Wednesday, April 01, 2015

Bare Bones in London: Is Trafalgar Square's Ode to Equine Anatomy an April Fool's Prank?

You're a tourist in London, lurching through the maze of crowded streets on a bus. The tour guide directs your attention out the window to the famous Trafalgar Square. The centerpiece is a towering column commemorating the amazing naval victory of Admiral Lord Nelson in the Battle of Trafalgar off the coast of Spain's Cape Trafalgar in 1805. It was all part of the Napoleonic Wars, which the British took--and still take--very seriously.

There's a statue of Lord Nelson at the top of the column but it's so high you might not know what's up there.

The Stubbs horse on the Fourth Plinth lifts a hoof with a mighty coffin bone. This is the best detail available.

Much more visible are the "plinths" or platforms on the corners of the huge plaza. There are wonderful lions lounging in the square. One plinth lifts high a statue of King George IV astride his (fully-fleshed) horse.

Other statues on plinths honor General Sir Charles James Napier, a British commander in what is now Pakistan, and Major-General Sir Henry Havelock, a British general in India.

But every head on the tour bus does a double-take as you pass the Fourth Plinth. Standing proudly atop the high platform is the skeleton of a horse.

What a sight! Equine anatomy is on display for the world to see. Wouldn't you love to see this statue written into the script of Sherlock? (Stu Smith photo, thanks)

Trafalgar Square, it turns out, was never really finished. That platform just stood there, empty, while statesmen and city officials and, no doubt, royalty, spent 150 years trying to decide who or what should stand on it.

And they never did decide. But in the late 1990s, the city decided to make it more or less the people's plinth, and place a series of contemporary public artworks there to simply exist, without explanation. There's been a rocking horse, and a blue rooster. They might inspire, or entertain. But they do make you look.

And now we have the skeleton of a horse. But if you look closely, there's more to see.

Londoners and tourists alike wax almost poetic when describing their reactions to the new statue in this YouTube video.

First of all, this is not just any horse, it is more or less copied by sculptor Hans Haacke from an anatomy plate out of George Stubbs' Anatomy of the Horse, published in 1766 and still regarded as the greatest artistic and scientific representation of the horse.

But what is that big bow around the horse's raised foreleg? Well, you can decide what it means, but what it is, is a digital display for a stock market ticker tape. Is it the bow on the gift horse to remind us not to look it in the mouth?

"Whistlejacket" by George Stubbs
is in the National Gallery, facing
Trafalgar Square.
Across the square, Stubbs' famous (and huge) painting of the wheeling chestnut, Whistlejacket, is on display. The horse looks over his shoulder at all who view who him, as he must have looked at the painter. Now we can imagine that Whistlejacket  is looking over his shoulder at that other Stubbs' creation just outside the gallery.

A couple of footnotes seem in order here. First of all, before Trafalgar Square was a square, it was the site of the King's Mews, or stables. No doubt a forge once operated on this land and all types of horse services and servants were at work here. The horse skeleton is quite appropriate!

Second, Lord Nelson was an unabashed fan of horseshoes--or just superstitious, depending on how you look at it. Like most ship captains, he made certain that a shoe was nailed to the foremast of HMS Victory when it was launched, and that the shoe stayed there as she sailed into battle against the French at Trafalgar.

Nelson had previously lost an arm and an eye in battle; his service as a captain in the Caribbean adds a lot of color to naval history around Antigua's English Harbor and the beautiful island of Nevis.

In the end, that shoe so carefully nailed to the mast brought luck to the ship, but not as much to Nelson, who was shot on deck and died. He still received full credit for the decisive victory and went down in history as one of Britain's greatest heroes on land or sea. Who else has a square like this?

As with so many things related to the Hoof Blog, this story and its photos didn't just happen, they were "gifted" out of the clear blue sky by one of the blog's many friends around the world. This time the donor is Samantha Lane, an extraordinary urban photographer out and about in London who has her fingers on the shutter to capture the pulse of that great city...but she still keeps a toe in the hoof world, as event photographer for the Worshipful Company of Farriers; her veterinarian/horseman father, M B de C (Marcus) Giles MRCVS, is a retired examiner for the Company who was recently honored by the Company for examining an estimated 1000 farriers during his service.

Of course, Sam took one look at the Fourth Plinth and thought of the Hoof Blog. I hope you're as glad as I am that she did.

To learn more:

George Stubbs: Anatomy Artist and Dissector in Hoofcare and Lameness #69

Animal Inside Out: Plastinate Anatomy Exhibit Showcases Real-World Horses and Hooved Mammals at London's Natural History Museum by Samantha Lane

© Fran Jurga and Hoofcare Publishing; Fran Jurga's Hoof Blog is the news service for Hoofcare and Lameness Publishing. Please, no use without permission. You only need to ask. This blog may be read online at the blog page, checked via RSS feed, or received via a headlines-link email (requires signup in box at top right of blog page). Questions or problems with this blog? Send email to  
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