The Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square was built with William IV in mind, but funds ran out and it stood empty for 150 years. Now a new work of art takes up residence every two years. Antelope by Samson Kambula currently adorns the plinth.
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Antelope by Sampson Kambalu
Antelope depicts two men. It is the recreation of a 1914 picture of John Chorley and John Chilembwe. At the time it was forbidden for a black man to wear a hat in the presence of a white man. John Chilembwe led an uprising in Nyasaland shortly afterwards and was killed. Many years later in 1964 Malawi, as Nyasaland had become, gained independence. John Chilembwe Day is celebrated on January 15th marking that fact that his uprising was the beginning of the struggle for independence.
Who is next on the Fourth Plinth?
What will take up residence on the Fourth Plinth in 2026 and 2028? You can have your say. Seven artworks are on show in the National Gallery over looking the plinth. The contenders are: The Smile You Send Returns to You by Chila Kumari Singh Burman features her signature tiger and ice cream van, Hornero by Gabriel Chaile is a giant ceramic shape, Believe in Discontent by Ruth Ewen is a black cat representing the suffragettes, Ancient Feelings by Thomas J Price is a huge golden head, Sweet Potatoes and Yams are Not the Same by Veronica Ryan features a giant vegetable, Lady in Blue by Tschabalala Self is a magnificent woman striding out in a blue dress and Untitled by Andra Ursuţa is a glass representation of an equestrian statue shrouded in cloth. Go take a look. Free to visit until March 17. Click here to cast your vote.
History of the Fourth Plinth
When Trafalgar Square was built to honour Admiral Lord Nelson the commander in charge at the Battle of Trafalgar it was decided that each of the corners would have a plinth for statue of great man. Three of them got their great men, the fourth remained empty. At the end of the twentieth century the RSA (Royal Society of Arts) started a Fourth Plinth project with the aim of putting contemporary sculpture at top the plinth. Now the Mayor London’s culture team are in charge of the plinth and its statues.
Queen Elizabeth II and the Fourth Plinth
Since the Queen died debate has been swirling about the future of the Fourth Plinth. Will there be a statue of the Queen on the Fourth Plinth or not. I suspect that nobody knows. Certainly the Plinth is “booked” until the end of 2026 and a completion in place that will see it occupied until 2030. My feelings are that must be a better more prominent place to honour the Queen than the corner of a square dedicated to somebody else. My suggestion would be on the steps leading down from the Duke of York monument on the Mall. What do you think?
Who stands on the other Trafalgar Square plinths
Sir Henry Havelock and Sir Charles James Napier occupy the two smaller plinths on the southern side. Any know what they did? Both were generals in the British Army who served in India and Pakistan. The larger northern plinths were designed with equestrian statues in mind. George IV sits proudly on his plinth but the money ran out when it came to his bother and sailor king never got his statue.
Fourth Plinth sculpture since 1999
1999 saw the first of the Fourth Plinth temporary installations. First up was Ecce Homo by Mark Wallinger, I saw this years later on the steps of St Paul’s it is one of the most moving statues I have ever seen.
Regardless of History by Bill Woodrow depicted a fallen statue head crushed by a giant book encased in tree roots. In 2001 Rachel Whiteread cast the plinth in clear resin and placed it on top of the stone original.
Thomas Schütte created a multitcoloured perspex grid entitled Hotel for Birds, since the hotel has come down to roost it has been retitled Model for a Hotel 2007. 2,400 people stood on the plinth during the 100 days of Anthony Gormley’s One and Other.
Who doesn’t love a ship in a bottle? Especially when the ship is Nelson’s HMS Victory. That is what Yinka Shonibare delivered with Ship in Bottle. That its sails were made of African fabric even better. Nowadays you get a fine view of Ship in a Bottle from the cafe of the National Maritime Museum Greenwich.
In 2012 the Fourth Plinth finally got its equestrian statue. Not of King or a soldier but rather a boy riding an outsize rocking horse. Powerless Structures, Fig 101 by Elmgreen and Dragset made me smile. Next up was giant blue cockerel by Katharina Fritsch that always put me in mind of the French football team. In 2015 another horse mounted the plinth, this time it was skeletal beast with a stock exchange ticker attached to its fetlock. I concede that I always found Hans Haacke’s Gift Horse a little scary and was glad when it galloped away in 2016.
The ghostly horse was replaced by a giant elongated thumbs up, Really Good by David Shrigley always irritated me due to the length of the thumb, irrational but there you go.
My favourite Fourth Plinth sculpture so far, Lamassu by Michael Rakowitz took up residence in 2018. Made from recycled date syrup tins it recreated the Nergal Gate which stood guarding the city of Ninevah from 700BC until 2006 when it was destroyed by the Daesh. When he was first unveiled the date syrup tins were bright and vibrant at the end of his two year stay they had mellowed, I loved how he changed every time I saw him. You can see him now standing outside the Towner Gallery in Eastbourne.
Next was THE END (all in capitals) by Heather Phillipson which looked inviting and edible at first glance. A giant swirl of cream topped by tempting cherry, get the angle right and it looks as if the Trafalgar Square lions are licking a tasty ice cream. Look a bit closer and you see a giant fly gorging itself on the cream. On the other side is drone collecting real time images of passersby. I’m not sure what is more disturbing the fly or the surveillance.
Did you know the Benjamin Franklin used to live just behind Trafalgar Square and that you can visit his house? Read all about it here.