Nelson and the levitating men
Trafalgar Square is a hub for the culturati, a tourist attraction and a monument. Amongst Londoners, it’s often derided for being a tourist trap (“there’s nothing actually there”) and yet even the most vigilant of the haters have a certain amount of quiet respect for this place. It is synonymous with London – instantly recognisable. The oldest surviving moving picture of London is a ten frame sequence of Trafalgar Square, shot by the fantastically named Wordswoth Donisthorpe in 1890. Construction of the large open space here began in 1826, on what had always been a crossroads, a meeting point for some of the busiest roads in London. It wasn’t decided that the square should include a column in tribute to one of England’s most famous seafarers however, until 1838. Nelson, his column and pedestal, including the four guardian lions, wasn’t competed until 1867. Since its official public opening in 1844, it’s been a gathering place for social and political causes and that’s the way it remains today.
At the northern edge of the square sits the National Gallery, constructed between 1832 and 1838 in response to calls from the late eighteenth century for the nationalisation of royal art collections and a base for England’s flourishing art scene. Trafalgar Square sits in a central position between the historically wealthy West and impoverished East, making the gallery easy to visit – art is universal, after all. Now, it houses a collection of over 2,300 paintings and is the fourth most visited art museum in the world. The Sainsbury Wing – called a “monstrous carbuncle” by Prince Charles when built – houses prestigious exhibitions from all over the world.
To the east, the square is bordered by St Martin-in-the-Fields Church. Excavations of this site have evidenced burials dating as far back as 410AD. Whilst a church has stood on the site as early as 1222, the distinctive name comes from the rebuilding of the church by Henry VIII, when it was literally in the fields between the cities of Westminster and London. The present structure was completed in 1724. The Church has Trafalgar Square to thank for its now imposing presence on its surroundings – it was originally caged and hemmed by numerous other structures that were cleared for the square’s construction.
The south side of the square houses an intricate road network, linking The Strand, Northumberland Avenue, Whitehall, The Mall, Pall Mall and Charing Cross. The fantastic location and political significance of the square is emphasised by the sheer number of embassies in the near vicinity – some are even on the square, namely South Africa House and the Canadian embassy (situated on the western flank). Trafalgar frequently plays host to protests and celebrations ranging from the jubilant and the hilarious (national pillow fight day…) to the extremely politically charged.
The artistic and dynamic flair of the area, with the National Gallery and National Portrait Gallery as well as countless theatres nearby, is just as important as the socio-political function of the square though. The Fourth Plinth in the northwest corner of the square is an enduring reminder of this. Originally intended to host a statue of William IV which was not completed due to lack of funds, a rolling programme of contemporary, temporary sculptures has occupied the space. The large blue cockerel was a particularly interesting piece – the cockerel has been associated (unofficially) with France and yet there it stood in a square commemorating the defeat of the French. My favourite instalment so far was the scale model of Nelson’s ship, the HMS Victory, in a bottle – I liked how it tied together with the rest of the square but it was also colourful and playful.
As teenagers, my friends and I would come up to London for dinner and afterwards spend hours hanging out on the lions at the base of Nelson’s column, messing around and climbing and watching London empty out as the evening drew on. If I’m in the area and have time to spare, I dip into the National Gallery and visit some of my favourite Monet and Pissarro works. I’ve stood shivering on the south western corner, waiting for the N47 to arrive and whisk me back into the suburbs in the early hours of a Sunday morning. Trafalgar occupies pride of place in the foundations of my London consciousness.
Amidst all of this historical, political, social and artistic heritage then, is there a place for a man dressed as Yoda “levitating”? The northern terrace outside the National Gallery’s has played host to street performers and chalk artists for a while now – and I don’t begrudge public performers in general. I’ve seen many living statues all over the world – some of them have beautifully detailed costumes and have chosen characters with cultural significance to the area. You can see many of them all over London – particularly in the tourist hotspots – and the majority of them have licenses and a designated patch. So why doesn’t the northern terrace of Trafalgar Square? Described as a free for all, the places here go on a first come first served basis, so you can feasibly see two or three Yodas or Grim Reapers pitched up close to one another, waving their arms about beckoning come hither.
The men (I use this in the general sense – there could be women too) within the costumes can often be seen wandering around the edge of the terrace out of costume, taking a break from standing on their own makeshift plinths. What irritates me about them particularly, though, is the complete lack of skill or thought that goes into this endeavour. The Yoda costume looks like a brown king size sheet with a hole cut in the top, and the masks you could pick up in any decent fancy dress shop. I’ve seen him in Paris, in Rome, in Mallorca. And yet I should be impressed, and pay for the pleasure of this sight? I understand these people might be seriously struggling – London is a harsh place and everyone has the right to make a living – but I feel like it’s a stain on this grand old square, outside one of the most prestigious galleries in the world. I’ve scraped my brain to pull together a compelling balancing argument – trying to find a positive. But I can’t see how these entertainers benefit the square or themselves – surely their takings are minimal? All that said, I’m not suggesting we expel these entertainers, despite how little entertainment they actually offer. But I think they should up their game. Give me something to marvel at – something worthy of the magnificent set on which they play.