REPORT | Commemorating London
13 Mar 2019
Commemorating London: The good, the bad and the “meh” of London Monuments - a joint event with the London Historians held at the Sir Christopher Hatton pub 4 Leather Ln, London EC1N 7RA. Barry Coidan reports.Don Brown, our Director, introduced the evening’s exciting programme. As well as the countdown of the 10 most reviled public monuments in the capital we were to enjoy talks by four guest speakers on their uncommemorated heroes. There was also a quiz and a bar: all the ingredients for an enjoyable evening.But first we were treated to a talk by Joanna Moncrieff on public sculptures in and around Westminster. I have to say all of them were new to me. First is “Three Figures” by Neal French, Bourdon Place, London W1 representing a passerby coming upon the photographer Terence Donovan photographing the model Twiggy near his studio in Mayfair in the 1960’s.They were commissioned by Grosvenor Estates when they were redeveloping Fifty Grosvenor Hill as offices in this London conservation area. Next we encountered the Young Dancer by Enzo Plazzotta (unveiled 1988).The bronze Young Dancer sits tying her ballet shoes almost opposite the Bow Street entrance to the Royal Opera House and just round the corner from the Royal Ballet School on Floral Street. The sculpture was a gift to the Council on condition they paid for its siting - the Council would appear to have not heeded the Royal Fine Arts Commission’s (RFAC) view that the piece had little merit!
The RFAC had a hand in the siting of the next piece of public art: Allies (Churchill and Roosevelt seated together on a bench) in New Bond Street. The artist’s wife gifted the piece to the nation and was offered to the Royal Parks but the RFAC didn’t think it good enough. At the time the Bond Street Society wanted something to enliven their street so the sculpture ended up there. 53 Jermyn Street was Joanna’s last port of call and a modern statue of Beau Brummell unveiled in November 2002 - he looks down fashionable Piccadilly Parade. Finally, such is the plethora of commemorative sculptures in Westminster that it’s deemed a monument saturation zone. Now a piece has to go through loads of hoops to get accepted. Don then introduced the four shortlisted monuments that had polled least votes. The dolphins on the Embankment - one comment was “they don’t look like dolphins and anyway dolphins have nothing to do with London.” Dolphins or at least sculptures involving these lovable Cetaceans were not favoured. “The Girl with the Dolphin” by David Wynne situated near Tower Bridge was definitely not liked. The first line of Betjeman’s poem “Come friendly bombs and fall on Slough!” springs to mind when contemplating the Royal Air Force Bomber Command Memorial in London’s Green Park, also on the shortlist. Then there’s the life-size statue of Isambard Kingdom Brunel at Paddington Station located between Platforms 8 and 9. “it looks more like a local bank manager than a great engineer”. The poll also asked for nominations for monuments to people or events that aren't currently commemorated. There was more than one desperate plea for no more memorials; a suggestion that a statue be erected to Michael Fagan who broke into Buckingham Palace in July 1982 and entered the Queen’s bedroom! "More women" was a theme, but the person with the most nominations was mathematician and wartime cryptographer Alan Turing.Angela Burdett Coutts was a heroine of Rob Smith. She certainly was a formidable Victorian born in 1814 and died 92 years later. She used her inherited wealth to seek to improve the lot of London’s poor -she set up a “safe house” with Charles Dickens for fallen women.She also founded the RSPCA, and paid for cab shelters across the capital. This woman of great wealth used her good fortune to help matchmakers, dockland workers and seek to improve the lot of the poor. Better working conditions, family planning and workplace health and safety we just some of her initiatives. She was interested in Theosophy and favoured Indian Independence. A women of her time but also a woman who wasn’t tied by its conventions.Thomas Brassey was our next hero suggested by Rob. Frankly the man was superhuman. He started his career helping Thomas Telford and Stevenson and ended up building much of the world's railways in the 19th century. By 1847, he had built about one-third of the railways in Britain, and by time of his death in 1870 he had built one in every twenty miles of railway in the world. This included three-quarters of the lines in France, major lines in many other European countries and in Canada, Australia, South America and India. He also built the structures associated with those railways, including docks, bridges, viaducts, stations, tunnels and drainage works.As well as railway engineering, Brassey was active in the development of steamships, mines, locomotive factories, marine telegraphy, and water supply and sewage systems. He built part of the London sewerage system, still in operation today, and was a major shareholder in Brunel's The Great Eastern, the only ship large enough at the time to lay the first transatlantic telegraph cable across the North Atlantic, in 1864. Elon Musk where were you?This Victorian giant is commemorated with a modest shrine in Chester cathedral. Nothing in London - despite his huge contribution to the Empire’s and London’s success. This needs to be redressed, with at least a Blue Plaque to the man!The next three totally useless public sculptures - numbers four to seven in the poll - were the Arcelormittal Orbit at the Olympic Park - best not to repeat the comments but not good. Then the Eye-I in Broadgate - I have no idea what that is, but I registered that the monument to the Women of World War Two on Whitehall attracted serious negative comment. “Too big, too boring, too dark.” The next speaker Oonagh Gay, a well known tour guide, introduced us to her heroine Sylvia Pankhurst . She was the least well known of the Pankhursts: possibly because she was a pretty anti-establishment figure. She was active in the Communist movement as well as refusing to marry, then giving birth to her love child which caused a split with her family. She was a feminist, suffragette and anti- fascist early on warning about the rise of Mussolini. She also protested against Britain’s rule of India and the Italian bombing of Ethiopia in the 1930’s. Late in life Sylvia went to live in that country and died there in 1960 at the age of 78. She received a State Funeral and is the only foreigner buried outside the cathedral in Addis Ababa. Funds are being raised for a statue of her to be placed in Clerkenwell Green. From one monument much petitioned for, to the top three most reviled by London Society members and supporters. The three are “Conversation with Oscar Wilde ” in the Strand, “The Meeting Place” at St Pancras Station and finally “William”. It was a close run thing. The hot money was on “The Meeting Place” - “Ugly, overpowering, ugly”, “Kitsch, too large, too meaningless, too crass, worst type of public art.” But surprisingly “William”” beat it into second place with “Oscar” coming a commendable third. One observation showed why it won - “It looks like diarrhoea in progress.” Enough said.And so onto the fourth choice of hero: except we weren’t told who it was. Barry Coidan tantalised the audience with quotes and counter quotes, some by the hero in question. Although anyone who’d watch the BBC in black and white in the mid 60’s would have guessed. The final reveal was of Peter Cook the genius comedian and wit, although Barry mistakenly announced Sir Peter Cook the well known architect as his hero before he realised his mistake. So ended a very enjoyable and entertaining evening. Whilst most headed for the exit a few remained to down a pint or two and relive the evenings highlights! [slideshare id=133203807&doc=commemoratinglondon-190225110738]