Standing up to scrutiny?

Standing up to scrutiny?

Rachel Bates explores the history and politics of 19th century statues

Dr Rachel Bates, Archivist, researcher and freelance writer

Dr Rachel Bates

Archivist, researcher and freelance writer

This year’s Black Lives Matter movement rightly questioned the place of certain Victorian statues in today’s society, and, in the case of slave trader Edward Colston, cast that place aside altogether. An empty plinth is a powerful statement of public feeling, upending vested views of greatness. But what statues courted comment and controversy in the Victorian era?

Statues and monuments appeared at pace in the 19th century, bolstered by the state’s interest in commemorating wartime heroes and politicians, Queen Victoria and Prince Albert’s interest in sculpture, and civic investment in towns, cities and formal parks. The market for statues was met by greater manufacturing means as the century progressed. In the mid-19th century, iron foundries began to produce bronze statues. From the 1870s, dedicated bronze statue foundries, such as Cox and Sons of Thames Ditton, were established.

uke of Wellington positioned on top of Wellington Arch, 1850s
Early photograph of Matthew Wyatt’s statue of the Duke of Wellington positioned on top of Wellington Arch, 1850s

A striking feature of statue-building in the Victorian era is the rapidity with which monuments appeared to individuals in their lifetime and following their death. The 1854 Public Statues (Metropolis) Act was introduced to control the burgeoning numbers of statues appearing in London, requiring the consent of the then Commissioner of Works for their installation or removal.

Cox & Sons’ Thames and Ditton bronze foundry
Sketch showing Cox & Sons’ Thames and Ditton bronze foundry, 1874

Some felt the Act was ineffective. Addressing Parliament in 1868, one MP lamented the lack of system governing statue building, resulting in ill-chosen sites and monstrosities like the equestrian statue of the Duke of Wellington astride Wellington Arch. Queen Victorian, and many others, thought the statue an ‘unsightly load’ and detrimental to the Arch. It was eventually removed and placed in Aldershot in 1883.

The towering column elevating Admiral Horatio Nelson in Trafalgar Square is the height of Victorian hero worship. A vocal observer writing in The Globe in 1874 regarded it a waste of money, the column and a ‘gigantic coil of pigtail’ obscuring a worthy Nelson from view. The writer went further in a gloomy assessment of English sculpture. Instead of statues to poets, philosophers and judges, visitors to London faced ‘third-rate statesmen, unsatisfactory monarchs and petty philanthropists’.

William Thornycroft’s 1891 statue of John Bright
William Thornycroft’s 1891 statue of John Bright the orator stands proudly in Broadfield Park, Rochdale Rachel R Bates

By far the most popular form of public sculpture was the portrait statue, initiated by a subscription committee formed of family and friends of the deceased. Statues of Quaker MP John Bright are typical of the ‘coat and trouser’ look popular in the Victorian era. Bright was a radical and revered as a man of principal, who spoke passionately against war and in favour of free trade and electoral reform. Statues of Bright stand proudly in Manchester, Birmingham and his birthplace, Rochdale. Townsmen in the Midlands and the North invested heavily in statues of their local politicians, inventors and ‘captains of industry’ to promote civic identity.

The removal of Alfred Gilbert’s statue of Bright from Parliament in 1897 shows that national statue schemes were more likely to be contested. After a brief honeymoon period, the statue was criticised for being unlike Bright. MPs lobbied to have it removed weeks after it was installed. Some felt it failed to capture Bright’s force of character and ‘burly’ presence, while one MP commented snootily that the marble figure looked more like ‘a respectable grocer in his Sunday clothes’.

Gilbert’s contentious statue of John Bright
Sketch of Gilbert’s contentious statue of John Bright in the House of Commons, 1896 British Library Board

Gilbert had never met Bright, took a number of years to complete the commission and was not present at the statue’s unveiling in 1896. The statue was sent back to his studio and never replaced, although it was rumoured that the memorial committee had offered to arrange for a replica of the Birmingham statue to stand in its place. It is plausible that Bright and his politics were viewed as too radical for Parliament’s Central Lobby, where statues to aristocrats, such as former Prime Minister Lord Russell, were already in situ.

There are few other examples of statues being evicted in the Victorian era. An 18th century statue of Prince William, Duke of Cumberland, was removed from Cavendish Square in 1868 and melted down without fanfare, though keen observers noted its disappearance. The Duke was a divisive figure, invoking feelings of admiration and disgust for defeating a Jacobite rebellion at the Battle of Cullodon in 1746. By the Victorian era, the nickname ‘Butcher Cumberland’ had stuck, for the ruthlessness with which he quashed the rebellion. An empty plinth stands to this day.

