Toppling Statues 

A PSSA Webinar Review

Over the last two days, I attended the Toppling Statues Webinar; a very ‘2020’ event, focussing on one of 2020’s hottest art world topics. Hosted by the newly-formed Public Statues and Sculpture Association (PSSA), I was all geared up for statue-bashing debates, and ready to rejoice in that triumphant feeling we felt when Colston plummeted into the Avon

So, on Monday morning I eagerly tuned into the webinar. What I was not ready for, however, was three consecutive middle-aged, white, male speakers who saw the toppling of Colston as a loss of public control and lawlessness. An opening statement read by a jolty, robotic speech reader on behalf of an absent Lord Patrick Cormack explained that there was no need to apologise for the past, and that Britain’s colonial statues should be treated as no more than masterpieces of Victorian sculpture. I was shook. However, I looked back at the programme to reassure myself that some sense would eventually be spoken, and it was, but more on that later.

After Lord Cormack was Ian Morely, a nice enough guy who had made the effort to tune in and offer his two pence all the way from Hong Kong. His overall approach centred roughly around the fact that it doesn’t matter whether the people who public statues depict are good or bad, as long as they reflect history. I’m not one for airbrushing history, so this seems reasonable enough, and has pretty much governed people’s approach to the topic since the statues were erected. However, Ian is a specialist in the urban history of the Philippines, and I was keen to hear what he had to say about colonialist statues there. 

I was glad he covered the subject, but I was surprised by his angle: basically, Ian asserted that Filipino people love their colonial monuments, regardless of the subject matter, because statues are objectively glorious (to paraphrase, they love symbols of past colonialism because they’re cool and arty…). He also spoke about how the global BLM protests had almost no resonance in the country, which I thought sounded odd coming from a white western man, plus I couldn’t really see the point he was trying to make (maybe that Filipinos aren’t woke and liberal?) So I dug a little deeper. The black population in the Philippines is very small; some people refer to the Aeta people as black owing to their characteristics, but they only make up 1.8% of the population. So, it’s not so much that the BLM protests did not resonate in the Philippines, but that there aren’t enough black people to have made a significant impact. I’m not even sure of the relevance here, and I’ll leave it up to you to decide.

He said a lot more, but these were the main points that I took away. It was an underwhelming approach told from a foreign, white perspective. I was a little deflated but looking forward to hearing some more contemporary opinions discussed.

“I was all geared up for statue-bashing debates, and ready to rejoice in that triumphant feeling we felt when Colston plummeted into the Avon”

Vandalised James Cook Sculpture in Sydney saying 'No Pride in Genocide'

The next speaker, Mark Stocker, did quite the opposite. He opened with an oddly phrased tribute to Sir Keir Starmer, praising him for his comments that denounced the toppling of Colston, stating that “Colston was not the peoples’ to get rid of”. Astonishingly, he then went on a rampage about how we’ve got Colston all wrong – he highlighted how he was a philanthropist, and “a merchant who did the most to help his fellow humans” – I kid you not.

But it didn’t stop there – Mark insisted that anyone who supported the toppling of statues was ignorant to Victorian art and art history, and he made a proud point of refusing to sign a petition that called for the removal of an outdated James Cook statue in Sydney. Basically, Mark expressed his dislike of ‘presentism’, of applying modern values to the past. Of course the past cannot be changed, but we can change the way we view people of the past, and frankly, we no longer need to celebrate slavers and colonisers. He made a few valid points: statues are symbols of the past, and are important historical documents; but has he ever considered how people feel as they walk past these statues? Just calling for a bit of modern empathy, Mark x

Next up was a breath of fresh air, and one of the conference’s best speakers: Sir Geoff Palmer. He opened with a very poignant line: “we cannot change the past, but we can change consequences”. He advocated that writing narratives on plaques takes time and needs to be carefully considered, questioning how we can address the consequences of chattel slavery. Marvellous Geoff also slid in a brilliant backhander to Mark, forcefully stating that “you cannot balance evil by philanthropy, it must be addressed separately, and it is this argument that negates the toppling of statues”. YES Geoff. 

