Notebook: Raise statues to people, not concepts
Saturday 12 December 1998
A few weeks ago, when we were remembering the 80th anniversary of the end of the First World War, The Express mounted a campaign to pull down the statue of General (Earl) Haig in Whitehall. Last week the Daily Mail thought the new statue to Oscar Wilde, a few hundred yards from Haig, in Adelaide Street, was a damned disgrace. Both papers argued that the memory of neither man should be publicly honoured: Haig because he was a "butcher", Wilde because he was a "paedophile".
Campaigning to demolish a statue of one eminent Victorian, protesting against the erection of a statue to another: what to make of this? It may show that, as someone once remarked, "all history is contemporary", subject to the continual shifts of scholarship and opinion. It may also show two newspapers chasing two different markets, with The Express keen to establish its new, "progressive" credentials after failing utterly to challenge the Mail in the old unprogressive English heartland.
But who could have imagined, when Charles Saatchi and his new British artists have ruined our appetite for outrage, that something as quaint as representational (or fairly representational ) public sculpture could be used as a tool to excite public opinion?
On Thursday, I went to have a look at the new Oscar Wilde, which was unveiled last month before an assembly of the great and good - Sir Jeremy Isaacs, Stephen Fry - who had organised the project. Pictures of the statue give an impression of nothing more complicated than a bust on a pedestal, but this is not quite right.
The bust, by Maggi Hambling, sits on a piece of dark polished marble about the size and shape of a coffin, except that it slopes up at each end like a divan. Wilde's head rises from the northern slope, facing on the southern slope his words: "We are all in the gutter but some of us are looking at the stars." He holds a jaunty cigarette in his right hand. The marble is not simply inscribed with Wilde's name, profession and dates, but has a title: "A Conversation with Oscar Wilde."
The monument sits below eye-level in a pedestrianised street and you can work out the intention quickly enough. Wilde is one of us, not a hero "up on a pedestal"; anyone - drunk, beggar, lunatic, romantic - could lean back at one end of the monument, face Wilde and have a pretend conversation with him (though would the police move you on?); his humanity and disgrace "in the gutter" offer hope for us all.
I looked at the monument for a few minutes and at first rather disliked it. Wilde's head, spotlit and the same copper-green as his carnation, is a hollow ball of swirling metal worms. He looked like death. Half-decayed, half-eaten, he might have just burst through the coffin-lid. Also, why the egalitarian tricksiness? Wilde was hardly "the people's writer" and his new role as a gay martyr looks dubious. His libel suit against the accusation of homosexuality doesn't suggest heroism, and if he hadn't pursued it (a lesson here for Jonathan Aitken) his subsequent prosecution would never have happened. But he was a great playwright. A greater monument, something to look up to, would have been fine.
After a while in Adelaide Street, however, I saw that I was probably wrong. It was a wet evening, but many peoplestopped, read the inscriptions and smiled. Underneath their umbrellas, one woman tourist said to another: "It's neat." Wilde was being noticed for his modesty, not something he was much known for when alive, but a hard thing to achieve in modern life.
Then I went on my way to see another new statue in Covent Garden, and the same thought struck me with particular force when I popped into a tourist-tat shop to buy a postcard. The shop was filled floor to ceiling with penises: penises that spoke, penises worked by clockwork, penises as candles, chocolate penises, pasta penises, penis moulds which you fill with water or orange squash, put in the freezer and then withdraw as ice or lollipops. Customers came and went. None seemed surprised. Nobody gasped. And there, over the road in the foyer of the Theatre Royal, sits Noel Coward who once - 50, 60 years ago - seemed ever so daring and, sexually, slightly dangerous.
His old friend, the Queen Mother, unveiled him last week. He also flaunts a cigarette - this may now be his most daring aspect - and we meet him, like Wilde, at the same level. No need to look up. Coward sits down while Shakespeare in another corner stands above us, pointing with a quill at a manuscript. Shakespeare's is what you might call the conventional male posture, the missionary position, of statuary. Kings stand or ride on horseback; queens sit on thrones.
Now - the last leg of this brief tour of London statues - I walked through the rain to Trafalgar Square to look at the site that has been selected for some unconventional statuary, than which (some Wildean paradox would be appropriate here) nothing can now be more conventional.
As well as Nelson on his column, Trafalgar Square has three full-figure statues. In front of the column, facing down Whitehall, stand generals Havelock and Napier, who conquered and subdued the Indian empire. At the rear of the column, above the square's north-west corner, King George III rides on his horse. A similar plinth on the north-east corner was meant for George IV, but the money was never found and the plinth has stood empty since the square was built in 1841. The most recent plan to fill it was revealed by the Royal Society of Arts to a meeting of Westminster council's planning committee this week and looks as though it will succeed.
According to this plan, not one but three pieces of sculpture will fill the space. Each will be there for a year, starting next year, and eventually all will find a permanent home in the Goodwood Sculpture Park in West Sussex. The artists are:
Rachel Whiteread, who wants to fill the plinth with a clear resin cast of the plinth, upside down. Whiteread: "After spending time in Trafalgar Square ... I became acutely aware of the general chaos of central London life. I decided that the most appropriate sculpture would be to make a pause, a quiet moment for the space."
Marc Wallinger, with a life-size statue of Christ in white marble. Wallinger: "The purity of the white marble and the humility of its life size would provide an immediate contrast with the outsized black bronze relics of empire."
Bill Woodrow, with an entwined bronze of a book, a human head and a tree titled "Regardless of History". Woodrow: "It makes reference to the never- ending cyclical relationship between civilisations, knowledge and the forces of nature."
Of course, the promoters referred to these possibilities as "exciting" and of course the phrase "contemporary [see exciting, above] British art" wasn't far behind. But I don't scoff. Each will make the square more interesting. The question is: what will fill the space after this three-year stop-gap?
I have a simple but radical solution: a large statue of an individual human being, a citizen of Britain and its former empire who deserves to be remembered. When I got home from Trafalgar Square, I looked up Weinreb and Hibbert's London Encyclopaedia (a wonderful book) to see how many statues London had. Including busts, masks and medallions, but excluding those indoors (in, for example, museums and churches), the total comes to 286. That seems a lot; it is a lot. But many are to the same people. King Edward VII, the most popular male statue, has nine; Queen Victoria, the most popular woman, has seven. The choice reflects the history and social attitudes of statuary's boom time between about 1830 and 1914.
How many are to women? Ten per cent (of which Queen Victoria makes up 25 per cent). How many are to non-whites? Less than 1 per cent (a total of two statues, in fact, and both of Indians, Gandhi and Krishna Menon).
This is not just an argument of political rectitude. All sorts of people are missing. There are no outdoor statues so far as I can tell to legendary men such as Drake, Watt, George Stephenson, Charles Darwin. Writers are badly represented: no Austen, George Eliot, Shaw, Wells, Wordsworth; even Dickens (to whom the imagination of London owes so much) has nothing full- size and majestic.
The lesson of Oscar Wilde's new statue may be that we should revive the old Victorian habit of statue-building, have more arguments about who should be memorialised and how, and rightly complicate our understanding of the past. People respond to individual lives. The abstractions of resin plinths and bronze books in Trafalgar Square are not the bravest but the safest option. The risk is Diana. The prize is Dickens or Darwin.
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