Best of british: statues

From famous explorers and monarchs to celebrated pop-stars and footballers there are lots of beautiful statues to admire in Great Britain.

ADMIRAL LORD NELSON

Trafalgar Square, London

This is one of the most famous statues in the world (it even has its own music-hall song—“I Live in Trafalgar Square” by Morny Cash). But visitors to London are probably better acquainted with the location—pigeon-strewn Trafalgar Square, home to four bronze lions and a controversial fourth plinth—than the statue itself.

Admiral Horatio Nelson, who stood a mere 5ft 2ins tall, towers above the square at 169 feet, on top of Nelson’s Column, so no one ever gets a really good look at him. But the sandstone statue shows the man in full regalia, right hand missing and facing the Admiralty, where he lay overnight after being delivered by funeral barge from Greenwich. Nelson’s body now rests in St Paul’s Cathedral, preserved in the same brandy used to carry him home on the Victory. He died in 1805 at the Battle of Trafalgar, but Nelson’s Column was completed in 1843 at a cost of £47,000—hefty for the day. With pollution and contributions from feathered locals, keeping the statue pristine is a thankless and ongoing task.

 

SIR FRANCIS DRAKE

Plymouth Hoe, Devon

Every inch the image of the jaunty buccaneer, Sir Francis Drake, the man known as El Draque (the dragon) to the Spanish, stands on a tall plinth overlooking Plymouth Hoe with the city centre behind. With sword to hand and positioned alongside a globe, we’re left in no doubt of Drake’s job—circumnavigator of the globe. He was the first English sea captain to do so, from 1577 to 1580, and was knighted a year later. But in spite of all his exploits, he came to a tawdry end, dying of dysentery in Panama.

This statue, erected in 1885, was originally meant to be much larger, but the funds couldn’t be raised. All the same, it’s still a magnificent depiction by the Hungarian sculptor Joseph Edgar Boehm, the same man who famously sculpted the head of Queen Victoria for her Jubilee coin. And although there’s another statue of Drake in his home town of Tavistock, Devon, it’s fitting that there’s one here too—legend has it that this is where Drake insisted on finishing his game of bowls before demolishing the Spanish Armada in 1588.

 

QUEEN VICTORIA

City Hall, Belfast

Probably simply because of the length of her reign (over 63 years), Queen Victoria is far and away the most familiar royal face in stone. There are dozens of statues around the country, including one of her on horseback outside St George’s Hall, Liverpool, and another of her in Saxon dress at the Royal Burial Ground in Windsor.

Many cities erected a statue in honour of a fleeting royal visit, and this marble depiction by Sir Thomas Brock is typical of the genre, with Victoria looking suitably idealised and regal. It was unveiled by Edward VII on his first royal visit. (Belfast had been awarded City status by Victoria in 1888). The story goes that he looked back at his mother’s statue as he was leaving and declared, “Couldn’t be better!”

There are now plans to erect a statue to George Best in the same vicinity. Victoria really wouldn’t have been amused by that.

 

ERIC MORECAMBE

Morecambe, Lancashire

It’s fitting that this statue is in Morecambe Bay, as the comedian took his stage name from his hometown—his real name, John Eric Bartholomew, admittedly didn’t have the same ring. His likeness can be found on the promenade overlooking the sea (he was in the merchant navy), cast in his classic “skip” pose and wearing binoculars (he was an avid bird-watcher).

Morecambe—the man—had the ability to make even the Queen laugh, and photos of her smiling as she unveiled this statue in July 1999 made headlines around the world. Partly funded by Lottery cash, his likeness is larger than life-size; below it are engraved the 103 names of starry guests (including André Previn, of course) who appeared on the show in which he starred with his partner Ernie Wise. On any given day, you’ll see visitors queuing to have their photo taken next to it. For fans of the duo, there’s also a statue to Ernie in Leeds, but it looks absolutely nothing like him.

