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Architecture: the work of eminent 19th-century sculptors, the public statues in Glasgow's George Square record both the city's glorious past and the proud history of Scotland. Now Glasgow City Council proposes to remove them without safeguarding their future.

Statues do furnish a square. Nations and cities have long desired to erect conspicuous monuments to the great and the good, the royal and the victorious, in public spaces. Such statues, whether the single figure or the equestrian portrait, both honour an individual and articulate and give dignity to open spaces or serve, as in Edinburgh, to enhance the junction of streets and close vistas. It does not even matter if the statue itself is artistically mediocre; providing it is correctly scaled and raised up on a well-designed pedestal (a crucial consideration, too little understood today), it may educate, celebrate and give a sense of history while adding interest to its setting.

In Britain, the long struggle with Revolutionary and Napoleonic France generated a host of heroes thought deserving of honour. The new Trafalgar Square, with its terrace equipped with two plinths for equestrian statues, was a civic space which, in the 1840s, became the setting for the colossal column carrying a figure of Horatio Nelson. Later in the century, he was joined by other military figures. In recent years, political correctness has sometimes dismissed these statues as being superfluous monuments to dead white males of whom nobody has heard, but ignorance is no defence for vandalism and the suggested replacements have been of considerably less artistic and architectural merit.

The Scottish equivalent to Trafalgar Square is George Square in Glasgow (Fig. 1). It, too, is a civic focus, a space where many events and political demonstrations have taken place: it is the heart of the city. Originally a residential square, it is now dominated by William Young's (1843-1900) magnificent City Chambers and in the centre is an 80ft Doric column on a pedestal, supporting not Nelson bur the creator of the Romantic national myth of Scotland, the novelist Walter Scott. Around the square are 19th-century statues of politicians, generals and other public figures as well as equestrian monuments to Queen Victoria and her Prince Consort.

And now, in its wisdom, Glasgow City Council proposes to remove every statue from George Square, including the central Doric column, sparing only the Cenotaph erected in front of City Chambers to honour Glasgow's dead of the Great War. As part of a plan to make the square 'fit for the 21st century', these monuments are to be taken away for restoration, but no guarantee has been given that they will ever come back and the council has stated that it is possible the Scott column will not return but be relocated 'as a focal point in an area of regeneration'. A limited competition has been held for the redesign of the square; at the time of writing, one of six designs under consideration would remove all the monuments permanently (except the Cenotaph). Unless sanity and public protest intervene, the heart of Scotland's second city may become a cleared open space soon after this article is published.

There are sometimes good and sympathetic reasons for expunging public monuments. It is scarcely surprising that, soon after Stalin's demise, the monstrous statues of him in Budapest, Prague and other Eastern European cities were toppled. Revolutions can soon make statues redundant or offensive. The equestrian statue of Louis XV which stood in the centre of what is now the Place de la Concorde in Paris was removed in 1792. Several revolutions later, during the Paris Commune of 1871, the Vendome Column--that version of Trajan's column carrying the Emperor Napoleon-- was deliberately toppled (Fig. 2). This vandalism was instigated, on grounds both political and aesthetic, by Gustave Courbet (who was eventually punished for it). Nations have sometimes been more civilised in their treatment of politically redundant statues. The Indians, for instance, have gathered a number of the monuments to former British rulers in Coronation Park in Delhi, rather than destroy distinguished works of art. The Hungarians have done something similar with their statues of Marx and Engels in Memento Park in Budapest.

But no such political imperative, and no such aesthetic sensitivity, pertains in Glasgow. There is no good reason why the 11 men and one woman monumentalised in George Square deserve demotion and exile. Two--Sir John Moore and Colin Campbell, Lord Clyde--may have been military figures, but most of the others can be regarded as progressive and public benefactors (and almost all the statues, incidentally, were paid for by public subscription). There are reforming politicians: Peel, Gladstone and James Oswald, the local MP; there is the scientist James Watt (Fig. 3), whose development of the steam engine contributed so much to the Industrial Revolution which made Glasgow great. Another scientist, Thomas Graham, made discoveries which led to modern kidney dialysis. And there are native poets: Scott, Burns and Thomas Campbell.

The statues in George Square are also mostly of great artistic distinction, several by sculptors of national fame and significance. Watt is by Sir Francis Chantrey (1781-1841) and Gladstone by Hamo Thorneycroft (1850-1925), while the figure of Sir John Moore is, in the opinion of Alexander Stoddart, Sculptor in Ordinary to the Queen in Scotland, 'the finest civic bronze ever made by John Flaxman (1755-1826)'. Other figures are by Cario Marochetti (1805-67) and by the talented Glasgow sculptor John Mossman (1817-90). As for the elevated figure of Walter Scott, this was originally modelled by John Greenshields (1792-1835), a stonemason who moved to clay modelling--a leap which, as Stoddart writes, 'commences the story of Scotland's national school of sculpture'--and completed by Alexander Handyside Ritchie (1804-70), a favourite pupil of Thorvaldesen who was 'the finest architectural sculptor that Scotland ever produced'. And all this, along with several superbly designed plinths (that under Peel was the work of the great Alexander 'Greek' Thomson) seems likely to go.

This cull is being pursued hurriedly, and with virtually no public consultation, merely to ensure that the revamped square is ready in time for the Commonwealth Games being held in the city in 2014. 'These statues,' writes Stoddart, 'are the longest-standing residents of the precinct and ought not to suffer eviction on account of some devious creative initiative pursued in servility to a sports festival on the one hand, and a superannuated idea of civic-design progress on the other'.

Ironically, Glasgow City Council's plans are also at odds with a more general resurgence of interest in 19th-century sculpture. This autumn the Yale Center for British Art in New Haven is mounting a major exhibition of Victorian sculpture (which will later travel to Tare in London) not only to highlight its 'vibrancy and inventiveness' but to 'demonstrate its political and cultural importance, both within Britain and internationally'. And one of the finest expressions of that is what Glasgow has--and may be about to lose--in George Square.
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Author:Stamp, Gavin
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Feb 1, 2013
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