My pitch for a colossal photorealistic statue of the queen

21.37, Wednesday 30 Nov 2022

One question is how to memorialise Queen Elizabeth II. I am concerned that there is a lack of public ambition so here’s my pitch: a giant photorealistic statue visible from every plane landing into Heathrow airport.

Look I’m not a monarchist but I do feel like it’s important to represent significant moments so they transmit through time.

The last major monarch was Queen Victoria who reigned for 63 years, 1837–1901.

The Victoria Memorial (Wikipedia) was erected in 1911 outside Buckingham Palace. It’s dramatic and elaborate: a marble pedestal topped with a bronze angel.

It was chosen by a Parliamentary committee and cost £200,000 at the time – although the fundraising was more than successful so, as part of the project, they also built Admiralty Arch at the other end of The Mall, connected the road to Trafalgar Square, and re-fronted Buckingham Palace. I don’t have a number for the total cost so let’s guess half a million, or in today’s money, £46 million.

I wasn’t around when Victoria was on the throne. Nobody still living was! But none-the-less her reign looms large in the national mind, and part of the reason is memorials like this. In another 100 years it will be clear to them, too.

Which brings me Queen Elizabeth.

Elizabeth II was on the throne 70 years (1928–2022) and the second Elizabethan age was no less transformative for Britain than under Victoria.

And the common understanding is that there should be a statue to her on the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square?

The story goes that, of the four plinths in Trafalgar Square, one was unoccupied, and so since 1999 it has been the home to a changing selection of monumental art – keeping the seat warm, as it were, for the Queen. No.

  1. It would be a shame to lose a place for incredible modern public art.
  2. Yes it’s in Trafalgar Square which is central to London, but it is insufficiently epic compared to the Victoria Memorial.

I’m against the idea of a statue for the Queen at all, actually. A conventional statue.

Think about it – statues are old hat. Sure in 1911 they may have been of the time. Even the location: in 1911 the Ford Model T was only a few years ago. Big roads had novelty to them. The Victoria Memorial, at the end of a long, wide, flat road – this statue was placed in the modern realm. It wielded authority, it is clearly complex to sculpt, it is large (25m).

A new statue today in an exercise in nostalgia. Cargo culting history.

Instead:

Remember Mark Wallinger’s proposed White Horse at Ebbsfleet?

Do check out the concept image on that page. Because whereas the traditional white horse is a grand chalk outline on a hillside - ancient land art - Wallinger’s proposal was a 50m, full colour, photorealistic sculpture of a white thoroughbred towering over the countryside. For comparison this is the height of the Statue of Liberty (the bit above the stone pedestal).

The mockups are clearly photoshopped. If it had been built, reality itself would have looked photoshopped. It couldn’t be more of its time.

Original cost estimate was £2m; final estimate was £12–£15 million, though sadly it was never built.

So.

A monument to Queen Elizabeth II. We want the British public in 100 years to fully grasp the historical weight of this monarch of the 20th century.

The budget in today’s money should match Victoria’s. Assuming costs increase quadratically, that’s enough for a statue twice the height of Wallinger’s White Horse.

And I would suggest the same approach: a photorealistic fibreglass three dimensional colossus of the Queen, standing 100 metres toes to crown.

Not on a road but with similar visibility as that historical comparison, so let’s put it on the Heathrow flight path. Handily Windsor Castle lies to the west and can often be seen from planes taking off or landing. The statue would be double the height of the castle so it would stand out.

I don’t believe we should be settling for anything less in the 2020s.

I’m entirely sure that this will not be the proposal of any future statue committee – but we should ask why not. Because if there isn’t popular ambition for the state to memorialise Queen Elizabeth II in a grand and modern fashion, if not this precisely then similar, then it’s hard to see how there could be ambition for anything.

If you enjoyed this post, please consider sharing it by email or on social media. Here’s the link. Thanks, —Matt.

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