Can you name all seven of the statues in Trafalgar Square? The historian David Olusoga asked the audience this question in our London Conference panel Contested Territory, about how we address the past in our public spaces.
I can’t even come close to naming seven, but I am pretty sure that they are all dead, they were all white, they were all men, and they are mostly rather high up. Curiously, Edward Jenner, pioneer of smallpox vaccination and a rather relevant hero for 2020, briefly had a statue in the square: it’s now in Kensington Gardens.
There is a paradox here: as Prof Olusoga points out, British statues are mostly pretty dull. They are rarely great art, and we usually only see them when our attention is drawn by a controversy. There are vigorous and welcome debates about who should stay and who should go, informed by big questions of personal and national identity, but it seems unlikely that many people would miss the statue of Sir Charles Napier because they like looking at it. This is not to say the statues of colonialists and slave traders should be allowed to stand: when they make people feel uncomfortable and unwelcome in the spaces that Londoners share, they should go. Replacing these statues with a more diverse group who had a positive impact on people’s lives would be a great improvement, but if statues aren’t interesting, then they will just fade into the background for the next generation of Londoners. Representation is not enough by itself: public art is only effective if people want to look at it.
In general, London is better served by its sculptures and its abstract public art than its statues: to take just one example the Three Perpetual Chords by Conrad Shawcross in Dulwich Park are visually pleasing forms but more importantly they are a mildly anarchic delight, with children constantly climbing up them or hiding underneath. They are impressive but they are on a human scale, and humans interact with them. To my mind, the statue of Millicent Fawcett by Gillian Wearing in Parliament Square works for the same reason: she is larger than life but not enormous, she looks like a real person – resolute but slightly worried – and she is not high in the sky. In more normal times, she is often surrounded by schoolgirls taking selfies with her: it seems that her ideas still matter.
As another of our London Conference speakers, the British Futures director Sunder Katwala, points out that “we are all products of the past”, and this is what all Londoners have in common. Our public space needs to reflect this shared past: the good things, the bad things, and most of all the complicated and messy things. Public art in all its forms – individual statues, abstract sculptures, murals, graffiti art, ephemeral performance pieces – can help us to do this. But the solution cannot just be to take a statue of one person off a high plinth and put another one up there: the best art to reflect London’s complex, painful past will be human, complicated, challenging, and at ground level.