Tuesday, 19 March 2013

Butcher Cumberland Comes Clean!

©Ellen Leslie

There was once a time when I never missed any changes to the London urban landscape. Those were the days when virtually all my research work was carried out within the six London transport zones. But now that I work all over the country, keeping tabs on new developments (happening at an alarming rate) in the centre of town, is trickier.   But last week I had to visit the Howard de Walden estate, just north of Oxford Street. I walked through Cavendish Square, close to Oxford Circus and was surprised to sense the fresh smell of soap. Believe you me, in this part of the world, soap is the last thing you expect! Also something was different about the square. I’ve known it all my life. What was it? The soap happened to be a clue.

For years there had been a large, late 18th century stone plinth in the middle of the square, dedicated to the Duke of Cumberland (1721-1765).  This third son of George II had defeated Bonnie Prince Charlie and the Jacobites at the Battle of Culloden (1746). This victory made him extremely popular for a short time, but it was his “pacification” of the Jacobites, his unbending punishment of any enemy sympathiser, that earned him the name “Butcher Cumberland”.

Despite his latter unpopularity the plinth, with a statue of the Duke of Cumberland on horseback on top, erected by his small but dedicated group of supporters, wasn’t removed until nearly 100 years later in 1868. The plinth remained, and that is how I remembered the square.

When I walked through last week though, the statue of “Butcher Cumberland” and horse had been “returned”. But something wasn’t quite right. The surface looked overly weather worn as if it had stood there fighting the elements for nearly 250 years …. and it smelt of soap. 

It transpired that it is in fact  a soap sculpture, created by South Korean artist Meekyoung Shin. Entitled, “Written in Soap, A Plinth Project”, it was erected in July last year and will be there for a year, so you still have a few months to go and see it for yourself. The purpose of the fast-eroding statue is to examine the passage of time, as it weathers through all four seasons of the year.

© theartnewspaper.com

Could this be the way forward for other statues of controversial individuals? Put up a soap carving for a few months and as it erodes before our eyes, we would be coerced to consider the reputation of the person depicted, whether the final analysis is good or bad ….

©Ellen Leslie