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Why toppling statues is (almost always) wrong

Dr Mark Stocker is an art historian whose research is in late eighteenth to early-mid twentieth century art, particularly British and New Zealand art and especially sculpture, public monuments and numismatics (coins and medals). He has a broader interest in Victorian and Edwardian art and Art Deco. His current research includes Queen Victoria statuary in New Zealand, the sculpture of Kathleen Scott (widow of Scott of the Antarctic) and New Zealand’s coinage.


Statues – and included here are more elaborate public monuments and church monuments ­– have been a hot topic since the harrowing events of the northern hemisphere summer of 2020. But before then, they really didn’t register in the public consciousness. The Austrian writer Robert Musil astutely observed in 1927 that ‘There is nothing more invisible than a public monument’. They may begin in tumult – or more likely in the peaceful aftermath of tumult – and they may possibly end in tumult – but they are largely inert in between. In my ‘Public Monuments’ entry for the Grove Dictionary of Art (1996), I aimed to end it as topically as possible: I mentioned the monument celebrating the centenary of women’s suffrage in Christchurch, New Zealand, and in turn the then recent, tragically ephemeral foam and papier-mâché Goddess of Democracy, created by the demonstrators in Tiananmen Square, Beijing. Emphasis was overwhelmingly on the constructive and constructed; ‘iconoclasm’ had a separate entry and this in turn emphasised the period between antiquity and the Reformation.


Iconoclasm ebbs and flows, and is overwhelmingly predicated on political instability, though sometimes – more rarely – is encountered in a newly independent nation state deliberately reshaping history, as in the limited, almost polite iconoclasm of post-1947 India. The Anglophone world witnessed remarkably little of it in the last 200 years or so, except for Ireland with the shocking and tragic destruction of nearly 300 country houses in the War of Independence and the Civil War. While I will address the pros and mostly the cons of toppling statuary later, I’ll briefly consider the argument for iconoclasm here. An academic friend recently told me: ‘No statues should ever be knocked down, ever. Some, those erected by dictatorships or nasty regimes to glorify a person who everyone agrees was nasty and where the statue was erected in order to intimidate people or glorify very nasty (by broad consensus) deeds in, say, the last century or so, should perhaps be removed to another place. Stalin, Ceaușescu, Saddam, Assad types.’ Surely many of us, however, felt a surge of enthusiasm as we watched Saddam Hussein being toppled. For art historians, there was added satisfaction when the statues themselves were mediocre casts of a probably undistinguished original. But there are many more shades of grey than black and white: if the commemorated figure is thoroughly ‘nasty’ yet has somehow escaped topplers, time can perhaps serve as a kind of patina, even a history lesson. Who, for example, would advocate the destruction or even the removal of the statue of Mao Zedong from the eponymous Chairman Mao Memorial Hall in Tiananmen Square?


It’s our dubious privilege that we are currently witnessing a turning of the tide with the sudden visibility and contestability of statuary. But back in the 1990s, when I published my entry, this was the heyday of Francis Fukuyama’s End of History and the Last Man and his liberal democracy triumphalism. In such a state of civilisation, it was a given that public sculpture of any perceived merit should be retained and protected, explained and perhaps even admired and celebrated by art historians. For historians it was often an invaluable resource of local and national history, especially at the time of its erection. In this innocent past, statues were simply not on people’s radar – they were just there, gathering pigeon droppings, and Musil was vindicated. Perhaps in some cases there was – and is – a latent popular affection for a public monument, especially if it’s artistically innovative or quirky, such as the Eros statue and fountain, which commemorates the Victorian Tory philanthropist Lord Shaftesbury, Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens, or indeed an outstanding church monument like the Sleeping Children in Lichfield Cathedral. How many people know the sculptors of these works? Even Auguste Bartholdi, maker of the Statue of Liberty, and Gutzon Borglum, hewer of Mount Rushmore, are hardly household names: they seem even more invisible than their creations. In my art historical research I endeavoured to reclaim such artists from the enormous condescension of posterity, but it was often an uphill task trying to interest students and the wider world in them.


