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Wednesday 25 January 2023

The Statues in Trafalgar Square




Just under a hundred years ago, charting Mrs Dalloway’s progress through the streets of London, Virginia Woolf casually mentions “Havelock” in Trafalgar Square. There was no need to expand on that single word and remind us that “Havelock” is a prosaic statue of a bulky male figure, best foot forward on a plinth, the ensemble erected to remind us of Major General Sir Henry Havelock whose permanent legacy is a Narrative of the War in Afghanistan.  Today, no one - office worker or tourist - sees “Havelock” in Trafalgar Square; the monument triggers no memories and elicits no interest beyond the occasional cursory glance at the inscription on the plinth. “Havelock” has subsided to the level of the Narrative; both are now simply documents of the past, of interest to professional historians and those in Afghanistan who kept alive the oral memory of invading armies and treated the return of the British to Helmand in 2006 as just a new chapter in an old story, a spare princeling enhancing the sense of narrative continuity.


Had Virginia Woolf casually mentioned “Nelson” in Trafalgar Square there would (still) be many passers-by and tourists who would know a bit about Nelson even if no more than might be encompassed by a gloss or footnote. In that sense, “Nelson” still works as a monument which can activate a memory in a way that “Havelock” and “Napier” - also on a Trafalgar Square plinth - can’t. “Nelson” has a place in popular memory though that will eventually fade.


In 2000, as is well-known, the Mayor of London Ken Livingstone suggested that Havelock and Napier (but not Nelson) should be removed from the square. It didn’t happen and the subsequent consolidation of a notion of “Heritage” now makes it likely that the two uninspiring lumps of metal will stay put in their prime location, indefinitely.


“Heritage” is a bric-à-brac shop idea; it does not discriminate. As long as it’s over a hundred years old it’s an antique and therefore valuable - though in the case of “Heritage” it is so valuable that it is not for sale, not to be moved, and not to be improved (as owners of Grade II* listed homes will know, draughts being part of our Heritage too).


In the past, when we were busy creating “Heritage”, things were different. The Victorians always felt free to change their minds.  They erected and shortly after removed from Trafalgar Square someone called Edward Jenner - do you need a gloss? smallpox vaccine? - who went up in 1858 with Prince Albert present but was promptly moved out in 1862. I don’t know why. General Gordon - Siege of Khartoum - lasted longer. He was put up in 1888 and removed in 1943, re-surfacing ten years later. In 1948, Churchill - no gloss needed - had asked for Gordon to be put back in the Square but though he was Prime Minister in 1953, the statue did not re-appear there but on the Victoria Embankment where it remains.




In a well-known essay dating to 1940, the art historian Erwin Panofsky drew a distinction between documents and monuments since deployed in a variety of modified forms, most recently in John Guillory’s Professing Criticism (University of Chicago Press 2022). Every fragment of our cultural past which survives becomes a document (not necessarily on paper - a potsherd is a document in this sense) which can be archived and studied as we try to understand how we got to here from there. A document becomes a monument when it strikes us as having intrinsic value, worthy of some form of appreciation in which it is treated as something other than evidence for something else. From one point of view, any Renaissance painting is a document of its times; from another it may be something valued because it’s a remarkable work of art.


Statues confuse matters and are meant to. They seek to impose themselves as monuments when they often are, or become, no more than documents. Statues of Stalin or the Kims are informative and provide evidence about the character of entire regimes; that we readily understand.  Our own education, even if quite limited, will allow us to see that those statues are aesthetically and artistically not terribly interesting. Let’s be that polite.  


But the nearer we get to home, the more clouded our understanding becomes. Havelock and Napier belong in a museum or its warehouse - all museums house very much more than they ever display. Even then, they will be of limited interest - they certainly break no new ground in the history of art. If we started seriously to remove all the dead monuments we would soon run out of storage - at which point, the sensible thing is to photograph and send the thing in itself to the scrapyard, as if dealing with tombstones from defunct cemeteries.


Putting up statues which add “diversity” does not solve the intrinsic problem that statues seek to impose narratives which alone they are incapable of sustaining. Proponents of “Diversity” also seek to impose their own valuations which may well not be widely shared, in which case the new statues become just like the rest, street clutter to which only dogs and pigeons are attracted. For their purposes, lumps of stone and metal are all they need. Millicent Fawcett in Parliament Square is already learning that lesson.


Another lesson is simply this: a monument is something which has to be discovered; it may require some excavation before it turns into a great novel or a great painting but there comes a point when it begins to impose itself. That is something which Nelson’s Column may have achieved. But a monument is not something you can simply erect.

Trevor Pateman, 25 January 2023

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