How Tearing Down Art Built Britain

EDITION: Bad New Times.

Iconoclasm has played a crucial role British history (and in the struggle against the British and its history). Colston is only the latest instance.

When protesters in Bristol tore down and submerged the statue of Edward Colston earlier this month, they were continuing a long-established practice of iconoclasm that has made Britain what it is today, for better and worse. From the Protestant destruction of Catholic cathedrals during the Reformation, to the vandalism of artworks by the Suffragettes in the 1910s, political conflict in this country has historically involved many instances of this form of “propaganda of the deed”, whether state-sanctioned or symbolic of more grassroots dissent. These symbolic gestures have, more recently, sought to highlight and challenge the taking of goods, land and people so central to Britain’s imperial past, with the view of reclaiming cities, identities and cultural objects in a broader movement of addressing the humiliation and legacies of historical colonialist subjugation. .

Literally meaning, “to break an image”, iconoclasm is the reframing through destruction not only of a single statue, but of the iconology and ideology around it. It enables a public disruption of the whole system of power and idolatry. When Henry VIII separated from the Catholic Church, for example, he triggered an explosion of sectarian violence against the Catholic population, leading to the destruction of paintings, statues and stained glass windows that depicted the Pope and the Saints, as well as entire churches. Protestants looted the monasteries, too, transferring wealth from one religion to the other, and establishing a new hierarchy. The iconoclasm spiraled as the decades went on: images of angels, the Virgin Mary, and the Saints were destroyed in the name of Puritanism; thousands of medieval artworks were gone forever, and in their place were built austere new monuments, a new ‘Britain’ defined by a new religion. The idea of ‘protest’ itself is rooted in this religious revolution; it takes its name from ‘Protestant’, even. Modern Britain would be very different (more colourful – more like Catholic Italy and France, perhaps) if iconoclasm had not played such a central role in its history.

Iconoclasm, along with looting, has also been the favoured means of colonizing other countries—a history often deliberately overlooked, even now. So much of the antiquities contained in the British Museum are simply stolen artworks from violent colonial missions. On February 18, 1897, 1200 armed British soldiers invaded the Royal Court of the Kingdom of Benin, which is present-day Edo State in Nigeria. During this raid, they looted a collection of over 4000 priceless artifacts, known as Benin brozes. Since Nigeria gained independence in 1960, its government have been trying to return them; this struggle continues, with over 700 remaining in the British Museum.

Colonisation was therefore based on the destruction of icons that were meaningful to their original creators and inheritors, just as it involved the taking of land itself. The British Museum is in many ways a collection of stolen goods, the evidence of one country’s subjugation of other cultures, and of claiming that for its own. This looting of colonized countries during the height of the British Empire – and the keeping of these treasures, as well as the memorializing of those who took them invites us to pose the question of looting ‘from below’ alongside the toppling and vandalising of statues. Whilst, looting has not so far been a part of the wave of British Black Lives Matters protests, its central role both in the US struggles and in the responses to the police killing of Mark Duggan shoyld be noted.

To assert that the oppressed can fight back, and ‘steal’ back, has been a way of reminding the public (and government) now that these original crimes were committed, and never compensated for.

In some sense, it is a type of performative vigilante justice, or a symbolic statement that a changing of possession, status and narrative is possible in a broader sense. The humiliation of the colonised, and the legacies of that humiliation, is therefore underlined and challenged.

Iconoclasm has long been central to the symbolic ridding of ‘Great Britain’, in the long fight against colonialism—by Irish Republicans, notably. The vast and imposing Nelson’s Column, which somehow survived the destruction of the Easter Rising in 1916, was destroyed by dissidents from the IRA, on 8 March 1966. As The Irish Times reported that day: “The top of Nelson Pillar… was blown off by a tremendous explosion… and the Nelson statue and tons of rubble poured down into the roadway.” Following public dancing and applause at the explosion, Nelson’s head was taken away and locked in a vault by the city council. The drama of this destruction was not over, however; soon after, it was stolen by a group of art students and featured in a number of photo shoots, before taken on stage by the band The Dubliners. After more adventures (to England and back, with an antiques dealer), the head was eventually taken back by the city, and locked away indefinitely. Nelson’s column became a monument to revolution in its ‘changed’ state, however: the column still intact, it became a formidable symbol of anti-British sentiment. It now symbolises a perpetual anti-colonial assertion, a reversal of the humiliation implicit in past colonial control, the legacies of which linger on.

Rather than attack statues as Irish Republicans had done, the Suffragettes targeted their own political efforts on the symbolic vandalism of iconic artworks, to publicise and further their own cause, aiming to change the discourse about women, and about what it means to frame women in a certain way. When Mary Richardson (later nicknamed ‘Slasher Mary’) slashed Velasquez’s The Rokeby Venus in 1914, she—as part of the Suffragettes—changed its meaning forever. That year, Annie Hunt announced that “[The Rokeby Venus] will have added value and be of great historical interest, because it has been honoured by the attention of a militant [Suffragette].” While the commend may have been tongue-in-cheek, she was not wrong. As Judith Butler wrote in Frames of War, such as attack of vandalism also constituted a sort of revolution of meaning:

The conditions are set for astonishment, outrage, revulsion, admiration and discovery, depending on how the content is framed by shifting time and place. The movement of the image or the text outside of confinement is a kind of ‘breaking out’.1

In this sense, when protesters tear down or vandalise the statues of slave traders and those involved in colonialist enterprises – many of whom were memorialised because their vast wealth was used to build modern British cities – they change how these figures are framed in the public consciousness forever. They change what it means to have built Britain (philanthropy from businessmen, or slavery?) and to be British. Is being ‘British’ inevitably tied up with and tainted by its imperial past? Or do these statues elevate one aspect of the country’s past and erase the less celebrated – the workers who actually built the cities? The immigrants and slaves whose labour was profited from, making these famous men rich? Does challenging these symbols potentially lead to a more inclusive sense of ‘Britishness’, or must be move away from the idea of this cohesive, celebrated identity entirely?

When those in power cast shame on those actions, they do so in willful ignorance of the ways in which British wealth was established in the first place – through these same methods of looting, reappropriation and destruction.

Either way, the idea of memorialising the wealthy when their money was derived from the exploitation of others is disrupted when their statues are taken down; other notions of value and versions of history break out, in their destruction. When those in power – usually still the most wealthy and exploitative – cast shame on those actions, they do so in ignorance (willful or otherwise) of the ways in which British wealth was established in the first place – through these same methods of looting, reappropriation and destruction. By using these tried and tested methods of “propaganda of the deed”, protesters hope to create new narratives and icons through the destruction of the old; they seek to reframe their cities and who has a right to shape them. They seek to challenge and remake history, and the values we derive from it.

  1. Judith Butler. 2009. Frames of War: When is Life Grievable? London: Verso. p. 11 


Christiana Spens

Christiana Spens is the author of The Portrayal and Punishment of Terrorists: Playing the Villain (Palgrave Macmillan, 2019) and Shooting Hipsters: Rethinking Dissent in the Age of PR (Repeater Books, 2016). She earned a PhD in International Relations from the University of St. Andrews and is a founding member of the collective Truth Tellers, based at Kings College London. She also writes regularly for publications such as The Irish Times, Studio International, Art Quarterly and Prospect on politics and culture.