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This Britain

'Replace trite and trashy statues with trees'

Leading art figures condemn the profusion of public memorials, claiming the majority are sentimental and badly executed

They were erected as timeless monuments to the great and the good; statues and sculptures paying tribute to lives of achievement and sacrifice. But many of the memorials springing up around Britain are being condemned as trite, "sentimental" and poorly executed.

Tim Knox, director of the prestigious Sir John Soane's Museum in London told The Independent on Sunday this weekend: "There is a multiplication of sentimental figurative work that is just not good enough."

He singled out the monument to the Unknown Construction Worker, on Tower Hill in London: "Tower Hill is where great figures in British history have been executed, and we put up a statue in memory of people who died in industrial accidents.

"The problem is that there is no longer the tuition in art schools, so not many people are confident with the human figure. On the one hand we have highly competent artists who are worth millions and the other group who get wheeled in to do public statues for £100,000."

His thoughts, also outlined in The Art Newspaper, echoed those of Richard Shone, editor of The Burlington Magazine, who criticised "the infestation of public places with statues and memorials – one would be hard pressed to call them sculpture".

He was particularly scornful of the Nelson Mandela statue in Parliament Square –"arms and hands are outstretched as if showing how big the fish was that he caught" – and the memorials to women and animals at war in Whitehall and Park Lane.

There are so many statues in central London that Westminster council has banned more unless they meet strict criteria.

Mr Shone added that it has been too easy to put a statue up – all you need to do is raise the money, find a celebrity endorser and gain planning permission.

"The worst are sentimental and poor in execution," he said. "The animals memorial is a disgraceful sculpture and in the middle of Park Lane, one of the capital's great streets. There should be a different idea about memorials, such as planting trees."

The two sculptures in St Pancras station are also on his list of offenders: The Meeting Place, a 9ft-tall man and woman in an embrace which he described as "dreary and mournful", and the tribute to Sir John Betjeman which "smacks of the toyshop".

But critics and public disagree over The Scallop, a tribute to Benjamin Britten in Alderburgh: the critics approve but it has been repeatedly defaced.

Ian Leith, of the Public Monuments and Sculptures Association, said art is subjective and nobody could rule on taste. "The couple in St Pancras could be considered quite good in 50 years' time. Who are we to say?" he said. The real problem, he added, was that there was no audit of statues, so many are duplicated while others have gone missing – including work by Henry Moore stolen for scrap.

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