Aidan Smith: Big Yin's big slipper is sculptor's greatest challenge

Statues ain't what they used to be says Aidan Smith, who worries what one of Billy Connolly might look like
Billy Connolly is the subject of new artwork - but Aidan Smith draws the line at the prospect of a statue for the Big Yin.Billy Connolly is the subject of new artwork - but Aidan Smith draws the line at the prospect of a statue for the Big Yin.
Billy Connolly is the subject of new artwork - but Aidan Smith draws the line at the prospect of a statue for the Big Yin.

I’m writing about Billy Connolly again because right now as he battles degenerative illness we shouldn’t need much excuse to do this and his knighthood in the same Queen’s Birthday Honours is a good enough reason, as are the spectacular gable-end portraits just unveiled in his home city … but a statue? I’m not so sure about that.

Glasgow wants to honour the comedian who made his name mentioning the previously unmentionable - jet-propelled cludgie disposal, the crucifixion - with his likeness in stone. I mean, the sentiment’s a good one, but can we be certain the statue would be?

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Trousers. That’s modern day statuary’s big problem. The broadcaster Danny Baker was among the first to notice this and he’s right. If the subject wears trousers - and you don’t see as many long, flowing robes on men anymore - then in statue form they invariably end up resembling robotic versions of themselves.

Give a sculptor a gown or a cape and he can signify nobleness and intellect. Give the stone-carver muscly calves, ideally astride a horse, and he can convey courage and heroism. Dull, motionless trousers must be a nightmare. All statues are by their nature motionless, of course, but expert chiselling can’t do much with a pair of strides and more than once my youngest daughter has gazed up at a statue of recent vintage and remarked: “I’ve got a Playmobil man just like that.”

Is the chiselling still expert? I’m giving its practitioners the benefit of the doubt here because when I look at the bust of the footballer Cristiano Ronaldo I think of a description the world’s most vain sportsman wouldn’t understand although he’d be appalled if he did - glaikit.

Footballers, indeed, have fared particularly badly at the hands of sculptors in the past few years. Denis Law doesn’t much resemble Denis Law and Billy Bremner looks even less like Billy Bremner. Recently I met a contemporary of that pair, the Celtic legend Bobby Lennox, who’s soon to be cast in stone in his home town of Saltcoats. He has mixed feelings about the installation. It’s an honour, of course, but at the same time “awfie embarrassing”. He told me: “This is such a small place and it’ll be very difficult to avoid bumping into myself.”

To be fair to the chisellers we’re a hyper-critical audience, being assailed by images of likely statue subjects daily and in many forms. We all know what Ronaldo looks like - even our unborn children have a pretty good idea - and can make an immediate, informed assessment of any artistic representation of him. But who really knew what, say, the Duke of Wellington looked like when he was in his Waterloo pomp and, if they were alive today, could swear that his statue at the east end of Edinburgh’s Princes Street captures him perfectly?

In a simpler age and a more reverential one, you imagine that unveilings of statues were greeted with universal awe. The most recent statue erected in my neighbourhood in the capital’s Stockbridge was an Antony Gormley cast-iron figure, buried up to its waist in the Water of Leith. I loved it being there, but have to admit I also loved when it was swept away. I reckon Gormley would have accepted this as a victory for nature over art, with Edinburgh’s puny excuse for a river demonstrating that it can after all do raging torrents.

Billy Connolly would surely see the funny side and the backers of his Glasgow honour already seem to be bracing themselves for a response which is classic Big Yin, calling it as he sees it with a dollop of fierce wit on top. “God only knows what he’ll think of a statue of himself,” says the businessman and philanthropist Sir Tom Hunter, “but I’m willing to support it just for his reaction!”

It’s easier to get yourself a statue than it used to be, or a plaque or some other form of civic commemoration. For a long time, the pop world wanted parity with the literary one - blue plaques above the doors of notable addresses. But, now able to bestow these honours, it has got a bit carried away.

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Forty-seven new sites have just been identified, including the former Kent hotel where the young David Bowie performed as a member of the Manish Boys. There’s no bigger Bowie fan than your correspondent but he had lots of incarnations, reinventions, flop bands and silly phases before hitting on the right one. Under the less than rigorous criteria of the awards, would these all be deemed plaque-worthy?

In Scotland there would be no question The Proclaimers should be proclaimed with a plaque but Craig and Charlie Reid are the most shy and retiring of celebs. Next to the strutting peacock Ronaldo they’re rarely seen woodland burrowers, only emerging when their favourite football team, Hibernian, reach the cup final and then to play a far-off gig, often 500 miles away.

In what for them seems like Roman Empire-grade decadence, they’ve consented to a BBC Scotland appreciation, to be screened tomorrow, but I reckon they’d be horrified if they ever had to meet their statues. And the troubadour twins would present the double challenge of not just trousers but spectacles. Glasses are just as tricky to get right and, as poor Donald Dewar’s statue would confirm, it’s almost impossible to stop them being nicked.

Who’d be a statue-maker these days? And we haven’t even mentioned banana boots and big slippers.