The good, the trad, the ugly; Assessment of modern monument building

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Our iconoclastic age distrusts the enduring monument, preferring a brief stay in the top 50 or an appearance in the gossip columns. Self-confident and materialistic Victorians, by contrast, populated the country with bronze or marble tributes to the builders and managers of empire, to politicians, physicians and engineers. Either we have fewer great men or we are just less inclined to honor them.

London is inevitably the monumental as well as the political capital and the post-war monuments of London are a pitiful sight. Winston Churchill (as portrayed by Ivor Roberts Jones) wobbles on his plinth, wearing what might be a badly creased mackintosh and looking dyspeptic rather than defiant. Donald Potter’s hugely misshapen statue of Lord Baden-Powell (1961) makes the founder of scouting a gaga blot on what was already an undistinguished South Kensington street corner.

Most puzzling of all must be the Greater London Council’s celebration of its own 25th birthday (and the 95th anniversary of the founding of the London County Council) last year: a King Kong-sized pounds 250,000 steel and marine plywood birthday cake on the South Bank. Permission to build this particular eyesore was obligingly given by the London Borough of Lambeth, but just try building one in your garden. Mercifully the structure will be pulled down in October although plans are afoot to move it to another site.

Unpleasant as the GLC cake may be, at least it raises the most important question of monument building: why? Monuments are expensive and in most cases, indeed almost by definition, long lasting, so who or what are they supposed to honor and in what fashion?

The British are not especially keen on abstract ideas or the glorification of causes. Search far and wide and you will not find a monument to the triumph of sanitary engineering or the repeal of the Corn Laws. Consider the British reputation for restraint by comparing two monuments to the victory over Napoleon: the low-key and unfinished Scottish parthenon on Carlton Hill, Edinburgh, with the bombastic and foolish Volkerschlachtsdenkmal in Leipzig. Unlike the continentals we are no braggarts.

Nor are we too keen to make a fuss over our ‘great men’. Sarah, first duchess Marlborough, so overstepped the mark financially when Blenheim (not a house, but a monument to the first duke) was built that the affair ended in national disenchantment with the Marlborough legend.

Still, we must build not just to honor those who are greater than us but also more prosaically pour encourager les autres and decorate our parks and pavements.

Royal statues will always be built; political ones may fade from fashion. We see far too much of our party bosses on the screen and in the press to crave their likenesses after they’ve dropped off the perch. Generals and admirals are almost out as well – our ‘peaceful’ world produces few martial heroes.

The age of the pop star statue threatens to arrive but thankfully hasn’t. I have seen the Elvis Presley statue in Memphis and can only adapt Wren’s epitaph: if you seek his monument you’re better off listening. The fame of many pop stars is so fleeting that a monument couldn’t be built before they became just another teenybopper memory.

Monument spotters need little equipment other than good eyesight and a pair of comfortable shoes. A notebook is handy as one often comes across effigies of the once or locally distinguished, but now obscure. All monuments can be categorized as heroic (Lady Scott’s portrait of her husband, the polar explorer Robert Falcon Scott), mundane (the Churchill statue), or frankly incomprehensible (Clarion in Fulham). Violent disagreements are part of this otherwise gentle pastime.

The Czech-born sculptor Franta Belski portrayed the last great proconsul in a suitably dramatic and imperious pose: on the bridge, as it were, with binoculars ready to scan the horizon. Even in a neighborhood experiencing a population explosion of heroic statuary – Horse Guards is the home of Kitchener, Roberts, Wolseley and the moving Guards Division Memorial – Mountbatten’s large and vigorous effigy dominates the scene. Men of action are notoriously difficult to sculpt, but this splendid example of the heroic style thankfully stops one step short of melodrama. There is just the hint of pent-up energy.

Many similar greats have been unfortunately stuck in a forward thrust pose in which the statue seems ready to stride off the podium. Even the usually highly accomplished Sir Jacob Epstein had problems with his Jan Smuts statue in Parliament Square: the South African Prime Minister looks more like an advertisement for the Ramblers’ Association than a pillar of the Commonwealth.

The statue of Captain Cook by Sir Thomas Brock, in the Mall, has problems too: the knee-thrust-forward-by-a-coil-of-rope pose, meant to evoke nautical energy and curiosity, merely makes the great navigator look jolly silly. Portraiture of ‘great men’ like Mountbatten is difficult: admiration easily leads to idolatry and sycophantism – witness the number of flattering but implausible portraits of Prince Albert.

Then there is the problem of military tailoring. Uniforms and medals require proficient modelling, otherwise they look lifeless. Hugo Daini’s Belgrave Square statue of Simon Bolivar makes the liberator of South America look like a tailor’s dummy. The Horse Guards Mountbatten contrives to be both heroic and well dressed. The price of such glory, is alas, not cheap – this 1983 statue cost pounds 100,000.