Nonetheless, there was a steady level of interest built up by senior professionals in the field, with the establishment of the Public Statues and Monuments Association (PMSA) in 1991. It campaigned for the listing, preservation, protection and restoration of public monuments and sculpture, spanning the Stuart monarchy to the present day. Its work was truly apolitical: the common cause was a passion for the sculpted public heritage. As well as campaigning for historic monuments and public sculpture, it actively promoted the commissioning of new public monuments and sculpture. It also commissioned a splendid but still little-known series of volumes, the Public Sculpture of Britain series, which could be dubbed the ‘Pevsners’ of sculpture, but with longer texts; the 22nd volume, on Kensington and Chelsea, came out last year. Regrettably, I refer to the PMSA in the past tense; due to mismanaged leadership, it withered and died in the early months of 2020, with uncannily ironic timing. Never was an organisation like this so needed to instil an informed calm in that inflammatory moment in history, when everyone was caught unawares. In summer 2020, the Public Statues and Sculpture Association (PSSA) was hurriedly co-founded by myself, together with the British-based Joanna Barnes and Dr Holly Trusted. Our motto was a phrase that I coined, ‘Retain and explain’, very much an echo of our larger sister organisation, the Church Monuments Society, which admirably performs a parallel role in the ecclesiastical context. Their motto is ‘Don’t expunge, explain!’ On very limited means we’ve published three books, the sell-out Toppling Statues, which derived from a hugely successful webinar we held in late 2020, the Kensington and Chelsea volume, and the very recent Discovering Women Sculptors.


Naively, in 2020 I had expected my experience in the field and indeed that of the PSSA, to be valued, and hoped we would be bigger players in the politics of statuary than has turned out. How come? Questions of identity aside, (being western, white, middle-class, and ageing hasn’t helped), this is best answered by W.B. Yeats: ‘Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; / Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, / The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere / The ceremony of innocence is drowned; / The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity.’ We certainly have conviction, but it is drowned out. Although I was at the other end of the world, I felt an almost enraged impotence at the toppling of Edward Colston’s statue in Bristol, which rapidly followed on the death of George Floyd, the advent of Black Lives Matter and statue toppling in the US. The acquittal of the Colston Four impelled me to write a piece for History Reclaimed, ‘Twelve things that you always wanted to know about the Colston Statue that the Guardian never tells you’. A major one was that its uprooting represented a clear instance of ‘copycat activism’ bordering on hysteria, but it also provided the opportunity to briefly examine some of the arguments of the topplers, with which we have to constantly contend. Many of them have been articulated, and indeed repeated, by Professor David Olusoga, who ­– again naively – one wishes was a receptive historian constructively debating in the field, rather than an adversary. In numerous articles, television programmes and most recently on Radio Four’s ‘Today’ last month, he repeats the same points, which will be considered here, as he is such a formidable figure in the whole issue.


Firstly, Olusoga denies that statues are history, or that we can learn history from them. This is immediately nullified by what he states in the next breath – these statues were often politically opposed at the time of their unveiling. This dismissal is breathtaking, particularly coming from a historian himself. He is evidently ignorant of Asa Briggs, author of Victorian Things, and perhaps still more egregiously, Raphael Samuel, the Marxist champion of bottom-up history and material culture. Surely the latter is the stuff of history: housewives’ shopping lists, cricket blazers, condoms, illuminated manuscripts and their marginalia: what’s the intellectual justification for making statues an exception? Or is it, as one suspects, a strong dislike of the version of history that they purport to represent? But isn’t that now part of history too? It’s like a repeated mantra, somehow thinking that each time you say it, it’s truer. For the people of Christchurch in 1867, the newly unveiled statue of their provincial founder, John Robert Godley, by the Pre-Raphaelite sculptor Thomas Woolner, was a history lesson to them, their children and their children’s children, a permanent, admonitory reminder of his vision and their origins. It may not be a history that Olusoga or many of the rest of us today can credibly espouse, as most of us have outgrown Arthur Mee and indeed R.J. Unstead. But it is profoundly reflective of who people at the time celebrated and immortalised as makers of history and how they did so. The history of this is history. Were a statue’s patrons the ruling local elite or workmen contributing their pennies towards, say, Sir Robert Peel? In turn, a statue of a historical figure – Oliver Cromwell in Huntingdon or Robert Burns in New York, to take two examples among thousands erected in the half century of world ‘statuemania’ – provides insight into who and what constituted history for their public.


A second Olusoga argument which requires more attention is his dismissal of the artistic quality of 19th and early 20th century statuary. On this, he is as airily contemptuous as any Bloomsbury Group figure a century ago; I’ve called this the Englishness of damning English art. It reached a high point recently in the ridiculous ridiculing of Edward Burne-Jones by Guardian art critic Jonathan Jones. I’ll focus more on the latter as he clearly knows more about this subject than Olusoga. For Jones, the Edward Colston statue and presumably its attractive Art Nouveau pedestal ‘typifies the artistically unimaginative genre of statuary favoured in Britain in the age of empire… it’s absurd to pretend Colston or Rhodes are much-loved heritage heroes or that their statues are major works of art’. While not necessarily the greatest exemplars, both statues constitute part of a wider fabric of artistic heritage: disrespect one or two of them and many more are potentially threatened.


