Fourth plinth, Trafalgar Square

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Powerless Structures, Fig. 101 in August 2012.

The Fourth Plinth is a plinth in Trafalgar Square in central London. It was originally intended to hold an equestrian statue of William IV, but remained bare due to insufficient funds. For over 150 years the fate of the plinth was debated; in 1999, a sequence of three contemporary artworks to be displayed on the plinth were announced. The success of this initiative led to a commission being formed to decide on a use for the plinth. Eventually that commission unanimously decided to continue using it for the temporary display of artworks.

The plinths[edit]

There is a plinth at each of the four corners of the square. The two southern plinths carry sculptures of Henry Havelock and Charles James Napier. The northern plinths are larger than those as they were designed to have equestrian statues, and indeed the northeastern plinth has one of George IV. The fourth plinth on the northwest corner, designed by Sir Charles Barry and built in 1841,[1] was intended to hold an equestrian statue of William IV, but remained empty due to insufficient funds.[2]

The Fourth Plinth Project (1999–2001)[edit]

In 1998, the Royal Society of Arts (RSA) conceived the Fourth Plinth Project, which temporarily occupied the plinth with a succession of works commissioned from three contemporary artists. These were:

  • Mark Wallinger: Ecce Homo (1999) – Wallinger's Ecce Homo – the Latin title of which means "Behold the man", a reference to the words of Pontius Pilate at the trial of Jesus (John 19:5) – was a life-sized figure of Christ, naked apart from a loin cloth, with his hands bound behind his back and wearing a crown of barbed wire (in allusion to the crown of thorns). Atop the huge plinth, designed for larger-than-life statuary, it looked minuscule. Some commentators said that, far from making the Man look insignificant, his apparent tininess drew the eye powerfully; they interpreted it as a commentary on human delusions of grandeur.[citation needed][3]

A committee convened to consider the RSA's late-1990s project concluded that it had been a success and "unanimously recommended that the plinth should continue to be used for an ongoing series of temporary works of art commissioned from leading national and international artists".[6] After several years in which the plinth stood empty, the new Greater London Authority assumed responsibility for the fourth plinth and started its own series of changing exhibitions.

The Fourth Plinth Commission (2005–)[edit]

Under the stewardship of the Fourth Plinth Commission the following artworks have been commissioned:

