Pygmalion, Don Giovanni’s singing stookie, and Jackie Kay’s ‘mythical stone statue that is turning into a person before my eyes’ in her memoir Red Dust Road excepted, statues are inanimate, can’t engage in political discourse, and make easy targets.
Many offend our modern liberal and radical sensibilities. Others are useful virtue-signalling distractions for those who like to exploit an easy political opportunity, rather than address root causes and develop well-reasoned arguments.
Statue bashing is no recent phenomenon. Rebelling Americans upended George III and his horse in New York, melting him down for 42,088 musket balls. He has since been cast in replica for Philadelphia’s Museum of the American Revolution. The USA continues to have a tussle with its conscience over statues, such as those to heroes of the Confederacy in Monument Avenue, Richmond, Virginia, where Jefferson Davis was toppled, and Ulysses S Grant was among three felled in a single day.
Statues are also civic cultural artefacts and celebrate their creators, as much as their subjects. A glance at the statue of ‘white saviour’ David Livingstone in Princes Street Gardens connects us not only with a famous explorer and missionary who used ‘unfree’ Mangololo porters, but also with one of Scotland’s finest sculptors, Amelia Paton Hill. In the case of the effigy of the much-vilified Henry Dundas, the sculptor was Lanarkshire-born and self-taught Robert Forrest, who began his working life as a shepherd until discovering the power of stone. His best-known work is the statue of William Wallace on Lanark’s Tolbooth.
The destruction of a work of art is a subjective act, usually arising from some instinct to exercise power over the past. It can also be an expression of petulance, as in the case of Henry VIII, who destroyed England’s – and much of Scotland’s – ecclesiastical artistic heritage after the Pope refused to accommodate his marital aspirations. Other motives are more perplexing. Why on earth would sculptor Kenny Hunter suggest deconstructing Robert Forrest’s statue of Dundas and re-using its stone to create something else? Is it a case of the successful classically trained artist and art college lecturer, Hunter, being disdainful of the work of the ingenious amateur, Forrest, who was plying his trade 200 years ago?
In Scotland we have Golspie’s ‘Mannie’. Ostensibly a homage to the Duke of Sutherland and forever linked with the Highland Clearances, it withstood an attempt to dynamite it in 1994 and its plinth has since sustained much angry hammering. Two locals I once spoke to in a pub in Helmsdale had no truck with such vandalism, mind you. They had no love whatever for His Grace, but even less for agitators from elsewhere who, they insisted, assumed a condescending right to destroy what had become, for them, a monument not to the man, but to his dark deeds. I was assured that everyone in Kildonan Strath felt much as they did. Maybe so, but alternative views – like the suggestion he be moved to Dunrobin Castle – at least deserve an airing.
In Lithuania, after an initial bout of post-Soviet toppling and smashing, someone decided to gather all offending statues and monuments together in a rogues gallery ‘Memento Park’ similar to the one in Budapest, though with the added attraction of a solitary bear confined to a compound to symbolise the Russian occupier brought to heel.
Here was a bizarre collection of redundant Stalins, Lenins, and Dzerzhinskys, with guard towers set in beautifully landscaped grounds around a placid lake. When I visited, a school party was being regaled with tales of the suffering of their parents and grandparents and shown the railway wagon which despatched not a few of them to the Gulag.
Measured against that trauma, our statue problems in Scotland are surely puny; our current outrage a mite self-indulgent and synthetic, though the emblematic validity of our public monuments should indeed be critically scrutinised from time to time.
History is a complex and labyrinthine business and we should test our judgements against known facts. Past individuals, too, could be capricious and were often nuanced in their views. Cultural memory is important in all societies, and often a target for regimes which seek to oppress. Movements like ISIS and the Taliban tend to take a perverse pleasure in the destruction of such monuments as the Bamiyan Buddhas or the temples of Palmyra, in Syria.
If we were to draw up a list of the guilty in Scotland, we might be in for a few surprises. How about Robert Burns for example? He was, after all, set on a life as an overseer on a friend’s West Indies sugar plantation when, as luck would have it, his book turned out to be a bestseller. He went to Edinburgh instead. Should we remove all Burns statues in Scotland, as well as the one in New York’s Central Park, because he was about to become – in his own guilt-infused words – a ‘negro driver?’
Another plum to sook on is the case of Liberal Prime Minister William Ewart Gladstone, whose name has recently been removed from a Liverpool University building on the grounds that his father received one of the largest compensation settlements – tens of millions in today’s money – for his 2,500 freed sugar plantation slaves who got nothing. This was by no means the biggest settlement in Scotland – the Baillies of Dochfour were some way ahead.
Gladstone, although sympathetic to the Confederate cause in America, comes with an additional complication. The statuary group in Edinburgh’s Coates Crescent, a great work of art in its own right, was controversial amongst those who were determined that the commission should go to a Scottish artist. The campaign succeeded, and the job went to sculptor and poet James Pittendrigh MacGillivray, the Scottish nationalist friend of Patrick Geddes and Hugh MacDiarmid. His studio assistants included the much under-rated Ottilie Maclaren Wallace, who would go on to work with Auguste Rodin in Paris.
We might remove one of the finest examples of Victorian street art in Scotland, but what would that actually achieve? The comfort of amnesia, perhaps. To expunge the imagery is to suppress the memory, which would seem to be counter-productive. It’s surely better to interrogate that memory, assess the man’s reputation in terms of his virtues and failings, and set the information out on a plaque – something which should have happened with the Dundas monument a long time ago.
As Jamaican born Professor Sir Geoff Palmer has pointed out, if you remove the evidence, you remove the deed, so Dundas should stay. The answer, he sensibly suggests, can be summed up in one word; education. Scotland’s role in slavery, in short, should be on the school curriculum.
Edinburgh council has indeed agreed a form of words which will set out the truth about Dundas’s role in history, but unfortunately due to a collective failure of nerve it won’t be quite the whole truth, for there is no mention of his defence of the fugitive slave, Joseph Knight. This is unfortunate, if only because Dundas’s atrocious failure to live up to that particular court decision does him no credit, and only blackens his later reputation further. Not telling the whole truth, indeed, is a moral and tactical mistake, as well as a lost opportunity. (See further exposition of the case in Pt 2).
To understand what the Melville monument means in its historic context requires a bit of research. The French academic, Dr Clarisse Goddard Desmarest, has written an entire paper on the subject, while James Robertson, in his fictional account of the life of Joseph Knight, provides a glimpse into the Dundas mind which doesn’t altogether accord with the present hyperventilated depiction of him as a ‘stone psychopath’, corrupt and authoritarian though he undoubtedly was.
Dundas was a significant, if deeply troubling, figure in Scottish history, and if we are to learn from that history we should have the courage to confront our demons, as well as cherish our saints.
In Part 2 Scotland’s ambiguous relationship with slavery, not least in the case of ‘Knight v Wedderburn, in which Henry Dundas, no less, upheld the principle that no human being could own another human being’
Featured image by Enric via Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 4.0. Image of Budapest monument park courtesy of Fay Young and of Lenin courtesy of the author.