Lewis Baston: An empty plinth in Cavendish Square

Lewis Baston: An empty plinth in Cavendish Square

Not long ago I was sitting on a park bench in the garden in the middle of Cavendish Square just north of Oxford Street, eating the takeaway dim sum that was my reward for a socially distanced walk from my home to the West End. I noticed an empty plinth in the middle of the garden, which had obviously once supported a statue, and I had a look at the inscription. I was astonished to read a dedication to the Duke of Cumberland, known to history as the Butcher of Culloden. It said:

This Equestrian Statue was erected by Lieutenant General William Strode In Gratitude for His Private Kindness In Honor To His Publick Virtue.

The fact that this statue had been put up yet was no longer there set me thinking about the ethics and politics of historical memory and what statements choices of memorial make about broader trends in society. I wanted to know the story.

A quick search found an illuminating article from UCL’s Survey of London, to which this piece is much indebted. Then, a couple of weeks later, the statue of Edward Colston was dethroned from its plinth in Bristol and thrown into the Floating Harbour, and the politics of statues was suddenly alive again. I wrote a short Twitter thread on the Cumberland statue in the context of Colston and was a bit surprised to find that so many people were interested.

Public virtue is not a quality much associated with the Duke of Cumberland. As commander of the government forces against the Jacobite rebels, he won a decisive victory at Culloden in 1746. He ordered that “no quarter” be given and his forces roamed the battlefield shooting and bayoneting the wounded. A vengeful campaign against Jacobite sympathisers followed, and the culture and way of life of the Highlands was ruthlessly suppressed.

London public opinion, in that fickle way it sometimes has, was initially euphoric at the crushing of what people saw as the thoroughly reactionary Stuart threat to progress, but then reacted with disgust at Cumberland’s atrocities. He was proposed for honorary membership of one of the Guilds of the City of London, and wits suggested that the Guild of Butchers would be the most appropriate for him.

Five years after his death in 1765 his friend Strode was in a position to commemorate him, and the statue duly appeared in Cavendish Square garden in 1770, pointing menacingly towards Scotland. According to writer John Stewart, in 1771 the Square was intended to have a pastoral ambience but the small huddle of sheep in the middle was more like a “butcher’s pen”.

The Cumberland statue was neither beautiful nor universally popular, and by 1868 it was looking distinctly shabby. The Duke of Portland, whose estate covered the Square, had it taken down to be recast, but it never reappeared and nobody is sure what happened to it – the metal was probably melted down and reused.

Attitudes had changed since the years just after the proscription of civilian Highland dress in 1747. The ban was lifted in 1782 and in the 1850s Queen Victoria had made tartan positively respectable. The story of Bonnie Prince Charlie had become a romance, rather than a threat. Scotland was a partner in the work of Empire, not a rebellious province (“that part of Great Britain called Scotland” in the words of the Proscription Act) to be crushed. And so it was that the brutal general disappeared from Cavendish Square.

Cumberland made a temporary return to the plinth in 2012, thanks to Korean artist Meekyoung Shin who created a replica of the statue in soap. Shin’s interest is in the impermanence and shifting meaning of statues and artistic statements. Her statue deteriorated a bit more slowly than expected, itself an accidental commentary on how these things last longer than intended. The remnants were removed in 2016 and the plinth is alone once more. 

The empty plinth fired my curiosity much more than yet another mediocre equestrian statue of a Georgian bigwig would have done, and when I told the story on Twitter I was pleased to find I was not alone. Like a missing tooth that one’s tongue cannot resist exploring, an empty plinth is more historically interesting than most statuary because it tells two stories – one of the time in which it was put up, the other of the time in which it was removed. 

The missing Cumberland statue tells us about a period in history when what we would now consider a war crime was regarded as worth celebrating as part of a story of progress. It tells us of the power that people like William Strode had over the public space – he could have a statue to his murderous old chum put up in a prominent place in London and there was not much anyone could do about it.

Its unpopularity and neglect tell us about how divisive Cumberland was, and how there have long been live ethical debates about British victories: many, even in the 18th century, considered Culloden to be an atrocity. But it also tells a story of how, by the mid-19th Century, Cumberland had become a figure the establishment would rather forget. It was now safe to sentimentalise Highland culture and erase the brutality of 1746 from the public memory.

As many who know Bristol better than I have commented, the Edward Colston statue was erected in 1895 long after he lived and was the project of a self-important civic establishment rather than something that united the city. In late Victorian England, Cumberland’s assault on the Scots was a matter of shame, while Colston – and London’s Robert Milligan – were acceptable figures because their slave-dealing was seen as less important than their contributions to civic life and industrial progress.