 

PEOPLE LIKE US

Mermaid Quay, Cardiff

In recognition of all those who moved to Wales during the late 1800s, this bronze statue of a couple and their Great Dane depicts not one person but an entire immigrant community—the woman, obviously of Caribbean origin, is reaching out to sea. It’s located on the boardwalk in Cardiff Bay (known as Tiger Bay), a tough and dangerous place fuelled by the South Wales coal industry. Local waters were treacherous to sailors and the thriving commercial harbour was a ruthless test of endurance for foreign labourers. By the 1950s there were some 57 nationalities and 50 languages in the Tiger Bay area, making it a true melting pot.

“The woman reflects the diverse cultural and ethnic mix of the docks and, in his boots and overalls, the man is a reminder of the once world-famous, busy port,” said the Welsh sculptor John Clinch. The dog was added “for children to admire”.

 

EMMELINE PANKHURST

Westminster, London

A recent survey reveals that some 85 per cent of statues depict famous men. (Even our most high-profile animal likeness in stone, Greyfriar’s Bobby in Edinburgh, is male.) So it’s only fitting to celebrate this bronze representation of Emmeline Pankhurst, a striking figure in a fur-trimmed coat at the entrance to Victoria Tower Gardens—in the shadow of the Parliament she fought so hard to gain admission to.

The statue celebrates her “courageous leadership” as a militant suffragette at the turn of the 20th century, and was erected just two years after her death in 1928 (fittingly on International Women’s Day), a decade after women finally achieved the vote. The same sculptor, Arthur George Walker, also made the statue of Florence Nightingale for the Crimean War memorial in nearby Waterloo Place.

 

DUKE OF WELLINGTON

Royal Exchange Square, Glasgow

Most equestrian statues go unnoticed, but not this one. Crafted by Italian sculptor Carlo Marochetti and voted by Lonely Planet as one of the “top ten most bizarre monuments on earth”, it even has its own Facebook page. Situated outside the Gallery of Modern Art, this representation of Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington (who defeated Napoleon at Waterloo), has achieved notoriety for the tradition—starting some time in the 1980s—of local drinkers climbing up the plinth and placing a traffic cone on Wellington’s head (and on that of his horse Copenhagen too).

It’s often the fate of public statues to be ridiculed, but Glasgow Council took a very dim view of the malarkey. Last year, they planned to raise the plinth to stamp out the tradition, but they hadn’t banked on a ferocious social-media campaign to defeat them. As one protester put it: “The cone on Wellington’s head is an iconic part of Glasgow’s heritage, and means far more to the people of Glasgow and to visitors than Wellington himself ever has.”

 

JOHN LENNON

The Cavern Pub, Matthew Street, Liverpool

The Beatles singer—or rather a slightly podgy version by sculptor Dave Webster—is immortalised leaning nonchalantly against the outside wall of The Cavern Pub in Liverpool. It’s as fitting a place as any to commemorate Lennon; his legendary band played here at least 300 times. But although the head has been remodelled three times to resemble a better likeness of his 1963 self, it still doesn’t really look like him.

There are other statues of Liverpool’s most famous son all over the city, including at the airport (a later-version Lennon with round specs) and on the waterfront, but this one is the magnet, especially with overseas tourists. It’s his birthday (October 9) and the anniversary of his death (December 8) that really draw the crowds—fans leave flowers, light candles and gather round the statue to sing. More often than not, the lyrics to “Imagine” can be heard echoing around the vicinity.

 

BRIAN CLOUGH

Junction of King and Queen Street, Nottingham

Unlike the Victorians, we haven’t been so quick to erect statues of the great and the good. But thanks to rabid supporters—and maybe the cash available to the FA—we do get a fair number of footballing heroes. The statue fund for legendary Nottingham Forest manager Brian Clough, for example, managed to raise over £70,000 from fans within 18 months, with Hampshire-based sculptor Les Johnson winning the commission. More than 5,000 fans gathered to see his widow Barbara unveil “Old Big ’Ead” (as he was known) in 2008.

Other recently erected football statues include Bobby Moore outside Wembley, Sir Alex Ferguson at Old Trafford (as well as the famous 1960s forward line of Charlton, Best and Law), and footballer Sir Stanley Matthews in Stoke-on-Trent. It’s just a matter of time for Beckham.