Antony Gormley standing on top of the fourth plinth at the opening of his art installation One & Other on 6 July 2009
  • Thomas Schütte: Model for a Hotel 2007 (formerly Hotel for the Birds) (unveiled 7 November 2007) – a 5-metre by 4.5-metre by 5-metre architectural model of a 21-storey building made from coloured glass. The work cost £270,000 and was funded primarily by the Mayor of London and the Arts Council of England. Sandy Nairne, director of the National Portrait Gallery and chairman of the Fourth Plinth Commissioning Group that recommended Quinn's and Schütte's proposals to the Mayor in 2004, said: "There will be something extraordinarily sensual about the play of light through the coloured glass  ... [I]t's going to feel like a sculpture of brilliance and light."[1][8]
  • Antony Gormley: One & Other (6 July – 14 October 2009) – over the course of a hundred consecutive days, a total of 2,400 selected members of the public each spent one hour on the plinth. They were allowed to do anything they wished to and could take anything with them that they could carry unaided. Volunteers for the Fourth Plinth were invited to apply through the website, and were chosen so that ethnic minorities and people from all parts of Britain were represented. For safety reasons, the plinth was surrounded by a net, and a team of six stewards were present 24 hours a day to make sure that, for instance, participants were not harmed by hecklers. There was a live feed of the plinth on the Internet sponsored by TV channel Sky Arts.[9][10] Gormley said: "In the context of Trafalgar Square with its military, valedictory and male historical statues, this elevation of everyday life to the position formerly occupied by monumental art allows us to reflect on the diversity, vulnerability and particularity of the individual in contemporary society. It's about people coming together to do something extraordinary and unpredictable. It could be tragic but it could also be funny."[10]
Katharina Fritsch's sculpture Hahn/Cock on the Fourth Plinth
  • Yinka Shonibare: Nelson's Ship in a Bottle (24 May 2010 – January 2012) – this work, by a leading Anglo-Nigerian artist, consists of a replica of Nelson's ship, the HMS Victory, with sails made of printed fabric in a colourful African pattern inside a large glass bottle stopped with a cork; the bottle is 4.7 metres long and 2.8 metres in diameter.[11] According to the Greater London Authority, the artwork is the first "to reflect specifically on the historical symbolism of Trafalgar Square, which commemorates the Battle of Trafalgar, and will link directly with Nelson's column. It is also the first commission by a black British artist."[12] The work proved popular, and its removal in early 2012 led to fears that it would be sold to a Korean collector.[13][14] The Art Fund launched a public appeal to raise money to buy the work from the artist.[13] By April 2012 the money was raised, including £264,300 donated from the public and £50,000 each from The Art Fund and Shonibare's gallery Stephen Friedman.[11] The work is now on display at the National Maritime Museum, which also contributed to the purchase fund.[11]
  • Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset (23 February 2012 – April 2013): Powerless Structures, Fig. 101 – a 4.1 metres (13 ft) tall bronze sculpture of a boy on a rocking horse.[15] Unlike the square's other statues, which celebrate kings and military leaders, this is intended to portray "the heroism of growing up".[16] The statue was unveiled by actress Joanna Lumley who called it a "completely unthreatening and adorable creature".[15] After its display on the Fourth Plinth the sculpture was bought by the Annie og Otto Detlefs Fond and donated to the Arken Museum of Modern Art in Ishøj, Denmark. Michael Elmgreen was born in Copenhagen, a short distance away from the museum; Ingar Dragset's home city of Trondheim in Norway had also expressed an interest in acquiring the work. Christian Gether, the museum's director, said “I was at the National Gallery for the inauguration of the sculpture and saw straight away that its irony and humanism fits perfectly at Arken. The sculpture comes with tradition and renewal and it is an ironic commentary on the obeisance of warlords. At the same time, it praises the child’s spontaneity and its playful approach to life”.[17]
  • Katharina Fritsch: Hahn/Cock (25 July 2013 – present) – a 4.72 metres (15.5 ft) high blue sculpture of a cockerel, intended to symbolise "regeneration, awakening and strength".[15][18] The statue will be displayed for 18 months.[18]
  • Hans Haacke: Gift Horse (planned for 2015) – a bronze statue of a riderless skeletal horse; wrapped around its leg is an electronic stock ticker display. Haacke says the sculpture is a tribute to economist Adam Smith and horse painter George Stubbs, whose books Wealth of Nations and The anatomy of the Horse were both published in 1766.[19][20] He based the design on a sketch by Stubbs, who had designed the equestrian statue of William IV intended for the plinth.[19]
  • David Shrigley: Really Good (planned for 2016) – a bronze sculpture of a human hand in a thumbs-up gesture, with the thumb greatly elongated. The top of the thumb will reach 10 metres (33 ft) high.[19][20]

Proposals for permanent statues[edit]

The best use of the fourth plinth remains the subject of debate.

Nelson Mandela[edit]

On 24 March 2003 an appeal was launched by Wendy Woods, the widow of the anti-apartheid journalist Donald Woods, hoping to raise £400,000 to pay for a 9-foot-high (2.7 m) statue of Nelson Mandela by Ian Walters.[21] The relevance of the location was that South Africa House, the South African high commission, scene of many anti-apartheid demonstrations, is on the east side of Trafalgar Square. The statue was later placed in Parliament Square instead.

