Prompted by critiques of the total absence of monuments to women across Wales generally and in the Welsh capital in particular, property developer Rightacres have said they will fund a brand new statue of a notable Welshwoman as part of the ongoing Central Square
fiasco project and have asked the public to come up with suggestions.
Of course, the very fact the question has to be asked illustrates the problem – since no outstanding candidate leaps readily to mind as it might do in nations that have written their own history and enabled their own people. Conquered, colonised Wales has been grievously short of indigenous heroes for centuries, so finding any heroines in the comprehensively patriarchal and sexist world created by and for men is nearly impossible. You’ve only got to look at the statues of neighbouring England, where males make up 95% of the total and the female 5% are mainly royals, to see this remorseless disempowerment and disregarding of women carved in stone and bronze. The dearth of Welsh possibilities is confirmed by some of the ideas being floated – from the blandly predictable (Megan Lloyd George) via the safely worthy (Betsi Cadwaladr) to the toe-curlingly wrong (Catherine Zeta Jones). I will come to my suggestion later, but first the existing statuary of Cardiff, the context in which any new statue must sit, is well worth an examination. Excluding allegorical/generic/symbolic statues of unspecific people, statues within buildings, and also the cemetery and graveyard ego-trips of the boastful rich, here, in chronological order of their statues, are the men who have so far been memorialised in Cardiff’s public spaces:
John Crichton-Stuart, 2nd Marquis of Bute (1793-1848)
The very first statue erected in Cardiff set the template of grovelling to the high and mighty for all that followed. The bombastic bronze of ‘the creator of modern Cardiff’ (©The Cardiff Story Museum), garbed in regulation mock-Roman robes and silly hosiery in an awkward pose on a giant granite plinth, was the work of Brecon sculptor John Evan Thomas (1810-1873). Unveiled in the middle of High Street in 1853, it lorded it over the Victorian town that the Marquis deemed his own personal fiefdom. And for 164 years Cardiff has been lumbered with this aggrandising tribute to a totalitarian, tyrannical, reactionary, anti-democratic, bigoted, ruthless, corrupt, murderous, larcenous, gazillionaire Tory aristocrat. Shameful or what?
The only small consolation is the way the statue has been treated with low contempt over the years. Soon seen as an inconvenient obstacle, it was shifted to an equally dominant position at the bottom of St Mary Street in 1879. As traffic increased, the statue in effect acted as a roundabout at the eight-forked octopus junction on the Custom House Bridge over the Glamorganshire Canal (going clockwise: St Mary Street/Mill Lane/Charlotte Street/Custom House Street/East Wharf/West Wharf/Penarth Road/Saunders Road). Generations of Cardiffians would rendezvous, vomit, loiter or pee here (sometimes simultaneously!) until city planners again identified the statue as an encumbrance and shifted it in 2000 to what was intended to be a spacious new European-style public piazza called Bute Square – Cardiff apparently being deficient in Bute references. However those airy aims were soon ditched and it evolved into just another fume-choked traffic roundabout, a barren no-go zone where the Marquis looks even more marooned and ridiculous with only stoned skateboarders and itinerant late-stage alcoholics for company. Through the long decades the statue has gradually turned green – the verdigris patina that always forms on bronze, a copper alloy, in the kind of damp, polluted air that Cardiff specialises in. To add insult to injury, the site doesn’t bear the Bute name any more since the Labour council, daringly honouring one of their very own rightwingers for once, renamed it Callaghan Square in 2002. Conservative AM David Melding, recoiling at the disrespect, has advocated a fourth relocation to the long-gone dock area at the bottom of Bute Street. But nobody listens to Mr Melding – especially his fellow ‘Welsh’ Tories, who reckon you’re a raving Bolshevik if you don’t want the Assembly abolished and replaced by an annual parade of heraldic insignia led by Simon Weston. It’s a pity, because Dai (we’re on first name terms) is half right. This statue should be propelled further along its southward trajectory – just not in open view, but where it properly belongs: rusting in the murky depths of a lake created by the very short-termism and greed the Marquis patented.
John Batchelor (1820-1883)
All statues are statements of ideology and politics. Look at recent events in the US at Charlottesville Virginia, where a young woman was killed protesting against mobs of white supremacists, neo-Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan who had gathered to defend a statue earmarked for removal of Confederate general and advocate of black slavery Robert E Lee (1807-1870). Or in Oxford University, where there is ferment over the decision of Oriel College not to remove a statue of genocidal, land-grabbing, warmongering British imperialist and architect of apartheid Cecil Rhodes (1853-1902). Or in Bristol, where controversy rages over the insulting presence of an enormous statue of slave-trader and mass-murderer Edward Colston (1636-1721) in the heart of the city. Whenever there are revolutions or counter-revolutions the first thing that happens is the toppling of statues. This has been true throughout recorded history, tracking the ceaseless shifts of power, influence and cultural hegemony. Within five days of the US Declaration of Independence in 1776, for instance, the statue of loathed British monarch George III (1738-1820) in Manhattan was destroyed, while the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 saw statues of another genocide-enthusiast Joseph Stalin (1878-1953) instantly dismantled throughout the Eastern Bloc. The point I’m making is this: nobody should pretend that any Cardiff statue can possibly be neutral, consensual and innocuous.
