Much Ado About Nothing

This essay originally appeared in ART PAPERS January/February 2003. It was reprinted in Fall/Winter 2020 “Monumental Interventions,” an issue that considered the history of artist interventions into the language, form, and function of public monuments. 


Stand in front of Admiralty Arch, with Buckingham Palace behind you, and to your left you will spy a granite plinth on the northwest corner of London’s Trafalgar Square. It comes as part of a set of four that frames the 165-foot-tall column on which British naval hero Lord Admiral Nelson stands. To the south of the Square, heading toward the Houses of Commons, two plinths are dedicated to Major General Sir Henry Havelock and General Sir Charles Napier; to the northeast, in the direction of Covent Garden, stands George IV. It’s a rum trio: Havelock distinguished himself during what is now known as the Indian Mutiny of 1857, when the uprising of thousands of Indians in the former Empire ended in slaughter; Napier served the Empire, crushing a rebellion in Ireland and conquering Sind in present-day Pakistan; and George IV was an alcoholic, lunatic, womanizer and debtor.

Yet the fourth plinth, which has always been empty, has provoked the most controversy. In the past year alone, it has generated proposals to place statues of everyone from Benny Hill to the late Queen Mother, produced questions in the House of Commons and lead stories in national newspapers, and made me the focus of a tabloid campaign. Naked as the day it was erected, this small structure has prompted more debate about public art than anything else in the United Kingdom. In a world where the cult of celebrity makes people famous for being famous and television programs like Seinfeld become popular because they are about nothing, here is a curious twist—a plinth that has become renowned for what it does not have on it.

So, while the three occupied plinths say a great deal about how Britain regarded its past, response to the vacant one tells us not only how much has changed but how much has remained the same. It provides a snapshot not only of what Britons feel about public art but of how they relate to race, sex, class, culture, royalty, celebrity and history.

Let me start at the beginning. Back in the early nineteenth century, in a Britain emboldened by Napoleon’s defeat, came popular demand for a national memorial to Admiral Horatio Nelson. In 1830, Trafalgar Square was named after the famous battle in 1805 at which Nelson lost his life. Designed first by William Wilkins and from 1839 by Sir Charles Barry as part of a grand scheme of metropolitan improvements, Barry started with the column that would dominate the layout. Not long after came the first two plinths, to the south of Havelock and Napier, flanked by lions. Two larger plinths to the north were later erected for equestrian pieces, although whom they were intended for has never been clear. The statue of George IV was supposed to be placed there temporarily—that was in 1844. By the time Barry got around to thinking about the fourth plinth he was over budget and out of money.

Since then the question of who and, in latter times, what might occupy the fourth plinth has rumbled on, exploding at certain moments into feverish acrimony as it did last year, and almost always reflecting the prejudices, concerns and priorities of the era. Throughout the last century proposals have included empire builder Cecil Rhodes, war hero Winston Churchill, and railway men, merchant seafarers and miners representing the “new socialist democracy” that typified Britain, to one member of Parliament at least, after the Second World War. Meantime the nature of the square, not to mention the city and nation in which it found itself, had changed. Britain is no longer a colonial power, ruling the waves no longer means global dominance, and London is an ethnically and racially diverse international city. The square originally lauded Britain’s longing to comb the world in search of new markets, land and labor. Those ties now inform its present. One third of Londoners come from the former colonies in Africa, the Caribbean, the Indian subcontinent or elsewhere in Asia. The empire has struck back.

Trafalgar Square’s place in those changes has inevitably transformed. Throughout the twentieth century it was a focus for popular protest. Historically, Trafalgar Square has a mixed legacy, says professor Linda Colley, the Leverhulme research professor of history at the London School of Economics and Political Science: “At one level, it is a set of monuments to war, masculine heroism, empire and individual achievement—[but it] has been used over the years by a broad variety of lobbies and causes. Superficially a conformist, imperial space, it has also attracted mass rallies for many dissident causes, for example the Suffragettes and the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament.” The square also hosts the traditional New Year’s Eve celebrations and is the site for a Christmas tree donated annually by the Norwegian government since 1947 as a symbol of gratitude for Britain’s assistance to Norway during the Second World War. If Barry were alive today, it is difficult to imagine that his choice for an appropriate piece of artwork for the plinth would be the same as it was one hundred and fifty years ago. In a nation without a written constitution and that prides itself on muddling through, this curious situation of a plinth in the center of the capital left vacant by default rather than by design could continue for longer than was really tenable. But as the twentieth century drew to a close, the then secretary of state for culture, media and sport, Chris Smith, decided it was time to resolve, or at least coherently address, the matter. To that end in April 1999 he asked author and playwright Sir John Mortimer to chair an advisory group on the future of the vacant plinth.

