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Robert Jenrick wants to keep the mob at bay. So why is he leading it with a pitchfork?

22 January 2021

High priority for the UK government right now? Statues, of course. A statement released by the Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick to both Houses of Parliament this week introduces new legislation which, it is claimed, will be as important in heritage terms as the introduction of Conservation Areas in 1967. The removal of ‘historic statues, plaques and other monuments will now require full planning permission’ under the mantra of ‘retain and explain’, regardless of whether they are already listed or not. Historic England will oversee what is proposed and the Secretary of State will be the final arbiter if requests from local councils are judged questionable.

The move had been announced to readers of the Sunday Telegraph the day before. An article by Robert Jenrick referred to a ‘flash mob’ in Bristol (referring to the statue of Colston) and spectral ‘cultural committee[s]’ made up of ‘town hall militants and woke worthies’. Encountering kneejerk, hackneyed, responses to complex and sensitive topics is all too familiar an experience for those who are required to navigate them seriously.

This new legislation came as a surprise (as well as bringing an even heavier workload) to the amenity societies – organisations ranging from the Ancient Monuments Society to the Twentieth Century Society – that have to be consulted on changes to listed buildings. The government’s plans are all a bit Alice Through the Looking Glass. Plaques attached to unlisted buildings or outside Conservation Areas currently don’t require planning permission but, under these proposals, faced with removal they would do, while statutory consultees (i.e. the amenity societies) will for the first time receive prior notice of planning and listed building applications. Last June, the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (SPAB), the grandfather of these organisations, wrote its own thoughtful ‘position statement’ on monuments linked to the slave trade. It concluded that historic evidence must be examined and, where appropriate, challenged and re-interpreted for ‘we are stronger through knowledge of past wrongs and of our changed opinions’.

That statement came after its consideration of the dilemma faced by Jesus College, Cambridge in confronting the legacy of its major 17th-century donor Tobias Rustat and his financial links to the Royal African Company, which ‘shipped more enslaved African women, men and children to the Americas than any other single institution during the entire period of the transatlantic slave trade’. The fine wall memorial, which Rustat himself commissioned in his lifetime from the atelier of Grinling Gibbons, is in the chapel and so falls under the terms of the Church of England’s planning procedure (known as the Ecclesiastical Exemption). The college proposes to relocate the memorial and has the support of the University and the relevant diocese (Ely). Rustat’s role will be explained in a new plaque, elsewhere in the college.

The statue of Thomas Picton (11758–1815), governor of Trinidad, being removed from a gallery of Welsh heroes in Cardiff City Hall. Courtesy Cardiff Council

For the Twentieth Century Society a similar conundrum arose at the Grade 1-listed Cardiff City Hall. Among a bevy of Welsh heroes dating from 1916 stood a statue of Sir Thomas Picton, governor of Trinidad and as such heavily involved in the slave trade. The society’s response, in a carefully worded recent letter from the Casework Committee, attempts to balance the undoubtedly detrimental effect, from an aesthetic view, of leaving an empty plinth among the group against the benefits of explaining the reasons for his removal. As both cases illustrate, the amenity societies are already taking such decisions seriously, in their own informed discussions and conscientious responses.

Out of curiosity, I looked at the public art in Robert Jenrick’s own constituency of Newark in Nottinghamshire. Recently commissioned work is much taken with the events of the Civil War and includes figures carved from Wellingtonia timber representing soldiers at rest as well as a royalist cannon, its metal fretted into pleasing patterns, embedded in the ground. The choice of the former came from Tesco shoppers who got a vote when they bought a shopping bag. It is reassuring, perhaps, that the town’s major public sculpture is John Carr’s handsome mid stone figure from the mid 1770s of a blindfolded Lady Justice, standing on the pediment of the elegant Town Hall. Taking part in the culture wars is, for now, beneath her.

Gillian Darley is an architectural historian and president of the Twentieth Century Society.

2 comments

  1. The Jenrick proposals include ”historic plaques”. This legislation could well include, in older towns, street name plates. These were often made locally and their styles from town to town can be very varied. In Cambridge the street name is in the form of a single line in a fount that is quite untutored, but still engaging, with a simple raised line border. A few miles away at Ely the letters are a slightly condensed sans and the border is a bold moulded bolection. When one walks around a town with a good set of such similar plates an agreeable sense of unity and distinction in the character of the town arises. Sadly such plates disappear when a site bearing such a plate is redeveloped, or some persons think it amusing to decorate their rooms or a club bar with such plates.
    Such plates should be part of the care of town planning and highway authorities.

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