Saturday, August 17, 2013

The Empire Sculptor

Whenever there is a major shift in power in a country, statues soon topple after the event. One of the most famous recent occurrences was the pulling down of the Sadam Hussein statue in Iraq in 2003, but elsewhere many other reminders of old regimes have also been blown up, dumped or removed. After the breakup of the Soviet Union, Lenin, Stalin and others of their ilk all fell on their faces.

One image that was familiar to me as a child was that of Cecil JohnRhodes in the city of Bulawayo, Zimbabwe (then Southern Rhodesia). Apparently this statue now lurks abandoned behind the Bulawayo Museum along with other relics of that by-gone colonial age.

Old postcard with Rhodes looking across Bulawayo

I was reminded of this statue and several others I have seen elsewhere around the world when I visited the Reading Museum recently and saw the exhibition on the sculptor John Tweed, whose images are a roll-call of famous men from the history of the British Empire. 

Tweed was born in Scotland in 1869 and died in 1933, was a friend of Auguste Rodin, and highly thought of in his day, but doesn’t rate his own Wikipedia entry. A new book about him Sculpting the Empire by Nicola Capon has been published to coincide with the exhibition.

Cover of the book showing Tweed and his famous image of Captain Cook

While the statue of Rhodes may have gone from the main streets of Bulawayo, another of Tweed’s spectacular creations can be seen not far away in the Matopo Hills. It is the Allan Wilson Memorial, also called the Shangani Memorial, built over the remains of the 34 men of the Shangani Patrol, whose fight to the death was legendary in the annals of imperial history; a British version of Custers Last Stand.

Old postcard of the Memorial, Matopos

It is surprising that the Zimbabweans haven’t got rid of this particular edifice which is near the grave of Cecil Rhodes (also still intact) but perhaps it is just too big to move and apparently the area still draws enough tourists to warrant it remaining where it is. It could also be that as it represents a defeat of white soldiers at the hands of the Matabele warriors it isn’t a proclamation of racial supremacy. 

Another famous statue in South Africa is that of Jan van Rieebeck, the founder of Cape Town. 
Jan van Riebeeck, Cape Town Daily Photo

Tweed was also responsible for the representations of many other imperialists, soldiers, and important individuals throughout the Empire. His Lord Clive still stands proudly in both London and Kolkata (Calcutta).  One of his most famous sculptures is that of Captain Cook at Whitby, Yorkshire, with replicas to be found on the foreshore at St Kilda, Melbourne, Australia, and at Kauai, Hawaii, in Victoria, BC, Canada, and in Resolution Plaza, Anchorage, Alaska.

Captain Cook at Whitby, Wikipedia Commons

Anyone in the Newcastle upon Tyne area may be familiar with another Tweed statue that is still to be seen in Westgate Road. It is of Joseph Cowen, a politician who probably means little these days to most people but who was controversial and left-wing, almost a revolutionary, in his day and seems an odd choice among all the empire-builders and capitalists. 

This Flickr page has a particularly good collection on John Tweed and his work.

Another comprehensive list of Tweed’s works can be found here.

The the fine detail achieved by John Tweed

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