Trafalgar Square in London, United Kingdom is an open square found in the Charing Cross area in the City of Westminster. It is used for community gatherings of all kinds and at times political demonstrations played out there.
The square was completed in 1845 on request of King George IV. Sir Charles Barry was the architect, same chap who gave us the Palace of Westminster (Houses of Parliament), Big Ben, and other famous buildings.
At the centre of the square stands Nelson’s Column, a 52 meter sandstone statue in commemoration of Admiral Horatio Nelson, who died at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805 during the Napoleonic wars between Britain and combined France and Spain.
Each corner of the square has a plinth built on which a statue rests. The first statue, that of George IV was installed on the north eastern plinth in 1844, while the second in the south west corner of the square in 1855 of General Sir Charles James Napier. The third was erected in the south east in 1861 of Major-General Sir Henry Havelock.
The strange thing is, the fourth plinth in the north west corner had nothing on since! Story has it the project’s money ran out (hard to believe!) and a statue, which was meant to be of monarch William IV, was never erected on the fourth plinth. For over 150 years the plinth stood ’empty’ and the fate of it was heavily debated…
So in the late 1990s, it was eventually decided to trial display a sequence of contemporary artworks on the ‘naked’ plinth. The first artwork was erected in 1999, and the residents of London and world never looked back!
The Greater London Authority now manages and administers the ‘temporary display of artworks’ every year. Discussions are apparently underway of having a permanent statue erected in due course. Talks of a statue of Queen Elizabeth II – after her death – seems most plausible, but nothing has been decided yet and so we get to enjoy great artworks for a little longer!
The artworks in the order as they appeared are shown below, but before we jump into that first up are images of the statues on the other three plinths.
1999 – Wallinger’s ‘Ecce Homo’, the Latin title of which means “Behold the man”, a reference to the words of Pontius Pilate at the trial of Jesus (John 19:5) was a life-sized figure of Christ, naked apart from a loin cloth, with his hands bound behind his back and wearing a crown of barbed wire (in allusion to the crown of thorns).
2000 – Bill Woodrow’s ‘Regardless of History’, the head comes from a fallen statue and is placed on the plinth, mimicking traditional methods of display. The head is topped by a book and a tree, both symbolic of the accumulation of growth and knowledge. This composition is bound together by the tree’s roots, here providing a narrative on the cyclical quality of time. Full of symbolism, the supremacy of nature over civilisation is shown in ‘Regardless of History’ as it may be observed in the jungles of South America or Thailand, where deserted temples have been reclaimed by nature. Woodrow here emphasises humanity’s fragility in the face of nature, suggesting that we should remain respectful of nature’s power and our place in a natural order, most importantly learning from history.
2001 – Rachel Whiteread’s ‘Untitled Monument’. Also variously known as Plinth or Inverted Plinth, is an 11 ton resin cast of the plinth itself, which stood upsidedown, making a sort of mirror-image of the plinth. It was said to be the largest object ever made out of resin, taking eight attempts to produce due to the resin cracking, and produced in two-halves in the end.
June 2002 – David Beckham waxwork model (unauthorised). A waxwork figure of the England captain made a brief appearance (a few hours!) on the plinth at 6am one morning, but despite hooting horns and shouts of encouragement from passersby, wardens from the Greater London Authority had it taken down. Madame Tussauds, which arranged for the statue to be transported from the museum and erected on the plinth, said: “We came to realise how much the British public love David Beckham by the way people behave around him – they can’t get enough of him. We wanted to do something to reflect the country’s depth of emotion. We couldn’t think of a more popular choice for the vacant spot.” The stunt was just ahead of England’s World Cup clash with Nigeria.
Sept 2005 – Marc Quinn’s ‘Alison Lapper Pregnant’ is a 3.6 metres (12 ft), 13-tonne Carrara marble torso-bust of Alison Lapper, an artist who was born with no arms and shortened legs due to a condition called phocomelia.
