Grief compels us to commemorate those we have lost. In a Belgian cemetery, artist Kathe Köllwitz has built Grieving Parents, two granite statues of a man and a woman watching over the graves of 25,000 German soldiers killed during the Great War. One of the soldiers was his son, whose death left “a wound in our lives that will never heal.”
For millions, the Queen’s death gave them a connection to their own grief, a way to remember their own wounds. She reigned longer than most of us have lived and stood as a constant in the background of our lives, a stoic witness to our celebrations and sorrows. The intimacy many felt for a woman they had never met is a deeply human response to her life and death.
Yet, at a time when Mary Poppins, skyscrapers, gardening and babies mark fault lines in the culture wars, it’s no surprise that demands for a statue of the queen have been weaponised. The detonator was Sadiq Khan’s refusal to allow a statue of the Queen to be erected on the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square.
The plinth had stood empty for 150 years before Prue Leith, then Vice-President of the Royal Society of Artists, made it a site for contemporary sculpture installations. Facilities included Alison Lapper Pregnant by Marc Quinn Another by Antony Gormley, where 2,400 members of the public were invited to spend an hour each standing on the plinth, and Michael Rakowitz’s recreation of a statue of an Assyrian deity that was destroyed by Isis in 2015. current installation depicts controversial anti-colonialist Pastor John Chilembwe, whose uprising in Nyasaland in 1915 may have been motivated as much by his precarious financial situation as by his utopianism. It should be replaced in 2024 by the faces of 850 transgender people.
In 2013 Commander John Muxworthy suggested turning the fourth plinth into a permanent memorial to Margaret Thatcher. Norman Tebbit supported the campaign, observing that “Nelson could keep an eye on her”. Ken Livingstone, the former mayor of London, objected, saying he understood that “the fourth plinth is reserved for Queen Elizabeth II”.
Now that the queen is dead, Sadiq Khan clearly disagrees with Ken Livingstone, who argues that the temporary settlement program must continue. He received support in this from Leith and, perhaps surprisingly, from Simon Heffer, the historian and Telegraph journalist. Leith defended Khan on the grounds that the plinth “became part of the national curriculum for children to think about public art” while Heffer argued that the fourth plinth was too insignificant and the Queen would “be overshadowed by Nelson” .
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What to do then?
There will be those, like the American professor Uju Anya, who wanted the queen to die “in agony” and who would topple any statue erected in her honor. Such is the terrifying certainty of those who look at the past without nuance and the present without pity. The queen’s stoic dignity deserves better. In 1999, the first occupant of the fourth plinth was Ecce Homo, a life-size Jesus Christ sculpted by Mark Wallinger. He wanted to represent a man and not a deity, “just a guy delivered to the lynching mob”. We must ensure, whatever the fate of the Fourth Pedestal, that a woman with a deep and gentle Christian faith does not suffer the same fate.
[See also: Notes on a mourning nation]