Keith Park[edit]

In February 2008, Terry Smith, the chief executive of trading house Tullett Prebon, offered to pay more than £100,000 for a permanent statue acceptable to "ordinary Londoners" of Air Chief Marshal Sir Keith Park in recognition of his work as commander of No. 11 Group RAF during the Battle of Britain, as it was this Group that was responsible for the defence of London. A Greater London Authority spokesman said: "There are many worthy suggestions for statues on the fourth plinth and some people feel passionately about each of them. All proposals will be judged on their merits including its current use as one of the most high profile sites for contemporary public art in London. The cost of erecting the current work on the plinth is £270,000. The cost of a permanent monument is likely to be considerably more."[22] In 2009 a 5-metre high fibreglass statue of Park was placed on the fourth plinth for six months. After that period, a 2.78-metre bronze statue was permanently installed in Waterloo Place.[23]

Margaret Thatcher[edit]

Following the death of former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, Baroness Thatcher on 8 April 2013, Defence Secretary Phillip Hammond suggested that her memorial statue be placed on the fourth plinth. Hammond's proposal was supported by Thatcher's colleague Norman Tebbit and by UKIP leader Nigel Farage. Prime Minister David Cameron and London Mayor Boris Johnson were both said to welcome the proposal as one of several possible sites.[24][25] There is already an existing statue of Thatcher in the nearby Houses of Parliament.

Other proposals[edit]

It has also been suggested that a permanent statue of Queen Elizabeth II is to be erected on the plinth after her death, which would explain why there has been such a long delay in choosing a permanent monument. This was rumoured in the press in 2008 and, after Margaret Thatcher's death, Ken Livingstone commented, "The understanding is that the fourth plinth is being reserved for Queen Elizabeth II."[26][27][28]

Other uses[edit]

Commercial companies have used the plinth, often without permission, as a platform for publicity stunts, including a model of David Beckham by Madame Tussauds during the 2002 FIFA World Cup.[1] The London-based American harmonica player Larry Adler jokingly suggested erecting a statue of Moby-Dick, which would then be called the "Plinth of Whales".[29] A television ident for the British TV station Channel 4 shows a CGI Channel 4 logo on top of the fourth plinth.[30]


