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December 2007

Vol. 149 / No. 1257

Needed: A Controller of Inanimate People

THE INFESTATION OF public places in London and elsewhere by statues and memorials – one would be hard pressed to call them sculpture – is now of serious concern. Only last year we discussed this problem in an Editorial that elicited many responses, all agreeing that the quality and quantity of works being dotted about streets and open spaces was no longer a laughing matter.1 Two in particular caused the most offence – the memorial in Whitehall to women serving in the Second World War and the memorial in Park Lane to animals killed in war. Soon after the appearance of the Editorial and during the wrangle over the positioning of a proposed statue of Nelson Mandela, Westminster City Council, responsible for the statuary of Central London, announced that the capital was rapidly running out of suitable sites for further public commemorations. It suggested that ‘living memorials’ such as trees and gardens might be favoured above bronze and stone as a way of remembering the great and the dead. This was welcome news but obviously too late to prevent the Mandela statue and that of the Liberal Prime Minister David Lloyd George being added to Parliament Square, or the inauguration of the New Zealand War Memorial in late 2006 at Hyde Park Corner. Further commissions, beyond the Council’s remit, have included Antony Dufort’s bronze figure of Baroness Thatcher, in full debate, towering over former Prime Ministers (including a recently installed bust of Sir John Major) in the Palace of Westminster; two contrasting sculptures in St Pancras International station, unveiled in the last few weeks; and, in Kensington and Chelsea, a full-length sculpture of Sir Hans Sloane by Simon Smith, in a pastiche of the celebrated figure of Sloane by Rysbrack, just off the King’s Road. In the pipeline is the memorial to Queen Elizabeth, The Queen Mother, necessitating an architectural and sculptural project in the Mall which will incorporate the existing statue of her husband, George VI. Westminster City Council granted planning permission for this in June this year.

The largest and most public of these works is the New Zealand War Memorial in a striking position at Hyde Park Corner across the traffic from Piccadilly. It was sanctioned by English Heritage and Westminster City Council, was designed by the New Zealand firms Athfield Architects Ltd and Paul Dibble Art Company, and cost £1 million. In a specially raised grassed mound sixteen bronze ‘stands’ (or girders), individually decorated and at varying heights, thrust into the air at a south-facing angle, their surfaces covered with symbolic patterns and figurative elements. Six of the ‘stands’ bear a cross of stars (made of LED lights) at their top intended to indicate ‘the compass direction south’ and point ‘the way home for wandering Kiwis’ (although, unlit, it is virtually invisible at night). It is a bristlingly unlovely installation in one of the most public sites in London.

The siting of Nelson Mandela’s statue was resolved by moving it to Parliament Square from an intended position in front of the National Gallery. It is now slightly apologetically placed at the north-west corner of the square. Crudely sculpted, over life-size, the statesman’s arms and hands are outstretched as if showing how big the fish was that he caught in his angling heyday. Across the same square is an even more recent addition: Glynn Williams’s sculpture of Lloyd George, the hot air of the Welsh wizard’s oratory blowing through his coat. This square is now full.

Few would argue against commemorating Sir John Betjeman for helping to save the now superbly restored St Pancras Station. A statue of him by Martin Jennings, placed unplinthed near the new Eurostar platforms, has the be-hatted, larger-than-life-size poet looking up at William Henry Barlow’s magnificent roof-span. Affectionate tribute though it is, it still smacks of the toy shop. Far more intrusive is a massive sculpture by Paul Day of a man and woman in a melancholy clinch of farewell (despite its name The meeting place), sited on the concourse at the start of the platforms. Day’s brief was that it should be ‘romantic’, ‘democratic’ and ‘accessible’; in other words, the lowest common denominator was sought in a grand failure of nerve. It is harshly modelled and ill-coloured against the brickwork of the station, and about as romantic as a couple who have just been refused a mortgage. London and Continental Railways commissioned the work and are thought to have paid £1 million for it. When one considers the number of internationally renowned sculptors in Britain, the variety and vitality of their work, one can only be dismayed by this intimidating object. It should be removed.

The Mayor of London recently announced the formation of a committee to look at the city’s architecture and design, especially public spaces such as parks, gardens, squares, etc., to ensure ‘the delivery of well-designed projects’. There is no artist or sculptor on this hefty Advisory Group, and some architects are notoriously blind to sculpture. The problem is that, if plentiful funding is in place, it is relatively easy to erect a sculpture or memorial in London. Westminster City Council should take a lead in making it much more difficult, particularly through the rigorous earmarking of sites that are already overpopulated and ones that should remain empty. Some thinning out should be undertaken, and there is surely no reason not to move or interchange unlisted works. The question, for example, of Trafalgar Square’s empty fourth plinth might have been answered long ago by the siting of a good nineteenth-century equestrian monument, moved perhaps from elsewhere, to complete the square’s sculptural uniformity. But best of all for London would be to adopt Osbert Sitwell’s suggestion and appoint a Controller of Inanimate People to take a tough line on this monstrous regiment in bronze and stone.2