by Dr Jeremy Burchardt
- it’s a pompous, embarrassing monument to imperialism. Knock it down!
- it’s a precious part of our heritage. Those were the days!
- times have changed but we shouldn’t try to airbrush out the past. Keep (critically).
- I don’t care – it means nothing to me.
- none of the above.
As some of you will know, the statue is a representation of King Edward VII. The photo was taken by Sam Moss for the Reading University Photographic Society/Department of History project. You can see a higher-resolution version, and the other entries for the project, in the department’s Flickr stream. The statue was the work of George Edward Wade, a well-known late nineteenth and early twentieth-century sculptor. It stands rather forlornly in the middle of a roundabout outside the main entrance toReading station. What did it mean at the time it was erected, how has that meaning changed over time, and what can that tell us about the relationship between history and public memory?
The statue was intended to celebrate the coronation of King Edward VII in 1902. This was at a moment when the British Empire was close to its maximum extent, when the map of the world was proverbially painted pink in the school textbooks – in short when Britainwas close to the apogee of its imperial power. Britain was still an industrial and trading superpower and something like a third of the world’s population lived in theBritish Empire. This pride, confidence and power leaps out at you from the statue – the tall, dignified, upright figure, firmly grasping the royal mace, surmounted by the imperial crown, gazing out boldly at new worlds to conquer.
Yet there were always hidden strains and anxieties beneath the proud face of empire. This was especially true in the early years of the reign of Edward VII. The British army, bastion of the empire, had been badly exposed in the Second Boer War (1899-1902) despite greatly outnumbering the largely untrained troops opposing them. Confidence in Britain’s imperial prowess had been shaken more rudely than since the Indian Mutiny of 1857. There were also anxieties about Britain’s place in the world in the new century. Military and imperial rivalries with other European countries were intensifying and it was apparent that Britain would struggle to retain its economic predominance against competition from the USA, Germanyand perhaps even Japan. Upper-class Britons were trained through their reading of such admonitory works as Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire and Ruskin’s The Stones of Venice to anticipate the downfall of empire and there was plenty of evidence in 1902 that the turn of the British Empire was about to come.
Finally there were anxieties about the new king himself. Victoria’s long reign had coincided with a period of unprecedented growth, stability and international pre-eminence for Britain, and this was closely identified with the sober, respectable persona of the Queen herself. Could Edward, her notoriously hedonistic, irresponsible and loose-living son, ever match up to this? So the dignity and grandeur of G. E. Wade’s statue may have been as much an expression of hope as of certainty.
What does the statue mean to us today, more than a century on? It is profoundly incongruous, and, to some, frankly embarrassing. Encompassed with traffic and fumes, the king still visually dominates a radically changed environment. But most passers-by probably do not even know who he is. At almost every level he jars on modern sensibilities: his flagrant imperialism, insistent maleness, formality and uncompromising assertion of authority. In twenty-first century Britain there is still plenty of authority and power around, and some might argue that imperialism isn’t far away either, but what makes the statue potentially problematic is the huge change in cultural values and assumptions over the last half century. Informality rules and overt assertions of authority or superiority are unwelcome. Britain may still project military power but this is in the name of human rights or defence against terrorism rather than empire.
What then to do with the statue? Perhaps it could be conveniently carted off to an out-of-town warehouse and put into permanent storage. But that doesn’t seem quite right either – too much like trying to rewrite history, erasing the traces of our imperial past. As L. P. Hartley famously observed, ‘the past is a foreign country – they do things differently there’. You could argue that a confident, open, democratic society should take a multicultural attitude to the past as well as the present. It’s precisely the encounter with different values, perspectives and assumptions that makes History such an exciting subject to study. Perhaps the unsettling otherness of objects left behind by time, like the Edward VII statue, is a reason to leave them where they are, not hide them away. We should welcome their provoking power to make us reflect critically on both past and present values.