November 2007 – Thomas Schütte: Model for a Hotel 2007 (formerly Hotel for the Birds) is a 5 metre (m) by 4.5m by 5m architectural model of a 21-storey building made from coloured glass. What’s it about? Well, not so sure. Don’t think the artist knows either…
October 2007 – Johnny Wilkinson’s waxwork model (authorised this time round!) complete with his magic boot kicking pose was erected on the fourth plinth on the eve of England’s crunch World Cup final match against South Africa in Paris.
July 2009 – Antony Gormley’s: One & Other. Over the course of a hundred consecutive days, a total of 2,400 selected members of the public each spent one hour on the plinth. They were allowed to do anything they wished to and could take anything with them that they could carry unaided. Some took the opportunity to voice their opinion, others used the plinth as a platform to address serious issues, and some danced or raised awareness for charities. There was a live feed of the spectacle. For safety reasons, the plinth was surrounded by a net, and a team of six stewards were present 24 hours a day.
November 2009 – Battle of Britain Memorial: Air Chief Marshal Sir Keith Par. A temporary statue of Sir Keith Park, the man who more than anyone helped win the Battle of Britain. On a greying winter afternoon, a Spitfire and a Typhoon aircraft flew overhead before the fibreglass statue was unveiled, where it remained for six months. Park is seen as an unsung hero, a man who as RAF commander in south-east England played a definitive part in ensuring the Luftwaffe bombing campaign did not achieve its ultimate aim – defeating the RAF ahead of invasion. A permanent bronze version by the same sculptor, Leslie Johnson, was erected at nearby Waterloo Place.
May 2010 – Yinka Shonibare’s: Nelson’s Ship in a Bottle is by the leading Anglo-Nigerian artist, and consists of a replica of Nelson’s ship, the HMS Victory, with sails made of printed fabric in a colourful African pattern inside a large glass bottle stopped with a cork. The bottle is 4.7 metres long and 2.8 metres in diameter. The artwork is the first “to reflect specifically on the historical symbolism of Trafalgar Square, which commemorates the Battle of Trafalgar, and will link directly with Nelson’s column. It is also the first commission by a black British artist. The work is now on display at the National Maritime Museum.
February 2012 – Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset’s Powerless Structures, Fig. 101 is a 4.1 metres (13 ft) tall bronze sculpture of a boy on a rocking horse. Unlike the square’s other statues, which celebrate kings and military leaders, this is intended to portray “the heroism of growing up”. After its display on the plinth the sculpture was bought by the Annie og Otto Detlefs Fond and donated to the Arken Museum of Modern Art in Ishøj, Denmark. The sculpture comes with tradition and renewal and it is an ironic commentary on the obeisance of warlords. At the same time, it praises the child’s spontaneity and its playful approach to life.
July 2013 to Current – Katharina Fritsch’s Hahn/Cock is a 4.72 metres (15.5 ft) high blue sculpture of a cockerel, intended to symbolise “regeneration, awakening and strength”. The statue will be displayed for 18 months. Fritsch hailed her installation as a “victory for feminism” in a square dominated by military men.
Planned for 2015 – Hans Haacke’s Gift Horse is a bronze statue of a riderless skeletal horse. Wrapped around its leg is an electronic stock ticker display, and is a tribute to economist Adam Smith and horse painter George Stubbs, whose books Wealth of Nations and The anatomy of the Horse were both published in 1766. He based the design on a sketch by Stubbs, who had designed the equestrian statue of William IV originally intended for the plinth.
Planned for 2016 – David Shrigley’s Really Good is a bronze sculpture of a human hand in a thumbs-up gesture, with the thumb greatly elongated. The top of the thumb will reach 10 metres (33 ft) high.
From our research you’ll notice there are a few significant time periods missing. The obvious one is of course the 150 years nothing happened (or did there?) on the plinth between the years 1841 – when the square was completed – or 1861 – when the last of the three permanent statues were erected – to 1999 – when the first of the artworks were installed.
Then there is the most recent period 2002 after the David Beckham stunt to 2005 when Marc gave us Alison Lapper Pregnant.
What happened over those ‘naked’ years? If you know, or have any information, please get in touch. We’d love to update this post and share the mystery…
We’ll aspire to keep this post updated.