Blue Badge Tourist Guides on a tour of London will almost always go through Trafalgar Square in the centre of the city. One of its most striking features is the sculpture on display on the northwest side of the Square. The Fourth Plinth was empty until 1999, when a rolling series of artworks were installed on it, each one staying there for around eighteen months until it was replaced with a new contemporary work of modern art.
It had originally been intended that a statue of King William IV would stand on the plinth, but a lack of funds meant it was never completed, and the ‘sailor king’ does not have a statue in London. His brother – and predecessor – King George IV, has a distinguished equestrian statue on the northeastern side of the square. Their father, King George III, is also remembered with a statue behind Canada House.
William was succeeded by a young Queen Victoria, who ascended to the throne at the age of eighteen in 1837 and had the longest reign of any British monarch until her record of sixty-three years was overtaken by Queen Elizabeth II, who reigned for seventy years from her accession in 1952 until her death at the age of ninety-six in 2022. Although she is not commemorated in Trafalgar Square, there are many statues of Queen Victoria in London and throughout the world, most prominently in front of Buckingham Palace.
Blue Domestic Cockerel, aka Rooster on Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square. Photo Credit: © Ursula Petula Barzey.
There had been proposals that a statue of Queen Elizabeth II should be placed on the Fourth Plinth. Despite her popularity and her long and distinguished reign, this is now unlikely as the citizens of London have become used to the idea of placing a modern artwork on the plinth and replacing it after a year or so. The late Queen Elizabeth will now probably be commemorated in a different location, and the Fourth Plinth Commission, supervised by the Mayor of Greater London, will choose an artwork to stand in the centre of the capital.
It was television personality and chef Prue Leith who wrote to the Evening Standard in 1994 suggesting that something should be done about this empty space in the heart of London. Leith is a well-known food writer and has taken over as the presenter of popular Great British Bake Off television show. She was then chair of the Royal Society of Arts and her letter led to a commission being established under the distinguished writer and lawyer John Mortimer to find a use for London’s most famous empty space. It was decided that a rolling commission of new artworks would fill the space.
In 2022 a new sculpture was unveiled on the Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square. It is called Antelope by the artist Samson Kambalu and contains a representation of the Baptist preacher and pan-Africanist John Chilembwe wearing a hat, which was illegal for native Africans at the time, together with a smaller statue of the Baptist missionary John Chorley. Chilembwe is considered a hero by his fellow Malawians for defying the racist laws of the day and leading a rebellion against colonial rule by the British. This cost him his life in 1915, but he is remembered every year in his native Malawi on John Chilembwe Day, the 15th of January.
Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square: Antelope by Samson Kambalu. Photo Credit: © Edwin Lerner.
The next installation due to appear on the Fourth Plinth is 850 Impromptas by the Mexican artist Teresa Margolles. It is a representation of 850 trans people from London and around the world in the form of a trompanti or skull rack and is due to be unveiled in 2024.
Kambalu’s statue of Chilembwe replaced a sculpture by the Turner-nominated artist and poet Heather Phillipson called The End. It showed a representation of a dollop of whipped cream with a cherry on top, a fly and a drone which films passers-by and displays them on a nearby screen. Deliberately unsettling and open to a variety of interpretations, The End represented both exuberance and unease and was certainly an arresting and interesting image that attracted almost as much attention as the nearby Nelson’s Column.
Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square: The End by Heather Phillipson. Photo Credit: © Ursula Petula Barzey.
The End replaced The Invisible Enemy Should Not Exist, a sculpture by the American-Iraqi artist Michael Rakowitz which occupied the Fourth Plinth between 2018 and 2020. This is a representation of the winged deity Lamassu which stood at the Nergal Gate of the ancient Assyrian city of Nineveh, near to modern-day Mosul. It is made from 10,500 cans which previously held date syrup, an important product of an Iraqi industry devastated by the recent warfare. The original sculpture was destroyed by ISIS in 2015 and Rakowitz’s work is intended to encourage a symbolic rebirth of the city’s past, present, and future. It is just one part of a project aimed at recreating the estimated seven thousand artworks destroyed in Iraq in recent years, either deliberately by ISIS or as an unwanted by-product of the war which started after the American invasion of the country in 2003.
London’s Blue Badge Tourist Guides who take their groups through the British Museum will often stop to point out some massive Assyrian sculptures before moving on to the nearby Parthenon Marbles. These represent the half-lion half-man figures guarding the entrance to the royal palace of King Ashurnasirpal the Second and were built in the ninth century BC. Now they can point out a modern version of the same creatures made from date syrup cans standing in the centre of London on the Fourth Plinth. The statue was unveiled by the mayor of London Sadiq Khan, the first Moslem to be elected mayor of a major western city.
Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square: The Invisible Enemy Should Not Exist by Michael Rakowitz. Photo Credit: © Ursula Petula Barzey.
Amongst artworks featured in Trafalgar Square have been Monument, an upside-down perspex model of the plinth itself by the artist Rachel Whiteread, who specialises in using plastic materials to represent empty spaces. Other works on the plinth include Cock by Katharina Fritsch, a bright blue cockerel which symbolises ‘regeneration, awakening and strength’, and Ecce Homo by Mark Wallinger, a representation of Christ wearing only a loincloth and crown made of barbed wire instead of thorns. London’s guides may remember Anthony Gormley’s One and Other which showed a variety of real people occupying the plinth for an hour, one of them a guide taking calls and arranging tours on her telephone.
The choice of artwork is made by the Fourth Plinth Commission team which is chosen by the Mayor of London. Details and photographs of all the previous works of art on the Fourth Plinth can be seen on the Mayor of London’s Fourth Plinth Programme website.
Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square_Gift Horse by Hans Haack. Photo Credit: © Ursula Petula Barzey.
Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square: Really Good by David Shrigley. Photo Credit: © Ursula Petula Barzey.