Socialist Worker

Smashing statues through the ages

Leon Kuhn spoke to Socialist Worker about the history and symbolism of toppling statues

Issue No. 1963

Leon Kuhn’s vision of the demolition of Nelson’s column in Trafalgar Square

Leon Kuhn’s vision of the demolition of Nelson’s column in Trafalgar Square

Our book Topple the Mighty involves two parts of a whole. The first part goes through some of London’s statues, using them as a “coat hanger” to talk about what these people really did and who they were.

The second looks at the history of attacks on statues in London.

This is something I’ve been researching for a number of years and was the main inspiration for the book.

Of course there are lots of historical incidents of statues being attacked around the world — it’s an incredibly powerful symbol of the fall of a regime.

For instance, in 1958 the overthrow of the monarchy in Iraq was marked by the toppling of statues of British general Stanley Maude and his placeman, King Faisal.

This incident had a farcical sequel in April 2003, when a handful of Iraqis with the help of a US army vehicle pulled down the statue of Saddam Hussein in Firdous Square, Baghdad.

The idea was to stage a media event that would give legitimacy to an illegal war.

Tony Blair declared himself “delighted” when Saddam’s statue was destroyed.

But he was not so content when demonstrators on the May Day 2000 march attacked some statues in Parliament Square and Whitehall.

He condemned their actions as “nothing to do with convictions or beliefs and everything to do with mindless thuggery”.

But the act of damaging a statue is not and never has been meaningless.

What Blair probably did not know was that there was a period of around 140 years, spanning the reigns of Henry VIII through to Oliver Cromwell, when the destruction of statues was required by law, or at least openly encouraged by the authorities.

Statue breaking reached a high point with the English Revolution and the destruction of the Cheapside Cross in 1643.

Following the execution of Charles I, the council of state ordered the smashing of the royal statues in St Paul’s Cathedral and the Royal Exchange.

The statue of Charles I on horseback that’s now at the north end of Whitehall near Trafalgar Square was hidden in the basement of St Paul’s church in Covent Garden during this period.

To have an effigy of the executed king at that time was tantamount to treason.

After the restoration of Charles II to the monarchy in 1660 we see the first furtive appearances outdoors of commemorative statues on London’s streets.

These were originally in the gardens of the aristocracy, which eventually became London’s squares.

The number of statues increased dramatically through the 19th century, aided by the spread of British imperialism and the belief that free access to art would result in moral progress and social order.

But the ruling class’s representation of history has never gone unchallenged.

There was a daring attempt to topple William Pitt’s statue in Hanover Square on the day it was erected in 1831.

This is part of an iconoclastic tradition that stretches through to today, with grafitti attacks on Bomber Harris’s statue in 1992, the events of May Day 2000, and Paul Kelleher’s cricket bat attack on a marble statue of Margaret Thatcher in July 2002 — which left her head on the floor of London’s Guildhall Gallery.

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