However, even as Mortimer set to work, events were already shaping the plinth’s future. In 1994 the then deputy chair of the Royal Society of Arts, Prue Leith, proposed finding a permanent occupant for the plinth. “Trafalgar Square is so famous that no one can agree on what is appropriate,” she said. Her attempt to seek consensus, through open public consultation, she described as “dispiriting.” “The respondents came up mostly with popular heroes of the hour, like Nick Leeson [the rogue trader whose dodgy deals destroyed one of Britain’s oldest banks] or Gazza [Paul Gascoigne, an alcoholic footballer who the nation took to its heart briefly in the mid-nineties].” Leith found little consensus about depicting people, but much more agreement when the discussion included other forms of art. “The panel was unanimously enthusiastic about only one suggestion,” she recalls. “To use the plinth for contemporary sculpture.”

Initially the aim was to stimulate public interest in contemporary art and promote debate about the long-term future of the plinth through temporary works. And so it was, with permission from the government under the statues act, that on July 21, 1999, Mark Wallinger’s life-sized figure of Christ, titled Ecce Homo, was unveiled on the plinth. “It had taken five years to get there,” said Leith. “Pretty unimpressive when you consider the fifty-three monumental sculptures the French had erected down the Champs-Elysees from the Arc de Triomphe to the Place de la Concorde in a matter of months—But this is England. We do it the hard way.”

After Ecce Homo came Bill Woodrow’s Regardless of History in 2000 and Rachel Whiteread’s Monument in 2001. The RSA’s website canvassed opinion on the project with intriguing results: 46.3% of respondents said they would like to keep the empty plinth as a temporary exhibition space. “No other suggestion,” said Leith “has come anywhere near it for consensus.” Mortimer and his commission began their deliberations against this backdrop of experimentation, calling on academics, politicians, journalists and dignitaries to give their views on the plinth’s future.

The submissions provide a snapshot of the full range of British views on art’s relationship to society and history’s relationship to culture. Brian Sewell, a “witness” to Mortimer’s group and the art critic of London’s daily paper, the Evening Standard, said he believed that “the plinth should be used to represent ancient virtue and noble sacrifice.” Simon Jenkins, the former editor of the Times newspaper, said that the square spoke to him of “statehood” and he “did not think it was a place for ‘culture.’” And Sandy Nairne, a director of the Tate, one of London’s premier art galleries, supported the existing RSA project. “The aim,” he told the Mortimer commission, “should be to engage the interest of first-class artists and to promote debate about the appropriateness of contemporary and conceptual works for the plinth.” One person suggested removing all the other statues in the square and starting again since nobody knew who they were; another recommended leaving the fourth plinth empty as a memorial to “unknown heroes.”

A lone sculpture of a single man painted white standing atop a large column and standing faced to the right. His hands are behind his back. The man wears only a white cloth around his pelvis, and a hair adornment. Behind him are clouded skies.

Mark Wallinger, Ecce Homo, 1999, white marbleized resin, gold leaf, barbed wire, lifesize [photo copyright the artist, courtesy of Anthony Reynolds Gallery, London]

A transparent sculpture of a two-leveled wardrobe atop a stone column. It looks like a drawer or dresser from the behind, with the bottom half being a smaller portion. Around the sculpture is an outdoor atrium, a walkway and trees behind it, with stairs leading up to it.

Rachel Whiteread, Monument, 2001, resin and granite, 29 × 17× 8 feet [photo courtesy of Luhring Augustine Gallery]

On that level the plinth became a focus for the two strands of opinion that have been competing for cultural hegemony in Britain for some time now. The traditionalists, who wish to preserve the notion of what Britain was, talk in terms of heritage, which they purport to be fixed, universal and cohesive. By contrast, the modernizers feel the country is hidebound by the dead weight of its history, and they talk in terms of culture, which they see as fluid, varied and disparate.

