Spare us these monuments to vanity

We should stop cluttering up our public spaces with sculptures commemorating dead glow worms, tragic princesses and dogs
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The Independent Online

Returning from the claustrophobic confines of my jungle campsite I found the most pleasant way to enjoy London at this time of year is on foot, especially as the sky turns from turquoise to navy at the end of a chilly afternoon and the tops of buildings and monuments blush an exotic pink with the last rays of the sun.

Returning from the claustrophobic confines of my jungle campsite I found the most pleasant way to enjoy London at this time of year is on foot, especially as the sky turns from turquoise to navy at the end of a chilly afternoon and the tops of buildings and monuments blush an exotic pink with the last rays of the sun.

Last Sunday I dealt with a seasonal hangover with a leisurely stroll from Clerkenwell through Lincoln's Inn Fields, the back alleys of Covent Garden and the Strand and into the pedestrianised zone of Trafalgar Square. A giant screen was sadly no longer showing Battleship Potemkin to the strains of the Pet Shop Boys but some tourist trivia, but what a fantastic arena this space is now without cars. In spite of Peter Stringfellow's bleat in the Torygraph the other day that the empty plinth should house a statue of Mrs Thatcher, I cannot wait for the winner of Ken Livingstone's competition and consultation exercise, the large white marble statue of a thalidomide victim by Marc Quinn, to be hoisted into position.

I continued my walk through Mayfair, pausing for the odd spot of retail therapy, basking in the sheer pleasure that London's wonderful mixture of architecture and public art engenders in even the most churlish of souls. Then my mood took a nosedive as I reached the northern end of Park Lane where a visual calamity of the highest order had sprouted during my trip to Australia. It manages to blend two sensitive subjects in one artistic endeavour - losses caused by war and "helpless" animals - and the result is a tawdry disaster on a shocking scale. A curved screen of white stone is cut in two; on the left panel a quasi-Thirties type of bas relief shows animals from camels to bears and pigeons. On the right an inscription declares "They had no choice", with a pair of laden ponies struggling through the gap in the middle. On the other side of the screen a larger than life bronze statue of a horse, presumably stands in equine "heaven" while the reverse of the screen is carved with lists of individuals and banks and charities who've coughed up for this piece of second-rate art in the name of "millions of animals which have been killed in conflict while serving their country".

Designed by David Backhouse and opened by Princess Anne, this was paid for by the "Animals in War" Memorial Fund (Jilly Cooper donated the proceeds of her book with the same title and the well-known art lover Nicholas Soames was a vice-president). On the website the following sentence explains the thinking behind the enterprise: "they had no idea why they had been drawn into our conflicts and acted solely out of loyalty and love". I am not a pet lover, but I would not deny other people the right to keep and care for pets if that keeps them happy. And by the same token, if people want to commemorate animals who died in wars, then perhaps the rest of us could be consulted over exactly where such a memorial might be sited and what form it might take.

Increasingly London's precious public spaces are being cluttered up with these so-called "monuments" for a whole raft of spurious worthy causes. Mayor Livingstone at least went through an elaborate consultation exercise deciding what should occupy the vacant plinth in Trafalgar Square. But I doubt very much whether the citizens of Mayfair, the Arts Council or even the head of the Royal College of Art were asked whether this weird concoction for dead animals from glow worms to elephants was either artistically valid or pleasingly sited. Over-lit and occupying a muddy traffic island in the middle of a six-lane busy road it looks like a bit of a temporary theme park. I am sure that some member of the Royal Household was involved because they have got a track record second to none when it comes to producing crap art and architecture for the long-suffering public to endure.

You've only got to stroll through Hyde Park to see another disaster, the pathetic fountain in the name of Diana. It's malfunctioned so many times since the opening ceremony it's almost becoming a symbol of the troubled marriage of our former Princess of Sorrows. This weedy trickle of water resembles a paddling pool, with all the appeal of a municipal footbath. Presently it is "closed" for further repairs.

Another short step away is the real monster of these nouveau monuments, the Queen Elizabeth Gates, standing at the exit from Hyde Park into Park Lane. Erected in 1993 to celebrate the Queen Mother's 93rd birthday, the gates themselves were designed by Giuseppe Lund and the lion and unicorn panels were sculpted by David Wynne. Quite frankly, if you ever feel depressed, then I recommend you take a detour past this piece of 100 per cent pure rubbish and you'll soon have a smile back on your face. They look like something Andrew Logan might have dreamt up as a backdrop for his Alternative Miss World fancy dress competition. They'd be rejected by any set designer in the West End - certainly not elegant enough for Aladdin - and if you saw them at the end of a driveway to a mansion in Essex you'd think they were something a local crafts group for the mentally impaired had executed as "therapy". Here, at one of the most important junctions in a Royal Park in the whole of Britain, next to beautiful Apsley House and with the elegant Constitution Hill Arch designed by Decimus Burton in the centre of Hyde Park corner behind, they are just plain hideous.

Wellington's Arch, recently cleaned, has always been a wonderful landmark, imposing and austere. Now another "monument" has sprouted up destroying this pleasing combination of Portland stone and plain unadorned grass. A corner of the site has been filled with a long wall of granite, 540 pieces in all, commemorating the Australian war dead. Now the pure symmetry and elegant landscaping of another important London public space has been ruined - and for what? Were we, the public, consulted? No, of course not. If the Australians want to commemorate their dead, then I am sure that another, equally appropriate location could have been found, one that did not place a second-division bit of carving next to a world-class piece of 19th-century architecture.

Down in Constitution Hill a weird pair of stone towers have sprouted either side of the road in the past year - God knows what they are commemorating but their faux-classicism makes me suspect that Charles probably had a bit of a say in their design. Either way, they manage to look like something straight from the pages of the Rupert Bear Annual circa 1955.

Perhaps we should take a rain check on cluttering up any more of our parks, gardens, squares and roundabouts with any more bits of sculpture commemorating royal grannies, dead glow worms, tragic princesses, Commonwealth soldiers and dogs. On the Harry's Place blog site one cheeky monkey writes: "We might as well have a memorial to the millions of birds who met their end in boxes of Kentucky Fried Chicken - they too had no choice", while another notes that there is already a much nicer memorial to animals killed in war near Kilburn Park tube station.

But my point is this - in a crowded city it is simply not appropriate to celebrate your cause with bad art in a space used by other people. At least Mr Quinn's sculpture will be sending a more positive message - one that finds beauty and power in the living.

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