Heroes and statesmen like Mountbatten will always be immortalized, but society has more difficulty in judging which of the less magisterial is worth a statue. Charlie Chaplin is one of the indisputable populist idols of the century; his rise from impoverished obscurity to international eminence through the cinema is almost a cliche. The tacky show biz center of Leicester Square seemed a fitting place for Chaplin’s statue as the site of almost the last ‘picture palaces’ in Britain, but even in the heart of the entertainment district tributes to actors are rare: Sir Henry Irving is around the corner and that’s it. (In the rest of London there is only a medallion of Garrick and a statue of Sarah Siddons).

The artist John Doubleday has sadly opted for cheap nostalgia in his Chaplin effigy. By choosing the well-known image of ‘the little tramp’ he has aimed at the heartstrings rather than the eye to produce a disgraceful caricature which mimes Chaplin without even hinting at his abilities. The exaggerated animation of the figure, which may well be a laudable attempt to deflate the pomposity of much monumental statuary, only increases the feeling that this a character strayed from a comic strip. The trousers will be particularly puzzling to future generations. This is a wasted opportunity to improve the character of even a small part of Leicester Square and an example of mundane sculpture at its most execrable.

Our great national beano, the Silver Jubilee of 1977, produced innumerable mugs, plates, tea towels, T-shirts, tree planting and general urban improvements, but few simple monuments to commemorate the happy event. One of the great surprises is in Canterbury – a city more widely known for medieval beauty than progressive taste. A grim modern piazza in the central shopping precinct is the home of this small, but in its own way rather shocking, tribute to the reign of Her Majesty. It looks, one must say, like a giant corkscrew or perhaps a bit of jetsam from Star Trek but, unconventional as it may be, this monument is at least brave and good humored.

Richard Jones, then a student at the local art college, designed this form (reminiscent of the work of Richard Smith, the American sculptor) based on the Roman numerals XXV (or 25). It is, I suppose, vandal-proof, uncongenial to roosting pigeons and rather pioneering as a witty and modest celebration of a great royal occasion.

Statues of reigning monarchs are no longer fashionable – Edward VII was the last monarch to be so honored in his lifetime – perhaps television and the pictorial press have made them necessary. But the desire to celebrate events of the reign must still remain: perhaps this original but self-effacing work will encourage other unconventional monuments.

It is a commendable policy for building developers to devote a certain amount of space or money to provide a work of art to go along with new development. The practice is more popular in the US than Britain. Indeed, the Americans and French are far more likely to adorn their streets and public areas with works of art than the British. The giant, if puzzling, Picasso equestrian sculpture in front of the Chicago City Hall is a fine example, as is the delightful fountain by Nikki de Saint Phalle and Jacques Tinguely next to the Centre Pompidou in Paris. Distressing as it may be, Clarion is at least a rare public example in Britain of art for art’s sake. Standing in a highly unattractive west London intersection (Fulham Broadway) it was commissioned to go with an uninspired but fortunately unobtrusive low-built brick office block. Phillip King’s work is vaguely reminiscent of some of the large-scale and aggressively symbolic sculpture much loved by the suprematist and constructivist artists of post- revolutionary Russia. It is unfortunately cramped by its traffic-clogged site.

Although it punctuates its drab neighborhood with color and drama, it is disastrously out of scale and sympathy with its surroundings. Clarion may puzzle older working-class residents of Fulham, but it amuses the philistine young Sloane Rangers who cycle past it every morning on their way to work from newly gentrified Parson’s Green.

While the Chaplin statue takes a gutter approach to popular culture, the Yellow Submarine honoring the Beatles is altogether more humorous and intelligently populist. Indeed it shows a real understanding of youth-culture irreverence and the pyschedelic looniness which marked the Sergeant Pepper era.

That said, it may not be to everyone’s taste. It was part of a greater symbolic scheme known as the Beatles Maze, designed by Adrian Fisher, Randall Coate and Graham Burgess for the 1984 International Garden Festival in Liverpool. Visitors to this Beatles garden reached the submarine by following a brick-path maze through a pool in the shape of the Beatles’ apple. The submarine itself derives from one of the Beatles’ most humorous songs (‘We All Live In A Yellow Submarine’) – a good choice of image which prevents the whole tribute from becoming fulsome.

The design is reminiscent of the cartoon yellow submarine, but significantly different as the hull had to be designed to traffic-flow patterns, with visitors passing through and climbing a spiral staircase to reach the conning tower which also provided an overview of the symbolic maze. The 51 ft long, 18 ton submarine was built by apprentices at the Cammell Laird shipyard in Birkenhead.

The only disappointment in the whole scheme was a realistic statue of the late John Lennon making a peace sign, a sad shattering of the dreamy atmosphere even though a well-meant and worthy tribute. Unfortunately, at the end of the festival the garden was dismantled and the much-visited submarine now lies in no man’s land awaiting a new home.

The growing trend of pop star monumentalization has produced no other monument as imaginative and delightful as this one.

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