Nelson’s Column: Imperial Artefact16 minute read

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries urbanism within London and London’s architecture was shaped by the actions of imperialism, with the cultural implications of this still being experienced today (Gilbert and Driver, 2000). Constructed in 1843, Nelson’s column as an artefact reflects the decadence of the British Empire. Today, the column itself and the surrounding area of Trafalgar Square is the living manifestation of change that has taken place in British society, from the imperial era to modern day. The cultural implications of Nelson’s column in contemporary politics are fascinating and relevant for two integral reasons; its locality and its famous nature. Being such a central location within London makes for fascinating study as it sees a melting pot of various actors, tourists, locals and protestors alike, utilising the public space due to its ease of access. Because of its fame and central nature London has grown and developed around Trafalgar Square; growing around an artefact built during the colonial period which embodies the changing workspace and landscape of London since the 1840s.

Whilst the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805 was before the colonial period, the construction of the column started in 1840, during the heart of imperialism. A 51.5 metre tall statue was built, commemorating the success of the Royal Navy highlights Britain’s desire for ascendency during this time. Therefore, this article aims to demonstrate how Nelson’s column and its surrounding area of Trafalgar Square are exceptionally useful tools for understanding how an imperial artefact may influence cultural and political agendas in contemporary London. This essay attempts to analyse the cultural implications of Nelson’s column through three key ideas. Firstly, I shall discuss how Trafalgar Square as a public space allows there to be social change and cultural transformation (Ferguson and Gupta, 1992). Understanding the impacts of the location in which Nelson’s column is situated allows us to understand how the production of space has a consequence for social relations- I will discuss the location and the dislocation of Trafalgar Square and how the fourth plinth allows for politically provocative activism. Following neatly on from this I shall then consider the discourse of Nelson’s column as evidence for contemporary politics and the process of globalisation; how the statue of Nelson himself highlights an early form of globalisation and how London is globally interconnected today. Finally, I will question whether Trafalgar Square’s imperial connotations are still relevant today and consider how an increase in existential outsideness (Carmona, 2010) may have resulted in a change of political and cultural motivations within the community.

Trafalgar Square- how the production of space within the square has contemporary political and cultural consequences

Figure 1 trafalgar sq map
Figure 1, Diliff 2009

The location surrounding Nelson’s Column is a public space, meaning that it “allows people to meet on a neutral ground within the context of an entire community” (Holland et al, 2007). By nature of the square being a neutral space there are many social histories embedded in its location as it allows for the community to express political will and desires. When considering the cultural and political implications of a public space in contemporary society it is important to establish the definitions of space and place. These concepts are often liberally thrown around, however we need to analyse the intricacies to understand the nuanced cultural effects. Place is deemed to be the physicality of the location; its object surroundings, its boundaries and its corporeal nature. In order to understand the physical perception of the area surrounding Nelson’s column it is appropriate to use a map (see Figure 1). This map displays how Nelson’s column is surrounded by Trafalgar Square and is boxed in by roads; it is a fixed point and is a distinct perception of physicality. Additionally a confluence of roads is evident, demonstrating how the area of Nelson’s column is a melting pot from various areas of London. For example the Strand ends at Trafalgar Square, connecting the City of Westminster to the east of London and the City. This interconnectivity presented by Trafalgar Square area is useful for understanding the cultural implications of this imperial artefact, as being such a famous landmark it draws in people from across the city (as well as the rest of the world). This ability for Nelson’s column to provide a conglomerate of cultures and allow east to meet west has serious cultural implications. As an imperial artefact it has provided a public space for discussion about politics. This is notable throughout history, whereby in 1830 Trafalgar Square was given its official name (Cunningham, 1850) and as the square was used as a location for mobs and riots. (Garvery, 2011) This idea has transcended into modern day, where the square is used to promote political agendas and campaign for causes. For instance, LGBT+ pride is annually held in Trafalgar Square suggesting there are contemporary cultural implications from this imperial artefact.

