Saturday marked the 50th anniversary of the death of Winston Churchill, held by many to be not only one of the greatest British leaders but one of the greatest British citizens of all time. A multifaceted man who still inspires debate and controversy to this day, he will always be remembered as one of the great characters of British history. In honor of the occasion here is Don Grant’s take on Churchill’s statue in Parliament Square.
When this towering statue was unveiled on 1 November 1973 by Clementine, Baroness Spencer-Churchill, also present were the Queen Mother and H M The Queen, who deferred to Winston Churchill’s widow to have the honour of pulling the cord to release the draped Union Flags. Edward Heath was the Prime Minister at the time, and four other former PMs, namely Sir Anthony Eden, Harold Macmillan, Harold Wilson and Sir Alec Douglas-Home, were present.
At a reception afterwards, one of them casually asked what the collective noun was for a gathering of ex-premiers, and it was Macmillan who drolly came up with the suggestion, “I think you’ll find it’s a lack of principals.”
The bronze is 3.7 m high, and stands on a 2.4 m high Portland Stone plinth, with the simple inscription CHURCHILL carved into it. It was sculpted by Ivor Roberts-Jones, a somewhat undistinguished portrait sculptor, whose first full-scale commissions were memorials to Sigmund Freud and Augustus John and these works brought him to prominence and led to his election as an Associate of the Royal Academy; a full member in 1973. From 1964 to 1978, he was Head of the Sculpture Department at Goldsmiths’ College, where he himself had studied in the 1930s.
It is a bit of a misshapen lump, showing the great wartime leader, with one hand on a walking stick and the other thrust deep into his military greatcoat, lurching off the plinth.
In the Members’ Lobby inside the Palace of Westminster, is another, more dynamic, statue of Churchill, by the Croatian sculptor Oscar Nemon. With his hands on his hips, he looks as though he’s about to stride forwards, with a defiant look. The one outside looks dead in comparison.
When it was being sculpted in plaster, the Churchill Statue Committee were concerned that he looked “a little too much” like the Italian Fascist leader Benito Mussolini, so the cheeks, eyes, forehead and the top of the head required modification, to reduce the dome of the head, and so doing, lowering the forehead. Churchill himself marked the spot where he thought his statue should be, but obviously never saw it standing.
There are other casts of the statue standing in Oslo, Norway, at the Australian National University in Canberra, in Halifax and Toronto, Canada, and in Winston Churchill Square in Prague, Czech Republic, outside the University of Economics.
The original in Parliament Square has been the subject of many attacks by protesters, having been sprayed with red paint, covered in graffiti, and, most famously, having a strip of grass placed on his head, giving him the appearance of a punk Mohican. It is said that the whole edifice has an electric current flowing through it to deter pigeons and other birds from doing what many of his fellow MPs would have done when he “crossed the floor” from Conservative to the Liberal Party and then back again in the interwar years.