The contentious statues that have been in the news recently are the products of statuemania, the nineteenth--and early twentieth-century craze for erecting statues of mostly male worthies in public locations. The term was first coined in France in 1851, and the fashion reached its apogee in the years before the First World War. Some revealing statistics have been compiled for Paris. They show that the peak years of statuemania were between 1870 and 1940. Two hundred and seventeen statues to grands hommes were erected, which works out at about three per annum. The most prolific decade was 1900-10, with fifty-one statues. This does not include sculpture in cemeteries or on buildings. The numbers are likely to be proportionate in other European countries and their colonies, as well as in the Americas.
These often disruptive landmarks gave a sense of place to new as well as old urban settings. Different aspects of history, culture and identity were fore-grounded as never before, and no longer were statues only erected to rulers and generals. Rank-and-file soldiers, writers, philosophers, actors, artists, scientists, medics, bureaucrats, politicians and philanthropists were celebrated, including many local heroes. Statuemania was not just the art form of nationalism and imperialism; it was the art form of democracy.
The Crimean Guards Memorial in Waterloo Place, at the junction of Pall Mall and Regent Street in the heart of London's Clubland, is a good example. It also demonstrates how monuments, like buildings, often evolve. When first erected in 1861, it comprised John Bell's female personification of "Honour", with bronze relief statues of sombre grenadier guardsmen on the pedestal. It was reconfigured in 1914, moved back to become the apex of a triangle incorporating two more statues. Arthur George Walker's "Florence Nightingale" (1914) depicts the nurse and health reformer as the "Lady with the Lamp", pacing the Crimean wards at night (she had a Turkish "fanoos" lamp rather than a spouted oil lamp). John Foley's "Sidney Herbert" (1867), in deep thinker pose, was relocated to Waterloo Place in 1914 from a position outside the War Office. Herbert was Nightingale's political patron and an army health reformer who had been Secretary of War (1852-4) during the Crimean War (1853-6). The conflict was fought against Russia by a coalition of Britain, France and the Ottoman Empire. The statue of "Honour" was renamed "Victory" in 1914, presumably acknowledging the success of health reform rather than a revisionist view of a war notorious for the ill-fated Charge of the Light Brigade and the high number of deaths from disease. By depicting foot soldiers, and in classic "mourner" pose, the memorial started a trend of downbeat, officer-free war memorials that would culminate in those erected after the two world wars.
It has long been hard to persuade people to take the products of statuemania seriously and uncontemptuously. In 1923, Les Nouvelles Litteraires conducted a survey: "Is it necessary to kill some statues?" The Nazis would oblige by melting down seventy-five Parisian statues--many of which celebrated free-thinkers and the...