What is it about Bath and public statues? Pop down the road to Bristol and have a quick look around College Green and the centre by the Bristol Hippodrome. Take a stroll around Queens Square or dodge the traffic to take a peek at what is displayed at the top of Queens Road. You will see example after edifying example of notable figures – royal, military, mythological or locals who have done well in business, politics or show business – immortalised as public statues.
Many of these are expensive bronzes, sitting on top of impressive marble plinths, and there for us to express the emotions of admiration and respect. Past examples of citizens who are still able – beyond the grave – to lead by example, to inspire and certainly give us something to look up to.
Queen Victoria on College Green may constantly get her marble fingers broken off and Edward Colston – in the Centre – suffer the indignity of ‘slaver’ written in red paint about his person – but these are familiar examples of street furniture that are still interacted with AND visible – if only to make a political point or entertain vandals.
You will find bronzes in Bath but only as name plaques attached above doors to lodgings and other places where notables may have only just popped in for a cup of tea! Fair enough, Thomas Gainsborough the artist did live in the city for many years. Pitt the elder was here for a while – as was a rather reluctant resident called Jane Austen – but the point l am making is why has Bath not celebrated its own celebrities with the full ‘marble monty?’
I have only lived here for a year, and may well have missed something, but – with the exception of Rebecca at her fountain promoting the city’s main liquid resource – l cannot think of a single long-standing statue on a plinth in a public space? There are statues but they all cling to walls or stare down – like potential suicides – from the edge of a roof. Queen Victoria does not exactly get pride of place at the Victoria Gallery. To find her you have to go around the corner and she is half way up a shade-covered wall. ‘Justice’ is another one of those suicidal sculptures, this time teetering on the edge of the Guildhall – though thankfully held on with an iron bar.
Roman generals and Caesars line the Victorian stone ballustrades added to enhance the original and ancient Great Roman Bath but you cannot call that a real public space. Nor would l call them good examples of public sculpture. More stone images – of saints and a king – peer down from the West Front of Bath Abbey and l spotted some allegorical figures in niches on a building in Quiet Street – including what looks like Mercury about to end it all by jumping off the top.
Maybe we have to accept that the two cities had their own individual ways of publicly expressing themselves. Bristol with its history of self-made men and merchants trying to out-do each other in wealth, impressive residences and patronage. England’s once proud second city out to discover and conquer the world.
Here in Bath all the effort was in turning the city into a major tourist attraction and providing the facilities for outsiders to find good lodgings within; to be roundly entertained and encouraged to spend, spend and spend. The city then appears to have beoame a giant retirement home while Bristol was busily building ships, railways and planes.
Outward looking city versus inward looking? Maybe – but in Bath’s case no less a community, displaying no less a talent for enterprise. So l ask, where are the statues to celebrate the men who created that Georgian period of incredible expansion. Sorry this is not meant to sound sexist. Why aren’t the trees in The Circus felled to make way for a plinth to support both John Wood – father and son? John the Elder – a son of Bath – had wanted an equestrian statue for that location anyway.
Meanwhile our illustrious Georgian host Beau Nash, has found immortality of sorts, but don’t we owe him something better than spending eternity on display in another little niche half way up the wall in the Pump Room?
Bristol, of course, now celebrates its industrial as well as its more muted but varied architectural past. Everything from Brunel’s Great Britain to Concorde are on display in the city in which they were built. We at least have a Bath-made Stothert and Pitt crane on display in our city – down the river-bank somewhere near Sainsbury’s. The former docklands of Bristol have even more of them ! Ours is a worthy if less-prominent memorial to a period of home-grown industrial energy.
The only statues on the ground appear to be the street artists who ‘freeze’ in their spray-painted poses to entertain the summer tourists. Though l have to say, on one corner of the new Southgate Shopping Centre, the first real plinth has appeared. Upon it – a mixture of classical physique and abstract form celebrating an Olympic swimmer -and no doubt the fading memory that Bath had something to do with hosting some of those competing in the London Olympics of 2013. The torso – unsurprisingly in Bath stone – has not commanded much respect. It is already looking both scuffed and shabby.
Of course such objects of public display are not cheap. There are ‘organising committee minutes’ a plenty to show us that the Victorians in Bristol often found it difficult to raise funds for their little-bursts-of-public-veneration energy. In the midst of today’s economic doldrums there won’t be many supporting street art as a sound financial investment for the future.
Ultimately, I raise this subject to promote debate and argument. It is but a personal opinion and l stand ready to be corrected or supported. Over to you Bath!