Lisa Keller: Time in a bottle and the newest addition to Trafalgar Square

Lisa Keller, Triumph of OrderIn her book Triumph of Order: Democracy and Public Space in New York and London, Lisa Keller examines among other issues the critical development of sanctioned free speech, controlled public assembly, and new urban regulations in London and New York. Here are her reflections on the newest addition to one of London’s most prominent and historic public spaces: Trafalgar Square.

There was hardly a gasp from the small crowd on May 24 when they unveiled the latest work of art on the fourth plinth at Trafalgar Square. There should have been, though, for several reasons. The work was a miniature version of Lord Nelson’s ship, The Victory, which won the famous 1805 battle for which the square was named. The Battle of Trafalgar is widely celebrated as one of Britain’s greatest naval victories, certainly the most important of the Napoleonic Wars. This little wonder (1:30 scale) sits in a glass bottle (the packaging said made in Italy). It is the first work of art in the square by a black British artist, Yinka Shonibare, MBE. And it is the first work of art specifically referencing the square’s history.

Mayor Boris Johnson was blessed by an atypical sunny and warm morning for the ceremony, and he was in his usual good cheer. He reminded his audience that history is often forgotten by the public, as evidenced by the fact that many British schoolchildren think Oliver Cromwell led the Battle of Trafalgar. I can one up him on that: last semester one of my students wrote that the Battle of Trafalgar took place at Trafalgar Square, bringing to mind some sort of Roman marine spectacle.

And if there was nary a gasp from the modern audience, one can only fantasize what a 19th century audience would have made of the 37 little sails made out of colorful West African-style patterned cloths. Shonibare said he used this fabric to show the story of multiculturalism: “We owe the exciting diversity of the multicultural London we now have to the legacy of Nelson and indirectly to the Empire. The culture of Britain has been expanded through this contact with others.” Shonibare also said that Nelson’s victory “freed up the seas for Britain, meaning that the Empire could expand without Napoleon standing in the way.” To Shonibare, The Victory is “a war ship with a violent, aggressive legacy that destroyed a number of cultures along the way.” So Nelson helped pave the way for British colonialism by defeating Napoleon, a piece of Panglossian logic if ever there was one.

The ship in a bottle sits on the plinth that was supposed to hold a statue of William IV, but when the money ran out, no permanent work of art was ever commissioned for it. Statues and monuments abound in this greatest of London’s central squares, which has been not only a place for enjoying a sunny day midst the fountains but also for political gatherings, which was the last thing its designers had in mind. Smack in the middle of London, it affords a perfect view of Parliament, a symbolism not lost on the millions who have gathered there for the past century and a half. At least Shonibare’s work references the historical linchpin of the Square, unlike last year’s performance piece during which 2400 people stood on the plinth for an hour a day for 100 days.

What would Nelson himself have thought of those African sails? Fatally wounded during the battle, his last words were reputedly “God and my country.” History is shimmering in a glass bottle for a while in Trafalgar Square.


Lisa Keller is the author of “Triumph of Order: Democracy and Public Space in New York and London,” Columbia University Press (2008), which is coming out in paperback in September 2010.

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