New plaques on controversial City of London sculptures highlight links to slavery


The City of London Corporation—the governing body of the capital’s central financial district—will fix “retain and explain” plaques early next year to two historic statues of British politicians linked to slavery. The plaques attached to the sculptures of William Beckford and Sir John Cass will call out their actions “in the strongest possible terms”, an official says.

In January 2021, the corporation voted to remove the statues of Beckford and Cass from the Guildhall building in Moorgate.

The statue of Beckford, a controversial novelist, art collector and two-time Lord Mayor of London in the late 1700s who accrued wealth from plantations in Jamaica and held African slaves, was due to be taken down, re-sited and replaced with a new work. The likeness of Cass—a 17th-century merchant, member of parliament and philanthropist who also profited from the slave trade—was set to be returned to its owner, the Sir John Cass Foundation. But in October 2021, the corporation made a U-turn on its former decision and voted to keep in place two historic statues.

“My colleagues at Guildhall [the City of London headquarters] are working closely with many talented individuals and organisations to ensure that this project is handled very sensitively and that, no matter how we try to contextualise this period in our history, these two men’s actions are called out and condemned in the strongest possible terms,” Munsur Ali, who chairs the corporation’s culture, heritage, and libraries committee, told the BBC.

Artists poets and writers will also be invited to respond to the works as part of a partnership with the arts organisation Culture&; their texts will also be included on the plaques.

The Art Newspaper recently reported that more than two years after the Conservative government announced a strategy to “retain and explain” controversial monuments and historic statues, the UK culture sector is still waiting to see whether this policy will be implemented and questioning its relevance. The City of London Corporation was contacted for comment about its own “retain and explain” initiative.


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