernard M. Jenkin in 1898. Not our Professor Charles Frewen Jenkin. She lived at addresses in London and Bristol, but so far I've found no mention of Oxford.
In one art dictionary she was 'a west country artist' who flourished in the 1940s. Another biographical dictionary published back in 1904 referred to her as 'a contemporary sculptor and medallist'. Yet another said she exhibited frequently in Scotland (is this the same 'west country' artist?) and at the Royal Academy between 1884 and 1912 and 'her last work at the Royal Academy appeared after a thirty-three year absence in 1945'. The work she exhibited in 1945 was 'The Tortoise Boy, a bronze statuette group'. That sounds more like it. But the date is puzzling: surely the sculpture on the Oxford rooftop went up before 1945, so the bronze shown at the R.A. couldn't have predated it. Was this group another version of the Oxford one and, if it was stolen, was that from quite another location?
Apparently, four of Margaret Giles' known portrait medallions are of scientists. Landow wonders whether 'she may have had scientific connections' especially since she also created medals for the Society of Chemical Industry and for the Institution of Electrical Engineers. 'Scientific connections'! That's better, but still all this information doesn't quite add up. Were there two sculptors called Margaret Giles who each became a Mrs Jenkins? Unlikely. And what is the relation of the 1945 bronze Tortoise Boy to the architectural feature that we can see riding high on a Banbury Road corner - if only we raise our eyes? Patently, more research is needed.
Beattie, Susan. The New Sculpture. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1983.
Landow, George P., "Margaret Giles's Hero and the Sublime Female Nude." Gender, Voice, and Image in Victorian Literature and Art, ed. Antony H. Harrison and Beverly Taylor. DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 1992. [full online version]
Last modified 9 March 2008