Sacred cows, severed heads and smashed pianos
From Nelson’s Pillar to William III’s statue, via an upside-down Oliver Cromwell, the Irish have a taste for iconoclasm, as illustrated by ‘Art Under Attack’, at Tate Britain
Nelson’s Pillar: the blown-up statue on O’Connell Street in Dublin, on March 9th, 1966, before the Army detonated a controlled explosion to demolish what remained
At 1.32am on March 8th, 1966, Admiral Nelson, who had stood high above O’Connell Street in Dublin for nearly 160 years, fell to earth. After the momentary silence that followed the explosion, there was an echoing thud as his falling soot-blackened body struck the base of the column, severing his head and sword. As a symbolic act, it was potent in its simplicity and pleasingly literal: if they build a statue, we can knock it down; if they make it, we can break it.
Two fragments of Nelson’s Pillar, which was blown up by a dissident IRA group, feature in Art Under Attack, a new exhibition at Tate Britain, in London, about iconoclasm, or image-breaking. They form part of an exploration of the history of physical attacks on art in Britain, and on symbols of British power abroad, since the 16th century.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Ireland has a strong presence. In Dublin particularly, iconoclasm and public statuary have been constant bedfellows. Nelson will find company at the Tate in William III, whose lead head is displayed alongside a marble plaque of military motifs – quiver, arrows, gloves – expertly evoked by the master carver Grinling Gibbons.
These both survive from the equestrian monument to the king that stood for more than two centuries on College Green. It was a focal point for political gatherings, as recorded in Francis Wheatley’s colossal painting The Dublin Volunteers on College Green, 4th November, 1779, also on loan to the exhibition from the National Gallery of Ireland.
The final, fatal bombing of that statue, in 1928, was only the last in a long line of ingenious and sometimes humorous protests against the looming king: he had mud smeared on his face; a straw figure was set astride the king; his baton was stolen. Like Nelson, who weathered 1916 with only a smattering of bullet holes to the lip and withstood attack by flame gun in 1955, William was a survivor. In 1836 he temporarily lost his head when assailants made a hole in his horse and filled the cavity with a chemical explosive.
William’s lead head is joined by that of William Duke of Cumberland, the “butcher of Culloden”. This is the only reminder, other than his triumphant outstretched arm, now in Birr Library, of the statue that dominated the centre of the Co Offaly town from 1747. It was finally removed in 1915, after protests from Scottish soldiers stationed at a nearby garrison.
Irish visitors to Art Under Attack may snigger at the sight of a portrait of Oliver Cromwell hanging upside down, as it did in the collection of the strongly monarchist Prince Frederick Duleep Singh in the early 20th century. Cromwell was a dedicated iconoclast who, in a ripe piece of Puritan propaganda, was said to have scaled a ladder at Peterborough Cathedral, when others refused, to smash a hard-to-reach image of a crucifix.