Back in 19th century Cardiff, nobody did pretend – as the saga of the John Batchelor statue in The Hayes illustrates. Political engagement in Cardiff had not yet been drowned in today’s unbearably smug, creepy-crawly gloop served up by BBC Wales and MediaWales, the foreign corporations that set the miserably narrow parameters of acceptability and pathetically infantile definitions of what passes for the Welsh body politic. Even though less than 4% of the population had the vote before 1918 extensions of the franchise, the town was a hot-bed of passionate activism across the classes in the late 19th century. In simple terms, the battle can be boiled down to the Bute faction (Tories and their private militias of hired thugs) versus everybody else (Liberals, radicals, the disenfranchised 96%). This schism was well represented by a partisan, plural local press: the South Wales Daily News and South Wales Echo of high-minded Scottish Liberal, proud Celt and devout Presbyterian David Duncan (1811-1888) and the Western Mail and Evening Express of stroppy, bullying, eccentric Yorkshire Tory Lascelles Carr (1841-1902). Newport-born Batchelor had resisted the Butes since coming to Cardiff in 1843 to help his brother run a ship-building business on the banks of the Taff. In 1853, following a small but significant extension of the franchise beyond the landed gentry to include the rising mercantile classes, the Liberals wrested control of the town council from the vice-like grip of the Butes and bold reformer Batchelor became mayor. He would pay dearly for defying the Bute Estate; he was forced out of business and into bankruptcy in 1872 after a sustained campaign to ruin him which included a stitched-up relocation of the Batchelor Bros shipyard to the Bute West Dock where the Butes could crush him with ever-rising rents. Undaunted, Batchelor remained a prominent radical, being instrumental in establishing the sewage system that defeated rampant cholera in the town in the teeth of vehement Bute-orchestrated opposition.
Following his death the Liberal-controlled council authorised the monument to his memory at centrifugal Hayes Island, an elegant bronze on a stone pedestal inscribed “The Friend of Freedom”, created by sculptor James Milo Griffith (1843-1897) from Pembrokeshire and unveiled in 1886. Immediately the town’s Tories were up in arms. Dodgy petitions were compiled and the statue was vandalised with yellow paint and tar, while Bute mouthpiece the Western Mail whipped up the opposition. After the paper published a hatchet-job mock epitaph to Batchelor in 1887, his friends issued a failed writ for libel – a case that became important in UK legal annals for establishing the principle that the dead cannot be libelled. Which is good, because it means I can write sentences such as “Margaret Thatcher was a psychopath” with impunity!
John Batchelor is still there at Hayes Island, albeit overwhelmed by curtain walls of glass and concrete, splattered with bird shit and periodically topped by a traffic cone. His presence at Cardiff’s epicentre of pointless consumerism, sustained by the imprisonment of personal debt, is a reminder that the enemies of freedom have never gone away, and must always be resisted. And that old instinctive distaste for the Friend of Freedom can still surface now and then, as in 2010 when a Mr D Melding called for Batchelor’s removal to somewhere less conspicuous, on the grounds that he was unknown outside Cardiff. Thankfully, nobody listened.
Henry Austin Bruce, Lord Aberdare (1815-1895)
After that tit-for-tat start to statuary in Cardiff, there was a hiatus of 15 years before a plethora of statues started popping up one after the other in the new civic centre taking shape in Cathays Park. The council had to pay the 3rd Marquis of Bute (see below) £160,000 for the land (the equivalent of £18 million today) in 1898, building work began in 1901 and, as Cardiff was made a city in 1905, City Hall the first structure was completed. The first statue was already in place, unveiled in newly laid-out Alexandra Gardens to the rear of City Hall in 1899. Liberals ran the council, as well as the Westminster government, so it was a Liberal who was honoured, confirming the tendency of statuary in Cardiff to be used like a back-scratching mutual appreciation society by whichever power-bloc prevails at the time.
Originally from Aberdâr, where the coal bonanza from his inherited land holdings brought him great wealth, Bruce was a Gladstonian Liberal who was MP for Merthyr Tydfil from 1852 to 1868 and, after he lost that seat, MP for Renfrewshire in Scotland from 1869 to 1873, when he was also an ineffectual Home Secretary. After being elevated to the peerage as Lord Aberdare, he devoted himself to education issues and his 1881 report into the state of Higher Education in Wales made a decisive, unanswerable case for the establishment of a university in Wales, the only part of the UK without one. The federal University of Wales was eventually founded in 1893, with Bruce its first chancellor, and the University College of South Wales & Monmouthshire (now Cardiff University) obtained its charter as a constituent part of the University of Wales in 1894. Bruce then died and his statue was positioned in the middle of Cathays Park, facing the bare ground earmarked for the first phase of the University College, completed 10 years later in 1909. By English sculptor Herbert Hampton (1862-1929), a monument specialist who had studied at Cardiff School of Art, the striking bronze shows Bruce looking suitably donnish and didactic in academic robes. Simultaneously, an identical statue of Bruce was unveiled on the promenade outside University College Aberystwyth (later shifted to inside the Old College building).
In Alexandra Gardens, decent, intellectual, proudly Welsh, mildly progressive Bruce today faces what his baby has become: a bloated, empire-building, fee-chasing, degree sausage-machine that has facilitated the devouring of Cardiff by tower block ghettos for the transient and ditched its sole founding purpose to provide education for the people of Wales so comprehensively that no capital city university in the world has a smaller percentage of indigenous undergraduates. Meanwhile, the more Cardiff expands its ‘education industry’, the fewer traces there are of anyone educated in the city. This was illustrated in a recent edition of the University Challenge TV programme, when the Cardiff Uni team got humiliatingly thrashed in the first round by Southampton Uni, nearly setting a new all-time record low points total in the process. What was noticeable is that Southampton’s team all hailed from that city’s Hampshire/Dorset catchment area, whereas not one of Cardiff’s clueless foursome was from Wales let alone Cardiff. Let’s put it this way: if Bruce were alive today he’d turn in his grave.
