About six miles from my house, across the chalk Downs, is the village of Ditchling, which in the early twentieth century was home to the artists and artisans of the Arts and Crafts Movement. Central among them was the sculptor, printmaker and typeface designer Eric Gill, who is now known to have sexually abused his daughters. A selection of his work is displayed in the Ditchling Museum of Art and Craft, though the curators acknowledge the difficulties of knowing what to do with it.
Gill’s sculpture of Prospero and Ariel stands above the entrance of Broadcasting House, the headquarters of the BBC. Last week a man scaled the building and hacked at the statues with a chisel for two hours before he was stopped. Another man stood at ground level and livestreamed a tirade about paedophilia. Shayan Sardarizadeh, who reports on disinformation for BBC Monitoring, noted that the statue has long been ‘an obsession for British QAnon, “save our children”, “satanic ritual abuse” and other conspiracy groups’.
A few days earlier, the Colston Four had been cleared by a jury for their involvement in the toppling, rolling and dunking of the statue of Edward Colston in Bristol in 2020. I don’t care much for Gill’s work, but there’s an easy difference between his sculpture of Shakespearean characters and Colston’s likeness glowering over a city centre. Colston is famous only because of his part in the slave trade. A statue in his honour thereby honours that institution. Bringing down the statue repudiates colonialism. Gill is best known for his art, and also happens to have been an atrocious person. No monument should be raised to honour him, but his statues of other things are just that: statues of other things. That doesn’t mean they should stay, but it means the problem is harder.
Part of the difficulty is how to subtract Gill from his work. A wood engraving of a young woman with long hair, kneeling down naked in a tub, entitled Girl in Bath: II, is a likeness of his daughter, Petra, whom he sexually abused. It isn’t easy to look at Hound of St Dominic, a woodcut of a dog holding a flaming torch in its mouth, without thinking of the fact that Gill fucked his dog. Even for works whose subjects are further removed from his trespasses, there are other barriers to appreciation. Intrusive thoughts of the smoothing hands of the sculptor tend to ruin more or less all his work, wherever it ends up.
The Cambridge historian David Abulafia wrote an article in the Telegraph criticising the Colston Four verdict. His central point was that removing Colston’s statue (or one of Cromwell or Churchill, which he fears will be next) amounts to these figures being ‘excised’ from history. He uses the words ‘woke’ and ‘mob’. And he finishes with the worry that public squeamishness about the way people make their fortunes might scare them off philanthropy.
It’s a thin argument. There are no public statues of Hitler in the UK, though there are few people more present in our history. The actions of the Colston protesters have done more to immortalise Colston than his statue ever did. Through them, he has been granted a second, more honest run at fame. The act of bringing down a statue is itself a moment in history.
Figuring out what to do with monuments requires careful thought about what they mean and who they harm. Statues honouring egregious people tell airbrushed tales to the world; their toppling provides marginal notes on less rosy truths. Removing them is not an expurgation of history, it’s the insertion of other voices into the record, voices that have long been ignored. The more of that we can encourage, the richer the history we will leave to those who follow us.
Priyamvada Gopal, the author of Insurgent Empire, who teaches English at Cambridge, tweeted of Abulafia’s piece: ‘Few undergrads produce work this weak after the first week or so.’ She also noted that Abulafia’s description of the broadcaster David Olusoga (who spoke at the trial of the Colston Four) as ‘eloquent’ could sound dismissive: a way of trivialising the content of his important work in criticising Britain’s highly propagandised telling of history by focusing on the style of Olusoga’s delivery. (The philosopher Paul Grice famously wrote that a teacher might indirectly imply the weakness of a student by writing a reference consisting of the words: ‘He has beautiful handwriting.’) In some contexts, ‘eloquent’, like ‘articulate’, is used to mean ‘not bad for a Black person’.
In 2007, Joe Biden described Barack Obama as ‘the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy’. Sometimes compliments are just compliments, but sometimes they reveal what a person expects of someone like that. It’s quite probable that Abulafia gave the word ‘eloquent’ little thought – he says he intended it to be read at face value – but Gopal is a professor of English and a scholar of race; paying attention to the context of language is her job.
Gopal is now facing vicious attacks across the right-wing press. It isn’t the first time she has been dragged in this way. When she criticised the slogan ‘white lives matter’ in 2020, she was accused in the Daily Mail of ‘attempting to incite an aggressive and potentially violent race war’. The paper eventually apologised for misrepresenting her (as ever, in a tucked-away one-inch column) and paid damages, but by that point she’d been exposed to months of death and rape threats.
Those who wish to defend statues of dead white men on free speech grounds invariably undermine their case by failing to support that right for living people, especially those with marginal identities who say things they don’t like. Free speech isn’t just about who can speak, or whose statue stands or falls; it’s about who chooses not to speak because the consequences aren’t worth it, and who disappears from history without being heard at all.