London Notebook

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The sculptures of Trafalgar Square

HOWEVER OFTEN I go to London, one afternoon is mandatorily spent at Trafalgar Square (by choice, of course). After all, the National Gallery—containing one of the world’s greatest art collections—is the main building there, and around it is the National Portrait Gallery. Then there in the middle, rising 52 metres, is Nelson’s Column, as high a tribute as any nation has paid to one of its heroes.

Once you are there, you don’t have to be particularly observant to notice the Fourth Plinth. While Nelson casts his eye over the city from the centre, at the four corners of the square are plinths, the solid bases on top of which are generally placed sculptures of horses (actually, it’s the riders who are being commemorated, but let that pass). Trafalgar Square’s two southern plinths don’t have equestrian statues: there’s a statue of Henry Havelock, and one of Charles James Napier, both standing heroically but horseless. Havelock was a British general famous for the recapture of ‘Cawnpore’ from Indian sepoys during the Uprising of 1857. (He is buried in Lucknow under a large monument erected by his family). Napier was also a British general associated with India: he was head of the Bombay Army, which led the conquest of Sindh. Later, he became Governor of Sindh and Commander- in-Chief in India. (There’s one aspect of Napier which isn’t so well known. He opposed the practice of sati , called ‘suttee’ by the British. When told that a sati was about to take place in Sindh, he ordered it stopped. This led to a strong protest by a group of priests who said this was a religious rite, and a nation’s customs should be respected. Napier replied, “The burning of widows is your custom; so prepare the funeral pyre. But my nation also has a custom: when men burn women alive, we hang them, and confiscate all their property. My carpenters shall therefore erect gibbets on which to hang all concerned when the widow is consumed. Let us all act according to national custom.”)

The north-eastern plinth has an equestrian statue of George IV, while the north-western plinth was supposed to have a complementing equestrian statue of William IV, but funds ran out, so the plinth remained empty—and orphaned for over 150 years! However, for over the past two decades, it has borne a succession of changing statues, with works commissioned of leading artists by the Mayor of London’s Fourth Plinth programme.

Each commissioned structure stays in place for a year or so. I remember seeing Gift Horse, Hans Haacke’s skeletal, riderless horse in bronze, based on an etching by George Stubbs, whose famous paintings of horses are on display in the National Gallery. Incidentally, tied to the horse’s front leg was an electronic ribbon with a live ticker of the London Stock Exchange. Haacke, it is said, wanted to convey the link between power, money and history. I have also seen Hahn/Cock, a massive vivid blue sculpture of a cockerel or rooster. The sculptor, Katharine Fritsch said the work reflects our image of ourselves: “People can see themselves, their characters, in animals” (presumably, in birds too).

The statue, apparently, was also a comment on the masculine character of the square, its shape—a circle would be feminine?—and its statues of men and horses. Other works on the plinth have been Powerless Structures, a golden-bronze sculpture of a boy on his rocking horse, Nelson’s Ship in a Bottle, and Alison Lapper Pregnant, a 12 foot Carrara marble figure of Lapper, an artist born with phonocomelia, so she had no arms and shortened legs. The statue thus ‘celebrated a different idea of beauty’ according to the sculptor.

This year’s Fourth Plinth carries The Invisible Enemy Should Not Exist, a striking depiction of the Lamassu, a winged deity which guarded the entrance to the ancient Assyrian city of Nineveh, near Mosul in Iraq, which was among the 7,000 archaeological artefacts destroyed by ISIS. The sculpture’s American artist Michael Rakowitz has re-created the Lamassu by using empty Iraqi date syrup cans, representing a once- flourishing industry decimated by the Iraq wars. Rebuilding the Lamassu, the artist says, “means it can symbolically continue as guardian of a city’s past, present and future.”

As I look at the magnificent sculptures at Trafalgar Square, I think of more sobering, if less elevated, thoughts focusing on the transient nature of power: Lord Nelson may have defeated the navies of France and Spain in the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805; he may now stand neck-achingly high in the square; he may be guarded by four massive sculptures of lions… but he is helpless in the face of pigeons who give a shit about his triumphs. Speaking of which four-letter word reminds me of another sobering fact: Henry Havelock may have won many a battle, but the one he lost, the personal and final one, was a battle with dysentery.