Statues feature strongly in many town centres. They are an important indication of how towns have developed. It was, and still is, quite usual for towns to celebrate their famous sons and daughters, or individuals who may have had a positive impact on the lives of people, through the erection of statues. Before the twentieth century, many were funded by public subscription and so can hint strongly at the civic values of their period. They may also reflect important elements of public life: religious, national, royal, social, imperial, or military.
Whereas clock towers more often celebrated joyful events, statues may have had a more sombre purpose. They were created sometimes to commemorate military victories and as a public display of gratitude for those who served or had given their lives in war. Many statues, for example, were put up as acts of remembrance for those who had served in the First World War. What a nation or a town sought to celebrate suggests the things that many people considered to be of lasting value.
Since they often have a local flavour, statues can offer information that can be easily followed up in district libraries and museums. Hugh Myddleton brought fresh piped water to north London. But even if you don’t know what the person depicted did, the figures that often surround them can give a hint that you can pursue. Here, the cherubs are holding water jugs!
You may be familiar with the song ‘In my Liverpool Home’, which has Liverpudlians meeting under ‘a statue exceedingly bare’. Well, this is it. But that’s not the whole story, because this statue is simultaneously an admirable piece of public art, an advertisement, and a war memorial - of sorts. Lewis’s department store (not to be confused with John Lewis) commissioned it from the famously avant-garde sculptor Jacob Epstein in 1956, aiming to promote the shop with a dramatic gesture. The statue is officially called ‘Liverpool Resurgent’ and is supposed to represent the city’s recovery from the heavy bombing it suffered in the Second World War. So it is also emblematic of local pride and determination in adversity. That, however, hasn’t stopped locals nicknaming their naked friend ‘Dickie Lewis’.
Towns do not simply celebrate their ‘worthy’ offspring – from the twentieth century they frequently commemorated people such as entertainers. This statue of the old variety star, Max Miller, was erected in his hometown of Brighton in 2005. It was funded mainly by donations from his Appreciation Society – a novel form of public subscription!
Taking it further
If you are curious about this type of heritage, you may like the Open University’s course, Heritage, whose heritage? (A180). Our Empire (A326) history course may also be of interest, as might From Enlightenment to Romanticism c.1780-1830 (A207).