Furthermore, before the modernism beloved by Jones did so much to de-skill art, if a sculptor underwent the standard training via a senior practitioner’s studio, art school or a large firm like Farmer & Brindley or Harry Hems, their work attained a remarkably proficient technical level, largely overlooked today. Any commitment – or hostility – to imperialism on the sculptors’ part was irrelevant: they were sculptors, not political commentators. Interestingly, the politics of Hamo Thornycroft, sculptor of monuments to the imperial icon General Gordon in London and Melbourne – and later the vast Curzon Memorial in Calcutta – were left-liberal and highly sympathetic to trades unions. What mattered far more than politics was, literally, whether you could hack it, and remarkably few of the myriad Victorian and Edwardian public monuments could be described as technically inept. This observation is highly relevant given the aforementioned hostility to the art of this period expressed by Olusoga and fellow ‘topplers’ in the current debate. Their ignorance often contrasts with their wider historical knowledge and still more their command of post-colonial theory. They should realise that what they are addressing is not some kind of disembodied political text, but finely crafted marble and bronze. I hope all this shows how fascinating art history is, how useful it is in the context of our theme, and how some of the political points made in ignorance of it topple under scrutiny. The struggle to convince anyone here surely reflects a generally degraded public capacity to appreciate anything in terms of visual merit, perhaps even a fear of this. When Tate Britain labels forever bang on about politics and say nothing,  repeat nothing, about colour, brushwork, structure, composition, figure and ground, what can we expect?


A third argument Olusoga makes is that statues were often criticised and not popularly endorsed at the time of their unveiling; from the outset their story was contested. This is sometimes true, but is more the exception than the rule. A.C. Swinburne snorting at yet another Prince Albert memorial is one example (‘a genuine Priapic erection like a small obelisk’), and the controversy over ‘Bomber’ Harris is another. A less familiar but fascinating one relates to the half-length Queen Victoria sculpture presented to Te Arawa Maori, near Rotorua, to fulfil a promise made to them by Victoria’s son, Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh, to honour their role as kupapa (allies) of the colonial forces in the New Zealand Wars. Not only does this show a fascinating instance of indigenous loyalty, which Professor Maja Jasanoff in her nicer, pre-woke days admired in my case study, but at the unveiling ceremony, the Arawa leader, Wiremu Maihi Te Rangikaheke, made an impassioned speech. He praised his Queen but then damned ‘two monsters devouring the district, the private lands companies and the Native Land Purchase department’ for their exploitation of Maori and removal of their land. This is part of the complicated historical texture of this fascinating sculpture, showing that it was no mere gratification of indigenous false consciousness.


Should contentious statues be relocated in museums, as Olusoga and even moderates in the current debate sometimes advocate? He claims, surely simplistically, that ‘a museum is where we remember history properly’. But the answer is mostly no, for several reasons. The banal basics militate against it: museums worldwide are critically short of storage space, and a statue, particularly a bulky equestrian one or a sculpture placed on a tall pedestal, would exasperate any reasonable collection manager. Secondly, it is not as if a statue’s offensiveness will suddenly be dispelled by its more prominent location and visibility within a museum. The arguments against it won’t miraculously cease – or still more miraculously, become more intelligent, though one lives in hope. Nor are all constituencies ever likely to be satisfied by a single interpretative label, especially when the statue carries political baggage,  a point I’ll return to at the end. Thirdly, having a Victorian worthy or three in the atrium would almost certainly clash aesthetically with any desired installation of art after c. 1920 in such a space, which with the emphasis on modern and contemporary art has effectively become the norm. Fourthly, which explains why any proposed relocation of a statue of the magnitude of the Sydney statue of Captain Cook by Thomas Woolner to a museum is so inappropriate, the following rhetorical question applies: how can justice possibly be done to its modelling, the play of light on it, the viewing angles, the surrounding circulation space – in short just about every serious question applicable to the successful installation of a colossal four metre high structure on a seven metre columnar base? The figure would absurdly dwarf almost any prospective new setting, whereas its original outdoor location in Hyde Park, carefully envisaged by Woolner and intended to be there for all time, is ironically too commandingly successful and dramatic to please its strident critics today. Cook thus pays the price in today’s fraught political climate. A rare instance where a statue probably should go to a museum is when its fabric is threatened by repeated vandal attacks. Marble is especially vulnerable. This is why, with regret, I favour moving Francis Williamson’s statue of colonial governor and premier, Sir George Grey, from Albert Park to Auckland Museum. Its sensational decapitation by a Maori activist group in 1987 long preceded today’s statue wars and though it was successfully replaced, vandalism has continued. The fact that Maori originally wished to subscribe for their own statue of Grey, and that the realised one features on its pedestal a waiata or poetic lament to him in te reo Maori composed by fellow politician Timi Kara, was obviously lost on the assailants.