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The Shaftesbury Memorial in Piccadilly, installed in 1893, is one of Alfred Gilbert’s successes and a national monument to a politician that has stood the test of time. It is one of London’s most famous landmarks, gracing the Evening Standard newspaper and many a selfie. The subscription committee opted for a bronze water fountain, crowned by a naked, winged figure depicting the Greek god of requited love, Anteros. The allegorical design, although considered risqué, was a wise choice in view of Gilbert’s own struggles with the Bright commission and a Victorian tendency to judge portrait statues on their realism.

The Memorial’s central location was criticised by Conservative columnists who felt Shaftesbury’s legacy had been inflated by the Subscription Committee and who were sceptical of the Christian charity and socialism the fountain represented. However, mention of Shaftesbury’s successful Ten Hours Act of 1847 at the memorial’s unveiling, which limited the work of women and young people in textile mills to 10 hour days, elicited a loud cheer from onlookers.

The 19th century produced many of the statues we see today, which excited comment on their subject, placement and artistic merits. However, a viewer’s politics and class also played a part in determining whether a statue was regarded fondly, with indifference, or as a sore sight.

Baron Marochetti’s statue of a young Queen Victoria
Baron Marochetti’s idealised 1854 statue of a young Queen Victoria in Glasgow is the first equestrian statue to a woman

Statues of women
Very few 19th-century statues exist of women, with the exception of Queen Victoria. There are approximately 80 statues of Victoria adorning towns and cities across the UK, and just under half of those were completed during her long reign. They cover an eclectic mix of styles, from classical to gothic, and depict the Queen in youth and old age.

Statue building on this scale was a means of unifying people and strengthening royal ties in the provinces. However, by 1901, statue fatigue had set in; one resident in Leamington Spa queried whether another statue of Victoria, costing £2,000, represented good value for money. Instead, a ‘goodly block of almshouses’ was deemed a more appropriate memorial to the late queen, and a less risky venture.

Statue of Sister DoraStatue of Sister Dora relief detail
Statue of Sister Dora, by Francis John Williamson, and an unusual relief detail on it – this depicts dead and dying men, who look to Pattison for help during the aftermath of a furnace explosion Derek Bennett &

A statue of Nurse Dorothy Patterson, or Sister Dora, in Walsall is regarded as the first to be erected to a non-royal woman. Installed in 1886, it shows Patterson in nurses’ cap and uniform, unfurling a bandage. A Yorkshire woman by birth, Patterson was regarded highly by the people of Walsall for her work improving hospital provision in the town. Two of the four reliefs surrounding the base of the statue memorialise her work helping victims of industrial calamities, showing a colliery accident and a foundry explosion.

The statue’s unveiling was accompanied by a day of festivities involving 40,000 people, and it has enjoyed enduring devotion. In 1895, local newspapers noted with disgust ‘wanton’ and ‘malicious’ damage to the statue. Cast originally in marble, the statue and its reliefs were replaced with a bronze replica in 1956, due to the effects of weathering. The cost was met by public subscription.

Sister Dora’s self-sacrificing reputation as a nurse in the 1860s was no doubt bolstered by Florence Nightingale’s famous example in the 1850s. Nightingale was invited to unveil the statue, but she declined on health grounds.

The 1896 statue of 18th-century actress Sarah Siddons (née Kemble) is the only other Victorian statue of a woman. Dubbed the ‘Queen of Tragedy’ by Victorians, Siddons is shown in Grecian dress holding a dagger, a reference to her renowned portrayal of Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth. The statue design was chosen by artist Lord Frederic Leighton and is based on an idealised painting of Siddons by Joshua Reynolds called ‘The Tragic Muse’. By choosing a design inspired by Reynolds, Leighton also furthered the legacy of a fellow Royal Academician.

Leading lights from Victorian theatre contributed to the cost of the statue, including Sir Henry Irving and Ellen Terry. Irving had a large role to play in promoting Siddons to his contemporaries as a woman of talent and industry. Siddons enjoyed celebrity status in her lifetime, earning £20 a week at the height of her career. More conservative commentary in 1896 emphasised her thrift, and her ability to occupy a dual role as an ‘idol of the multitude’ and yet a ‘true-hearted, home-loving woman’.

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