Stephen McGinty: Ongoing cone of contention

The Duke of Wellington pays tribute to Scots atheletes by sporting a gold cone
The Duke of Wellington pays tribute to Scots atheletes by sporting a gold cone
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FAR FROM being an act of vandalism, the regular ‘coning’ of the Duke of Wellington should be regarded as an iconic statement about pomp and power – a new piece of modern art.

If you wish to get ahead, get a hat. Few have risen so high as Admiral Nelson, staring out across London’s Trafalgar Square from the top of his 185 foot stone column. Yet this week it was decided that he could go a little further and was promptly visited by a milliner and befitted with a bright new headpiece of red, white and blue, with all those hues redolent of a swelling national pride set off by an Olympic torch fashioned from fetching fabric.

Graffiti by artist Banksy is now revered. Picture: PA

Graffiti by artist Banksy is now revered. Picture: PA

He was not alone. All across the capital statues were suddenly modelling an array of artistic hats as part of Britain’s cultural Olympiad. In New Bond Street, Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt were equipped with a bowler hat and a drum major’s plumed helmet, while in nearby Jermyn Street Beau Brummel’s statue was fitted with a red, black and blue turban. Frankly, as a Glaswegian, it was all looking a little too familiar.

No-one knows exactly when a Glaswegian first decided that the Duke of Wellington’s statue on Queen Street would benefit from the addition on his head of a white and orange traffic cone. A straw poll of council staff and leading citizens of the city can only put the date as a decade: the 80s with a few convinced that the act was first carried out after the Garden Festival of 1988 but before the City of Culture in 1990. All, however, are agreed that it was inspired, as are many artistic epiphanies, by strong drink.

Yet since that first brave/foolish cultural commentator sought to cunningly juxtapose a symbol of old Empire with the ubiquitous emblem of stalled progress, it has gone on to become an icon of the city. The “coned statue” became the centrepiece of The Glasgow Evening Times TV advertising campaign and in 2005 a pair of student filmmakers made a short film about the pranksters who “coned” the Duke. Meanwhile, this week the traditional orange and white cone was replaced by one of glinting gold in a gallus Glasgow salute to that son of Edinburgh: Sir Chris Hoy.

The council’s attitude to whether the cone constitutes an act of vandalism or a creative adornment has flip-flopped over the years. The Lord Provost, Alex Mosson, once refused to be photographed by the statue until Wellington’s head was suitably adorned with a traffic cone, but the Labour leader of the council in 2005, Charlie Gordon, insisted it be removed stating: “I don’t like it and perhaps the joke has worn a bit thin. It is a minor act of vandalism.” Not so, at least according to his younger successor as council leader, Steven Purcell, who decreed in 2007 that the cone, once up, should remain firmly on the Duke’s head. Like a municipal version of Pantomime’s “Oh yes he is” – “Oh no he’s not”, once again the council’s policy has changed and now it is a case of “oh no he’s not wearing a traffic cone”. The current policy is for it to be routinely removed by council maintenance staff whenever they happen to be passing in a suitable vehicle. The argument against “coning” Wellington is that, over the years, successive anonymous citizens concerned that the Duke was unsuitably attired have damaged the 160-year-old statute. For the art historian, Gary Nisbet, who has long-campaigned for the statue to be left “hatless” and in peace, “coning” is vandalism. As he stated: “There is a bust of Wellington in Kelvingrove Gallery. If I put a traffic cone on its head. I would be arrested and rightly so.”

There is no doubt there are those citizens of Glasgow who detest the sight of the traffic cone and view it as reflection of the city’s rougher, more vulgar edge. Last year, when the Lonely Planet guide included the “coned” Duke of Wellington in their list of the top ten most bizarre monuments in the world, alongside a statue of Rocky Balboa in Serbia, one correspondent to the Evening Times stated: “I was shocked to read that the Duke of Wellington statue complete with a traffic cone in Royal Exchange Square is making it into a tourist guide. I personally find it embarrassing and cringe every time I see the cone on top the statue.” Glasgow City Council says it still receives frequent complaints about the cone.

Yet my view is that its presence makes a simple iconic statement about the city’s attitude to pomp and power. At a time when Glasgow is attracting attention world wide as an exciting new home of modern art, with the Turner Prize apparently reserved each year for a citizen of the city to collect, we should accept the “coned” Duke as a new piece of modern art and protect it. The very fact that the Duke now stands guard in front of the Gallery of Modern Art makes his artful haberdashery all the more appropriate.

In the past the graffiti art of Banksy was washed off the walls of London boroughs by high pressure hoses as an act of wanton vandalism. Today they are preserved behind Plexiglas panels as a public work of art. There is little doubt that the “coned” Duke has become an icon of Glasgow, appearing as it does in postcards, guidebooks, T-shirts and even on the frontage of a Glasgow law firm, while in 2007 the “Glasgow Hat” – a floppy “traffic cone” was trade-marked and went on sale. Glasgow city councillors should vote on accepting the cone and, if passed, it should be left in place. The irony is that more damage is done by removing it – which prompts the hand of those anonymous spider-men to clamber up and put it back in place – than leaving it be.

The one valid argument for its removal is on grounds of safety, which is why it should be fixed firmly in place. But, hang on, should it be “officially” adopted? Is there not then the prospect of it being “topped” by another unofficial tribute? Maybe the best solution is that of unofficial civic acceptance.

What is clear, however, is that the citizens of Glasgow have always had fun with the Duke of Wellington. For even when the statue was officially unveiled at 2 pm on 10 October,1844, within minutes it was being mocked by a few, while venerated by the many.

For four years Pietro Carlo Giovanni Marochetti, who was born in Turin, but as his father was a lawyer in the service of Napoleon, was raised as a French citizen in Paris, had toiled on the massive iron statue of the man who vanquished Napoleon at Waterloo.

The pedestal was of Peterhead granite, eight and half feet high with the top floored with bronze and the sides moulded to depict Wellington’s victories in Assage in India and at Waterloo. The presence of so many Scots by Wellington’s side was marked on the plinth by the return of a kilted soldier to the home and hearth of his family and on the day of the grand unveiling troops from all the Scottish regiments were present.

As The Scotsman reported there was some booing and hissing from “a disapproving portion of spectators.”

The crowd was so vast that attempts to reserve seats for war widows and those who had funded the statue by subscriptions fell into farce. After the canvas covering had been winched off the debate of its merits began. “Baron Marochetti (who is a fine looking man) wrapped in a large blue cloak made his appearance, and evidently, much affected, took off his hat and repeatedly bowed in acknowledgement of the compliments.”

However, the crowd had not yet had their fun and the ropes available were soon snatched up and secretly tied to a passing horse and cart. “The driver, on the box, all unconscious of what was going on behind, whipped up the animal with the most praiseworthy perseverance, but, to his surprise, instead of bounding forward, the bewildered beast made a retrograde movement and continued to stumble backwards in spite of all his exertions.”

As the report had earlier made clear: “After the termination of the proceedings with the inauguration of the statue, a portion of the crowd began to manifest a disposition to commit mischief.”

And so that disposition has been passed down through the generations, like an Olympic torch – or a traffic cone.