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August 2020

Vol. 162 / No. 1409

Remove the evidence, remove the deed

When the statue of Edward Colston in Bristol was thrown into the harbour on 7th June some historically minded commentators were reminded of the destruction of images during the Protestant Reformation. The parallel was strengthened by an interview with the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, on BBC’s Radio 4’s Today programme on 26th June. Having commented approvingly on the removal of such statues, he added, ‘you just go around Canterbury Cathedral, there’s monuments everywhere, or Westminster Abbey, and we’re looking at all that, and some will have to come down’. Perhaps it would be wrong to read too much into what sounded like an unconsidered remark – the Archbishop was quick to say that he did not have the power to remove monuments from Canterbury Cathedral even if he wanted to – but he emphasised that ‘we are going to be looking very carefully and putting them in context and seeing if they all should be there’.

Welby was referring to a policy currently being shaped by the Church of England. According to Becky Clark, Director of its Cathedrals and Church Buildings division, writing in a recent press release, ‘The Church and the legacy of slavery’: ‘we acknowledge the real and justified anger of those who believe monuments in churches and elsewhere should be reviewed [. . .] This cannot be dealt with purely as a discussion around historical monuments, and must encompass how we, as a broad and diverse society, value and represent people of all ethnicities and backgrounds’.(1) Several dioceses have initiated surveys of their church monuments to identify memorials to people implicated in the slave trade.

If as a result the Church were to undertake a programme of removing or altering such monuments then the parallel with the Reformation would begin not to seem so far-fetched, having allowed for the difference between a religious image and a memorial. Although the destruction of images in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries is often conceived of as a popular wave of destruction led by crowds – like the toppling of Colston’s statue – it was generally a cautious and even bureaucratic movement by those in power. When, for example, a meeting in 1556 of Protestant noblemen in Poland–Lithuania sought advice about the best way to go about removing images from churches without upsetting their congregations, they were told that ‘altars should be closed off and images should be covered with sheets, and then taken out of the main body of the church to less public places’.2 For ‘less public places’, now read the Victoria and Albert Museum perhaps?

Although the solution of moving church monuments to museums might seem attractive, the practical obstacles are obvious – not least the expense involved in taking down and transporting marble sculptures, costs that would presumably have to be borne by the cathedral or parish involved. One problem that the Church of England does not seem to have considered was pointed out by Mark Downing, President of the Church Monuments Society: ‘ownership of funerary monuments is vested not in the Church, but in the heirs of the commissioner or commemorated, or, failing that, in the Crown’.(3)

A much more plausible approach to the issue would be to leave the monuments in place and provide an inscription or label pointing out the link of the person commemorated with the slave trade. Again, the Reformation provides a parallel. Protestant reformers often sought to preserve an element of images for admonitory purposes: for example, a painting of a saint could be left if its face were scratched out and any reference to prayers for the dead removed. Adding an inscription or a label to a monument would be a non-destructive way of serving a similar purpose. If the Church of England were to take such a line it might provide a lead for the treatment of public sculptures. Several people have already urged this solution: for example, in a discussion of Scotland’s historic links with the slave trade, the scientist and human rights activist Sir Geoff Palmer argued that adding plaques to statues was preferable to removing them: ‘My view is you remove the evidence, you remove the deed’.(4)

Creating such plaques necessitates research on these monuments and the people they commemorate. A major source for such information is the Public Monuments and Sculpture Association (PMSA),(5) a charity set up in 1991 ‘to heighten public appreciation of Britain’s public sculpture, and to contribute to its preservation, protection and promotion’. Its distinguished list of publications includes the Sculpture Journal, published three times a year, and the National Recording Project, a catalogue of the public monuments and sculptures in the United Kingdom, of which twentytwo volumes have appeared.(6) Financially, like many academic charities, it has lived a somewhat hand-to-mouth existence, but even so it was a shock to its membership to receive in July a letter from the Chairman, Sir John Lewis, announcing that it was being wound up. The Sculpture Journal has been sold to Liverpool University Press and the organisation’s archive and other assets (such as the website) have been transferred to the Royal Society of Sculptors.

Scandalously, no consultation was carried out with the PMSA’s membership – or anyone else – and as a result the decision is being challenged by its members. The PMSA has collaborated in the recent expansion of Art UK’s inventory of publicly owned works of art to cover sculpture, but it is hard to understand the justification for Sir John’s statement to the membership that ‘the handing over of catalogue data to Art UK in 2018 effectively brought PMSA’s twenty-year National Recording Project to a successful conclusion’. In fact, substantial parts of the country, including much of the South-West and all of Yorkshire, remain to be covered. A way must be found for this work to continue, but whatever is decided, it is undeniable that that the timing of the trustees’ decision could hardly be worse: the PMSA has set the lead for the sort of research that the Church of England and all owners of public sculpture will have to carry out in order to understand and contextualise a contentious legacy.

1. Available at (19th June), accessed 20th July 2020.

2. D. MacCulloch: Reformation: Europe’s House Divided 1490–1700, London 2003, p.558.

3. M. Downing: ‘Church monuments under threat’, available at, accessed 20th July 2020.

4. Quoted in ‘Call for plaques on Scotland’s statues with links to slavery’ (8th June 2020), available at, accessed 20th July 2020.

5. See, accessed 20th July 2020.

6. Most have been reviewed or noted in this Magazine. See, for example, the review by Mark Stocker of P. Ward-Jackson: Public Sculpture of Historic Westminster, Volume 1, Liverpool 2011, THE BURLINGTON MAGAZINE 154 (2012), pp.715–16.