Through these rather limiting but nonetheless dominant filters came the important and legitimate concerns of those who feel that significant chapters in British history have been mislaid, lost or forgotten. Primary among them, heard the Mortimer committee, was the demand for a memorial to women who served at home and abroad during the war. Others called for a statue to commemorate the abolition of slavery. Other suggestions to Mortimer ranged from radical Thomas Paine and Indian leader Mahatma Gandhi to the queen (after her death) and Lady Diana, princess of Wales. Mortimer’s committee decided that the RSA had in fact found the most satisfactory formula. “We have come to the unanimous decision that there should be a rotating exhibition of modern sculpture on the plinth,” it said. “A small committee should commission artists of international as well as British talent and reputation. Regular changes would ensure a continuing interest, excitement and, we hope, controversy, which will greatly enhance the liveliness of the square.”

For 2002 I chaired that committee, which included a newscaster, an architect and several leading art world figures. And during that time, there was plenty of controversy. During the first few months everything was quite low-key. Responsibility for the square had passed from central government to Kenneth Livingstone. Livingstone was the newly elected mayor of London and a left-wing populist who, after the Labour Party failed to select him as its mayoral candidate, ran as an independent and beat the governing party into third place. He charged our group to advise him on what to put on the plinth, how and when.

For a few months we concentrated on how we would select pieces and under what time scale within the recommendations of the Mortimer report. Meeting roughly every six weeks, we focused on how to ensure the broadest possible public participation in the process and popular ownership of whatever came out of it. We decided that once we had a short list, we should commission maquettes and then invite the public to vote on them by post, email and at tents erected in the square. However, unlike the reality TV show Big Brother, the vote would not be binding. Rather, it would indicate public preference, which we would take into account, and enable the public to engage directly in the selection.

Then tragedy struck. The queen mother, age 101, died—something that, given her advanced years, was not altogether unexpected. What was a shock was that Simon Hughes, an MP rumored to be eager to stand for London Mayor in the next elections, went on radio suggesting that her likeness be placed on the plinth. Some sections of the media picked it up immediately. The Evening Standard rejected the idea, stating it would be far better to place her statue in London’s East End, which she is said to have toured after it was bombed during the Blitz. However, the suggestion sent its national sister paper, the Daily Mail (which supported the British Fascist movement during the thirties) into a frenzy.

Never mind that the Mortimer committee had already decided how the plinth should be filled. Never mind that it was an equestrian statue and that the queen mother will not be remembered for riding horses. Never mind that no one from the royal family or any elected official had approached us—the MP in question had mentioned it on radio, but he had not mentioned it to the mayor or us. The Mail felt a campaign coming on and could not resist the target of a left-wing mayor who had selected me—a Black, left-wing columnist for Britain’s leading liberal newspaper, the Guardian—to chair his advisor group.

The games began. The day after the MP’s pronouncement came the front-page headline “Carve her name with pride—Join our campaign for a statue of the Queen Mother to be erected in Trafalgar Square (whatever the panjandrums of political correctness say!)” Inside, the main editorial asked whether our committee “would really respond to the national mood and agree a memorial in Trafalgar Square.”

The next day came a double-page spread titled “Are they taking the plinth?” alongside excerpts of articles I had written several years ago, taken out of context, under the headline “The Thoughts of Chairman Gary.” Once again the editorial writers were upon us asking, “What do these commissars of political correctness have in common with the countless thousands who queued for hours to file past [the queen mother’s] catafalque? The saga of the empty plinth is another example of the yawning gap between the metropolitan elite hijacking this country and the majority of ordinary people who simply want to reclaim Britain as their own.”

The Mail’s quotes were truer than they dared imagine. They called on people to write in, but nobody did. No one was interested in having the queen mother in Trafalgar Square. The campaign died a sad and pathetic death. If there was a gap between anyone and the ordinary people of the country, then the Daily Mail was on the wrong side of it.

But one thing we were thankful for was that they had raised awareness of the plinth, which, after Rachel Whiteread’s piece was removed, has remained vacant while the Square is refurbished.

The trouble is they had once again lowered the standard of any possible debate. We were back to statues—a crutch for faulty memories, rather than a stimulant for the eye. The fact that almost nobody could name the occupants of the other three plinths should have been a warning. But the demands—some laudable, others laughable—just kept coming: David Beckham (soccer player), Bill Morris (trade union leader), Mary Seacole (a Jamaican-born nurse who distinguished herself during the Crimean war). To each one came the questions why a statue and why Trafalgar Square undermines the proposal.

So long as the plinth remains either empty or rotating, the personalities suggested will change while basic questions of how you remember the dead and honor the past will remain. But, thankfully, it will be for someone else to deal with. I have resigned as chairman to take up the post of correspondent for the Guardian in New York, another great city currently engaged in a major debate about public art as it seeks to commemorate its dead with dignity in a space that was never intended to be empty.