John Cory (1828-1910)
Coal-owner, shipping magnate and philanthropist John Cory’s statue followed in 1906, a stern top-coated figure on an incongruously exotic pedestal in Gorsedd Gardens, by Cardiff’s home-grown master sculptor Willam Goscombe John (1860-1952). With this statue an unhappy precedent was set: Cory was still alive and was actually present at the unveiling, which is tantamount to attending your own funeral. It is surely axiomatic that someone has to be dead before the entirety of their life can be assessed. Message to Rightacres and the council: the first requirement of any prospective Central Square candidate must be to produce a death certificate.
It’s not that John Cory didn’t deserve his immortalising in bronze. Bideford-born John had crossed the Severn sea to Cardiff at age 10 and, with his brother Richard (1830-1914) in their Bute Place HQ, built Cory Brothers into both a coal-producing and a coal-exporting giant with lucrative collieries throughout the Glamorgan valleys and depots, offices and agencies along all the world’s major sea lanes. They don’t make capitalists like John Cory any more: with his immeasurable wealth he didn’t just self-indulge, hoard or keep it in the family; the strictly teetotal, God-fearing, evangelical Wesleyan Methodist and free trade Liberal had read about rich men, camels and eyes of needles and didn’t want to spend an eternity in hell, so gave vast sums away (£50,000 in each of the last 10 years of his life – £3 million a year at current values) in sustained acts of benefaction. Alright, his largesse was always saturated in bible-bashing moralism and exclusively directed at movements that toed his paternalistic ‘self-improvement’ strictures, but his funding of schools and hospitals, the Sailors’ Rest Home, the YMCA building and the Cory Hall, among countless other projects, made a real difference in Cardiff. There was no opposition to this statue. Cardiff was on the crest of a wave, booming like never before; the incontestably ‘good’ John Cory made the city feel good too. But today there is scarcely a trace of Cory’s impact, achievements and values left in Cardiff: the Cory Bros business is long gone, mortally wounded by first the carnage of WW1 and then the collapse of Cardiff’s coal economy in the 1920s; the Cory Hall and YMCA in Station Terrace and the Sailors’ Home in Bute Street have all been demolished; the Methodist chapels, Barnardo’s Homes and Salvation Army groups he bestowed dissolved with the decades; there are plans to convert the magisterial hulk of the disused 1889 Cory’s Building in Bute Place into yet another speculative block of ‘luxury’ flats for absentee hedge funds – the epitome of everything that Cory deplored and fought; and as for the temperance movement he supported so passionately throughout his life…well, I need add no more.
Seeping vivid green sulphide and sulphate compounds, the statue has not fared well in Gorsedd Gardens. Over the years multiple defacements and minor vandalisms inflicted by the ever-growing population of Cardiff University students in the vicinity have taken their toll. Nobody has a problem with Mr Cory – I’d be surprised if a single current undergraduate has ever heard of him – it’s merely unanticipated bad luck. Gorsedd Gardens and adjacent City Hall Lawn were ruined in the 1970s by the construction of a six-lane racetrack (Boulevard De Nantes/Stuttgarter Strasse) immediately to the south, and subsequently evolved into today’s ravaged all-purpose cut-through, chill-out zone, litter bin and pick-up joint. Ahh…that’s the trouble with immortality: it’s temporary.
Godfrey Charles Morgan, 1st Viscount Tredegar (1831-1913)
This magnificent Goscombe John bronze of Lord Tredegar aboard his horse Sir Briggs was erected on City Hall Lawn in 1909. Thus was repeated the same faux pas committed with John Cory: the multi-millionaire, Eton-educated, former British army officer and Tory MP of Tredegar House on the western edge of Newport was alive and kicking and present at the unveiling. At least Sir Briggs had the discernment to have long gone to the great hay-bale in the sky; the bay gelding having died in 1874 aged 28, to be buried, standing up, in the Cedar Garden at Tredegar House complete with his own impressive memorial obelisk – which means one old warhorse ended up with double the commemorations of the other! Any man with Godfrey Morgan’s affinity for horses is good at heart, and the inheritor of the Morgan dynasty’s immense landholdings in Monmouthshire, Breconshire and Glamorganshire, born in exotic Ruperra Castle in the wooded hills of the lower Rhymni valley, had many appealing virtues. As he mellowed authentic philanthropic instincts surfaced, perhaps a flicker from the deep DNA of the only indigenous Welsh gentry family of any significance that remained by the 19th century.
Although mostly associated with the old Monmouthshire, a county they controlled neck and crop, the Morgans were also major players in Cardiff, where judicious marriages meant they owned and built most of Roath, Splott and Adamsdown and from there everything eastward, to the extent it was said Lord Morgan could mount his steed at Cardiff and ride to Hereford without setting a hoof on anyone else’s land. So Godfrey Morgan didn’t just benefit Newport, where he built the docks and donated land for parks, hospitals and recreation grounds, but he also endowed Cardiff with many of the green spaces that remain vital today, such as Splott Park, Moorland Gardens, Roath Mill Gardens, Waterloo Gardens, Roath Rec and Tremorfa Park. That alone is worth a statue.