Enough of Professor Olusoga! Finally, I’ll discuss some of the pitfalls of ‘retain and explain’. As you know, the phrase has become the official British government policy and is articulated in the recently-published Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Guidance for custodians on how to deal with commemorative heritage assets that have become contested. It’s an eminently sensible document which favours a case-by-case approach, with examples provided by Historic England, encouraging contextualisation, reasoned argument and consultation with stakeholders. It would make the removal of church monuments very difficult, except in the most extreme cases. I hope it will lead to far more extensive retention and explanation: for all the talk, hand-wringing and culture warring, too little of it has yet been accomplished and borne fruit satisfactorily. An exception is Westminster Abbey, where no monuments have been removed and whose website contains much useful information on the lives of those commemorated. The current Oriel College, Oxford labelling of Cecil Rhodes is inadequate, but at least it’s an attempt, and HR has published an alternative, far meatier text.


I’ll dwell a little longer on Rhodes in this context. The retention of his statue is vital for an art historical reason that is, as ever, overlooked by the Rhodes Must Fall campaigners, and even perhaps by Rhodes’s political apologists. Basil Champneys’ magnificent building for Oriel was erected near the turn of the century when neo-Baroque or here collegiate neo-Jacobean were in their pomp architecturally, and the remarkable so-called New Sculpture movement – think Eros and Peter Pan – was likewise at its peak. It represented an artistic symbiosis between architect and sculptor, Henry Pegram, with the Rhodes Building expressly designed by Champneys to accommodate sculpture from the outset, and integral to it. The art historian Susan Beattie likened this metaphorically to a Renaissance casket as the architecture, and its intricate, encrusted, beautifully worked jewels as the sculpture. The debate had its funnier side when the sculptor Sir Antony Gormley solemnly advocated turning Rhodes around 180 degrees. Aside from an artist disrespecting earlier artists, which sadly happens too often, this demanded mischievous retaliation. Perhaps we should do a Georg Baselitz and turn Gormley’s signature men upside-down!

Oriel has, I believe, been pretty responsible under tremendous pressure, and has sought the advice of the PSSA. The college’s commendable sounding measures to fundraise scholarships for students from Southern Africa, institute a prize for work on a Rhodes related theme, develop further BME outreach and more has evidently been ignored by Rhodes Must Fall, who are fixated on the sculpture. The commissioned report on the statue itself has been misrepresented in turn. In correspondence with Dr Simukai Chigudu, who published an impassioned article on the theme, I informed him of a fundamental error. The Guardian specifically stated that the report had recommended Rhodes’s removal, but reading it inside out revealed no evidence whatsoever for this. A press statement did however say that when individually canvassed for their opinions, go or stay, a majority of commission members did favour Rhodes’s removal. But they stopped well short of advocating his removal in the report, no doubt pragmatically anticipating the huge problems that removing a listed statue within a listed building would bring. Simukai was surprised, but we went on to agree that we were both passionate explainers, though not in his case a retainer.

To conclude on a lively, contentious note. Should a culture war be waged on behalf of public statuary and church monuments? In HR’s latest newsletter, Dominic Sandbrook would encourage this: ‘Whatever your views about the individual engagements, culture wars aren’t a distraction from the substance of politics. They are the substance of politics, and always have been. They cut to the heart of real, living disagreements about history, identity, nationhood and belonging.’ My caveat is this: we must pick our battles. When Gary Younge wrote ‘Every single statue should come down’, presumably Nelson Mandela included, silent scorn was in order. But if there’s any danger of the fabric of our heritage being toppled or removed, whether in Britain, New Zealand or wherever, then it’s our duty to engage – and prevent it!

About the author

Mark Stocker

Mark Stocker

Mark Stocker, FSA, is former Curator, Historical International Art, at the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa. He has taught at the universities of Canterbury and Otago. His publications include numerous contributions to The Burlington Magazine and When Britain Went Decimal: The Coinage of 1971 (2021).