A tale of (another) two statues

I have to admit that, just as some people have a tin ear for music, I probably have a glass eye for art.

Preparing for my last effort, I found an interesting gap in our culture. Try as I might, I could not find any useful quotes about statues.

To be fair, I did discover a couple of comments to consider. The first was Shelley’s famous poem ‘Oxymandias’ but I ruled it out because his statue was already in ruins – “two vast and trunkless legs … nothing beside remains of that colossal wreck”. Then there was a quote from a certain Mrs Margaret Thatcher. But she was talking about a statue of a certain Mrs Margaret Thatcher, so I ruled it out on the grounds of excessive narcissism.

Could it be that those personages who are notable enough to have their words recorded for posterity share my view that the traditional statue is an unnecessary lump of metal or stone making our streets untidy, and therefore not worth bothering about? Or perhaps it’s simply appreciation of fine art is one aspect of my education that was sadly neglected.

I remember my first sight of the Mona Lisa in the Louvre in Paris. It was many years ago when it was still possible to take time in front of the famous painting to study it properly – unlike today, when visitors tend to be harried along by museum staff to make room for the next mob of rubber necking mobile phones. So I had ample opportunity to examine it in detail. Sadly, my only reaction was: what’s all the fuss about? It’s no more than an adequate portrait of an adequate lady. In my defense, I was only fifteen years old at the time.

Photo: Getty

That day did, however, leave me with one (artistic?) memory which is still vivid. I should explain: I was in France as part of a joint summer school involving Scots pupils and their French counterparts, and the trip to the Louvre was compulsory. As the tour continued, I found myself standing beside a similarly aged French girl – now there’s a surprise! We were in front of a painting depicting the classical love god Cupid and his beloved Psyche, both portrayed as nubile (very nubile!) teenagers unencumbered by any stitch of clothing. After a few minutes’ study, the mademoiselle simply – but very impressively – responded, “Formidable!” in that wonderful throaty Gallic drawl which all French women seem to possess. As I said, I still remember it vividly with considerable pleasure.

Since then, I have been lucky enough to visit Paris again, and I have visited the Mona Lisa on several occasions. I have seen no reason to change my original reaction. I have to admit that, just as some people have a tin ear for music, I probably have a glass eye for art.

Britain’s great military hero

Philistine that I am, there are two statues which occupy a special place in my heart. Unsurprisingly, and perhaps inevitably, both are in Glasgow.

In the very centre of that dear city, there stands a magnificent building which once housed the Stirling Library and is now the Glasgow Gallery of Modern Art (readers will know that I do not regard that change as progress). In front of this building there stands a huge statue of the famous Duke of Wellington, mounted on what is presumably his almost-as-famous horse Copenhagen.

Lord alone knows how many statues of Britain’s great military hero there are all over the place and this one is pretty bog-standard. Except for one thing, a special quality which makes this statue unique and famous all over the world. Every day, almost without fail, the Iron Duke faces his public wearing a traffic cone on his head. And, quite frequently, so does his horse. It’s an image which has gone viral more times than I care to count, and it continues to fascinate people from all walks of life, from all countries.

Photo: AP

Just the other day, on Facebook, some clever clogs posted a photoshopped famous portrait of Wellington (by Goya, I think) with the traffic cones duly added to both Duke and horse. It brought a smile to my face, as the image always does. It is funny in its own right, but it is also a strong memory of the unique sense of humour enjoyed by the Glaswegian: it is a humour which is quirky, irrepressible, cynical on the verge of jaundiced, and, above all, pointedly dismissive of the great and the good.

A horse with two legs

Some way west of the great Duke’s statue, on Woodlands Road, one of the main roads heading for the University of Glasgow, you will find another equestrian statue. This one is totally different, almost inexplicable to anyone who doesn’t understand the Scots and most definitely one of a kind. For a start, the horse has only two legs and her rider is Glaswegian cowboy known as Lobey Dosser, the Sheriff of Calton Creek. Lobey Dosser is a legend to people of my generation in the West of Scotland.

He was the creation of Bud Neill, a brilliant Scottish cartoonist, whose surreal humour had already delighted the Scots for the years immediately after World War II. In the late 1940s he had this wonderful idea of Lobey Dosser and his loyal two-legged steed El Fideldo (Elfie for short) as the heroic lawman protecting the citizens of Calton Creek, a Glasgow district but located in the 1880s Arizona, classic cowboy country. Lobey made his debut in Glasgow’s Evening Times newspaper on 24th January 1949, and over the years that followed became a cult figure which, even after all these years, still has its worshippers.

Photo: Gordon Baird / Art UK

It was a long time ago and it was very much a reflection of the atmosphere, the attitude, and the vernacular of its time. So it can be difficult for people of this generation, particularly those unfortunates who have never experienced Glaswegian culture, to understand Bud Neill’s unique humour. To help with the “Glesca patter” (lessons are available on demand) and hopefully give some idea on the source of Lobey’s attraction, I shall rely on the names of only some of the colourful characters who inhabited Calton Creek over the years.

There is, of course, Lobey Dosser himself, a term derived from the description of ne’er do wells who slept on tenement close landings (the communal corridors); there is his nemesis, the villain Rank Bajin (who makes a guest appearance on the statue as a pillion passenger); there’s the Calton Creek sprite, Fairy Nuff; her beloved, the foreign spy Rid Skwerr (Red Square?); the rustler Watts Kokin; the mysterious Stark Stairn; Fitz o’Cophin; Breedn Mulk (a Glasgow accent helps); and my personal favourite, a rancher’s beautiful daughter Adoda Glaur – she sounds quite exotic, until you realise that Adoda Glaur translates from the Glaswegian into a lump of mud.

The statue itself has an intriguing history. Over the years Lobey became little more than a happy memory, but the legend lived on preserved by a group of dedicated disciples. Revival came in 1989, when Glasgow was preparing to be European City of Culture the following year. Meeting (where else?) in a Glasgow pub, a group of said disciples, mostly local artists and journalists, decided that Glasgow’s unique culture must be celebrated too.

And so, on the back of a few pints, the notion of a Lobey Dosser statue was born. It was to be financed totally by public subscription, the first time this had happened since the days of Queen Victoria. Thanks to a vigorous campaign, the money was successfully raised – and I was one of the contributors – and today Lobey Dosser, Elfie, and Rank Bajin stand proudly just yards away from the Halt Bar in Woodlands Road, the very pub where the idea was first born.

As his trademark slogan says, Lobey’s the wee boy! Long may he flourish!

Main photo: Jeff J. Mitchell/Getty Images

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