The Erasmus Wind Vane

Those who join us for our nightly tour of the Jack the Ripper murder sites might, as they are waiting for the tour to begin, glance briefly over Whitechapel High Street and notice a man sitting the wrong way round on a horse high up on the roof top of the building on the opposite side of the road.

Now, when I say a man on a horse, I don’t mean that literally!


In fact, it is a somewhat ornate wind vane and it sits atop the Whitechapel Gallery, which you might want to pay a visit to on the afternoon of your Jack the Ripper tour with us. It is, after all, something of a local attraction.

But, I digress.

Back to the curious figure sitting the wrong way round on his horse.

He is garbed in old fashioned dress and he is studying the pages of an open book. Who can he be? How long has he been there?  What is he doing up on the roof? And, more importantly, why is he sitting the wrong way round on his trusty steed.


Well, he is in fact Canadian artist, sculptor and musician, Rodney Graham and he has, for the purposes of the weather vane at least, assumed the guise of Desiderius Erasmus (1466-1536), the 16th century humanist and scholar.

The book he is holding is The Praise of Folly, Erasmus’s best known work, which he is reputed to have written on a journey on horseback which saw him trot his way from Italy to England. The work was intended as a satirical attack on the superstitions of European Society, and on the Western Church in particular.

As to why it is up on the roof of the Whitechapel Gallery – which, given that the gallery wasn’t built until the early years of the 20th Century, Erasmus never actually visited, – well, Rodney Graham was commissioned to create him when the gallery expanded into the adjoining building between 2003 and 2009.


The adjoining building had been the Whitechapel Library, which was built in the latter years of the 19th century and which soon became a focal point for the early 20th century Jewish intellectuals of Whitechapel.

When it was first built, they had intended to crown the library with a magnificent weather vane. But it appears that they never quite got round to it, so the library spent the 20th century feeding the intellectual needs of sundry local residents minus its vane.


But, in 2003, the neighbouring gallery acquired the library building and the Library itself packed its bags – well its books at least – and headed for pastures new on the nearby Whitechapel Road, where it  was re-branded as “The Ideas Store” and promoted itself with a delightful lack of grandiosity as being “next to Sainsbury’s”!


By 2009 the gallery had completed its extension into the old library building and decided to honour the long ago promise to the people of Whitechapel by commissioning the Erasmus Wind Vane, which duly appeared atop the cupola across the road from the starting point of our nightly Jack the Ripper tour.

So, when you join us for the walk, take a few moments to look up and across the road and, if you think it appropriate, spare an appreciative wave for a wonderful piece of rooftop whimsy which always puts a smile on my face as I lead my groups back to the days of the 19th century East End and the London of Jack the Ripper.