Of late, all the news is about public statuary: should they stay, should they go? What precise criteria do we deploy to assess their suitability for either fate: their commissioners, original historical context, their specific subjects’ public reputations and deeds, the statue’s life-histories and accrued significances, or simply our contemporary morals, sensibilities and aesthetics?
Should statues be retained as close to their current appearance and situation as possible, retained and explained with information identifying the historical context of their creation, use and reuse, or retained but complemented with new statuary and monumentality to counter, complement or contextualise them? If retention is desired, what explanation is appropriate online or on-site, and can additional public art and monument-building confuse or counter their messages?
If removed, what should become of them? How do we explain their removal in their former locations? What should replace them? Where should they go to, be it to other public locations, semi-public situations, private venues, into museums, galleries or storage, should they actually be recycled into something else, or simply destroyed?
In July, I reflected on such questions regarding the removal of a sundial from public display at Dunham Massey National Trust last year following the Black Lives Matter protest in the wake of the death of George Floyd. Currently its final fate is in limbo, yet I noted how its absence still has a powerful effect in the Dunham Massey landscape via an explanatory text attached to the base of the plinth where the sundial had been. What will the final outcome be for Dunham Massey’s sundial? Let’s remember, this is an important and valid question: the fate of the 18th-century sculpture of a figure intended to represent the continent of Africa via the body of a loin-cloth wearing kneeling Black man, a figure positioned in today’s landscape where thousands upon thousands of National Trust visitors saw it each year. Or rather than ‘final outcome’ we should think of what the ‘next stage’ in its life-history will be?
I don’t wish to cast doubt upon these important questions and the significant conversations taking place surrounding the more controversial statues and their subjects, but I would contend this is not a debate simply for a minority of public statuary where historical personages are represented or else derogatory representations of colonialised and enslaved people, but instead for all of it. Indeed, one of the key contributions archaeologists can and should be making is to provide comparative context for the biographies of statuary but also many other forms of public monuments. This is because, from prehistoric times to the present, statues and other public memorials almost always have complex but finite biographies of construction and display and many have varied and contested afterlives of use and reuse, sometimes involving translation between multiple locations, augmented by associations with new memorials, monuments and statuary, and sometimes with multiple phases of inscriptions, both formal and informal. Moreover, sometimes, their former locations become distinctive through their absence, and through material citations to their former presence, and it is this particular dimension I wish to explore here.
So, by way of example, and because I only visited its former location very recently, I give you the Hercules statue (National Trust Collections: 1171288) at Chirk Castle. The Farnese Hercules by John Nost (was commissioned June 1720 to be precise) is a striking lead figure set on a sandstone pedestal by John Edwards dated to 1721.
1.81m high, naked, learning on his club draped in lion skin, he now looks east out towards Chirk village and vistas towards the Mid Cheshire Ridge. Dating from the early 18th century, he seems an absolutely integral and immovable aspect of the landscape, set out by Sir Richard or Sir Robert Myddleton but adapted through the 19th and early 20th centuries.
Yet the story of this Hercules, like so many others, is not one of three centuries of enduring tradition with a medieval and modern castle as its backdrop. Instead, we know that while his orientation of gaze has remained outwards from the castle, Hercules is currently in his third location within the gardens of Chirk.
First of all, he was placed, a companion to another sculpture of the god Mars, at the entrance to the Castle itself. Where precisely this location was (whether the National Trust mean the ‘entrance to the estate’ or to the castle itself) is unclear. Either way, a dominant neo-classical 18th-century martial pairing indeed!
As part of William Eames’ work on the landscapes at Chirk, Hercules was removed from his original location to a prominent spur with the woodland of the estate in c. 1770 where he was placed on a prominent spur within Deershed Wood. I do not know the fate of his companion statue, but from the 1770s onwards, Hercules was ‘robbed’ of his original context and ‘lost’ in the woods, only to be rediscovered in 1983.
The third location, and second translation (by helicopter) was restored and installed to his present location from 1987, as an integral part of the eastern vistas to and from the castle in the gardens.
There are different ways at looking at this. The Chirk Hercules is clear an example to illustrate how statues are never ‘permanent’ in their locations or significance, but possess a flexibility regarding their location and meanings, with different levels of prominence and public engagement through their duration of display. In this case, Hercules only existed as a dominant dimension of the visitor’s experience to this country home and former medieval castle for half a century, and then was ‘retired’ for over two hundred years as a minor feature for those walking the estate and was subsequently lost. Only in the last four decades in the context of the National Trust Visitor Centre, has Hercules received a rehabilitation close to the castle and within the gardens.
What will the future of this statue be? As a rather generic representation of masculine demigod figure, the statue has historical value. Moreover, it is not explicitly a commemorative monument to a specific human subject. Furthermore, it is carefully curated by the National Trust, not within an urban or village setting.
Against this background, it might be argued to be a monument far removed from the debates surrounding colonial legacies and decolonisation of the Welsh landscape. Yet, the neoclassical tradition of statuary is directly embroiled in the aesthetics and ideology of the 18th and 19th century ruling classes and their vision of themselves and their legacies. Martial endeavours, concepts of masculinity and heroism, wealth, power, land, the colonial mission and slave ownership were all key to this that flit around such statuary and their elite landscape settings. So surely, while perhaps not the primary focus of our attention and not subject to current controversy, we must consider explaining and debating whether statues of this form too should be retained, recontextualised or translated to other settings. What are their meanings and functions in the past, over time, in our times and what might they mean in the future?
Therefore, we must take into account not only the statue, but its successive settings as part of its life-history. In this regard, recently I visited the former woodland setting of the Hercules statue which retains the original plinth, but also is a memorial to the former presence of the statue with an inscription added to commemorate its translation. So Hercules doesn’t just exist in his present location, he is distributed between present and former situations via a textual citation and surviving plinth.
My point? Any conversations about the future of such statues should not focus primarily on who commissioned them, why and what their subjects were, but the wider appreciation of their connotations and the landscapes in which they interact with, and the life-history of their interaction with it. In the case of the Chirk Hercules, this is a story of the entire post-medieval designed landscape and its colonial legacy, and specifically three locales and associations with other monuments and successive topographies. It is therefore a pity that these locations are not articulated to visitors to understand the story of the statue and its journey around the estate from commissioning to present-day situation.
What is also certain is that, sooner or later, Hercules must fall. When and what will be his fate, and how and where he will go, I don’t know. But we must begin the discussions in an informed and responsible way before it becomes a controversy. Sooner or later, Hercules must fall! It’s only a matter of time…