But of course it wasn’t for those reasons Morgan was monumentalised in 1909. The statue was a commemoration of his part in the Charge of the Light Brigade in 1854 during the Battle of Balaclava in the Crimean War. Astride Sir Briggs, Captain Morgan of the 17th Lancers rode ‘into the valley of death’ on the suicidal mission, and more by luck than judgement the pair of them were among the few to survive the carnage inflicted by the Russian artillery. As often happens in British history, the futile defeat was repackaged as somehow glorious and noble to keep the ignorant masses back home suitably jingoistic and sentimental. Within weeks poet laureate Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809-1892) had rattled off his famous poem and the chaotic events had been calcified into one more British-exceptionalism myth. Morgan and Sir Briggs were central characters in the narrative, featuring in numerous dramatic oil paintings, and although both were out of the Army and back in Tredegar House within a year, the Viscount dined out on his Charge of the Light Brigade anecdotes for the rest of his days. It wasn’t his donation of land for Cardiff Royal Infirmary that was being celebrated by the statue; it was his military past. This endorsement of violence was firstly an insult to Wales, a victim of the forerunners of the very same army, and secondly a cruel disservice to the 25,000 British, 100,000 French and over a million Russians who died in the hideous and unnecessary exercise in imperialistic warmongering, a typical example of bossy, belligerent British interference (it was all about control of the Black Sea and the Bosphorus route to the Mediterranean). And, as has happened in all the 194 countries Britain has invaded over the centuries, it only made things worse: intractable conflict in Crimea rumbles on unresolved over a century later in what is currently Russian-annexed Ukraine.
It was also a disservice to Morgan himself. He wasn’t at all the haughty, battle-ready brute as portrayed by the statue. He was actually humble, reserved, unostentatious, humorous, cultured and a fair employer as well as benevolent – the sort of Tory now entirely extinct in Wales. Various now familiar patterns in Cardiff governance emerged with this statue: wholesale acceptance of the deluded, duplicitous, self-ratifying Brit narrative; a juvenile weakness for things militaristic; and the general incompetence that meant when Cardiff wasn’t erecting the wrong statue it was erecting the right one for the wrong reasons.
The, er, confirmed bachelor died in time to avoid witnessing the complete eradication of the mighty Morgan estate by first his feckless nephew Courtenay Morgan (1867-1934) then his great-nephew the stark raving bonkers Evan Morgan (1893-1949). What they didn’t fritter away was then erased by the traumatic death of Wales’ coal-dependent economy. And, in 1953, when the last Lord Tredegar sold the last asset, Tredegar House itself, the Morgan estate that had taken half a millennium to assemble was no more: blown in forty years flat.
The statue still looks fabulous, despite being another victim of repeated casual vandalism and disfigurement, but has been rendered anachronistic by the sheer twists and turns of events. And yet…as I enter a third grinding month of renovations to my house, built by the Morgan estate in Splott in the 1890s, I can state categorically from personal experience that if anyone was ‘the creator of modern Cardiff’ it was Godfrey Morgan. I will take a short break here to continue with my current task: painting the leaves of the original decorative Romanesque plaster mouldings in the hall pale green with a slender artists brush while up a wobbly stepladder. It’s important.
Gwilym Williams (1839-1906)
Next, in 1910, Goscombe John’s statue of Judge Gwilym Williams was placed in front of the newly completed Law Courts. The Liberal council was pitching for capital city status to ensure Cardiff would be the home of the Welsh parliament being promised by the Liberal government in London, so the whole civic centre was being consciously packed with nationalistic icons and symbols. This would reach its apogee inside City Hall with the unforgettable ensemble of life-size figures on the stairs and landings that became the Hall of Welsh Heroes when completed in 1917. Because these figures are not in readily accessible or open public space I’m not including them in this piece, but for the record they are: St David by Goscombe John; Boadicea by James Havard Thomas; Hywel Dda by FW Pomeroy; Giraldus Cambrensis by Henry Poole; Llywelyn II by Henry Pegram; Dafydd ap Gwilym by W Wheatley Wagstaff; Owain Glyndŵr by Alfred Turner; Henry VII by EG Gillick; Thomas Picton by T Mewburn Crook; Bishop Morgan by TJ Clapperton; and William Williams Pantycelyn by LS Merrifield.
Judge Williams, from Ynyscynon, Aberdare, couldn’t be placed in that bracket, but he nevertheless fitted the bill perfectly as a bilingual Welshman, avid eisteddfodwr, stalwart of the Cymmrodorion society and promoter of the first daily newspaper published in Wales, the Cambrian Daily Leader. Judge of the Glamorgan County Court and chairman of the Glamorgan quarter sessions, he was Wales’ best-known legal figure at the time, highly regarded for his humour, sharp mind and impartiality – although to be frank he would barely merit a footnote in the annals of jurisprudence today. This bronze is a Goscombe John gem, capturing the workaholic, well-fed Squire of Miskin Manor in all his bewigged and gowned boisterousness. Given its protected position, virtually immune to future demolition gangs, Judge Williams could well be a Cardiff presence until doomsday – an example of the iron law of unintended consequences in action that would have amused him.
Ninian Crichton-Stuart (1883-1915)
The second son of the 3rd Marquis of Bute (see below) got statue-fied before his father and without having achieved much in life thanks to tried and trusted methods: dying young and dying in war. The lieutenant-colonel in the Welch Regiment was killed by a sniper’s bullet to the head in the 1915 Battle of Loos during WW1, aged only 32. He was well-known in Cardiff, having been the borough’s low-key Conservative MP since 1910 (a position still very much in the Butes’ gift), and having acted as guarantor for Cardiff City FC’s new ground, named after him in reciprocation. Given that thousands of ordinary Cardiffians had died in the trenches already up to that point in time, it still seems like almost indecent haste for the statue to this unremarkable Scottish toff to be commissioned, designed, sculpted (by Goscombe John) and ready to be plonked in a prime position in Gorsedd Gardens by the following year.
