Few things in London look less lost than Trafalgar Square, with its imposing column commemorating one of Britain’s genuine heroes, Lord Nelson. But even here nothing is what it seems. Nelson’s column was never intended to be there. It was an afterthought, imposed by a parliamentary committee to the chagrin of the architect Charles Barry. He had intended to build the Royal Academy in the square to complement William Wilkin’s National Gallery on its north side. It then took 30 years for the column to actually built – a solid construction unlike the Duke of York’s column nearby, which is hollow with an internal staircase.
The name Trafalgar Square was an afterthought too. It was originally going to be called King William IV’s Square. Poor William. He not only lost his square but his plinth as well. What is now called the Fourth Plinth on the north-west side of the square – these days a permanent home for temporary statues – was originally intended for a bronze statue of him, but no one could raise the money for it. The plinth therefore remained empty until 1998, when the Royal Society of Arts (RSA) suggested the idea of rotating a series of modern sculptures. They generate praise and scorn in equal measure, but have the exhilarating effect of starting open air conversations about art in the middle of a capital city.
It goes on. The National Gallery itself was never intended to look quite like it does. Wilkins was very miffed when forced to incorporate columns and capitals from the nearby Carlton House (roughly where the Duke of York’s column now is in The Mall), which had been lying in storage since its demolition. This gave rise to widespread criticism at the time that the square lacked grandeur. Well, you can’t win every battle.
The little noticed bronze statue of George IV on the north-east of the square was never intended to be there either. It was originally planned for the top of the Marble Arch – at a time when the arch itself was going to be outside Buckingham Palace – but George was plonked on this plinth as a temporary resting place and has been there ever since.
Another statue that has gone walk-about is that of General Gordon. There used to be an 18 foot high (pedestal) statue of him in the square between the two fountains before it was removed in 1943 and re-sited on the Victoria Embankment a decade later. And the fountains themselves are not the original ones, which were erected there to prevent large numbers of potential rioters assembling. They were given to Canada as a gift and replaced by new ones, designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens in 1937-39. A shorter journey was made by the earth excavated from the square – it was taken to nearby St James Park to level the land.
If Trafalgar Square is beginning to look like a game of musical statues, we may be tempted to look for continuity at the statue of the executed Charles I situated at the southern end of the square looking down Whitehall to his place of execution outside Inigo Jones’ Banqueting Hall. It is the oldest equestrian statue in London, created by a French sculptor Hubert La Sueur in 1633.
Except that it hasn’t been there for the whole of that time. After the Civil War, Cromwell’s parliament ordered it to be melted down. For its present presence we have to thank a brazier – a man appropriately called Rivet – who, instead of melting it down, hid it and sold it back to Charles II after the restoration of the monarchy. The statue too was restored to its original location has remained there ever since, on the site of the original Charing Cross, created by Edward I in the early 1290s as a memorial to his wife Eleanor. It can be regarded as the geographical centre of London, as distances from the capital are measured from a point beneath the statue.
A royal presence there is fitting, because Trafalgar Square is actually owned by the Queen, though the roads around it are controlled by Westminster Council. The square is now a revered place, especially since the northern end has been pedestrianised, transforming it overnight into a bubbling public space for gossiping and entertainments of all kinds from opera to food markets and celebrations of the Chinese New Year.
There may be a moral to this story. Maybe we should rotate all our statues on a regular basis, so that new ones can replace the giants of old who have long-since faded from the popular imagination.