He also spoke a lot about a man called Henry Dundas, who was responsible for delaying the abolition of slavery for 15 years in order to stagger the damage it would cause the British economy, advocating that it should be (and ultimately was) abolished gradually. Dundas is lauded for his economic contribution, but Geoff added that contextualising wrongdoing is just an excuse; “What Dundas did was wrong, and he did it to people”.

“We can change the way we view people of the past, and frankly, we no longer need to celebrate slavers and colonisers”

Sadly I missed Monday afternoon’s speakers, so I’m going to jump to my highlights of Day 2 (I did actually hear Michael Sandel, an RA sculptor and honorary president of the PSSA, speak – he couldn’t cope with Zoom, he couldn’t find his notes, he overran his slot, and he kept interrupting the Chair… it was pretty abominable. He made a few borderline racist comments, and he didn’t have anything wildly interesting to say, sorry Michael).

Tuesday’s webinar kicked off with an extremely academic speech from Marie Daouda, which I must admit, was a bit beyond me. Nonetheless, she drew attention to Cecil Rhodes and the Rhodes Must Fall protests in Capetown and Oxford. I think a lot of what Marie was trying to get across was about not submitting to the pressure of iconoclasm (tearing statues down as a social statement) because this implies weakness, a kind of inability to move beyond these historic figures. It was all very highbrow, but overall she made a valuable contribution from a different point of view.

Sculpture of Cecil Rhodes during the Rhodes Must Fall protests

“[The sculpture of Charles II] is a real no-brainer: it has no artistic value, and no one likes it – it should be removed.”

Charles II Sculpture Soho Square London

The next speaker was one of my favourites, and an artist that I really admire: Hew Locke. I loved the approach of his speech as he unapologetically went through a list of statues he’d like to see toppled and why. One example was a statue of George Washington by Jean Antoine Houdan in Trafalgar Square. Given as a gift from the Commonwealth of Virginia in 1921, it was installed during the height of Jim Crow law in the US. Washington himself was a slave owner for over 50 years, and he never spoke publicly about his views on slavery. Basically, Hew said that the statue is offensive and it should be relocated.

Another example was the statue in Soho Square, London of Charles II, who founded the Royal Africa Company and shipped more slaves across the Atlantic than anyone else. The statue is badly eroded and poorly restored, with its lumpy concrete face that was replaced in the 1930s. This one is a real no-brainer: it has no artistic value, and no one likes it – it should be removed.

I admired Hew’s straight-to-the-point approach, and I really enjoyed seeing his artistic responses to these sculptures through his Restoration and Souvenir series. In the Q&A session Hew said that if Colston must be on display, the sculpture should be laid on its side and displayed in a dedicated museum. Once it is stood upright it regains its power and loses the ‘hollowness’ of when it’s toppled – I just love this idea.

“This wasn’t just a webinar, it was a debate. And that’s why intentionally provocative people were invited to join”

The next speakers, Madge Dresser and Helen Paul, both focussed their talks on Colston. Helen brought attention to the compensation payments for loss of slaves, noting that they were only completed in 2015, and this information only came to light in 2018 via a politician’s tweet. She also spoke about Colston Day, which I hadn’t heard of before. Celebrated on his birthday, 13th November, it was a public holiday in the 18th century which was commemorated by the laying of laurel wreaths in front of his statues, and the eating of ‘Colston bread’. He was made into a kind of saint, and worryingly, the ceremony was seen to be practiced in a cathedral in Cape Town as late as this century. 

This wasn’t just a webinar, it was a debate. And that’s why intentionally provocative people were invited to join, to offer a rounded view of different opinions. Alexander Adams was one of these provocative speakers, and to be honest, I don’t want to dedicate too much space to discussing him – I found his speech self-indulgent, hard to follow, and boring. Like Mark, he found statue topplers woke and lawless, slating people who were advocating change and closed to hearing new viewpoints. So that’s all I’ll say about Alexander. 

