Keep Britain tidy

BRITAIN IS SUFFERING from a rash that erupts with no known pattern but which spreads at an alarming rate. It is called Public Sculpturitis. We have written twice on the condition in recent years,1 but it seems to be immune to treatment. Like the common cold, it has been present for centuries but recently it has become an epidemic.

Essentially, Public Sculpturitis takes two forms. The first is the ubiquitous memorial. Here, commemorative objects (invariably figurative) honour either large groups – such as casualties of war – or individuals ranging from prime ministers, royalty and defence personnel to entertainers, sporting heroes and animals. Recent examples include memorials to the Queen Mother, Sir Keith Park, the Battle of Britain pilots, the victims of the London terrorist attacks, Bobby Moore, Stan Laurel and Eric Morcambe. The second strain might be termed ‘Feel Good’ sculpture: it occupies a green space, obtrudes into parkland or interrupts a pavement apparently for the benefit of the ‘community’; it is frequently kitsch, pretentious and conceptually ‘lite’. While the impetus for the first type is often patriotic or nostalgic – this is ‘People’s Sculpture’ – for the second it is ‘Sculpture for Sculpture’s Sake’, although occasionally it has some narrative component or local reference. The most famous contemporary example of the latter is Antony Gormley’s Angel of the North (outside Gateshead), the symbolic pretensions of which are vague enough to attract mass appeal. The notorious embracing couple at St Pancras Station is another, much inferior example.2 The greatest recent sculpture in London is Richard Serra’s Fulcrum at Liverpool Street. But memorials are the dominant type in the capital’s centre.

Anyone strolling from the Mall, up into Carlton House ter­ritory, across Trafalgar Square and down again to Embankment Gardens might well think they are in some Pompeiian city of the living dead. Many of the statues and memorials have long been familiar reminders of Britain’s imperial past, its heroes and explorers in seemly works by, among others, Marochetti, Boehm, Foley and MacKennal. But recent additions to the family are distinctly unfortunate. The new, faintly absurd, be-plumed figure of the Queen Mother on the Mall, sited below her husband, George VI, is flanked by two reliefs of unforgivable banality (the QM in the Blitz and on an outing to the races). Unveiled in September, an over-life-sized statue of the defender of London Air Chief Marshal Sir Keith Park is of no sculptural interest but cost £500,000. He joins a menagerie of nearly twenty bronze figures that can be seen from Waterloo Place. In Embankment Gardens at every turn some bearded worthy rises above the flower beds. Exceptions are the alert and youthful Robert Burns by John Steell and the bust of Sir Arthur Sullivan down whose plinth slithers a naked female, an allegory of Death to stop you in your tracks. Beyond it, in Temple Place, is Marochetti’s full-length figure of Brunel with its architectural setting by Norman Shaw. But this fine memorial nearly had a possible downriver rival. Although Brunel is well commem­orated throughout Britain, there was a popular proposal early this year to erect a vast comedic metal figure of him at the entrance to the Thames Tunnel at Rotherhithe. Fortunately Southwark Borough Council saw sense and refused planning permission and saved the sponsors a great deal of money. But a proposed statue of another nineteenth-century ‘hero’ of a very different order, the imperialist explorer H.M. Stanley, to be sited in his home town of Denbigh in Wales, was officially permitted in September, in spite of wide national condemnation of aspects of Stanley’s career in Africa. 

Initiatives for memorials are usually private and passionate, with little or no public money being spent. There are a good number of hoops to go through as far as planning and financing are concerned, these being especially stringent in central London. But, with the recent abolition by Westminster City Council of its Public Art Advisory Panel (with a good but by no means faultless record), one is fearful for any future installations. Fortunately, Westminster is fully aware of its overpopulated squares and streets and further proposals will be heavily scrutinised. Do they always have to be a whole figure? Busts and wall reliefs save a great deal of bronze and space. In the present climate of cuts, a small but useful saving could be made by placing a moratorium on all commissioned public sculpture. Local councils, developers, architectural firms and arts foundations could all play a healthy role in stopping the spread of the virus. Museums and galleries could help by not acquiring works specifically for their grounds. Under such conditions we might have been spared the three carved boulders by Peter Randall-Page recently sited in the gardens of the Dulwich Picture Gallery, a £150,000 gift from the Art Fund. We might too have been saved from the proposed seven-foot bronze figure of a plumber destined next year for Cannon Street station. One shudders to think what his attributes might be. We might go further and found a Society for the Prevention of the Erection of Public Sculpture (with its easily remembered acronym) with a subcommittee responsible for the removal, dismantling and even destruction of works deemed unnecessary.

That the art of public statuary is lost is amply evident from The Statues of London, a recent book combining astute and informative commentary with excellent photographs that show with horrid clarity the shortcomings of so many works from recent decades.3 That good public sculpture is still possible has not been sufficiently proved in recent years. What a relief it then is, on the sculpture-trail outlined above, to come across Barry Flanagan’s two Nijinsky hares recently placed outside the offices of the British Council. Nothing around them compares in spatial energy and sculptural bounce. Vaut le détour!

1  See this Magazine’s Editorials: ‘In memoriam’, 148 (March 2006), p.167; and ‘Needed: A Controller of Inanimate People’, 149 (December 2007), p.819.
2  For a defence of this work, see D. Fraser Jenkins: “‘The Meeting Place” by Paul Day’, Sculpture Journal 19/1 (2010), pp.91–101.
3  See C. Bullus, R. Asprey and D. Gilbert: The Statues of London, London 2009.