Prue Leith, instigator of fourth plinth, resists calls for Queen statue

<span>Photograph: David Parry/PA</span>
Photograph: David Parry/PA

Prue Leith, who says her proudest achievement was turning the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square into a showcase for contemporary art, is resisting calls to make it a permanent statue for the Queen.

In an interview for the Guardian, the Bake Off judge was wary of a compromise plan to create a fifth plinth to allow modern sculpture to continue to be exhibited in the square if it was decided to place a statue of the Queen on the fourth plinth.

Last week, the government said it would consider a permanent statue for the Queen on the vacant plinth after a suggestion from the Conservative MP John Hayes was greeted with a chorus of “hear hear”.

Prue Leith said the fourth plinth programme was her proudest achievement
Prue Leith has said the fourth plinth programme is her proudest achievement. Photograph: David Parry/PA

Leith, who thinks the location is not prominent enough for a Queen, came up with the idea of the fourth plinth sculpture programme when she was chair of the Royal Society of Arts, and spent years campaigning to get it up and running.

She said: “I am proud of it. If there’s one thing that I’ve done in my life that I would be delighted to see continue, it would be the fourth plinth. It’s been hugely successful.”

On Wednesday, a work about British colonialism by Samson Kambalu will be unveiled as the 14th sculpture since the programme began in 1998.

Leith defended the often provocative history of the scheme. She said: “It keeps the debate about contemporary art going and has become part of the national curriculum for children to think about public art.

“It’s really important that the contemporary stuff stays in the square. Each sculpture has had its fans and its detractors. Even if you hate what’s there, you know it’s coming down next year.”

To head off a brewing culture war row over the future of the plinth, the Public Statues and Sculpture Association is proposing a fifth plinth on the north edge of the square as a space where the programme can continue.

Samson Kambalu inspects a model of his work Antelope during the fourth plinth winner announcement in 2021. The full sculpture will be unveiled on Wednesday.
Samson Kambalu inspects a model of his work Antelope during the announcement of the fourth plinth winner in 2021. The full sculpture will be unveiled on Wednesday. Photograph: Tim P Whitby/Getty Images

Its co-chair, Holly Trusted, said: “There was always the feeling that the fourth plinth project was keeping it warm and that ultimately, it would be for the Queen. But we don’t want to see the contemporary being relinquished, so a constructive solution would be to have a fifth plinth in Trafalgar Square, which might be better suited for contemporary sculpture.”

Leith, who was on a panel that chose a statue of the Queen on horseback that was commissioned for Windsor Great Park in 2003, said: “I would never object to the statue of the Queen. And if there had to be an extra plinth it might work as long as it fits with the symmetry of the square.”

But she added: “I don’t think the fourth plinth is special enough for the Queen. I think there should be a statue for her outside Westminster Abbey where she was crowned. There’s a raised grass area that would be perfect – you’d see it from all sides. I did moot it at some point, but lost the energy to campaign for it. It took five years and 13 committees to get the fourth plinth on the road.”

The former director of the National Portrait Gallery, Sandy Nairne, a former chair of the fourth plinth judging panel, is also against making it a permanent statue to the Queen.

He said: “There’s no way a back corner of Trafalgar Square is appropriate. Just think of the scale of the Victoria Memorial in front of Buckingham Palace. I’m not suggesting something as huge as that, but she had a longer reign than Queen Victoria. And much else besides.

“I’m not aware that anybody has done any kind of planning for the options for a statue to the Queen. But it needs to be splendid and wonderful. We would all need to feel it matched her reign.”

And Nairne thinks the fourth plinth programme should stay. “If it can continue it should. It has been an enormous success for London. I’m bound to say that because I oversaw it for eight years. It got more and more interesting, as artists were prepared to think in the most intriguing ways.”