When I was in London last January, I had the chance to visit a hidden gem — well, depending on how you define “gem” — of a sculpture in the Guildhall Art Gallery in central London. Neil Simmons’ marble likeness of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher has a very pretentious (as you might expect) name, “Rt. Hon. The Baroness Thatcher of Kesteven, L.G., O.M., F.R.S.” (2001), and it sits in the corner of this small art museum with an excellent collection of Pre-Raphaelite painting.
Why such an important — if controversial figure — in contemporary Britain would be tucked into the corner of the city’s official art gallery is an interesting story, as it wasn’t always the case.
On July 3, 2002, theater producer Paul Kelleher, at the time 37, decapitated the eight-foot marble statue of the former British Prime Minister, which was once more prominently displayed at the Guildhall Art Gallery. He swung at the statue with a cricket bat concealed in his trousers, then used one of the “heavy metal poles that are used to support the rope cordon” to decapitate the statue. After the beheading, he waited for the police to arrive.
Afterwards, Kelleher explained his crime:
“I haven’t really hurt anybody, it’s just a statue, an idol we seem to be worshipping to a greater extent.” He later explained his defence involved his “artistic expression and my right to interact with this broken world.”
He was eventually convicted of criminal damage and sentenced to three months in jail.
Sculptor Neil Simmons told the BBC at the time he was “deeply saddened” by the damage, while Thatcher said nothing and released no official statements.
After the incident the museum repaired the damage, moved the statue to the corner, and encased it in glass. There it sits, away from the spotlight.
It’s worth mentioning that the now infamous sculpture was judged “too domineering” by the National Portrait Gallery in London, which refused the work before it was finally placed at Guildhall, and it’s not the only official statue of Baroness Thatcher — another one is housed in the Houses of Parliament.
Now, after yesterday’s death of the Iron Lady, there are calls by some people in the UK — most British conservatives and military officers — to erect a new statue to Thatcher on the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square. This is the same plinth that has been used as a site for temporary contemporary art installation since 1998. The fourth plinth was originally intended as the pedestal for a statue of William IV, but lack of funding left it empty for over a century before contemporary art lovers got a hold of it.
Will the UK decide to forgo a great contemporary art site that has featured work by Marc Quinn, Antony Gormley, Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset, and others for a monument to British conservatism? Whatever the decision, I think it will be very telling.