There have always been ebbs and flows in what is considered appropriate to be displayed in public spaces, and in who gets to decide. That is the stuff of history, not a guano-encrusted Ozymandias and its sneer of cold command crumbling away unnoticed in a park.

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Categories: Culture

5 Comments

  1. Stephen Hopkins says:

    We need to be sensitive to the changing tide of public opinion. An action which may have been venerated at one time but become a source of shame in another age. This is particularly true of statues of those associated with slavery. However, some degree of common sense needs also to prevail. Churchill may for example have been opposed to Indian nationalism but he was the product of his age and upbringing. We cannot dethrone him so to speak just for that especially in view of the ,eadership he showed to the country in World War 2. Most human beings have done good and bad things and what is deemed good or bad may differ at different stages in our history…..

    1. Isobel MacRae Wilson says:

      Sadly, as the people of one Scottish island will tell, Churchill suppressed the news of the death of islanders and crew and passengers from all over, so the war effort, and his status in it, would not be dented. Right now I cannot remember the whole story but it is findable. Also, we have up here in Sutherland “the mannie” the scurrilous, and wicked Duke of Sutherland responsible for the mass ethnic cleansing of Highlanders off their crofts, sent into the wider world, (Auz, Canada, US) but also into the rising slums of the cities, to live in dreadful poverty. We Scots have our guilty ones, Slavers and the rich who built their riches on the backs of black people, and to a lesser extent, the homegrown crofters now factory fodder. There is a thought that we should tear the “mannie” down, but I think as many do that we leave him there rising above Ben Bhraggie, we point him out as a bad man to our grandchildren, tell the stories, nearly all of Scots come from those poor guys evicted for sheep. Churchill’s plinth? couldn’t care less, but maybe he needs to stay too, both sides of a story, but he was guilty of much much more than just being against the Indian nationalist movement. We need to recognize the stories for what they are, the “good” out of evil, but we should never forget, educate our children and ourselves Saor Alba

  2. John Carroll says:

    There is still a monument to Cumberland – a giant Column as big as Nelson’s – at Virginia Water, close to the Savill Gardens. A plaque almost apologetically refers to his reputation as a butcher.

  3. Thanks for a very interesting article. Delighted that the plinth of Cumberland survived.

    My concern is the cultural destructiveness involved, not that most of these statues are significant works of art (although Grinling Gibbons did Sir Robert Clayton’s, now to be removed from Guys / St Thomas’s along with Sir Thomas Guy’s).

    One of the most hideous statues in London stands above Deptford Creek, memorialising the man who almost certainly killed more slaves than all the rest put together: Peter the Great. (It was, I think, a present from Putin.)

    Corporations and bureaucracies will quickly cull all this stuff for a quiet life.

    Colston’s statue has now served a different role to the one originally intended. It’s up to Bristol to decide what to do with it: perhaps put it back in its current condition with an alternative inscription?

    William Dalrymple, the writer on India, wants Clive of India removed from outside the Foreign Office, which Curzon put up in Edwardian times. Why? To me, the interesting point is that it took the British 150 years publicly to memorialise Clive. He was long held to be a selfish plunderer – likened in his lifetime to the conquistadores – but no one back in Britain was inclined to give his conquests back. And, like slavery, these conquests helped make Britain the world power that it was.

    Most British people do not venerate most of these statues: they acknowledge the flaws and crimes of these people to some degree. Possibly not enough. But accept them as part of their past. At least the monuments give them occasion to think about them.

    (The fine chariot of Boudicea, for example, is only there because some idiot paid for it and it was erected as an afterthought. What on earth does it mean?)

    The Churchill statue, now rightly but shamefully encased, is the most important (along with the non-figurative, and frequently attacked, Cenotaph). Trashing it, trashes the current consensus on things: a repudiation of the man who sacrificed the British empire to defeat Nazi Germany and who insisted on fighting when most at the top wanted to give in.

    I went to the BLM demo at 8.30pm last Sunday (June 7) – before the police moved in to clear out the hardcore from Whitehall – because I thought the Churchill statue might get pulled down. I would have been appalled. But not seeing it would have been like giving the Bastille a miss on July 14 1789 in Paris. Actually, Parliament Square was earily quiet, as police mustered on College Green. I chatted to BLM demonstrators, one concerned to tell me that Zionists were training the US police. Both deprecated the trashing of the Parliament Square statues (including Canning, in fact an abolitionist).

    My tenner bet would be that trashing the statues was started by over-excited white woke young people. I would place a further tenner, but want odds, that they were privately educated.

    The nation coming together to applaud the NHS on Thursday evenings seems a long time ago.

  4. Ian McGregor says:

    It should be remembered that Butcher Cumberland, with some assistance from the government, was also responsible for Highlanders being transported as slaves to work in plantations in the Americas. This is never referred to in all the debates about the wrongs of slavery.

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