  1. ^ a b c d Sooke, Alastair (3 November 2007), "Art versus the pigeons", The Daily Telegraph (Review) (London): 4 .
  2. ^ Doyle, David (18 June 2007), "Arthur's design proves eye-catching", Ealing Times, retrieved 30 May 2008 
  3. ^ See also You'll either love it or hate it, BBC News, 23 July 1999  ; Kennedy, Maev (13 May 2000), "Modern art wins battle of Trafalgar Square: Vacant plinth will be showcase for contemporary sculpture", The Guardian (London) ; Marre, Oliver (11 May 2008), "The artist gets back in the saddle", The Observer (London) .
  4. ^ For photographs of Bill Woodrow's Regardless of History, see Bill Woodrow, Regardless of History, 2000, Cass Sculpture Foundation, archived from the original on 1 August 2011, retrieved 12 February 2008 .
  5. ^ For a maquette one-tenth the size of the original sculpture, see Rachel Whiteread, Maquette for Monument, 1999, Cass Sculpture Foundation, c. 1999, archived from the original on 10 February 2006, retrieved 12 February 2008 .
  6. ^ Fourth Plinth Secondary Schools Award: How will your students be inspired by the Fourth Plinth? (PDF), London: Greater London Authority, August 2007, p. 5 .
  7. ^ Square's naked sculpture revealed, BBC News, 19 September 2005 .
  8. ^ See also Cooke, Rachel (4 November 2007), "Check into Trafalgar Square's new hip hotel", The Observer (London) ; Higgins, Charlotte (8 November 2007), "Trafalgar Square sculpture unveiled", The Guardian (London) ; Searle, Adrian (8 November 2007), "'It is like a jewel'", The Guardian (g2) (London) .
  9. ^ Sooke, Alastair (28 February 2009), "Fancy turning yourself into a work of art?: Sculptor Antony Gormley is giving 2,400 people the chance to spend an hour alone on the Trafalgar Square plinth", The Daily Telegraph (Review) (London): 10–11 .
  10. ^ a b "Trafalgar Square fourth plinth art 'will cause arrests': The artist Antony Gormley, who is behind the new work for Trafalgar Square's empty fourth plinth, has said he expected the piece to lead to arrests", The Daily Telegraph (London), 26 February 2009, retrieved 25 May 2010 .
  11. ^ a b c Brown, Mark (23 April 2012). "Yinka Shonibare's ship in a bottle goes on permanent display in Greenwich". The Guardian. 
  12. ^ The Fourth Plinth: Nelson's Ship in a Bottle, Greater London Authority, 2010, archived from the original on 2 September 2010, retrieved 2 September 2010 . See also Yinka Shonibare's ship docks on the fourth plinth: The making and unveiling of Nelson's Ship in a Bottle, the latest art work to occupy the much-coveted spot in Trafalgar Square,, 25 May 2010 
  13. ^ a b "Campaign to secure home for Nelson's Ship in a Bottle". BBC News. 30 November 2011. 
  14. ^ Kennedy, Maev (30 November 2011). "Message in a big bottle - appeal to save fourth plinth HMS Victory". The Guardian. 
  15. ^ a b c "Fourth Plinth Rocking Horse unveiled". BBC News. 23 February 2012. 
  16. ^ "Powerless Structures, Fig. 101 by Elmgreen & Dragset". Mayor of London website. 
  17. ^ Gulstad, Hanne Cecilie (25 July 2013). "Danish museum acquires Fourth Plinth rocking horse". The Art Newspaper. Retrieved 29 July 2013. 
  18. ^ a b "Blue cockerel takes roost on Fourth Plinth". BBC News. 25 July 2013. Retrieved 25 July 2013. 
  19. ^ a b c "Latest Fourth Plinth works unveiled". BBC News. 7 February 2014. Retrieved 9 February 2014. 
  20. ^ a b Brown, Mark (7 February 2014). "Trafalgar Square's fourth plinth to show giant thumbs up and horse skeleton". The Guardian. Retrieved 9 February 2014. 
  21. ^ Macintyre, James (7 August 2008), "From Beckham to Lapper, the ever-changing cast", The Independent (London) 
  22. ^ Harding, Thomas (26 February 2008), "City boss calls for statue of war hero", The Daily Telegraph (London) 
  23. ^ "Battle of Britain hero statue will stand in Trafalgar Square: Battle of Britain hero Sir Keith Park will be honoured with the erection of two statues", The Daily Telegraph (London), 8 May 2009, retrieved 25 May 2010 
  24. ^ Jones, Sam (10 April 2013), "Campaign for Thatcher statue in Trafalgar Square gathers momentum", The Guardian 
  25. ^ McTague, Tom (10 April 2013), "Margaret Thatcher statue plan for Trafalgar Square and bid to rename Falkland Islands’ capital after her", The Mirror 
  26. ^ English, Rebecca (8 August 2008). "Trafalgar Square's fourth plinth is reserved for statue of the Queen riding". Mail Online. Retrieved 30 July 2013. 
  27. ^ Irvine, Chris (7 August 2008). "Is the fourth plinth being saved for the Queen?". The Daily Telegraph. Retrieved 30 July 2013. 
  28. ^ Watts, Joseph (10 April 2013). "Calls for Margaret Thatcher memorial to be placed on Trafalgar Square fourth plinth". London Evening Standard. Retrieved 30 July 2013. 
  29. ^ Hoge, Warren (19 August 1999), "London Journal: Plinth seeks occupant. Nelson will be neighbor", The New York Times, retrieved 30 July 2013 .
  30. ^ Channel 4 television ident

External links[edit]

Coordinates: 51°30′30″N 0°07′43″W / 51.5082°N 0.12871°W / 51.5082; -0.12871