Right of Reply: James Hall

The art critic responds to Philip Hensher's views on new statues for Trafalgar Square

PHILIP HENSHER is not the first, and certainly will not be the last to think that the main point of public statues is not to provide original works of art to admire, but to show us our heroes, explaining who they are by a prominent inscription. In fact, statues have always been primarily regarded as bearers of history lessons, rather than as objects to be contemplated aesthetically.

A pioneering archaeologist in sixteenth century Rome doubted whether it was worth excavating nude antique statues because they offered "no new information". Renaissance antiquarians gave precedence to ancient artefacts that had inscriptions, or that illustrated a name occurring in an ancient text.

A similarly literary attitude prevailed with modern sculpture. The first guidebook to Westminster Abbey, produced by the antiquary William Camden in 1600, reproduced the inscriptions, but did not illustrate or describe the monuments. Of course, the quality of most of London's public sculpture is indifferent - as is that of most of the architecture. But there are some extraordinary works - products both of genius and of inspired lunacy - that are more like poems than sermons in stone. The Albert Memorial (1863-72), which has been called a "polychrome banana-split", is one of the most sensuous confections in nineteenth century art. The surrealist writer Louis Aragon marvelled at the "phallophoria of Trafalgar Square, where one-armed Nelson is the witness to the nation's hysteria". By describing E H Baily's Nelson (1839-43) as a witness, he did at least pin-point his oddly diffident body language. Nelson is an almost Giacomettian figure atop his column, lost in space, a shrivelled Simon Stylites. Statues can and should be much more than petrified CVs.

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