Chance has conferred more legacies through the use of the name ‘Ninian’ in roads, a school, a train station and the housing estate that replaced Ninian Park. However, the speedy execution of the bronze shows in the slapdash and stiffly artificial posture of Crichton-Stuart in uniform clutching binoculars and map as though surveying a battlefield, which some might think an accurate description of Boulevard De Nantes.
James Buckley (1849-1924)
The shattering impact of WW1 stopped the Cathays Park development in its tracks and through the 1920s it was everyman representations on the many war memorials going up that kept sculptors busy. The one exception was Goscombe John’s 1927 life-size bronze on granite pedestal of Archdeacon Buckley on The Green at Llandaf, which had been swallowed up by Cardiff in 1922. “Who?”, I hear you howl. Who indeed. Even devoted connoiseurs of Church in Wales clerical history would have to Google him nowadays, such is the fickleness of fame. With hindsight his main achievement seems to have been sheer endurance. After ordination in Lampeter and a curacy in Neath the Carmarthenshire-born theologian arrived at Llandaf Cathedral in 1878, a young man of 29, and didn’t leave until taken out in a box 46 years later. For 35 years he was vicar of Llandaf parish and for his last 11 he was Archdeacon of the diocese – talk about stamina!
The statue is delightful, even slightly cheesy, capturing Buckley’s naïve man-of-the-cloth earnestness and benign resolution by means of a poignant walking stick. It adds to Llandaf’s soothing aura of ecclesiastical tweeness, while contributing zilch to the store of human knowledge and providing more proof of the random, right-place-at-the-right-time incoherence of Cardiff statuary…for ‘All flesh is like grass and all its glory like the flower of grass. The grass withers and the flower falls’ (1 Peter 1:24).
John Patrick Crichton-Stuart, 3rd Marquis of Bute (1847-1900)
At the height of the Great Depression, amidst mass destitution, poverty and unemployment, Cardiff’s Conservative-controlled council thought it would be a good idea to indulge in a bit of extravagant spending to honour one of their own and put the Tory stamp on Liberal-leaning Cathays Park. The classic bronze-on-plinth by James MacGillivray (1856-1938) was unveiled in Friary Gardens in front of the Law Courts in 1930, fully 30 years after the subject’s death from Bright’s Disease, so there was no particular clamour for the statue – especially with a quarter of the population on the bread-line (literally as well as metaphorically). Nor could it be said that the Victorian era’s greatest patron of architecture lacked recognition in Cardiff: after all, in Cardiff Castle, his deeply personal magnum opus slap bang in the centre of the city, he had the monument to end all monuments already. Yet the Tories, then as now slavering servants of the super-rich and lickspittle lionisers of lords and ladies, proceeded regardless. Forelock tugging on bended knee before the Butes in the hope of some small preferment was a way of life for Cardiff Tories, and there was still the 4th Marquis (1881-1947) to please, when he wasn’t busily divesting himself of his Welsh holdings now that profit margins were down.
Saying that, if any Bute deserved to be lavishly commemorated it was the 3rd Marquis. He was nothing like his father (who he never met, being a baby when he died) being a refined intellectual and aesthete repelled by the ugliness and crudity of industry (although happy to pocket its earnings), and nothing like any Tory alive nowadays: he’d read a book. His Toryism was irrelevant, merely the automatic allegiance of all aristocrats. What mattered to Cardiff in the end was the way he used his colossal wealth to provide the city with the two most spectacularly successful exercises in Gothic Revival architecture anywhere in the world: Cardiff Castle and Castell Coch. With £775 million (at today’s values) of spending money burning a hole in the pocket of his hand-embroidered silk smoking jacket, the richest man in the world turned his fevered, hallucinogenic, mock-medievalist fantasies into 3D reality in a building binge not seen since the days of Renaissance Italy. Blowing millions painstakingly stashed by his pragmatic father, he had over 60 historic buildings restored in his native Scotland alone. But his greatest works are undoubtedly his collaborations in Cardiff with the equally eccentric William Burges (1827-1881). Here, the exquisite taste, serious scholarship and runaway creativity of the pair of obsessive oddballs came to sensational fruition and, at long last, Cardiff had something to be truly thankful for from the Butes – although it wasn’t until 1947 that the 5th Marquis (1907-1956) agreed to transfer ownership of the Castle (and Bute Park) back to Cardiff, a mere 850 years after being seized by the Normans.
The extraordinarily erudite and talented Scottish nationalist poet and sculptor MacGillivray was a fitting choice to chisel his friend into an elegant figure in peer’s robes swaddled in heraldic shields. The Friary was severely compromised by the crazy construction of Boulevard De Nantes, losing its north-west segment of tree-filled parkland, and has been made very unenticing if not inaccessible by the hostile traffic that roars around it. The Marquis therefore stands pristine in splendid isolation, alone with the Dock Feeder ducks, the corporation flower-beds and his Castle walls – just as he would have liked it.
David Lloyd George (1863-1945)
WW2 put all thoughts of statues on hold, so it was 1960 before Cathays Park received its next edifice. The only Welshman ever to have been UK Prime Minister (from 1916 to 1922) was an obvious choice. It was Labour v Tory in Cardiff by this time, the Liberals having long been vanquished at every level of governance – electoral wipe-out in the 1920s largely due to Lloyd George’s decision to split the party and go into coalition with the Conservatives after WW1 (sound familiar, Nick Clegg?). The Welsh Wizard was safely dead, and so were most of his many political foes. All the turbulence, controversies and scandals were forgotten and there could be no-one better to mark Cardiff’s 1955 elevation to capital city status than the big-hitting, heavy-duty Welsh beast.
