Sunday, 28 February 2016

A Game of Statues

There was a bit of a fuss recently about a statue.  Not the first such fuss, of course.  Most of us can recall incidents of a similar nature.  Usually the controversy is about one of two things: either people don't like the statue itself, or they don't like the subject of the statue.

The row I have just heard about is over a statue of Cecil Rhodes.  I think most people in Britain today - and of course in South Africa - are of the opinion that he really wasn't a very nice man.  He may have left a fortune that now enables overseas scholars to come and study at Oxford University (former US president Bill Clinton being possibly the best-known beneficiary), but that doesn't make up for his treatment of the native people in South Africa and what is now Zimbabwe, whom he drove from their lands to further his own business interests.  In human terms, his belief in his own racial superiority was on a par with Hitler's.

We all recognise that Rhodes was a product of his time.  The question is, does his generous bequest to educational funding make up for his unpleasant politics?  Initially, Rhodes Scholarships were reserved for white males; only in the last decade of the twentieth century did they become truly inclusive.  The first protests by students against commemoration of Cecil Rhodes took place when the "Rhodes Must Fall" movement was created in 2014 to seek the removal of a statue erected at the University of Cape Town in 1934.  The movement spread to Oxford where, late last year, the Oriel College authorities were urged to remove a bronze statue of Rhodes from the façade of the Rhodes Building which fronts onto the High Street. They have declined to do so (perhaps hoping that rebellious undergraduates might do the job for them?)

In a public statement, Oriel College said that they would ensure that "acknowledgement of the historical fact of Rhodes's bequest to the College does not suggest celebration of his unacceptable views and actions".  That is as far as they are prepared to go and, for the most part, commentators seem to consider their decision to be the right one.  The great Michael Wood, whose BBC History column is always worth reading, suggests that a statue of an African leader might be put alongside that of Rhodes, to balance things out.

I'm not sure about it.  I was an undergraduate at Oxford for three years and have visited the city many times since.  I must have walked past Rhodes' statue hundreds of times without ever noticing it was there.  So what would be so terrible about removing it?  As yet, I haven't succeeding in finding out the identity of the sculptor, but it doesn't appear to be a great work of art.
Hamo Sassoon's statue of Rhodes in Kimberley


I would feel differently, though, if it turned out that the sculptor was, for example, Sir Hamo Thornycroft, Siegfried Sassoon's uncle, or one of Siegfried's grandparents.  On checking my facts, I discovered that Hamo did indeed create a statue of Cecil Rhodes - an equestrian statue at Kimberley in South Africa, unveiled in 1907.  An early study is held by the Tate Gallery.  Would I want this statue taken down?  No, not really.  (Luckily, the "Rhodes Must Fall" campaigners don't yet seem to have their eye on it.) Would I object if all such statues of Rhodes were removed from their pedestals and placed in museums where their context could be more clearly shown?  No, I wouldn't.  But I wonder, which museum would want them?

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