The battle of Trafalgar Square

ARTS SCULPTURE There's a hole in the heart of London, and only Prue Leith can fill it. Or that's what she thinks. Sarah Jane Checkland reports on the capital's longest-running artistic debate
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
EVER SINCE the King's mews were paved over in 1840 to make way for a landmark celebrating Nelson's greatest victory, the Battle of Trafalgar has been a mere trifle compared with the battles of Trafalgar Square.

First, the architect Sir Charles Barry argued that the erection of the 170ft Nelson's Column would interfere with the elegance of his overall design. Then the painter Sir Edwin Landseer had to brave controversy when he was commissioned to sculpt the massive lions which guard the site, on the grounds that he had never worked in three dimensions before. Even the widows of the two bronze Admiralty heroes who stand stolidly on the south side quibbled that their husbands were located too near the edge.

In recent years, the skirmishes have been of a more eclectic nature, including the poll tax riots, the eviction of illegal souvenir sellers and the Sunday-afternoon displays of roller-blading prowess. Suddenly, however, the silly season is upon us, with a host of crazy schemes to improve the look of the place.

First, the Prince of Wales's Fountain Society started campaigning to raise the height of the cascades, which currently bubble away at a modest 8ft. They want the water to rise routinely up to 70ft and even, on festival days, to the height of Nelson's hat. (Cynics with practical minds point out that this will only result in the drenching of the tourists who climb all over the lions.) Another project is an ambitious new floodlighting scheme sponsored by, of all people, a Hong Kong Chinese-language newspaper, Sing Tao.

But the biggest arguments have been reserved for the future of the Square's one remaining empty plinth (pictured, right). Originally planned as the site for an equestrian statue of William IV by Sir Francis Chantrey (never completed due to the unscheduled deaths of both subject and artist in 1837 and 1841 respectively), the plinth has been an outdoor public convenience for the flocks of resident pigeons ever since.

Enter Prue Leith, the cookery writer and teacher who, as an aspiring member of the great and the good, has made it her mission to give the plinth an occupant. This autumn, as she takes up her post as chair of the Royal Society of Arts, Leith says she will be ready to present the public with a final shortlist of subjects and artists, on which she will invite votes. If the chosen design is a new work, the sculpture will be commissioned in January next year, and should be in place by next autumn. If the winning idea is an existing sculpture, it will be erected in the spring of 1996.

Things started off cheerily enough, as Leith sifted through the 150 suggestions which arrived earlier this summer. First came the fanatics intent on subjects like Baroness Thatcher peeking out of a Falklands tank turret, or John Major preaching Back to Basics from a soap box. The former, according to a member of Leith's staff, was soon torpedoed by the "hundreds of letters objecting to the idea"; while Mr Major reportedly had only one supporter. Another suggestion was the Queen trooping the colour - which some Government moles say had in fact been the semi- official plan even before Leith came on the scene. Apparently a number of such sculptures are already in waiting at Buckingham Palace; but Royal confidence not being what it was, Palace officials insist that no sculpture can be erected in the monarch's lifetime. It seems that statues of living people are out.

Next came the lunatic fringe, whose ideas included a giant pigeon by the Colombian-born artist Fernando Botero; the Pigeon Lady from Mary Poppins; and a giant Winnie the Pooh. Having caused much merriment among Leith's staff, these were placed in the no-hoper's file, along with living footballers and athletes.

So far, so good - until, that is, someone raised the contemporary-art question. Should the subject be portrayed in literal terms, or in one of the myriad styles currently used by the avant-garde? Soon the Public Art Commissions Agency - whose job is to clinch commissions for living artists - was in on the act, suggesting Sir Eduardo Paolozzi, purveyor of robot-like figures fashioned from what look like left- over car parts, and Alison Wilding, an abstract artist whose materials have included cloth, metal and beeswax.

It was candidates such as these, as well as the suggestion of a ready- made abstract by the late Henry Moore, that aroused the historical purists from their slumbers. "Our associa- tion feels that the site is very important in terms of history. It is the only one in England where it would be wrong to put a contemporary sculpture and right to put a historic one," says Jo Darke, chief executive of the Public Monuments and Sculpture Association, an advisory group formed in 1991 to consider "historical, academic and technical queries relating to public monuments and sculpt- ure". Before long the group was participating in Leith's panel, and argued that there are many perfectly good Victorian sculptures already in existence. Why not use them? How about General Gordon of Khartoum, for example, who had already taken up one place in the Square in 1887 - but was banished to the Victoria Embankment Gardens in 1953?

And so on to the next can of worms: what, in the late 20th century, constitutes a hero? Possibly not the old buffers who are already in residence - such as Admiral Earl Jellicoe, who presided, not altogether successfully, over the Battle of Jutland, and whose most famous line was: "Where is the enemy battle-fleet?" As for the two figures on either side of Nelson's column - General Sir Charles Napier and General Sir Henry Havelock - it is unlikely that either would get the popular vote in multi-racial Britain today, on the grounds of their imperialist activities. The first suppressed the rulers of Sind in 1843 (whereupon he sent the British Government a punning telegram saying "peccavi" - "I have sinned" in Latin), and the second suppressed the Indian mutiny in 1857.

In this context, the best suggestion might be to remove the heroes already in residence, on the grounds that not only do they have no relevance as heroes today, but also that their feats were, in today's eyes, politically incorrect. But this would result in many more plinths for Prue Leith to fill, and has not so far been mooted. Meanwhile, just as Leith was learning that the heat emanating from the empty plinth is far greater than that in her kitchen, multiple layers of Government bureaucracy started to enter the fray, armed with rules and regulations as to what is acceptable under the Trafalgar Square Act, 1844. "Apart from this enormous layer of art people, we are having to negotiate with Government bodies, who notoriously don't get on," a spokesman at Leith's office groans. As a result, the ever-burgeoning committee now includes Jocelyn Stevens, the pugnacious head of English Heritage, representatives of the Department of National Heritage, the Public Art Development Trust, the City of Westminster Council, the High Commissioner for South Africa, whose building overlooks the square, the Royal Society for British Sculpture, representatives of the Tate and National Galleries, and many more.

Somehow, despite the clash of interests, the committee has just arrived at a shortlist of possible subjects, which includes pioneering women such as Leith's culinary predecessor Mrs Beeton, various literary figures including Dickens and Thackeray, and artists JMW Turner and William Morris - not to mention nebulous themes such as "Political freedom/democracy", "Freedom of self-expression" and "Human experience".

The awful truth is that when Leith finally gets her shortlist down to one, the decision could be quashed by Virginia Bottomley, the new Secretary of State for National Heritage. For, due to the existence of the 1851 Statues Act (brought about to stop enthusiasts erecting statues of their choice in the capital), the minister has power of veto. Furthermore, a DNH spokesman points out that whoever installs the statue must endow its maintenance in perpetuity. Once the choice has been made, another even more tedious task begins: "We must start getting public support to raise money."

Jo Darke of the Public Monuments and Sculpture Association has her doubts as to whether Prue Leith's grand project will ever come to fruition: "All too often people have grand plans but don't have the punch to push them through," she says. According to Rory Coonan, head of architecture at the Arts Council, that would be the best solution; then, the empty plinth "would be a standing reproach to modern sculpture ... No one's capable of doing anything decent nowadays."

Considering the circumstances, the best solution of all is quite clear. Let's have a memorial to Prue Leith, as a reward for her efforts. !

Comments