Statue of Edward Colston being toppled

“Edwin offered a balanced, eloquent, and inspiring talk, focusing on how the meaning attached to symbols, and thus monuments, changes over time”

I keep saying I had favourites, but the next speech really was fantastic. I loved it because I wasn’t expecting to, and I learnt so much. Edwin Fountain offered an American perspective as the General Counsel at American Battle Monuments Commission in Virginia. Confederate Civil War monuments are particularly controversial, and something whose display I would have completely dismissed. But Edwin offered a balanced, eloquent, and inspiring talk, focusing on how the meaning attached to symbols, and thus monuments, changes over time and has different implications for different people.

The American Civil War was not only about slavery, but about state rights. So, people who fought in the south were not solely motivated by slavery, but by state loyalty. This has a direct affect on how we view confederate monuments. The late 1800s and early 1900s saw the erection of monuments to leaders of the South, which coincided with the resurgence of white supremacy and Jim Crow law. Therefore, many people see these monuments as nothing more than a threat to black citizens, perpetuating the message of hate and white supremacy, which has recently been amplified by the death of George Floyd.


However, there is still a sentiment to commemorate the war dead. For some, confederate statues glorify slavery, and for others they glorify those who gave their lives for a cause greater than themselves; these statues have multiple meanings that change over time. Edwin gave a great example of statues commemorating Robert E. Lee: with statues of Lee in Virginia, it’s hard to see any use other than glorifying his role in the war. When placed outside of Virginia, these statues can be seen as commemorative to the war dead, rather than as a celebration of the war’s racist leaders. That’s a bit of an oversimplification of Edwin’s point, but I appreciated his very balanced way of looking at things.

Another example he used was monuments to the Vietnam War – this was an unjust war, but America still commemorates the soldiers who died without condoning the war itself. He ended with a few important statements: discussion of the removal of confederate statues should include discussion of their different meanings, and the importance of scale – perhaps artists can add new work alongside the existing statues to challenge them and add context. Edwin is not an advocate for tearing statues down, but his speech was a brilliant and important addition to the webinar.

Confederate statue being toppled in California

The plaque describes him as “a brave, resolute and self-reliant soldier, universally acknowledged as the first who stemmed the torrent of rebellion in Bengal”

James George Smith Neill statue in Ary, Scotland

Mary Ann Steggles gave an interesting account of one statue located in Ayr, Scotland. The sculpture is of  James George Smith Neill (or you might know him by his lovely nickname, the Butcher of Allahabad). He committed atrocious crimes in his position as Military Officer for the East India Company during the Indian Rebellion of 1857 – he was a deeply troubling individual, who hanged and shot those suspected of mutiny, and made others lick the blood of decapitated rebels off the floor. In true British colonial-hero-style, the plaque on his monument in Ayr describes him as “a brave, resolute and self-reliant soldier, universally acknowledged as the first who stemmed the torrent of rebellion in Bengal” (you can sign the petition against this monstrous sculpture here).

Mary also mentioned that a copy of this statue was erected in Madras (today known as Chennai) which was attacked and permanently moved to the anthropology section of the Madras Museum; it has not been seen since. 

Over 2000 words later, I have finally reached my conclusion of the Toppling Statues Webinar! I didn’t mention all of the speakers because I’d have to have written a book, but I’ve covered the main highlights, warts and all. It was a brilliant couple of days, with an enlightening debate that really represented all sides of the argument. It exceeded my expectations, and encouraged me to consider the toppling of statues in a new and better-informed light. I love a bit of drama, and the speakers brought the perfect balance of considered arguments and contentious opinions.

2020 has been a year of controversies, but opportunities to debate and challenge some of the art world’s stale narratives have been seized by many people. But the webinar was also much more than just a debate about sculpture; it acted as a lens through which we can view the wider problems faced by today’s society, and start to address some of the more important questions. I have had my mind opened and my opinions challenged – thank you to the PSSA and The Burlington Magazine for making it possible. 

Thanks for reading!

The Art Wanderer

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