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A brief history of the Trafalgar Square plinth sculptures

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A brief history of the Trafalgar Square plinth sculptures
Kathleen Bondar takes a look at the Trafalgar Square plinth sculpture commissions, past, present and future
The Fourth Plinth—famous for bringing contemporary sculptures to Trafalgar Square—usually causes something of a stir. A plinth stands at each corner of the magnificent square in front of The National Gallery. There is a statue of a British dignitary on each (Henry Havelock, Charles James Napier and George IV), except for the fourth plinth which stood empty for decades until Prue Leith, then chair of the Royal Society of Arts, wrote a letter to the Evening Standard suggesting that something should be done.
"The Fourth Plinth usually causes something of a stir"
Since 1999, the fourth plinth now hosts an alternating sculpture by leading contemporary artists commissioned by the Mayor of London’s Office and sponsored by Bloomberg Philanthropies and Arts Council England. With the announcement of the winners for 2026 and 2028, it’s time to consider what went before and what’s in store. 

How it started

It all started with Ecce Homo by Mark Wallinger, a figurative statue in the classic tradition. The Christ-like figure stands hands bound behind his back and wearing a crown of barbed wire, as he awaits execution by the authorities for his beliefs. Ecce Homo translates as “Behold the man!” used by Pilate to present Christ to his accusers. 
Changing the sculpture on the plinth, 2009. Image: Alan Stanton, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Past plinths include Bill Woodrow’s sculpture Regardless of History, 2000 (a head crushed between a book and the roots of a tree), Rachel Whiteread’s Untitled Monument, 2001 (a cast of the plinth itself in transparent resin placed upside-down on top of the original) and Yinka Shonibare’s large-scale Nelson’s Ship in a Bottle, 2010.

A plinth for the people

In 2009, the sculptor Antony Gormley took the idea of sharing the plinth to a new level and, under the title One & Other, engaged thousands of people to express themselves creatively by occupying the platform for an hour each. As a result, during the year the plinth became a space to promote the personal, political and artistic (with a heavy dose of humour and some showing-off thrown in), all under the curatorial eye of Gormley. 
"The plinth became a space to promote the personal, political and artistic"
The first participant—or living statue—was usurped by a saboteur waving an anti-smoking placard much to the bemusement of the former Mayor of London, Boris Johnson. Banner wavers included a lollipop lady advertising Childline’s number, someone professing he was “not a pigeon” and a man balancing on a bicycle promoting sustainable travel—“cities for people no car”. A student decided to make his own sculpture on the plinth using wires and finally, a gallery owner from Wales, simply stood still for an hour holding his national flag. 

What's next?

Currently in situ is Samson Kambalu’s Antelope which shows two suited, male figures in bronze. The large figure, Baptist preacher and pan-Africanist John Chilembwe, faces Nelson’s column in the middle of Trafalgar Square and the smaller figure, European missionary and supporter John Chorley, faces the National Gallery. The title is derived from Chilembwe’s hat which has two peaks, like antelope horns. Chilembwe’s hat signifies defiance of the colonial rule that forbade Africans from wearing hats in front of white people. Chilembwe led an uprising in Malawi, formely Nyasaland, and was killed by colonial police. In enlarging Chilembwe, Kambalu elevates Black narratives in history.
"Currently in situ is Samson Kambalu’s Antelope which shows two suited, male figures in bronze"
Improntas (Imprints) by Teresa Margolles is the next sculpture which will be in situ from September 2024. In keeping with the plinth’s theme to showcase work relevant to contemporary concerns, Margolles has created a tribute to a transgender woman called Karla who was murdered in Mexico in 2016. The sculpture stands for the rights of trans communities worldwide and comprises hundreds of plaster casts of faces arranged like a Tzompantli (a skull rack). As the plaster is exposed to London’s weather, the work will fade. So, it’s worth revisiting Trafalgar Square to experience what promises to be yet another powerful message from the Fourth Plinth.
Tschabalala Self (born 1990, New York), Lady in Blue, 2024. Photo: James O Jenkins
Going forward the winning commissions for 2026 and 2028 have just been announced. Tschabalala Self’s Lady in Blue will be installed in 2026. This bronze sculpture painted with Lapis Lazuli is a strident figure of a woman of colour. She celebrates a contemporary, global everywoman in place of the historical representation of one dignitary. Self, who is from New York, explains: “She is not an idol to venerate or a historic figurehead to commemorate. She is a woman striding forward into our collective future with ambition and purpose. She is a Londoner, who represents the city’s spirit.”
Andra Ursuța, (born 1979, Romania), Untitled, 2024. Photo: James O Jenkins
Romanian born Andra Ursuța’s Untitled will follow in 2028. This is different visually—a shrouded, equestrian statue in translucent green which will glow in dull weather and become more transparent in sunny. However, like Self’s everywoman, Ursuța's statue is also anonymous. The sculpture’s greenish colour looks slimy, like an ectoplasm or something ghostly and formless embodying multiple histories. 
As Justine Simons, the current Deputy Mayor for Culture and Creative Industries in London says: “The sculpture prize has entertained and brought out the art critic in everybody for 25 years, and I have no doubt these two very different pieces will continue that fine tradition.” You can view the plinth online at www.london.gov.uk/fourthplinth and on Bloomberg Connects app. 
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