27 May 2010
In Charles Dickens’ Pickwick Papers, Sam Weller is said to have a knowledge of London that was ‘extensive and peculiar’ while Sherlock Holmes, according to Dr. Watson, had ‘an exact knowledge of London’. I’ve always been more Weller than Holmes and one of the really great things about being out of work is that I have the time to aimlessly wander round London. And for me one of the things that makes London worth wandering around is the street art.
Unfortunately there ain’t as many Banksy’s around these days but there’s still a fine example near the Barbican in Chiswell Street. Then there’s your more official stuff like the Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square. Here you’ve got Nelson atop of his column, fountains and four plinths for statues in the square. Bronze statues stand on three of them: General Sir Charles James Napier is on the plinth in the southwest of the square, Major General Sir Henry Havelock on the southeast plinth and King George IV on the northeast plinth. The Fourth Plinth, built in 1841 in the northwest corner, was set aside for another equestrian statue but has largely been empty. (Can’t think why – it’s not as if we’re short of imperialist warmongers to glorify is it?) It is now the location for specially commissioned artworks. The most recent is leading Anglo-Nigerian artist Yinka Shonibare’s Ship in a Bottle. This artwork is the first commission on the Fourth Plinth to reflect specifically on the historical symbolism of Trafalgar Square, which commemorates the Battle of Trafalgar (nothing if not literal them Victorians), and will link directly with Nelson’s column. It is also the first commission by a black British artist.
Bloody good it is too. It’s drawn admiring crowds since it’s unveiling on 24 May and the day I was there I stood next to actor Bill Nighy discussing its merits. He was a fan too. As Yinka Shonibare himself says his piece will reflect the story of multiculturalism in London: “For me it’s a celebration of London’s immense ethnic wealth, giving expression to and honouring the many cultures and ethnicities that are still breathing precious wind into the sails of the United Kingdom. A ship in a bottle is an object of wonder. Adults and children are intrigued by its mystery. How can such towering masts and billowing sails fit inside such a commonplace object? With Nelson’s Ship in a Bottle I want to take this childhood sense of wonder and amplify it to match the monumental scale of Trafalgar Square.” It has been commissioned by the Mayor of London and supported by Arts Council England and The Henry Moore Foundation with sponsorship from Guaranty Trust Bank. (Glad to see a bank doing something worthwhile as opposed to just screwing the global economy while paying out obscene bonuses to the culprits.)
The art gives us a reason to reappraise London’s architecture and geography and see the unifying spirit behind its sprawling diversity. It’s good to look at as well. Right now London is hosting the biggest outdoor event ever – the Elephant Parade. As the Evening Standard says: “A Jumbo Jamboree”. Organised by conservationist Mark Shand to raise money for the endangered Asian elephant, 258 individually artist-decorated fibreglass statues are dotted around London in prominent locations. Throughout May and June from Heathrow to Greenwich you can check them out undertaking your very own elephant safari. What better excuse do you need to tramp London’s streets?
Not that I’m any sort of expert but as all the ones I’ve seen are tuskless I’m guessing that they’re all girls. Most are already sponsored, though some can still be ‘adopted’ for charity and all of them will be collected and auctioned off on 3 July. If you’ve neither the funds nor the space for a 2 metre high elephant you can buy miniatures from Selfridges. I’ve seen quite a few so far. Before playing softball the other evening I investigated the 6 that sit behind the railings at the east end of the Serpentine in Hyde Park. The royal parks are good locations for the statues. In St James Park you can see a line of them – for all the world like Colonel Hathi’s troop in The Jungle Book. I especially like the ones in front of the Royal Exchange. Paul Smith has designed a cool stripey version.
It’d take a few trips to catch ‘em all but I make a mental note to journey south of the river to view the one outside the Elephant & Castle shopping centre before the end of June. Public art in public spaces for the public benefit – it makes you proud to be a Londoner. It helps you reconnect with the city and the various bodies responsible for all this should be congratulated on their vision and willingness to put these displays together.