In memoriam

IN RECENT MONTHS considerable discussion has arisen over the role of memorials and commemorative statues in London. This has been generated by the proposal to place a statue of Nelson Mandela in Trafalgar Square; the plan to commemorate Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, at Carlton House Terrace; reactions to recent memorials erected in Whitehall and Park Lane; and, as background, by the continuing indecision as to how best to occupy the long-empty fourth plinth at the north-east corner of Trafalgar Square. For most of the time people seem perfectly indifferent to the bronze and stone population with whom they share the city’s streets and squares. But any new addition to the family – whether at planning stage or at its unveiling – is guaranteed to provoke interest in all aspects of history, society, heritage and national identity. Violent reactions are not uncommon – to a work’s cost, suitability, likeness, siting – to everything, indeed, save the aesthetic merit of the sculpture in question. Of course, the word sculpture must be used sparingly, for we are dealing, for the most part, with memorials in which sculptural criteria have been a low consideration, buried beneath the weight of sentiment that inevitably accrues to the public portrayal of an individual or the evocation of a historical moment.

London is not blessed with impressive outdoor statuary and cannot hold a torch to cities such as Rome, Paris, Vienna, Florence or St Petersburg. But what it lacks in quality is compensated for by the sheer quantity of its sculptural clutter, often highly idiosyncratic and generously, even embarrassingly, revealing of the nation’s priorities and prejudices. The mid- to late nineteenth century was the great age for erecting monuments and statues, often through enthusiastic public subscription. From before that period only a handful is worth a second look, among them Le Sueur’s equestrian Charles I facing Whitehall (a sculpture outshone by its remarkable pedestal), James II in front of the National Gallery, Bacon’s William III in St James’s Square and Chantrey’s William Pitt the Younger in Hanover Square. In the nineteenth century, grandiose urban schemes and imperial pride saw a proliferation of statues and busts. London became awash with epaulettes, whiskers, togas, frockcoats, polar kit and khaki, as well as all the accompanying attributes of scrolls, books, dogs, cardinals’ hats, a vast stockpile of weapons from dagger to rifle, watchchains, field glasses and even a football. Although there is scarcely a work of art among them, they form an almost unbroken historical pageant in three dimensions and still add their gravitas, as well as their comedy, to the London landscape.
Nearer our own times, however, disaster has struck. A serviceable academic tradition no longer exists and the accepted rhetoric of commemorative public sculpture has long since been debased (a decline starting, perhaps, with the parodic conglomeration of marble and bronze known as the Victoria Memorial, unveiled in 1911 in front of Buckingham Palace). But still the public clamours for an identifiable likeness of the person to be memorialised. One might think that some of the more distressing objects foisted on the capital would by now have turned people away from this need – all too human though it may be. Images of Mozart, Chaplin, Wilde, Beau Brummell, Bartók, Churchill and Roosevelt, for example, are whimsical or sentimental or both. These, however, are digestible in comparison with two recently erected memorials in central London, one to the role of women in the Second World War (by John E. Mills, 2005) in Whitehall, the other to animals killed in war (by David Backhouse, 2004) in Park Lane. The former, a high plinth around which hang the (sculpted) uniforms and clothes that women donned in the war, sits like some ghostly coat-check, its oblong form consciously echoing the nearby Cenotaph, its effect both incongruous and dispiriting. The Heritage Lottery Fund contributed just under a million pounds to its cost. The Park Lane memorial consists of a curved stone wall, bearing relief carvings of animals, which is broken at the centre in order for a dog, a horse and two mules (all in bronze) to file mournfully through. It bears the inscription ‘They had no choice’ and appears to fulfil Osbert Sitwell’s prediction made in 1928 that London, gripped in memorial-fever, would soon see ‘cenotaphs in honour of goldfish and canaries’.1 In so highly prominent a site, it is surely the most meretricious monument in central London. Neither of these works bodes well for the planned memorial, announced in February, to those people killed in the bombings in the capital in July of last year.
Contrary to popular belief, it can be relatively straightforward to plan and erect a publicly placed memorial or statue (much harder, unfortunately, to see to its removal, except by theft). Detailed proposals are put to an advisory panel of the council of the borough for which the work is intended; if its form and content are acceptable (and all too often they are), planning permission is then sought and if this is granted and funds are in place, the work can go ahead. Westminster City Council, responsible for some of the capital’s most public sites, has a more complex process, one that involves the expertise of the government-appointed body, English Heritage. Recently, for example, Westminster and English Heritage opposed the placing in Trafalgar Square of an over-life-sized statue of Nelson Mandela, a project that had gained extensive support. The subject’s credentials are not in question; it was the meagre realism of the intended work and its infelicitous siting that drew, for once, the correct decision. This particular case has roused wide media coverage. Unfortunately the plans for the recent memorials in Park Lane and Whitehall did not, and nor was English Heritage consulted as, astonishingly, neither location, unlike Trafalgar Square, is a Grade I registered ‘landscape’. This makes it all the more urgent that the decisions of the relevant authorities, made on behalf of the capital, should be more stringent. If they are not, only a moratorium on memorials would rid us of these unsightly ‘graven images’.
1  O. Sitwell: The People’s Album of London Statues, London 1928, p.47.

1  O. Sitwell: The People’s Album of London Statues, London 1928, p.47.