Paternalistic ‘one nation’ Conservatives were in power in London, pursuing consensual, gently progressive, mildly redistributive and socially aware policies that would today put them to the left of Jeremy Corbyn. Prime Minster, cultured grandee Harold Macmillan (1894-1986), soothingly assured people they had “never had it so good”, and he had a point. There were homes and jobs for everyone, trade unions were strong, working-class culture thrived, rationing was over, rock’n’roll had arrived, optimism was tangible and anything seemed possible. Lloyd George had received the freedom of the city in the Marble Hall of the City Hall back in 1908, when he was merely Chancellor of the Exchequer, so on the cusp of the 60s the man who had laid the foundations of the welfare state and led the UK with such dynamism through WW1 ticked every box for Cardiff’s aldermen – in any case the old scoundrel probably knew all their fathers. Londoner Michael Rizzello (1926-2004) made a success of the difficult commission in Gorsedd Gardens, portraying the Caernarfon conjurer in suit and cape, the conviction politician to his fingertips, fist clenched for the campaign that will never end. Tucked away under trees near the National Museum, the statue is weathering the inevitable routine disrespect, a comforting witness to the slow fruition of his thwarted dreams for Wales. Maybe someday there will be another Welsh politician significant enough and universally admired enough to be put up on a pedestal in Cardiff – but don’t hold your breath.
Gareth Edwards (1947 -)
Twenty years passed, the civilised, egalitarian post-war consensus was in the process of being smashed to pieces by the brutal market-forces capitalism of Thatcher, and Cardiff statuary was shifting away from serious politicians and soldiers to somebody the Great Unwashed had heard of (having retired from rugby union in 1978, Edwards was now even better known as an amiable, prosaic regular on prime-time pap A Question of Sport). So it was that this unremarkable statue of the Welsh rugby legend from Gwaen-Cae-Gurwen, by New Zealander Bonar Dunlop (1916-1992), was unveiled in the middle of the newly-built St David’s Centre in 1981 (in 2009 it was moved a short distance to the St Davids 2 extension). In the incongruous setting of bling alley and credit card corridor, the peerless scrum-half is set in trademark pose fizzing a long pass out to his backs.
A sea-change was signalled by the use of a soulless shopping mall location. From henceforth consumerism was king as the Tories set their beloved Britain on the road to the unsustainable, unregulated, parasitic, debt-driven pyramid-selling scam that passes for an economy today. And, with cities everywhere encouraged to behave like businesses in dog-eat-dog competition with each other, this first ‘celebrity’ statue in Cardiff also signalled the coming of ever more desperate attempts to get noticed, a relentless civic boosterism saturated in deathly corporate marketing-speak and characterised by lowest-common-denominator manipulative populism. I love the Gareth Edwards/Barry John golden age of Welsh rugby as much as anyone but, in the end, he only chucked an egg around a muddy field.
Repeating the old practice of erecting statues to the living, for the first time since Lord Tredegar over 70 years previously, has again proved to be a mistake. When you’re the man who scored that try everything afterwards was always going to be an anti-climax, but Edwards’ four decades since hanging up his boots have been markedly uninspiring, especially considering he’s one of the few Welsh-speaking sons of a coal miner ever to have a public profile. Doing the caterpillar > butterfly transmutation in reverse, he evolved into a depressingly conventional and conformist Brit Unionist (vacuous rugby punditry, old school tie, blazer, lot of work for charity, CBE, knighthood, hunting and fishing, support ‘our lads’, oppose Scottish independence, never be known to utter a single original or interesting sentence, etc.). In mitigation, rugby union is notorious for head injuries. The question is this: if Cardiff had waited, would the city choose to put up a post-mortem Gareth Edwards statue 20 or 30 years from now? Time is playing it’s tricks again.
Aneurin Bevan (1897-1960)
The Thatcher years had the bonus effect of ejecting Tories from power in Cardiff at long last – perhaps permanently, for they have not controlled the council since. By the late 80s Cardiff was solid Labour territory and most Labour councillors were natural leftists, in those far-off days before Blairism drained every last drop of principle and integrity out of the Party. The proud tribute to Bevan, by Rhondda’s Robert Thomas (1926-1999), was unveiled in 1987 at the west end of Queen Street, as statuary in Cardiff extended beyond full-up Cathays Park and began to be sprinkled around the city centre. Here, at the pivotal axis where valleys coal turned into Cardiff gold, was placed the ultimate socialist icon, the founder of the NHS that has changed all our lives, the miners son from Tredegar with a big heart who could make words change the world. Any city that has such a man at its core can’t be all bad.
I will throw in a few Nye Bevan quotes:
“What is Toryism but organised spivvery?”
“The Tories must have a bogy man. If you haven’t got a programme a bogy man will do”
“How can wealth persuade poverty to use its political freedom to keep wealth in power? Here lies the whole art of Conservative politics”
“I have always been puzzled to know why so great a country as Wales should be represented by so miserable a newspaper as the Western Mail”
“We know what happens to people who stay in the middle of the road. They get run down”
“No society can call itself civilized if a sick person is denied medical aid because of lack of means”
“There is no reason to attack the monkey when the organ-grinder is present”
“Fascism is the future refusing to be born”
“Tories are lower than vermin”
Oh yes, any city that has such a man at its core can’t be that bad.
