Visit a Public Square

George Square – Glasgow

History

In the 18th century Glasgow became an important international trading centre, mostly in cotton, tobacco and sugar. Subsequently shipbuilding became the main industry which continued the importance of trade into the 19th century.

George square started as a mere muddy hollow used for slaughtering horses. In 1781 work began to improve the site and it was opened in 1787. Original plans to have a statue of King George who the square was named after, were abandoned when he lost their trade with the American colonies. It wasn’t until 1876 that the square was opened to the public however, previously it’s use having been restricted to the residents of the surrounding mansions.

George Square is located next to the Merchant City area of Glasgow, one of the oldest parts of the city, dating back to medieval times. Glasgow’s wealthy merchants and tobacco lords lived here and kept their warehouses and later the area would house the various markets.

I was very interested to find out that remnants of the squares purpose as a place for trading is evident in the measurement standards which can still be seen embedded in the the ground and on the side of the city chambers. These were made in 1882 and measure 100ft, 1 yard, 2 feet, 1 foot, 1 inch, 1 chain and 1 link. (2)

The sculpture in George Square consists of 12 statues and the large Cenotaph in front of the City Chambers. Last year the square was upgraded as phase I of a £15 million restoration of the square. Despite many weird and wonderful ideas the resulting upgrades were quite understated and included a new surface, removal of overgrown trees which replaced by slower growing yew trees and the addition of two more grass areas in keeping with how the square was laid out historically.

The square is overlooked by the beautiful City Chambers designed in the Italian renaissance style by the architect William Young, featuring a mini statue of liberty. The central tower was apparently inspired by Alexander “Greek” Thomson’s St Vincent Street Church also in Glasgow. It was opened in 1889.

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Sir Walter Scott’s column and statue with Glasgow City Chambers behind

 Statues

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George Square layout

  1. Thomas Graham, Chemist from Glasgow by William Brodie, 1872
  2. James Oswald, Liberal politician from Auchincruvie by Baron Carlo Marochetti, 1856
  3. Thomas Campbell, Poet and historian from Glasgow by John Mossman, 1877
  4. Field Marshall Lt Clyde, Army officer from Glasgow by JH Foley, 1868
  5. Sir John Moore, Army officer from Glasgow by John Flaxman, 1819
  6. Robert Burns, Poet from Ayrshire by Ewing Brothers, 1877
  7. James Watt, Inventor from Glasgow by Chantrey, 1832
  8. Prince Albert, owner of Balmoral & influential in social welfare and industry by Baron Carlo Marochetti, 1866
  9. Queen Victoria, owner of Balmoral by Baron Carlo Marochetti, 1854
  10. Sir Robert Peel, Prime Minister from Lancashire by Mossman, 1859
  11. William Gladstone, Prime Minister from Liverpool by Thornycroft, 1902
  12. Sir Walter Scott, Novelist from Edinburgh by H Ritchie (column D Rhind), 1837

There are 12 statues in George square erected between 1819 and 1902. . They include the great and the good of Scottish history, including Scientists, politicians, historians, military personnel, poets, inventors and novelists. Also here are two statues on horseback of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert placed next to each other on the West side of the square. These two and one of James Oswald were designed by Baron Carlo Marochetti. The statue of Queen Victoria was originally in a different location but was moved when the statue of the Prince was designed and altered so that their pedestals and even the postures of the horses matched.

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Queen Victoria and Prince Albert

The inclusion of royalty in this celebration of Scottish importance was to recognise their great love of Scotland which prompted  their purchase and restoration of the Balmoral estate and their influence on Scottish social welfare and industry. The only other statues of non-Scots are the Prime Ministers, William Gladstone and Robert Peel. It was determined that these individuals did so much for the people of Britain that they should be included in the square.

Thus all of the statues in the square have something to say about the Scottish people and were intended to instil civic pride in the local people who saw them. The fact that the royals loved Scotland enough to come here on holiday each year was a kind of advert for the nation.

The sculptures of political figures and Royalty may have had other meaning however. Their presence here sent out a clear message that the city of Glasgow supported these individuals and perhaps their political parties and standpoints. This caused some problems at the time however. In 1875 the family of James Oswald successfully petitioned to have his statue moves from a less prestigious position in the city to the square in an equal position to that of Sir Robert Peel, Oswald’s political opponent. One wonders if this decision was made in order to keep in with James Oswalds successors and family (wealthy landowners and merchants) as surely they could have argued that Peel being Prime Minister deserved the nod more than Oswald (not withstanding his important contributions to the Scottish politics.

