Dealing with Historical Figures Who Fall Out of Favour:  Don’t Attack the Artwork

“Where James Cook Once Stood” Credit: Author

These days it is not uncommon to see red paint splashed on the statue of some controversial historical figure, or even to have the statue defaced, vandalized or perhaps torn down from its pedestal. It has happened to  Christopher Columbus, Winston Churchill, Robert E. Lee, and Queen Victoria, to name just a few recent targets. Other statues of people who are not such household names have also been targeted. In Britain, the statue of Edward Colston, a 17th century slave trader, was chucked into the River Avon. In the Washington, DC, the statue of Albert Pike, a Confederate officer and prominent Freemason, was torn down (Pike’s was the only statue to a Confederate officer in the US capital). One expects to see statues topple when political regimes change. Many of us will recall the fall from grace (and from his plinth) of Saddam Hussein when Iraq was liberated (briefly). Colonial figures are routinely replaced upon independence (you won’t find any statues of Cecil Rhodes in today’s South Africa, although surprisingly one endured on the campus of the University of Cape Town until 2015).

There is much debate about the rights and wrongs of defacing or toppling statues, especially when resulting from the unsanctioned actions of just a few individuals and not as the result of wider public consultation. A case can be made for removal or re-interpretation of monuments to figures from the past whose historical record may be not without blemish. A statue could be removed to a more suitable place, (like a museum), or have additional explanatory text added to contextualize it with respect to contemporary values. One aspect of the debate that seems to have been completely overlooked, however, is any consideration for the rights of the artist who created the statue in the first place. No-one would be prepared to allow protestors to throw red paint at or slash a portrait of a controversial historical figure in an art gallery. Why is it okay then to vandalize another form of art?

There are many reasons, some better than others, for removing and replacing statues. What some call “cancel culture”, others consider the righting of historical wrongs. Often, the interpretation of the contributions or failings of an individual honoured by a statue is not consistent across various groups in contemporary society. Christopher Columbus is a good example. Hailed by many as the “discoverer” of the New World, his “discovery” ultimately led to tragic consequences for the “discoverees”, the collapse of the Mayan and Inca Empires, the ravages of European diseases and the resultant decimation of native populations, the seizure of indigenous lands in North and South America and so on. It is understandable that, from the perspective of current indigenous groups, Columbus’ arrival is not exactly a cause for celebration. Statues of Columbus are not a particularly happy reminder of the last 500 years of history. On the other hand, if Columbus had not sighted Watling Island in the Bahamas on October 12, 1492, would the course of history have changed much? After all, John Cabot reached Newfoundland just five years later and many other explorers followed. Given the advances in maritime navigation at the time, it is hard to believe that the New World would not have been “discovered” by some other European navigator shortly after if Columbus had not made his epic voyage. Still, Columbus has become the physical embodiment of discovery, for better or for worse.

If Columbus has become a polarizing figure and the incarnation of “blame” for the conquest of the Americas by Europeans, so too has another explorer, Captain James Cook,  become controversial. Cook was a remarkable seaman. Born in Yorkshire in 1728 in modest circumstances, Cook joined the merchant navy as teenager, working on coal ships on Britain’s east coast. He did not join the Royal Navy until he was 27, entering as an Able Seaman. He had a talent for cartography and surveying and much of his early career involved mapping the coast of Newfoundland and the St. Lawrence River during the siege of Quebec. He was about as far from the model of an aristocratic British naval officer as one could find. Subsequently he went on to circumnavigate the globe, explore the South Pacific, Hawai’i and the coast of Australia, circumnavigate New Zealand, and explore the west coast of North America as far as Alaska. He was, in short, an explorer extraordinaire.

Because of his exploits, a number of statues of Cook exist around the world. There are several statues in Australia, one in Christchurch, New Zealand and another in Gisborne, in Hawai’i, Alaska, Victoria, BC (where yours truly is based) and in the UK, in both London and his hometown of Whitby. The full list can be found here.  It is fair to say that many of them are controversial because of Cook’s legacy of contact with native peoples, although Cook was never involved in the slave trade. (Cook was killed in an altercation with native Hawai’ians on February 14, 1779). As an example of his mixed legacy, the Cook statue in Sydney, Australia was defaced. At the one in Whitby, England a local guard of volunteers was mounted after the statue was covered in graffiti and listed as a target by a website called “Topple the Racists”. It is worth noting that the website does not advocate vandalizing or tearing down statues on the list. Rather it suggests that “It’s up to local communities to decide what statues they want in their local areas. We hope the map aids these much-needed dialogues. Taking down a statue could also include moving it to a museum, for example.

