Should London Erect A Statue Of Barack Obama?

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Should London Erect A Statue Of Barack Obama?

Should London honour the 44th President of the United States of America with a statue?

Throughout both his terms in office, Barack Obama has remained a popular figure in Britain and other European countries. While his support at home may have wavered, he is generally held in high esteem on the international stage. And, of course, his status as America's first black president will always assure him a unique place in the history books.

He is unquestionably one of the great leaders of the 21st century. But why should we venerate him here, in London?

Well, partly because there is a long tradition of doing similar.

How many non-Brits have statues in London?

Nelson Mandela appears in Parliament Square. Photo: Matt Brown

Many. That's how many. The list takes in politicians, poets, generals, explorers, musicians and others from a surprisingly diverse set of countries. The vast majority, alas, are men.

To start with, we have two statues of Gandhi: one in Parliament Square, and another in Tavistock Square. Likewise, Nelson Mandela's likeness can be found on the South Bank and again in Parliament Square, where he stands near fellow South African Jan Smuts. Gandhi's heir Jawaharlal Nehru inhabits Aldwych in bust form.

General de Gaulle presides over Carlton Gardens, from where he led the French Government in Exile during the second world war. His countryman Marshall Foch can be found in Lower Grosvenor Gardens. A very peculiar statue of Peter the Great stares out into the Thames at Deptford.

Head to Belgrave Square and you'll find bronze replicas of Christopher Columbus (Italian) and Henry the Navigator (Portuguese), standing near Simón Bolívar (Venezuelan), and José Francisco de San Martín (Argentinian). And while we're listing out South American's, there's the statue of Paddington Bear (Peruvian) in Paddington Station. Gordon Square also has an international flavour, with busts to Rabindranath Tagore (Indian) and Noor Inayat Khan (Russian-born, of Indian-American parents, and a very rare public statue to an Asian woman).

A statue of the German Paul Reuter can be found in the Square Mile, close to the American philanthropist George Peabody. Austrian psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud lurks in the bushes near his former home on the slopes of Hampstead. And then, of course, there's the huge bust of the German Karl Marx in Highgate Cemetery.

From the arts, Hungarian composer Béla Bartók turns his back on South Kensington station, while a young Mozart (Austrian) enlivens Ebury Street. American painter James Whistler lurks on Chelsea Embankment, from where he painted so many memorable river scenes.

Sadly, the oddball statue of Michael Jackson has now been removed from Craven Cottage, Fulham. But foreign footballers do make a statuesque appearance in the forms of Thierry Henry (French) and Dennis Bergkamp (Dutch).

London also contains statues to non-Brits from ancient times. A bust of Indian philosopher Basaveshwara stands on the riverfront in Lambeth, while the Tamil poet Thiruvalluvar enlivens some grass outside the SOAS in Bloomsbury. King Volodymyr of Ukraine can be found just outside Holland Park. There's also the statue of Trajan (Roman) at Tower Hill. One might also add the countless statues of Jesus and other religious figures dotted around the capital.

One of the very few foreign women commemorated in London is Queen Alexandra of Denmark, whose statue stands outside the Royal London Hospital, Whitechapel (another statued royal, George II in Greenwich, might be considered more German than British).

The only cosmic commemoration in London is the statue of Yuri Gagarin at the Royal Observatory.

President precedents

Dwight D Eisenhower stands over Grosvenor Square. Photo: Matt Brown

The largest contingent of non-British statuary in London, however, is the collection of memorials to US presidents. There are at least eight on public display, representing six presidents. These are:

  • George Washington: leaning on a bundle of rods (representing the 13 original States) in Trafalgar Square.
  • Abraham Lincoln: the bearded one is depicted deep in thought beside his chair, in Parliament Square.
  • Abraham Lincoln (again): a bust of the president, on the eastern entrance to the Royal Exchange.
  • Franklin D Roosevelt: stands in Grosvenor Square near the traditional site of the US embassy.
  • Franklin D Roosevelt (again): FDR sits in conversation with Churchill on a Bond Street bench. A copy of this group also stands outside Cato Gallery on Heath Street, Hampstead — though we've also seen it in the grounds of a nearby private address.
  • Dwight D Eisenhower: the soldier-president also stands in Grosvenor Square in military uniform.
  • John F Kennedy: A bust of the big man hides in a niche on Marylebone Road.
  • Ronald Reagan: London's most recent presidential statue was unveiled in 2011 to mark Reagan's birth centenary.

So where would Obama go?

We've established by now that statues to non-Brits are commonplace in London, and particularly sculptures commemorating US presidents. So why not Barack Obama?

It just so happens that an opportunity for another statue beckons. The new US embassy in Nine Elms is nearing completion and should open by 2018. It'll need some kind of statue or sculpture — all important buildings have one. So can we erect a bronze of Barack Obama, a figure of great historical significance as well as the most popular US president in this country for many decades? Yes we can.

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Last Updated 21 November 2016