And it works as a statue should: as a universal, fail-safe, default meeting place and general rendezvous point. “Meet at Nye Bevan” is as much a Cardiff stock-in-trade as “Cheers, drive”. Everyone knows where it is, facing westward to the Castle and beyond, gull-guano-gooed Nye leaning forward persuasively, making a point, taking on the bastards, standing strong till the last breath.
Jim Driscoll (1880-1925)
144 years after the first statue went up in 1853 the momentous day finally arrived: Cardiff erected a statue of an actual Cardiffian! The elegant life-size bronze of the champion featherweight boxer, by English jump jockey turned sculptor Philip Blacker, was unveiled in 1997 outside the old Cardiff Boys’ Club site on Bute Terrace where Driscoll had spent so many hours training. This was fully 72 years after ‘Peerless’ died prematurely of tuberculosis, uncorking such grief that 100,000 lined the streets for what remains Cardiff’s largest funeral gathering, so there was no particular reason for the statue. Perhaps there was an element of residual guilt over the way the intimate, special community of Newtown where Jim lived and died had been mercilessly eradicated 30 years earlier. What’s certain is that statuary was again being overtly used to adjust narrative emphasis, redefine ‘greatness’ and recalibrate history’s priorities. In this case, Driscoll being the personification of all that’s best about the pan-Celtic working-class Cardiffian, this long-overdue attempt to begin re-balancing the preposterous preponderance of the posh on plinths can only be loudly applauded.
But, weirdly, statues in Cardiff don’t stand still. Ten years later Jim Driscoll’s statue was unceremoniously removed as Bute Terrace became a building site. Blairite rightwingers now ruled the roost in Cardiff and the insane growth at all costs nostrums of globalised capitalism meant nothing mattered but money. For two years it languished in storage before being re-erected in 2009 under the icy, preening tower of the 4-star Radison Blu hotel on the Bute Street corner. Thus the soft-hearted, cheeky little tough guy stands immediately adjacent to a hostile symbol of trashy, deep-piled, en suite separatism; an extreme and jarring clash of cultures that would have required supreme incompetence to arrange. Further diminishment to the point of invisibility lies ahead for the statue as another overweening, unwanted student stalag is squeezed in on the Custom House Street corner.
Ivor Novello (1893-1951)
Our civic leaders could not be persuaded that the most famous man ever to come out of Cardiff merited more than a small blue plaque on the house in Cowbridge Road East where he was born, so it was left to Novello fans to fundraise for 15 years to scrape together the money necessary for this long-awaited statue, positioned in the airy vestigial void outside the Wales Millennium Centre in 2009. The statue by Ebbw Vale-born sculptor Peter Nicholas (1934-2015)doesn’t do narcissistic Ivor any favours, catching neither his film star looks nor his sparky energy and giving him a strangely ungainly posture. Crunched up, cross-legged and pointy-toed, he contortedly looks over his shoulder while flapping a pen above a notepad on his lap, appearing more like a maiden aunt twitching the net curtains while doing her knitting than the idol of millions worldwide.
It doesn’t matter at all, because the aesthetics of statuary are always irrelevant compared to their explicit and implicit socio-political messages. A long cigarette holder, a bunch of lilacs, a petrol coupon, a cocaine dispenser, or any vague Ivor-associated abstraction for that matter, would have done the same job: giving the multi-talented composer, film and stage actor and playwright due recognition in his home town, four years after a London theatre was renamed in his honour, 54 years after the main songwriters’ awards were named after him, and 58 years after he died. Things move slowly in Cardiff – unless you’re an off-shore investment fund wanting to throw up a speculative block of flats, which can be sorted out in no time. The reason why Cardiff was so sluggish in this case is the obvious one: homophobia. It’s foolish to pretend otherwise. Novello was an out-and-out gay man long before the concept was invented (largely by him and his pals), and the bigots and bible-bashers who have always been influential in the city could swallow anything but that, if you’ll pardon the expression. Now they’ve been thoroughly outmanoeuvred and Ivor Novello takes centre stage again, down in the docklands where he probably never set foot, close to Wales’ palace of the performing arts where he would have been top of the bill. Homophobia, incidentally, has not been abolished, did not evaporate into thin air, and was not defeated by millions of open-minded people seeing the error of their ways having been made aware of the facts. Like racism, it is still everywhere – just hiding in the closet, biding its time, a sly, reactionary brotherhood of test-the-water mutterings and conspiratorial nods and winks, appearing live in your local pub tonight.
Tasker Watkins (1918-2007)
As the 21st century unfolded, statues were in vogue again, being used by politicians and institutions all over the UK as a cheap way to refine the brand, flag up homely authenticity, demonstrate cultural credentials or simply tart up the streetscape. In this context, Cardiff acquired its second statue of 2009 when the WRU forked out for a dignified bronze of Tasker Watkins outside the Millennium Stadium on Westgate Street by Porthcawl’s Roger Andrews.
The widely respected ex-WRU president from Nelson, a rare recipient of the Victoria Cross for outstanding gallantry during WW2 and an eminent lawyer who rose through the legal system to become England’s deputy lord chief justice, was an entirely uncontroversial not to say wearily predictable subject. Army + law + rugby union = the perfect recipe for acceptance into the establishment and approval by the rightwing media in Britain, so Watkins had to do little more than be a pleasant, trustworthy, civil, competent committee man who didn’t rock the boat for the honours and plaudits to shower down on him, culminating eventually in the reliably conservative WRU’s tribute. Cardiff barely noticed, which is to be expected when bland inoffensiveness is the feeble aim. Let’s face it: statues are pompous, dishonest, divisive and ridiculous by definition, and modest, self-effacing, down-to-earth Watkins would blush at the sight of his. Drinking a pint to his memory in the Glamorgan Wanderers clubhouse where he was most at ease would have been tribute enough.
