HomeEducation By SubjectHistory EducationSTATUES, SURREALISM AND PUBLIC SPACE



Where would you expect to see a statue? Perhaps in a public square, or outside a government building? And what would you expect to see? A representation, usually of a male figure and probably rendered in stone or bronze.


Statues as memento mori: in this case of Sir Reynold Cobham (c.1295-1361), first Baron Cobham of Sterborough on his tomb in Lingfield parish church. Photo: the author.


The ways in which statues have been historically deployed to populate public space conditions how we come to read them. Yet the locations in which statues might be expected to be found have changed over time. In medieval and early modern Europe statues were primarily either memento mori or objects of veneration, to be found in sacred spaces known as churches. Any other statues in public space were invariably of royal personages and served, as had those of Roman emperors in the past, as markers of power. They could also carry other explicitly political messages. Consider the various statues erected during the eighteenth century to William III celebrating, as the plinth of his statue in Hull puts it, the role of ‘Our Great Deliverer’ in the ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1688.

During the Victorian era these were increasingly joined in newly laid out civic squares across the country and empire by arrays of statues, often including the queen herself. A similar statuomania took place across Europe as an element in building national and civic identities. It is this Victorian practice that principally came to shape public expectation of where statues are found and what they should look like.

It should be obvious that this throng of nineteenth-century statues tells us more about the history of memorialisation than about the events or people they purportedly celebrate. That is, if they are noticed at all. Even during the Victorian era there were complaints about the unmemorable nature of many of these memorials. For instance, The Times on 7 March 1861 described the statue of Sir Henry Havelock in Trafalgar Square as:

one of those uninteresting statues with which London is crowded, and of which we have nothing to say except that we never look at them twice, never think of them, never care to remember them.

These statues are so conventional as to be sub-real. This raises the question, for me at least, of what might instead render them surreal, expressing a super-reality, rather than an occluding laudatory veneer?

The British landscape artist and surrealist Paul Nash in the 1930s suggested that:

A statue in a street or some place where it would normally be found is just a statue, as it were, in its right mind, but a statue in a ditch or in the middle of a ploughed field is then an object in a state of surrealism.

Yet there is nothing surreal about a Roman statue dug up in a field. Nor was that of James II (in Roman garb) surreal when it spent a year in the 1890s on its back in a garden off Whitehall. From there it was rescued by the authorities and, a couple of moves later, now stands outside the National Gallery in Trafalgar Square.

Those public authorities determine if statues should be in a public space. They also generally adjudicate where they are located and what they should look like. Bodies like Historic England decide whether, as with James II’s statue, they should be listed. These public authorities also determine whether statues are maintained or, like that to the radical parliamentary reformer Henry Hunt in Manchester in the 1880s, pulled down as unsafe.

It is relatively rare that the public have much say in whether a statue is, in Nash’s terms, in its right mind. It was an unusual act of protest in Bristol in 2020 which removed the Victorian-era statue of Edward Colston, a slave trader of the Royal Africa Company of which James II was the head. Subsequently, the relocation of Colston’s statue to a museum has changed its meaning to one marking anti-racism and anti-colonialism, but it has not rendered it surreal.

Nor is there anything surreal about the deliberate chipping off the nose of the Victorian-era statue of William III in Brixham. This type of statue mutilation can be traced back to ancient Egypt and likely reflects in milder form the hostility his statue in Dublin provoked before it was blown up by the IRA in 1928. Instead, this is better seen as a monument on a monument, a small act of resistance to the authorised narratives such statues proclaim in public space.


The Grade II listed statue of William III – sans nose – in Brixham harbour, erected in 1888-89 to commemorate the bicentenary of his landing there en route to replacing his uncle James II on the throne. Photo: the author.


Surrealism is more an attempt to reveal the realities most public statues hide beneath their celebratory patina. Notwithstanding Nash’s view, this does not necessarily involve relocation of the statue. Yet it may invert the spatial syntax of a statue, literally in the case of Charles Robb’s upside-down rendition of Charles La Trobe at his eponymous university in Australia.

This changing spatial syntax is one of three ways in which, I argue, a statue can be rendered surreal. A second is indeed by changing its location. For instance, David Cerny’s ‘Man Hanging Out’ in the Czech town of Olomouc places Sigmund Freud suspended by his arm precariously high about the street. It thereby references the impact of Freud’s ideas on the twentieth century and the fragility of the mind he examined far more effectively than Oscar Nemon’s right-minded portrayal outside his final home in Hampstead.


David Cerny’s depiction of Freud as ‘Man Hanging Out’ (1997), taken from Dan K.’s review on TripAdvisor: https://bit.ly/3sr8o2F.


The third means of rendering a statue surreal is by changing its artistic language. Take the statue of ‘Bloody’ Cumberland, so named for the sanguinary nature of the vengeance wreaked upon Jacobites after his victory at Culloden in 1746. The statue erected in his honour in 1769 became a victim of Victorian cancel culture in 1868 when it was quietly taken down, ostensibly for repairs. The original statue was melted down, yet its simulacrum returned in 2012, recreated by Meekyoung Shin, only this time in soap symbolically washing the blood Cumberland had shed.

Whether by changing the expected materials, colours or representation, alterations in artistic language can thus render a statue surreal. In such a state, it can speak more provocatively and eloquently to the discourse of public space.



About the author


Pippa Catterall is Professor of History and Policy at the University of Westminster. She is also chair of AIDS Memory UK and the George Lansbury Memorial Trust, a trustee of the Heritage of London Trust and co-edits National Identities.

Recent publications include her 2021 co-authored report on Queering Public Space and her current research continues to focus on the history and inclusivity of public space.

Pippa’s article, ‘Statues, Spatial Syntax and Surrealism: ‘History’ and Heritagescapes in Public Space‘, was published in Transactions of the Royal Historical Society in August 2023.





Transactions is the flagship academic journal of the Royal Historical Society. First published in 1872, Transactions has been publishing the highest quality scholarship in history for 150 years.



The journal welcomes submissions dealing with any geographical area from the early middle ages to the very recent past, and is interested in articles that cover entirely new ground, thematically or methodologically, as well as those that engage critically on established themes in existing literatures. Recently published articles are available on Cambridge UP FirstView.

Transactions welcomes proposals from all historians. If you’re currently working on a research article or a think piece, please consider Transactions as the journal in which to publish your work.

For more posts introducing recently published Transactions articles, click here.

Rizwan Ahmed
Rizwan Ahmed
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