We pass statues every day, often not knowing who old ones depict, if we notice them at all. Some burst into life as objects of our fury, when the unsavoury past of someone cast in bronze clashes with the present. On a Pedestal explores the emergence of statues into twenty-first century culture wars . . . but there’s much more to the book than that.
It examines the trend for modern statues to portray much-loved figures in popular culture – musicians, sports stars, comedians – rather than monarchs, politicians and generals. It celebrates heroes and heroines such as suffragettes and the only soldier awarded a Victoria Cross on D-Day.
Memorials feature, to those lost in war and in less predictable places. Britain’s quirks are captured in its statues. The book details monuments to animals, including the legendary Greyfriars Bobby, and explains why Bobby’s admirers are asked to keep their distance. It salutes the Duke of Wellington statue in Glasgow which for forty years has famously been capped with a traffic cone. On a Pedestal examines the lack of statues depicting women: there are more statues in Britain of jockey Lester Piggott than of all sportswomen. There are as many statues of people who were involved in the slave trade as there are of Black, Asian and minority ethnic people.
The book includes interviews with sculptors telling the stories behind some of the nation’s most popular modern statues, from Eric Morecambe to Emmeline Pankhurst. Sir Antony Gormley discusses the Angel of the North and his haunting ‘Iron Men’ sculptures that stand on the sands at Merseyside.
There are many extraordinary tales, such as the council whose Labour members voted for a statue of Margaret Thatcher while its Conservative members voted against; The Beatles statue that was made by another chart-topping pop star; the rock star who has a statue of a former band mate in his garden; the statue of Titanic’s captain that his home town tried to claim more than seventy years after it was erected elsewhere; the statue of a duck that caused a row in the railway world.
This is the first book to explore public statues around Britain, from the Scottish Highlands to the south coast, as well as Wales and Northern Ireland. Part history book, part travelogue, On a Pedestal increases our understanding of both our past and our present – discovering Britain through its statues. It’s a book that, ultimately, is more about flesh and blood than bronze.