The locations of the Statues are regularly placed around the square. To those familiar with the square, they all seem to blend in so much so you don’t notice them. The size of the square assists in this unobtrusive feeling. In general there are statues at the four corners with the cenotaph on the East side being balanced by the location of the large royal equestrian statues on the West. The map above is slightly wrong in that the statues along the south side are evenly spaces as Number 3 – the statue of Thomas Campbell is higher up and symmetrical to number 6. The two military statues are next to each other here (number 4 and 5).

I was interested in the location and nature of Sir Walter Scott (12 on the map). He has the central site on top of an 80 feet high (slightly incongruous) classical Doric column. This was one of the first statues to be erected in the square so perhaps this reflected his importance relative to the others present.

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Sir Walter Scott, novelist from Edinburgh

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Sir Walter Scott

The intent of this statue was to inspire others and Scott’s legacy was recognised even then as having contributed greatly to Scotland’s reputation throughout the world (2).

Many of the statues have the names of the individuals they show on the pedestals, the date erected or the date of birth and death. Some such as James Oswald have a bit more information such as “Erected by a few friends to James Oswald” which is a lovely touch and helps make it a bit more personal. The royal statues and the one of Robert Burns also have bronze friezes in the pedestal which depict something about the individuals life, such as scenes from Burns best-known poems and the Queens visit to Glasgow.

Some of the statues are depicted with the tools of their trade to help identify them to the viewers. Scott for instance holds a pen and book to signify his profession while James Watt holds a compass and a scroll depicting the steam engine he designed (2). Watt is also shown seated in quite a contemplative pose. This would represent his position as a great mind while the military men would never have been shown in this relaxed pose. They are instead depicted standing straight and rigid and ready for battle.

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James Watt, Inventor from Glasgow

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Sir John Moore – Army officer from Glasgow

Each of the statues has the artists name etched into the pedestal. It was also not clear the materials used although they all appear to be traditional metal (bronze?) with stone bases so perhaps this was not appropriate. They have all been painted (except for Sit Walter Scott – perhaps because of the height) with what appears to be, layers of black paint (and the inevitable white streaks left by resting seagulls!). I wonder if the sculpting would be much less crude if the years of paint was removed to reveal the bronze underneath, particularly over the friezes.

I found that the public don’t really notice the statues and there is not much interaction with them. The statues themselves are very high so people have to strain their necks to see them. My four year old enjoyed herself climbing on the base of the pedestal but I found myself wondering if I should tell her to get down in case she shouldn’t be climbing there.

Cenotaph

The Cenotaph was also cleaned and repointed in the upgrade and it really stands out now. It is a very large monument designed by Sir John Burnet to the people killed in WWI constructed in 1921-4. It’s location here is important as it is here that the Glasgow soldiers were recruited. The inscriptions relating to WWII were added in 1945.

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Cenotaph

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Front of the Cenotaph

The Cenotaph is a simple and stark design. It has a U-shape with a central stepped area with two giant lions on each side. The central obelisk-type shape has minimal decoration in keeping with it’s solemn meaning.

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The Nagasaki Plaque in front of the Cenotaph

The recent plans for redevelopment of the square (which included removal of the statues) where so publicly opposed that the council had to abandon them. I can understand why people were so against such radical changes. The square with these statues are so part of Glasgow it would be very sad to lose them. George square is a very traditional type of square like Trafalgar Square in London and the new designs were much more radically modern. While these squares would be lovely, to make such drastic changes to a much loved public area is hard to imagine. In addition to this, the removal of the statues could be seen as a slight to the individuals they represent.

This has been a very interesting exercise as I previously was opposed to the upgrades, however the more I have thought about it the more I’ve realised that the square is very old fashioned and I think if it was up to me I would appreciate some modernisation. The statues are very traditional, and I think because of this, younger people don’t engage with the artworks. We are so used to seeing such monuments that people don’t really stop to examine them (I speak from experience in this as until I had to study for this exercise I had barely noticed the statues). I would love to see something more modern in the square such as one of Gormley’s or Paollozzi’s metal sculptures or even something like a large maze type structure that people can walk around or a water feature that children can paddle in. Perhaps some of the existing statues could be moved to make space for this but as has been proved, this would be a very contentious issue. The other alternative would be to place smaller works at eye level that people could interact with and climb on, in the middle of the grassy areas. There are other sculptures dotted about the city such as the Clyde Clock outside Buchanan St Bus Station or the Highland man on Woodlands Rd which are nice to see and would perhaps introduce some variety and humour.

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The Clyde Clock – George Wiley

Bibliography

1. http://www.heraldscotland.com/news/home-news/yourguide-to-the-statues-of-george-square.2012094169, 10/08/14

2. George Square Heritage Trail Leaflet, Glasgow City Council, Land and Environmental Services,

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