The horrific new impression of the late Queen proves the age of the statue is dead

A newly-unveiled statue of Queen Elizabeth II
A newly-unveiled statue of Queen Elizabeth II - GETTY IMAGES

Last weekend, in Rutland, the first statue in Britain of the late Elizabeth II was unveiled. I wasn’t there, but having seen the photographs, I can only assume that visitors were left open-mouthed, and not because they were struck with awe. It’s a horror: unsightly, stupid and a little scary. The artist, Hywel Pratley, has turned the late Queen into a ghastly chimaera, sporting a girlish dress that makes her look like a stumpy Titania, or a cast-off from Frozen, with the faintest hint of wee Jimmy Krankie.

Equally objectionable are the corgis that collect at her feet, one yapping at the foot of the plinth. These are horrid little reminders that we’re now in the age of twee, and the importance of stateliness has been supplanted by cutesiness. It makes old miseries such as me feel as though they are constantly assaulted by a giant inflatable Hello Kitty. I look at this statue, and feel sure that the late Queen, known for her common sense and aversion to sentimentality, would have hated it.

The wretchedness of Pratley’s enterprise is unsurprising. I can’t think of a single decent statue that has been erected this century. There are several reasons for this. Firstly, statues – or at least ones with a certain degree of realism – have no purpose in the 21st century. Things were different in previous eras, when people had little idea of what the subject of a statue looked like, and their representation in metal or stone often became an official image, the lead asset in their iconography.

But the advent of photography, then television, means that we now know modern subjects incredibly well. The late Queen was the most photographed woman in the world, enhanced by her likeness on stamps, coins and various ephemera: any project that aspires to capture her likeness afresh is doomed to fail. I’m happy to lose myself in the Victoria Embankment Gardens, in central London, where the statue of someone I only vaguely know, such as Robert Raikes, glares down at me with the air of someone who knows their own consequence. It would be quite a different matter to visit Celeron, New York, and meet the terrifying sight of Dave Poulin’s Lucille Ball, a piece that bears as much resemblance to the influential American comedian as I do. When it comes to statues, familiarity breeds contempt. No wonder Walthamstow council hid its sculpture of poor Harry Kane.

Then there’s the slippery nature of history. Statues from the past, as we’re all too aware, have gathered plenty of news coverage over the past few years. We’ve seen Edward Colston toppled in Bristol and put on display as if he were reeling from the assault. At Oriel College, Oxford, the monolithic presence of Cecil Rhodes has caused habitual bouts of apoplexy, and though the college has decided against removing him, it has been suggested by Antony Gormley – Britain’s most distinguished living sculptor – that he should turn his head to the wall in shame. Meanwhile, in Grantham, a statue of Margaret Thatcher has been vandalised on several occasions.

Own goal: Walthamstow council's statue of Harry Kane was ridiculed
Own goal: Walthamstow council's statue of Harry Kane was ridiculed - Big Issue

But the problem isn’t restricted to conversations about controversial figures. History as a discipline has shifted significantly in the past half-century: the nuances now offered by historiography, wherein the study of written history is considered as important as the events themselves, means that the “pose” of a statue only captures one element of a psychologically complex figure. The very act of memorialising someone seems to go against our contemporary view, which favours groups over “great men” (or women). If we were to erect a statue in honour of a forgotten suffragette, we would be accused of forgetting the thousands of others caught up in the warp and weft of our past.

The biggest problem with modern statues is that they’re awful. They’re too often ill-conceived. The most recent travesty is, to my mind, Maggi Hambling’s casting of Mary Wollstonecraft at Newington Green in north London, which reduced the mother of first-wave feminism to a pair of breasts. Like Hambling’s statue of Oscar Wilde – featuring dear Oscar rising from his coffin to smoke a cigarette – it’s over-articulated and silly. Others are monstrous in their blandness. Even something as innocuous as Gillian Wearing’s 2018 monument to Millicent Fawcett in Parliament Square feels offensive in its way: an unnecessary addition to a city in which memorialisation is already a mania.

Maggi Hambling's casting of Mary Wollstonecraft at Newington Green in north London
Maggi Hambling's casting of Mary Wollstonecraft at Newington Green in north London - Geoff Pugh

A lot of these statues are comically ugly, even frightening; and it’s true that throughout history, writers and artists have seen the potential of such artworks to spook the living daylights out of us. Think of Mozart’s Don Giovanni, in which Il Commendatore is killed in a duel and returns to haunt his libidinous tormentor as a supernatural stone statue; or the children’s fantasies of E Nesbit, such as The Enchanted Castle, in which young Kathleen, while wearing a magic ring that grants wishes, desires to be a statue and duly finds herself separated from her siblings – seemingly trapped in a hideously creepy marble netherworld. (The creepiness, admittedly, comes more from the insinuation that a statue is a sort of half-ghost, rather than from any aesthetic hideousness, which is the most likely reason you’ll freak out when you see the actual bronze monsters that litter Britain.)

I would suggest, considering all this, that the age of the statue is dead. Really, it should have vanished with the birth of modernism, which was supposed to erode the trite literalism we so often see in artworks such as these. If we must honour individuals in future, then, let’s make them completely abstract – and free of yapping corgis, please.