The one in Gisborne, NZ, was defaced (“Black Lives Matter and so do Maori”) while the one on Victoria’s Inner Harbor was unceremoniously toppled and tossed into the drink by a group of demonstrators protesting Indian residential schools in Canada. Cook may have been a victim of circumstances as some of the crowd who had been protesting in front of the provincial legislature seemed determined to find a target for their wrath. At first they moved against a nearby statue of Queen Victoria but with police between them and the statue, they decided to target the Cook statue instead, pulling it down with ropes and throwing it into the harbour. Cook was defenceless. No-one stood up for him.

Not surprisingly, the toppling of the statue was not universally received with applause. Many citizens of Victoria objected to the decisions of a few as to what public art could be displayed, no matter how sympathetic they were to the underlying cause of the protest. Arguments can also be made that Cook was the wrong target. The historical record suggests that he both respected and was respected by the native leaders with whom he came into contact while exploring the west coast of what is now British Columbia. He certainly had nothing to do with Indian residential schools.

But I want to return to my point about the moral rights of the sculptor being completely ignored in the debate over the political correctness of attacking public works of art. The Cook statue in Victoria is a case in point. While there were many irate letters to the editor, as well as some supporting or at least professing to understand the reasons for the action, the rights of the sculptor were entirely missing from the debate. The statue torn down in Victoria was, in fact, a clone of the Cook statue in Whitby, England. Similar duplicates exist in Waimea, Hawai’i and Anchorage, Alaska. The one in Victoria was not even cast in bronze. It was a fiberglass copy of the original work created by noted Scottish sculptor John Tweed, known as the “British Rodin”. The copy itself was produced by Derek and Patricia Freeborn Ltd, a firm in Britain noted for making models and reproductions used in the film industry.

Tweed was a prolific sculptor who tended to produce stentorian images of military figures, standing tall and proud. He memorialized, among others, Sir Robert Clive, who was instrumental in establishing British rule in India and Lord Kitchener, the WW1 British Field Marshall, as well as James Cook and many, many others. Tweed died in 1933 so his work will be out of copyright, but what would he have said to see his creations treated as objects of scorn and derision?

There is a famous portrait of Cook displayed at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, painted in 1775 by Nathaniel Dance-Holland. It is the work on which most likenesses of Cook are based. No-one would think of defacing or damaging this work of art; why should a likeness of Cook—or any other historical figure– in another form be fair game for protestors?

Enough, I say. By all means protest, but do not destroy or damage works of art in the process. If protestors have no respect for the artist who created the work, at least think of the integrity of the art object.

Personally, I favour keeping our public art up to date, and reflective of contemporary society. That does not mean pulling down statues of people whose values are out of sync with today’s beliefs and mores, but instead either moving the work to a more appropriate location where it can be contextualized (such as a museum) or perhaps re-interpreting the person’s life and achievements with additional information. That also avoids desecration of someone’s creation and work, whether or not one agrees with or likes the subject.

Will Cook go back up to his plinth in Victoria harbour? At the moment, that is an open question.  Right now, it is a base without a statue, a piece of unfinished business that attracts more questions than answers. I would like to see James Cook’s likeness, modelled on Dance’s famous image, resume his stance overlooking Victoria harbour. Perhaps Cook could be accompanied by a statue of Maquinna, the chief of the Mowachaht people of Nootka Sound, the dynamic native leader with whom Cook met and negotiated on his arrival in 1778. Mind you, unlike Cook, Maquinna was a slave owner (see White Slaves of Maquinna: John R. Jewitt’s Narrative of Capture and Confinement at Nootka, written 1807, first published 1815). History is complex.

Sculptors are artists whose work is as entitled to respect as other forms of art, even if the object of that art falls out of favour. Of course, it is easier to remove a tyrant’s portrait than his statue, which I guess is why statues are chosen–for their permanency. Nonetheless, for those who wish to protest, do so in a way that respects the artist and encourages debate over interpretations of history, with appropriate actions to reflect new interpretations if they are widely shared. Unilaterally deciding to vandalize public art is inexcusable no matter who the target is.

© Hugh Stephens, 2021. All Rights Reserved. 

One thought on “Dealing with Historical Figures Who Fall Out of Favour:  Don’t Attack the Artwork”

  1. A lovely, if slightly lighthearted take on today’s debate on cancel culture and historical contextualization. A fun read but thought stimulating too.


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