The fourth plinth in the north-west corner of Trafalgar Square was designed by Sir Charles Barry, who also the architect of the Palace of Westminster, situated at the opposite end of Whitehall from the square.
Built in 1841, the plinth was originally meant for an equestrian statue of William IV. However, after it emerged that insufficient funds were available for the plan, the plinth remained empty and ever since the various authorities have remained undecided on which military hero or monarch should be erected atop the plinth.
Popularly known as the “empty plinth”, it was only put to use in 1998, when the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA) commissioned a series of three works to be temporarily displayed on the plinth.
Tony Blair’s government asked Sir John Mortimer to set up an independent committee which unanimously recommended that the plinth should continue to be used for an series of temporary works of art.
In 1999, responsibility for Trafalgar Square was transferred to the Mayor of London and the Greater London Authority, and in the same year the RSA created the Fourth Plinth Project, which oversees a rotation of modern artworks showcased on the plinth for up to two years. The first three of these were Mark Wallinger’s Ecce Homo; Bill Woodrow’s Regardless of History and Rachel Whiteread’s Monument. Marc Quinn’s sculpture, Alison Lapper Pregnant, occupied the plinth from 2005 until 2007. Currently on the plinth is Thomas Schütte’s sculpture, Model for a Hotel 2007, built of specially engineered glass in yellow, red and blue. It has been announced that the next two artists to be exhibited on the plinth will be Antony Gormley and Yinka Shonibare.
The empty plinth has also been subjected to a number of publicity stunts. During the 2002 World Cup, Madame Tussauds placed on it a model of the England midfielder David Beckham, and Channel 4 at one point erected its own logo on the plinth.
In 2003, a serious campaign was launched by Wendy Woods, the widow of the anti-apartheid journalist Donald Woods, with the aim of raising up to £400,000 to pay for a 9ft statue of Nelson Mandela by Ian Walters. The idea had added poignancy because the venue is in the shadow of South Africa House, home of the South African High Commission in London.
Were the Queen’s statue eventually to go on the empty plinth, it would be near that of her great-great-great-great uncle George IV on the north-east plinth.
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