Updated date:

What Is the Fourth Plinth in London's Trafalgar Square?: Artwork Displayed

Susan enjoys travel, art, writing, and natural products. She lives in Kent, just outside of London.

Learn about the history of the Fourth Plinth in London's Trafalgar Square, including the succession of art pieces that have adorned the location

Learn about the history of the Fourth Plinth in London's Trafalgar Square, including the succession of art pieces that have adorned the location

What Is the Fourth Plinth?

The Fourth Plinth is in Trafalgar Square, just in front of the of National Gallery. Originally, this plinth was designed to hold an equestrian statue of William IV. In 1841, however, the funds ran out and it was never completed. It remained this way until 1991, when the Royal Academy was tasked with putting something in this spot. And the decision they made has changed the square and given Londoners a lot to discuss.

Trafalgar Square is a London icon with Nelson’s Column in the centre guarded by four huge stone lions. In each corner of the square is a plinth, three of which have had grand statues on them since the 19th Century. The now famous Fourth Plinth has a temporary display of modern art atop it, which causes much debate each time a new installment appears.

Mark Wallinger's Ecce Homo: The first statue to adorn the Fourth Plinth

Mark Wallinger's Ecce Homo: The first statue to adorn the Fourth Plinth

What Goes on the Plinth?

There have been many disagreements over what should appear on this empty plinth, but it was decided for the time being to have temporary pieces that would speak to Londoners. And that is certainly done. Whenever a new sculpture goes up, cabbies, locals, and tourists go to watch it be unveiled. Everyone has their own opinion on what it looks like, whether they think it’s good, and indeed whether it’s even art at all.

Gift Horse - Fourth Plinth in London 2015

Gift Horse - Fourth Plinth in London 2015

Hans Haacke's "Gift Horse"

On March 5th, 2015, "Gift Horse" by Hans Haacke was revealed. The sculpture is of an emaciated horse with a large ribbon tied around one raised knee. On this ribbon is a live, ever-changing data feed of the stock market figures. This is actually very clever.

The horse is in a classic pose, referencing the original purpose of the Fourth Plinth, but it is underfed, starving in fact, while the banks continue to make money and focus on their share prices. It is also visually a powerful-looking statue. Almost everybody seems to have good things to say about it, and it has generally got the thumbs up from people who have seen it.

So it has met the brief—it has been embraced by the city, it has people talking about it, art has been brought to the average Joe on the street, and it has brought loads of attention to the capital as well.

Trafalgar Square on a usual day

Trafalgar Square on a usual day

What's Been Up on the Fourth Plinth?

  • 1999 saw the first ever sculpture to go on the plinth. Mark Wallinger’s piece depicted Christ, but as a normal man, looking like he was about to deliver a speech.
  • In 2000, a creepy image of a book, crushing a head, with a tree above. The roots bound the whole thing to the plinth. Named ‘Regardless of History,’ the sculpture was create by Bill Woodrow.
'Regardless of History' sculpture on the Plinth in 2000

'Regardless of History' sculpture on the Plinth in 2000

  • 2001 saw a clear resin box appear on the plinth. Called ‘Monument’ by Rachel Whiteread, it was an exact replicate of the plinth itself, turned upside down and was created to make the viewer pause.
  • In June of 2002, an unauthorized waxwork of David Beckham in full kit made it onto the plinth but was removed, even though most Londoners wanted it to stay.
  • 2005 saw a beautiful nude sculpture of Alison Lapper during her pregnancy. Lapper is an artist and has a medical condition called phocomelia. Marc Quinn carved the statue out of a single piece of white marble and is a striking piece of artwork.
Statue of Alison Lapper by Marc Quinn

