These days you’re as likely to stumble across a statue of a politician or a poet as you are some grim-faced Victorian industrialist.
In Huddersfield, Harold Wilson, the town’s most famous political son, stands centre stage in St George’s Square, while visitors to Hull are greeted at the train station by a seven foot tall, bronze Philip Larkin as they step out onto the concourse. Wend your way through the smartly renovated city centre and you might pass a statue of pioneering aviator Amy Johnson, arguably the city’s greatest export.
It’s a similar picture in big towns and cities across the country which want to pay homage to famous figures from the past. Statues can tell a story, or at least hint at one, and over the years they’ve become part of our urban landscape and in some cases even notable landmarks. Trafalgar Square – home to Nelson’s Column – has long been a popular focal point for political protests and demonstrations and still is today.
At the same time people walk by statues every day without knowing who they depict. If you asked most people in Leeds who the four grandees are in City Square you’d probably be met with a blank response. Similarly while they might recognise the colossal statue of the Black Prince nearby most wouldn’t have a clue who he was.
And yet it seems we can’t get enough monuments of our heroes and heroines.
Rival campaigns battled for years over who should be the first woman to have a statue in Parliament Square, with advocates of suffragist and trade union leader Millicent Fawcett coming out on top.
There had been calls for a statue of Margaret Thatcher to be put up outside the Houses of Parliament, but earlier this year the plans were rejected by Westminster Council because there were already too many monuments in the area.
The decision came after the Royal Parks Agency, which owns the land, and the Metropolitan Police voiced concerns that a statue of Thatcher would attract protests.
The Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors also objected to having a statue of the Iron Lady near its headquarters because she was a “controversial character” who would likely to be a target for vandalism.
You might wonder why a memorial would provoke such strong feelings but back in 2000 a statue of Winston Churchill was defaced with red paint during May Day demonstrations in central London – so if even a statue of a national war hero like Churchill isn’t safe then perhaps none are.
Some people question whether we actually need more statues. Julie Gottlieb, reader in modern history at the University of Sheffield, is a historical adviser to the Millicent Fawcett statue – curated by 14-18 Now and the Mayor of London’s Office – due to be unveiled in London in the spring. She understands where the critics are coming from. “I have come across a few historians who don’t like the whole idea of statues because they feel it is aping male forms of political recognition, reputation and self-aggrandisement,” she says.
“There is a concern, for instance, that putting women on plinths is playing the man’s game of history rather than creating a type of commemoration that is more suited to the female experience of history.”
However, Dr Gottlieb, who is giving a lecture on statues and statutes as part of Sheffield’s SheFest fringe festival later this month, believes they are symbolically important. “The Millicent Fawcett statue is going to be the first one of a woman in Parliament Square and it’s not just going to be there for 20 years it’s going to be there for centuries.”
The Fawcett statue isn’t the only one tied to the centenary of women’s suffrage in this country. A statue was erected in Leicester last month of Alice Hawkins, a working class suffragette, and there’s one planned of Sylvia Pankhurst in London and Emmeline Pankhurst in Manchester.
Dr Gottlieb points out that many of these have come about because of public support. “They often eventually get official sanction but almost all of them are grassroots campaigns that are crowdfunded and led by women. So despite all the concern we can see the value of statues in helping putting women on the map in the representation and commemoration of British political history.”
Statues of political and historical figures can become contentious over time as social attitudes change. At the same time demand for sporting heroes to be immortalised in stone or bronze has soared with statues of footballers becoming ubiquitous over the past decade or so.
The same goes for comedians and TV stars. The acclaimed Barnsley-born sculptor Graham Ibbeson is renowned for his sculptures of much loved figures such as Eric Morecambe, Laurel and Hardy and Victoria Wood. “Eric Morecambe was one of the first TV personalities to get put up on a plinth in the public domain. People make a bit of pilgrimage to Morecambe to go and see it and it’s increased visitor numbers to the town. It’s not because of my sculpture it’s because of the love people have for Eric Morecambe, it brings joy to people and makes them smile,” he says.
There’s often a close local link, too. “There’s the Dickie Bird statue I did over the road from where I live. He’s synonymous with Barnsley so it was the obvious place to have it.”
As the son of a Barnsley miner, Ibbeson says he would never be asked to create a statue of Lady Thatcher, though he believes she warrants one. “Even if you don’t agree with her politics she’s part of this country’s history and her memory ought to be commemorated.”
That said he doesn’t always feel that statues are the best way of honouring someone’s legacy. “You normally get statues of people after they die but it can be a bit of an easy option. There are other ways of keeping someone’s memory alive either through bursaries or buildings rather than shoving up a lump of bronze or stone.
“Doing a statue of someone like Alfred Wainwright would be wrong. If you’re going to have a memorial it should be standing stones or something more commemorative. It’s the same with Fred Dibnah, who loved Victorian engineering, where maybe a scholarship could be set up to keep his memory alive. To me that would work better,” he says.
“In the past the kind of people who had statues done of them were politicians, but these days it’s the public that get to choose who they want on a plinth.
“Most of my sculptures have come about because the public demanded them, whether it’s Eric Morecambe or Victoria Wood, it’s what the people on the street want and I don’t think that will go away. We want a physical reminder of our heroes and idols and a good statue or sculpture does that.”
Calls for statue to honour Sir Bruce
Since his death last year at the age of 89, there have been numerous calls for a statue of Sir Bruce Forsyth to be erected outside a BBC building to mark his incredible 75-year career.
In 2005, a bronze bust of the much-loved entertainer was unveiled at London’s Palladium theatre, where he hosted TV’s Sunday Night at the London Palladium in the 1950s and 60s. There is also a special plaque celebrating his record-breaking number of appearances at The Hippodrome in London.
The comedian Jon Culshaw, who was part of the BBC’s tribute show to Sir Bruce, is the latest person to call for a statue to be erected in his memory. “There really is only one Sir Bruce. A statue would be an amazing thing. What about a sundial? Bruce in the thinker pose,” he said.