From looking at the map and using a physical definition of the word ‘place’ we can understand some of the current cultural and political implications the square provides. However, it is often found that in the social sciences the representation of space is reliant on maps which encourage disjunction and fragmentation by presenting clear physical boundaries. (Gupta and Ferguson, 1992) In reality, culture transcends concrete boundaries. By triangulating this idea with the geographical concept of ‘space’ we can further recognise its societal influence. Using Gupta and Ferguson’s (1992) idea that space is a “spatial distribution of hierarchical power relations,” and that space is when a meaning is ascribed to the place, we can understand that space can be utilised for cultural and political motivations. Moreover, using Lefebvre’s definition of space (1991) that we need to know the rules of a particular space and that a knowledge of the space is important it is evident that when a meaning is attached to a place that it can become a place for demonstrations in the form of political activism and cultural celebrations. As a community there is a conscious knowledge that Trafalgar Square is a public place and throughout history has produced a space for protests such as the poll tax riots under Margaret Thatcher and the student riots of 2010. This empirically evidences the idea presented by the physical definition of place and adds further weight that as an imperial artefact Nelson’s column and Trafalgar Square has exceptionally relevant political connotations.

Figure 2, Güner 2015
Figure 2, Güner 2015

Furthermore when we consider the multitude of cultural and political conglomerations of diverse communities with differing interests in Trafalgar Square, the public place becomes outward looking and progressive rather than self-enclosing. Society becomes “single sense of place which everyone shares,” (Massey, 1995) despite differences on the political spectrum. This potpourri of communities unmistakably manifests cultural implications in contemporary politics, as the use of public space has allowed for transformation of social relations. This is inherently relevant to Trafalgar Square as an imperial artefact as when it was initially cleared to become a public space in the centre of London it was during the colonial and Victorian period. Historically this was a time of intense social change, with the reform riots of the 1830s campaigning for greater suffrage. Attwood who led the protest gathered 200,000 people in the city of London (Gooll, 2006). This historical use of the place for a political outlet evidently has transcended into contemporary society, with Nelson’s column at the epicentre. By having an imperial artefact as the nucleus of an expansive range of demonstrations is integral as it, both subconsciously and knowingly in the activists psyche, creates a reminder of when Britain was at the heart of the world and had an expansive empire. This thus reflect into contemporary politics as it generates a desire for social and political progression.

The concept of Trafalgar Square becoming a politically provocative location is a notion which is further alluded to today through the medium of art. The fourth plinth, which can be found in the north west of the square, (see red circle on Figure 1) has been utilised as a form of political expressions since 1999 (Sumartojo, 2012). Now in the 21st century the art is significant as it embodies how Trafalgar Square changes with the times. It is currently a gift horse (see Figure 2) which is a direct and distinct counterpoint for the plinth’s original intentions. Initially aimed to be an equestrian statue for King William IV, it was never commissioned and is now a platform for depiction of the economy, society and politics. The gift horse has many contemporary implications due its ability to invite interpretation. There is debate surrounding the fourth plinth as to whether the current horse is anti-austerity or pro-infrastructure. (The Week, 2015) Since it has a tag with the stock market prices around its foot, the model is frequently said to be a statement against capitalism, as it demonstrates a strained horse (often interpreted as society) held by the decisions of the banks and large corporations. In essence however, the actual concept the artist is trying to convey- in this context- is irrelevant. What is more imperative is that the art itself creates and encourages debate. By producing debate amongst art enthusiasts and the public alike it indicates that Trafalgar Square continues to have significant relevance to contemporary politics. Engaging in discussion allows for individuals to question current culture norms and the political will of the ruling class. When applying a Marxist lens to this situation one could consider the fourth plinth as a manifestation of the ideology of proletariat in an attempt to dispute the actions of the bourgeoisie; in this case politicians and actors such as banks which influence economic policy and, by discernible extension, social policy.

Whilst some consider the fourth plinth to be an “object cultural form of national identity” (Knight, 2015) one needs to be careful when making the assumption that the art reflects everyone’s political and social opinion. However the plinth’s ability to provide social debate on these integral topics does in itself have cultural implications. As each individual interprets the art on the plinth differently, dependent on their own socioeconomic background and their intrinsic nature, the plinth can be considered to be an object of personal nationalism. (Knight, 2015) By simply existing the plinth can be studied as a form of national identity, as the producers reflect current political events. But by sparking debate the plinth also creates a sense of personal nationalism as how the audience reads the symbol also reflects contemporary views held by the public.

Furthermore, the concept that the fourth plinth as artwork inspires debate in a colonial style setting indicates how Trafalgar Square as an imperial artefact has relevant cultural implications. The juxtaposition of the bronze lions created in 1867 and the modern art continues to inspire contemporary politics. The magnificent lions are a representation of “embodiment of power and wealth, lions symbolise physical beauty, muscular prowess and majesty.” (BBC, 2015) This notion reinforces Britain’s imperialism, evidencing the dominance the British Empire once had. In a post-colonial society this apparent apposition has key cultural implications on contemporary politics, as it creates a tangible and concrete reminder of Britain’s ability to be globally prominent.