Statue of Alison Lapper by Marc Quinn

  • 2007 and ‘Model for a Hotel’ was constructed out of yellow, red and blue glass. Artist Thomas Schütte made it in several parts which slotted together.
  • July to October 2009 and Anthony Gormley’s vision saw 2,400 ordinary people have a single hour on on the plinth. Each hour, 24 hours a day, for 100 days, the plinth reflected humanity. Called ‘One and Other’, individuals spent their time singing, dancing, reading poetry, and many other things as crowds watched and the event was recorded. It was art made by everyone for everyone, and was truly enjoyed by the masses, and says a lot about the city of London.
  • 2010 and Yinka Shonibare’s ‘Ship in a bottle’ adorns the Fourth Plinth. The nation took this one to its hearts. The enormous version of a ship inside a bottle had vibrantly coloured sails patterned with African-inspired design.
  • 2012 and Elmgreen and Dragset’s ‘Powerless Structures fig. 101’ wasn't so popular. It’s a sculpture of a boy on a rocking horse and was to represent the struggles with growing up while referencing the equestrian theme that the plinth was originally made for.
  • July 2013 and the big blue cock, entitled ‘Hahn/cock’, was placed on the plinth. The word Hahn is German for cock, and the play on words was intentional, it symbolises the strutting, males of the world. Its intense, vibrant blue colour meant the sculpture was mesmerising.
The intense, vibrant blue rooster named  "Hahn/Cock"

The intense, vibrant blue rooster named "Hahn/Cock"

  • 2015 and Hans Haacke's 'Gift Horse,' previously described at length above.
  • September 2016 to March 2018 and 'Really Good' was sculpted out of bronze by David Shrigley. The sculpture was of a human hand giving a thumbs-up, with the thumb being made extremely long.
  • 2018 to mid-2020 and 'The Invisible Enemy Should Not Exist' by Michael Rakowitz was put up on the Plinth. The piece is a recreation of an Assyrian lamassu, or hybrid human, bird, and bull deity sculpture. Rakowitz's piece is made of Iranian date syrup cans because the piece, which stood at Nineveh since 700 B.C., was destroyed in 2015 by Isis.
  • July 2020 saw the erection of Heather Phillipson's 'The End,' which features a large dollop of whipped cream with a cherry, fly and drone topping it. The drone films passers-by and features the feed on a screen that is attached to it. This piece will remain up until September 2022.
The current art piece displayed on the Plinth is Heather Phillipson's 'The End'

The current art piece displayed on the Plinth is Heather Phillipson's 'The End'

Free Art in London

London is considered by many to be the art capital of the world. One of the city's unique strengths is the philosophy that art should be enjoyed by all, and it strives to commit to this. Galleries containing masterpieces, modern works, and unknown talent are free to enter every day, for everyone.

Free Art Gallery Links

  • Lisson Gallery
    Lisson Gallery is one of the most influential and longest-running international contemporary art galleries in the world.
  • Vagina Museum
    There is a penis museum in Iceland. Which is pretty cool. But there is no vagina equivalent anywhere in the world. The project was launched in 2017 and started with pop ups around the country including exhibitions and events.
  • London Sewing Machine Museum
    London Sewing Machine Museum documents the history of the humble sewing machine from the 1830's onwards.
  • Whitechapel Gallery
    The Gallery is a touchstone for contemporary art internationally, plays a central role in London’s cultural landscape and is pivotal to the continued growth of the world’s most vibrant contemporary art quarter.
  • South London Gallery
    The South London Gallery, which has been free and open to the public for more than 125 years, presents contemporary art exhibitions, film and performance events, with integrated education projects for children, young people and adults.

© 2015 Susan Hambidge

Comments

Susan Hambidge (author) from Kent, England on August 06, 2015:

Thanks MG, I hope you make it over here soon, there's loads to see!

MG Seltzer from South Portland, Maine on August 06, 2015:

Very interesting read! I hope to visit London sometime in the next few years and I especially want to see Trafalgar Square. Bookmarking this Hub for future reference. Thumbs up, of course.

Ann Carr from SW England on March 19, 2015:

Interesting chronicle of the 4th plinth; I enjoyed this. I knew about it and what it was for but didn't realise there have been so many things on it. I wasn't aware of its original history either. So thanks for all the information.

London certainly is great for its art. I saw the poppy installation at the tower and I love all the galleries. Though not a city girl, I find London has its positives.

Great hub!

Ann

Susan Hambidge (author) from Kent, England on March 12, 2015:

Thank you Flourish, this is praise indeed. I am fascinated with the stories art tell, I love London more every time I pop in, and I want to share this.

FlourishAnyway from USA on March 12, 2015:

This is most unusual! Thank you for the detailed information about it. I feel like you're providing us with an insider's look at part of the city that we might miss otherwise. You've done a fine job, here, Susan! Voted up and more.

Related Articles