Imagine a significant public monument in a city: Once revered, it is subsequently reviled. There are calls for it to be removed; it is attacked and repaired on numerous occasions before its eventual destruction leaves only a few surviving fragments.
Despite echoes of contemporary events, this is not one of the recently contested public sculptures in London or Bristol, but an elaborate memorial cross built around 1291 in Cheapside, London, to commemorate the death of Eleanor of Castile (one of 12, crosses commissioned by her husband, Edward I), and which was torn down in 1642 during the English civil war.
The demise of the Cheapside Cross is one example of iconoclasm in this timely and fascinating book by Stacy Boldrick. Although it was written before (and published after) the seismic events of last summer, it contributes to ongoing debates on contested images.
This is not a book about the destruction of monuments per se, nor does Boldrick offer a universal survey of iconoclasm. Instead, she has selected diverse iconoclastic acts in Britain and the US, and considers what happened after breaking point had been reached and the roles museums have then played. Restoration, redisplay and removal are presented as possible, if not entirely straightforward, solutions.
For instance, the fragments of the Cheapside Cross are now exhibited in the Museum of London, but without any reference to their past. Indeed, as Boldrick says, museums have typically been silent about iconoclasm as they have prioritised image making over image breaking. But, as Boldrick says, it is only by acknowledging moments of destruction that one begins to understand the complete political, social and historical context of an image.
Boldrick was formerly a medievalist, and some of us may not feel the same dismay at the fate of the Cheapside Cross. But other instances of iconoclasm she discusses have greater resonance today, such as Mary Richardson’s attack on the Rokeby Venus in the National Gallery, London. Here, Boldrick says that if the gallery label made a reference to the damage caused by the suffragette in 1914, it could offer viewers a pan-historical view of the representation and treatment of women.
Similarly, Boldrick’s account of the removal of monuments in Memphis in 2017 makes uncomfortable reading in light of recent events. Statues of Jefferson Davis, a slave owner, and Nathan Bedford Forrest, a Ku Klux Klan member, were removed after protests, only for Tennessee state to fine the city $250,000 for its actions. Though this book is written by an academic, it has broad appeal, not just because of the subject matter, but also because of Boldrick’s accessible writing style.
She explores the intricacies of an argument with clarity and presents varied viewpoints. At times, I felt that Boldrick was almost too even-handed, and while this is an academic book, I wanted her to be more personal and judgmental.
But this is a well researched and relevant study of a subject that rarely gets adequate attention. Boldrick is an authoritative guide to the equivocal status of images in society and in the process she reveals much about iconoclasm and museums, as well as human nature. As long as there are image makers, it seems there will always be image breakers. As Boldrick says: “Iconoclasm never ends.”
Stephen Feeke is a curator and writer