In memoriam: do not pull it down

TEARING DOWN STATUES or defacing them is nothing new, as some might believe after hearing about dunking Edward Colston’s toppled statue into a river in Bristol.

Violette Szabo

When I visited Albania in 1984, I saw statues of Josef Stalin and the Albanian dictator Enver Hoxha prominently placed in public spaces. Neither of these two gentlemen can be seriously considered to be God’s best gifts to humanity. Many of their actions caused great fear and suffering in both the former USSR and in Albania.

In 1991, Albania’s long (1944-1991) Communist regime crumbled ignominiously. In February 1991, citizens of Albania’s capital, Tirana, attached cables to a huge statue of Enver Hoxha, an admirer of Stalin, and pulled it down. Many of the police guarding the huge monument to repression assisted the people to cause this bronze statue to topple to the ground.

Years later, in 2016, we visited Albania. In the centre of Tirana, there is a national museum of art, which was present when I visited the city in 1984. Back then, and even in 2016, there was a good collection of fine works created in the Social Realism style, so popular amongst Communist regimes. After seeing the gallery in 2016, we happened to bump into one of the museum’s curators. I showed him a picture of a sculpture I had taken in 1984 and asked him if he recognised it. Without answering, he invited us to follow him to a yard at the rear of the gallery.

There, in the yard, stood the sculpture I had photographed in 1984. More interestingly, it was not alone. It stood next to a giant statue of Lenin and another one of Stalin and another large object wrapped in cloth tied down with ropes. The curator explained that these statues, although they depicted people whose ideas and actions had done much harm to the Albanian people, were valuable works of art, not simply because of their great scrap metal value but, more importantly, they helped record the country’s history. In addition, he explained that they were fine examples of their genre. The bundled-up object standing in that yard was, he explained, too sensitive to uncover as it would upset many people viewing it. It was part of an enormous statue of Enver Hoxha, who had not yet been forgiven by many Albanians. Clearly, Lenin and Stalin were thought to be less disturbing as they were not covered up, but sufficiently upsetting to be confined to a relatively unvisited yard behind the gallery open to the public.

Both Trafalgar and Parliament Squares in London contain statues that might cause offense to those whose knowledge of history is more than superficial, yet their actions have not always been 100% reprehensible. Fortunately for these monuments, many of the kind of people who might be inclined to topple statues do not usually read much detailed history.

There are some statues or monuments, which remember people, whose actions cannot rationally be called into question. One of these is that of Edward Jenner (1749-1823), whose work formed the foundation of something on which we are currently becoming extremely dependent: vaccination. Only someone out of his or her mind would consider pulling down or defacing his statue.

Recently, when strolling along an embankment, I spotted a monument close to the River Thames outside Lambeth Palace. Erected in 2009, it commemorates the Special Operations Executive (‘SOE’), whose covert activities in no little way helped to bring about the defeat of Nazi Germany’s forces during WW2. The plinth with metal commemorative plaques is topped with the head of a woman with high cheekbones, a serious, determined face, and luxuriant curly hair, tied back. She stares out across the River Thames toward the Houses of Parliament. The bust depicts Violette Reine Elizabeth Szabo (1921-1945), whose actions behind enemy lines in France were designed to sabotage German military activity. She was one of many women including Noor Inayat Khan (1914-1944), of Indian aristocratic heritage, who risked and lost their lives to assist in the defeat of a repressive regime.

SOE was staffed by both men and women of many nationalities, and their bravery is recorded on this simple memorial outside Lambeth Palace.  Although simple in design, the expression depicted in the face of Violette Szabo gave me a feeling of the great determination of those brave souls who gave up their lives in horrific circumstances. They did so in the hope, fulfilled, that we could enjoy life in Britain and elsewhere without having to bear the burden of inhumane dictatorial rule.  

Unlike Stalin and Hoxha, statues of the purely benevolent such as Jenner and Szabo should be allowed to stand undisturbed for ever, well, at least, so long as they can survive London’s ever-changing weather conditions and pollution.

Seated above a cow

I HAVE WALKED PAST IT OFTEN, noticed it, but had never examined it carefully until a few days ago. I am referring to the statue of Edward Jenner (1749-1823) that surveys the formally arranged pools and fountains in the Italian Gardens at the north end of the Serpentine Lake. This body of water was created in 1730 at the request of Queen Caroline (1683-1737), wife of King George II.  Originally it was fed by water from the now largely hidden River Westbourne and Tyburn Brook. Now its water is pumped from three bore-wells within the confines of Hyde Park.



Jenner is depicted seated in what looks like an uncomfortable chair, resting his chin on his left hand, his left arm being supported on an armrest.  The bronze statue was created by the Scottish sculptor William Calder Marshall (1813-1894). He also created the sculptural group representing ‘Agriculture’ on the nearby Albert Memorial. The Jenner sculpture was originally located in Trafalgar Square, where it was inaugurated in 1858 by Prince Albert, the Queen’s Consort three years before his demise. In 1862, the sculpture was moved to its present location in the Italian Gardens. Incidentally, the design of the gardens was based on those at Osborne House on the Isle of Wight and were created in 1860 to the design of the architect and planner James Pennethorne (1801-1871).

Jenner, a qualified medical doctor, is best known for his pioneering work in developing protection against smallpox. This derived from his experimentation based on his (and other people’s) observation that the pus from blisters that milkmaids received from cowpox protected them against the far more serious disease smallpox. Justifiably, Jenner has been dubbed the ‘father of immunology’. So great was his achievement that Napoleon, who was at war with Britain at the time, awarded Jenner a medal in 1803, the year Napoleon was planning to invade Britain with his recently formed Armée d’Angleterre. The French leader said:

“The Sciences are never at war… Jenner! Ah, we can refuse nothing to this man.” (see:

Maybe, these words of the great Napoleon can still teach us something about international cooperation generosity of spirit.

His fame in the field of vaccination overshadows Jenner’s other achievements in science and medicine. He was a first-rate zoologist. For example, his observations, dissections, and experiment established for the first time that the baby cuckoo is born with a depression in its back that allows it to displace the eggs of the  bird whose nest the cuckoo has colonised. The baby cuckoo ejects his or her host’s eggs without the help of the adult cuckoo, which has deposited her eggs in the nest of another species. Jenner published his findings in 1788. This was a few years before he established the effectiveness of vaccination in the late 1890s. He self-published his results in 1898 after his most important paper was turned down by The Royal Society.

Getting back to his statue in the Italian Gardens, there are two features that I had not noticed before examining it carefully recently. One of these is a depiction of the Rod of Asclepius on the backrest of Jenner’s seat.  The serpent entwined helically about a rod is traditionally associated with medicine and healing. Beneath the seat, there is a depiction of a cow’s head. This is appropriate symbolism given the importance of cows in the discovery of smallpox vaccination. The word vaccine is derived from the Latin word ‘vaccinus’, which in turn is derived from ‘vacca’, the Latin for ‘cow’. There is an object depicted below the cow’s head, which I fancy, using a little imagination, might be a stylised depiction milk maid’s cloth hat.

Jenner was not the only person experimenting with inoculation against smallpox, but he is the person best remembered for it because his results and reasoning convinced the world of the concept’s validity and applicability.

Although I do not find the monument to Jenner to be particularly attractive, it is one of London’s statues least likely to arouse anger as its subject had nothing to do with slavery. In contrast to many other well-known figures of his era, Jenner should be remembered for his important involvement in a development that has benefitted mankind for well over two centuries. I hope that his scientific descendants currently working around the world in laboratories will be able to create a vaccine to counter the Covid-19 virus as soon as possible.