Books furnish a room, but statues furnish a city. What would London be without Eros, Nelson or (for my money) Boadicea galloping to confront the Roman invaders, at the northern end of Westminster bridge? If Euro-sceptics need a second patroness apart from Lady Thatcher, here she is.
I always find pleasure in statues, when I walk around a city. Richard Oastler, for example, stands doggedly in central Bradford, covered in pigeon muck, hoping against hope that pupils pursuing the national curriculum will remember his part in getting child labour abolished in the textile mills. Oastler (1789-1861) was a Tory radical, hostile to “non-conformist cant” and to philanthropists whose emotions-like those of many contemporary leader writers and television programme makers-were only stirred by what was going wrong overseas. “The very streets,” he wrote, “which receive the droppings of the ‘Anti-Slavery Society’ are every morning wet by the tears of innocent victims at the accursed shrine of avarice”. You don’t get writing like that in today’s Bradford Telegraph & Argus.
My passion for statues began, I think, with childhood visits to Blackpool. Everything in Blackpool is provisional, ready to be sacrificed to the next swing in public taste. This is why it flourishes like willow herb, to the horror of the fastidious. It doesn’t go in for public statues: too permanent. But the Blackpool branch of Madame Tussaud’s used to have a special display of them in its basement.
This was because they were scandalous. When no one else would buy them, Tussaud’s bought some of Jacob Epstein’s most gargantuan creations. After gawping at the usual waxworks, you went down to see these extraordinary images. They were most notable, to a child’s eye, for their huge breasts and even huger penises. Part of Epstein’s strength as a sculptor was his wonderful vulgarity. These Tussaud’s visits were an early lesson that private art is not at all the same thing as public art.
Statues, on their public plinths, are a special form of publicity. They reinforce what sort of nation we think we are. The lack of any present consensus about this in the UK is one reason why the Royal Society of Arts is having such a terrible time trying to follow through its bright notion of filling the long-empty plinth in Trafalgar Square. Who can stand next to these kings, admirals and colonial generals nowadays? Another reason is the lack…