Fred Keenor (1894-1972)
Also by ex-Cardiff High School for Boys pupil Roger Andrews, this statue in 2012 confirmed the trend for councils to wash their hands of the responsibility, seen as a minefield of potential hazards by the risk-averse drones, marketing men and bean-counters running the castrated local democracies of the UK. Increasingly, public art is determined by hived-off, arms-length quangos and agencies, or big business massaging a profiteering development by tacking on a feel-good token as an afterthought, or, as in the case of Cardiff City and Wales football stalwart Fred Keenor, by fundraising campaigns made possible by social media.
The club wanted a statue to add a touch of personality to their sterile new stadium in Leckwith, opened in 2009. City aficionados overwhelmingly and quite rightly opted for Fred, one of 11 children of a stonemason from Theodora Street in Roath (now Adamsdown), and captain on the famous day at Wembley in 1927 when City won England’s FA Cup. No other player from City’s past could possibly symbolise the 99 years at evocative Ninian Park better than the greatest Bluebird of them all. As bone hard as a Broadway cobblestone, as foul-mouthed as a West Dock fish-gutter, as rough and ready as a Glamorganshire Canal navvy, he didn’t have the word ‘lose’ in his vocabulary. He was the ultimate leader, urging his men on at full volume non-stop for the entire 90 minutes, and a formidably frightening tackling machine at half-back who would be red-carded instantly today. He made 369 league appearances for City in 19 seasons at Ninian Park, and he was also an inspirational force for Wales, winning 32 caps between 1920 and 1933 when Wales only played three matches a year, the equivalent of over 70 in modern terms.
Nobody took liberties with Fred. The chain smoker who had twice been seriously wounded in action in WW1 yet could run all day commanded awed respect from generations of opponents. Through Keenor’s statue, contemporary Cardiffians, if they are so minded, can access the complete thread of Welsh football history, so often ignored and marginalised. For example, playing on the wing for Wales in Keenor’s first international against Ireland in 1920 (a 2-2 draw in Belfast) was Billy Meredith (1874-1958) in the twilight of an illustrious career that went back to the very foundations of the game. Fast forward 50 years to yours truly on the Grange End as a kid, chucking a few pence in the half-time bucket collection for impoverished, diabetic Fred Keenor, no longer able to earn his living as a builder’s labourer. Now jump another near-50 years to today, to here and now, to ‘you’ reading me…and so it goes, the filaments of connectivity that weave our wandering ways into tomorrow.
Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948)
Hardly had I completed this blog when Cardiff’s latest statue appeared at the bottom of Lloyd George Avenue down the Bay. Phenomenology strikes again!
Few in recorded history could be more deserving of the veneration implicit in being turned into a statue than Gandhi, an inspiration for civil rights and freedom movements around the world for decades, a man whose very name evokes the essence of all that is best about humanity. The bronze, by father and son Indian sculptors Ram and Anil Sutar, was commissioned by the Hindu Council of Wales after years of fundraising and lobbying and shows an archetypal Gandhi stepping purposefully forward in loin dhoti, sandals and shawl, stick in one hand and a Bhagavad Gita in the other. Thus the embodiment of frugality, modesty, simplicity and ethical living stands in Cardiff Bay, a hot spot of profligacy, conceit, affectation and unprincipled apathy – perhaps as a reproach? There are more than 70 Gandhi statues around the world, and none have prompted the slightest pause in global capitalism’s gallop towards Armageddon, so Cardiff’s Gandhi will no doubt be as ignored as all the others.
Presumably also studiously ignored will be Gandhi’s unequivocal rejection of British imperialism and passionate support for independence from British rule. First Minister Carwyn Jones was present at the unveiling, oblivious to the contradiction between purporting to be on the same side as a man with unwavering pro-independence principles and his own avowed opposition to Welsh independence. Such selective amnesia and cherry-picking posturing is all that can be expected from that source. Regardless, this Gandhi statue is an important small step in the right direction for Cardiff, a real change from the usual Brit land-grabbers, colonisers and militarists honoured in Wales. The next step a serious, self-respecting capital would take is to rectify the revealing lack of any Welsh Nationalist figure amongst Cardiff’s statuary. The three British Nationalist political parties have all made sure that their major icons are present and correct: the Liberals with Lloyd George, Labour with Nye Bevan, the Tories with the 2nd Marquis. But none of the many crucial characters from the long struggle for Welsh freedom, without whom Cardiff would be ‘capital’ of absolutely nothing at all, have yet been monumentalised. Until that happens, it is left to an Indian Nationalist to stand up for those ideals in Wales.
I conclude with my idea for Cardiff’s next statue. Given that she’s got to be Welsh, she’s got to be dead, she’s got to represent something bigger than her own life, she’s got to resonate, she’s got to stand the test of time, and she’s got to be a woman, and taking into account the above list’s shocking dearth of north Walians, self-loathing absence of Welsh patriots and glaring omission of any serious writer, the field in which Welsh people have particularly excelled, the person I would like to see standing tall above the crowds in Central Square is the originator of the Welsh novel, the midwife of modern Welsh publishing and one of the founders of Plaid Cymru, the sublime creative artist Kate Roberts (1891-1985).