Quirky Art on the Fourth Plinth, Trafalgar Square, London

Heather Phillipson’s THE END, Fourth Plinth, Trafalgar Square, London
© Curious Archive, 2020

There are a million and one reasons to visit Trafalgar Square in central London. The area is home to the National Gallery and National Portrait Gallery, endless restaurants and cafes, and the famous 169 foot tall Nelson’s Column that towers over Trafalgar Square’s 15 million annual visitors. The Square is also home to the world famous Fourth Plinth, an empty pedestal featuring commissioned contemporary sculpture. Currently, Heath Phillipson’s THE END takes center stage as the newest resident of the Fourth Plinth, introducing an element of play and contemplation to the bustling city square.

Heather Phillipson’s THE END

Phillipson’s THE END is both inviting and off-putting. The whipped cream and bright red cherry recall warm summer days and sugary desserts while the fly and drone hint at a more threatening reality. Towering above viewers from its perch on the cherry, the drone (or ‘Big Brother’) reigns over it’s surveillance state. While visitors contemplate THE END from below, the drone live streams to a website set up by Phillipson. So in a curious way, the sculpture is looking back at the viewers looking up at it from below.

The ominous and dystopian sculpture is the tallest on the Plinth to date, towering 31 feet over Trafalgar Square onlookers and weighing an incredible 9 tonnes. Since the Square is an active site for protestors, Phillipson says her sculpture is meant to reflect the political use of the square and its “cohabitation with other lifeforms.” Originally delayed four-months due Covid-19, Phillipson made the choice to unveil her sculpture despite the current state of the world. She told BBC News, “obviously it’s a strange time to be doing anything right now. But it also felt like it was never going to be the right time so maybe it was the right time to just let it happen.”

Phillipson originally envisioned THE END during the tense political situation in 2016 with both the Brexit vote and American election. But she says the feeling of being “on the verge of collapse” has continued into 2020 with the global fight agains the pandemic, making THE END just as relevant now as it was four years ago.

THE END will be on display on the Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square until Spring of 2022.

History of the Fourth Plinth

Hahn/Cock by Katharina Fritsch occupying the Fourth Plinth in February 2015.
© Curious Archive, 2020

Amongst the hustle and bustle of Trafalgar Square are four plinths of varying sizes. The smaller of the two plinths, located on the south end of Trafalgar Square hold statues of Major General Sir Henry Havelock (1795-1857) and General Sir Charles James Napier (1782-1853). Flanking either side of the National Gallery, the two northern plinths are larger in size and designed for equestrian statues. An equestrian statue of George IV is located on the northeast plinth. Each of the three statues have been in Trafalgar Square since varying times in the nineteenth-century.

The history of the Fourth Plinth, (or the northwest plinth) is less straightforward. Originally, it was meant to hold the equestrian statue of William IV, but due to funding issues the statue was never completed. This resulted in an empty Fourth Plinth and a debate revolving around it’s appropriate use for the next 150 years. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle even mentioned the empty Fourth Plinth in his 1912 novel The Lost World with a character reflecting “…in his fancy, may … see himself sometimes, gracing the vacant pedestal in Trafalgar Square”.

The debate carried on until the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA) introduced a contemporary art commission program in 1998. During the program’s run, three sculptures were commissioned temporarily for the Fourth Plinth. In 2003, ownership of Trafalgar Square was passed onto the Mayor of London and a new Fourth Plinth Commission program unveiled it’s first commissioned sculpture, Alison Lapper Pregnant by Marc Quinn, two years later in 2005.

Since 2005, ten sculptures including Phillipson’s THE END have taken up residence on the Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square. The commissions have offered a playful and reflective presence amongst the historic statues and crowds of Trafalgar Square, with the Fourth Plinth currently recognised as one of the most famous public art commission spaces in the world.

To view past Fourth Plinth commissions, visit the city of London’s website.

[Some news articles published in August 2008 mentioned a statue of Queen Elizabeth possibly occupying the plinth after her death, but there doesn’t appear to be any updated information on this within the last few years.]

Sources and Additional Reading

Ashley

Ashley is a history and ghost story enthusiast with a BA and MA in Art History. Originally from Canada, Ashley has lived in Buckinghamshire for the past four years and enjoys writing about curious histories and locations around the British Isles.