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Trafalgar Square and the Narration of Britishness, 1900-2012

Imagining the Nation


Shanti Sumartojo

London’s Trafalgar Square is one of the world’s best known public places, and during its relatively short history has seen violent protest, imperial and royal spectacle and wild national celebration. This book draws together scholarship on national identity, cultural geography, and the histories of Britain and London to ask what role the Square has played in narrating British national identity through its many uses. The author focuses on a series of examples to draw out her arguments, ranging from the Suffragettes’ use of the site in the early twentieth century to the Fourth Plinth contemporary art scheme in the early twenty-first. The book explores how different users of the Square have understood national identity, and how the site itself has shaped this narrative through its built elements and history of use. Ultimately, Trafalgar Square and the Narration of Britishness, 1900-2012 uses the Square to explore the processes by which urban public place can help to construct, maintain or transform national identity.


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Chapter 2 Introducing the Square


Trafalgar Square simultaneously attracts a steady f low of tourists, is a site for special events, and is a place for Londoners to meet, pause or pass through on their way to other places. Its national representations are both fixed and f luid: solid in the Craigleith sandstone and bronze of Nelson’s Column, but f lexible in the use of these elements as backdrops for dance performances, children’s play, or protest rallies. For a previous Director of the National Gallery, Charles Smith, the Square’s multiple roles are inherent to the space, if slightly regrettable: ‘It is perhaps too often spoiled in appearance by temporary festivals and the ephemeral rubbish they generate, but the combination of history, grandeur and public protest is part of the psyche of the Square’.1 This chapter introduces the Square, starting with the history of its construction and what it meant to visitors, residents and of ficials in its early years. It discusses the Square’s position in the larger metropolitan landscape of power and explains some of the early conf licts over access to it. This diversity of uses supports one of the main arguments that I will make throughout the book: that, for many users, visibility in the Square provided national visibility that allowed dif ferent groups to stake a claim in the nation, and to present a range of ways of constructing Britishness. The environment and history of the Square played a role in this process, however, setting the terms under which these claims could...

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