Trafalgar Square as a place to evince globalisation and contemporary politics

Trafalgar Square a physical location can, in some regards, still be considered to be globally significant as it is a manifestation of London’s multiculturalism and a newer globalised society. The construction of Nelson’s column in the imperial time is evidence of early globalisation and international politics. The consideration that Trafalgar Square is an evocation of international relations is a concept which has transcended into contemporary society; however exhibits itself in a very different way. Nelson’s column acts as a material object which highlights early globalisation, whereas today the square is not a physical representation of globalisation, rather a space to celebrate numerous world culture; it is conceptually promoting the integration of cultures.

Globalisation is a concept difficult to explicitly define due to its inherent scope of inclusivity of different ideas; economic, political and cultural factors all influence the principle understanding. However for the purpose of this essay globalisation will be considered to be the ‘increasing interconnectedness’ of global societies, as “humans are not isolated beings, instead ones that interact with each other.” (Cloke and Crang, 1999) As an artefact built during the imperial era Nelson’s column is distinct evidence of primary globalisation due firstly, the reason it was built and secondly, due to the wider implications this had on Britain as an empire. Nelson’s column was constructed to commemorate the victory at the battle of Trafalgar. The humble fact that this battle took place off the coast of Spain is evidence of pre-modern globalisation, as it demonstrates a narrowing of absolute space and increasing interconnectedness between states. Secondly, as the statue was built between 1840 and 1843, during the colonialization of the British West Indies, it was designed to be imposing to reflect Britain’s dominance at the time. This interaction between countries, whilst is not advantageous for the colonised country, is evidence of globalisation and interaction between nations.

This interconnectedness is something we can see displayed in modern Trafalgar Square; although much more implicitly. Whilst the nature of the globalisation has changed- from a military force to economic and political exchange- the idea that London is a globalised city has transcended to today’s society. As previously mentioned, Trafalgar Square is used for demonstrations, protests and cultural celebrations, as well as being a central tourist location. For example, in 2015 the square has hosted the Korean festival and the Eid festival, celebrating Diwali as well as numerous others. This wide range of cultural celebrations demonstrates how globalised London is and how migration is a key cultural implication which influences contemporary politics. Gupta and Ferguson (1992) consider “location is defined as much by its surroundings as by its internal reorganisations” and this is clear through the medium of Trafalgar Square. It has gone from a place of celebrating the British Empire and imperialism to a place to celebrate different cultures and political ideologies, due to the globalised nature of London as a city.

Trafalgar Square’s imperial connotations in contemporary society

As an imperial artefact Trafalgar Square can be considered to the lacking relevance with contemporary society. Ken Livingstone stated that the statues “no longer speak to the present.” (Cherry, 2006) This was claimed because the public could not resonate with colonial relics as they were historically inaccessible. Could this be down to the dislocation of society? Carmona (2010) argues that there has been a loss of attachment to space, resulting in communities as a collective being isolated from the environment. A lack of knowledge about the heritage may produce a feeling of “existential outsideness” (Carmona, 2010) due to an inability to empathise with the imperial artefacts.

However, the very fact that a debate exists could be reason to believe that citizens and politicians are engaging with the concept of imperialism. Much like the debate surrounding the fourth plinth, by questioning whether the values held during the British Empire are relevant to contemporary society, especially when considering the increasing multicultural nature of London, is in itself a cultural implication, with direct political consequences. By making this idea mainstream reinforces the idea that Trafalgar Square is an imperial artefact with explicit cultural insinuations in modern day democracy.


In conclusion it is exceptionally apparent that Nelson’s column and Trafalgar Square as imperial artefacts still continue to influence contemporary society, and thus by clear extension contemporary politics. Because culture and politics are inherently linked and because Trafalgar Square is a public space which allows demonstrations, social transformation and progression are two key cultural implications of the artefact. This article has taken a London-centric view on the various cultural implications of Trafalgar Square and whilst it is understood that globalisation and the British Empire have impacts globally, the primary influences on cultural and politics are based in London. Overall, this essay has attempted to demonstrate how Trafalgar Square as an explicitly imperial location manages, as a public space, to endorse social change and liberal progression; how the physicality of the various artefacts and how, more implicitly, in modern day Trafalgar Square promotes the concept of multiculturalism. Finally, after considering the square’s imperial connotations in contemporary society this essay has concluded that the cultural implications of Trafalgar Square have both explicit and implicit impacts on contemporary politics; in regards to social demonstrations having altering the political frame of politicians and creating new political agendas.


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