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Lord Byron: 200th Anniversary

Volume 837: debated on Tuesday 16 April 2024


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to mark the 200th anniversary year since the death of George Gordon 6th Lord Byron, which commences on 19 April; and whether they are providing support for the relocation of his statue from a traffic island in Park Lane in London.

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper. In doing so, I draw the attention of the House to my direct descent from Lord Byron and my involvement with the Byron Society in London and also in Missolonghi, Greece.

My Lords, His Majesty’s Government appreciate the great interest that the bicentenary of the death of the sixth Lord Byron has generated, both in the United Kingdom and overseas. The continuing fascination with his life and works has cemented his status as one of England’s greatest poets, and it is absolutely right that his legacy be honoured. The Government fully support the relocation of Lord Byron’s statue into Hyde Park, led by the Byron Society. Once in situ, the statue will become a retained asset of the Government.

My Lords, I thank the Minister very much for his reply, and particularly for his personal engagement and commitment to this. I draw to his attention that, in this House, in debate on 16 June 1958 about the then new Park Lane traffic scheme, Lord Mancroft, then speaking for the Government, said:

“It will be necessary to move one or two of the smaller memorials and statues, including Byron and the Cavalry and Machine Gun memorials, but, wherever possible, they will be re-sited in the vicinity”.—[Official Report, 16/6/1958; cols. 866-67.]

In the event, all were relocated, as far as I know, except Byron, which languishes in an isolated traffic island in the middle of Park Lane. In the light of the public fundraising that is going on to defray the cost of reversing both neglect and the fact that it has not been relocated as originally intended, and having regard to the bicentenary year, might the Government be prepared to assist financially in fulfilling the understandings given nearly 66 years ago, especially given that some department in the 1960s saved more than a bob or two in not moving the monument? I further suggest that it would be a rather appropriate way of honouring one of the nation’s major poets.

The noble Earl is right to point out that the Government have moved rather slowly in this instance. Part of the difficulty has been the question of the ownership of the statue. I am very pleased that my department has been able to break that impasse by taking responsibility for the statue, so that it can indeed be moved into the main part of Hyde Park. It is currently stranded on an island far less enticing and accessible than those of the Peloponnese that Lord Byron frequented. Once the statue is moved to its new location, subject to the planning permission which is currently before Westminster City Council, the Government are happy to treat it as a retained asset, which means that the regular maintenance will be the responsibility of the Royal Parks but any major repairs needed will be the responsibility of my department. I saw the chief executive and chairman of the Royal Parks this morning for a catch-up on progress. The fundraising effort is being led brilliantly by the Byron Society, which I am delighted is holding a dinner here in your Lordships’ House on Friday, the actual anniversary of Lord Byron’s death, which will be addressed by my noble friend Lord Roberts of Belgravia.

My Lords, given the rise in traffic in London at present and the excessive traffic around that statue, and given equally the flamboyance of Lord Byron, would he not be rather grateful to be seen by as many people as he is, rather than being in Hyde Park?

As part of its plans, the Byron Society is preparing a programme of engagement and education, which is wonderful, so that in its new location the statue will be able to inspire future generations of poets and philhellenes, and of course be much more easily accessed so that it can be maintained and repaired.

My Lords, the siting of the Byron statue in the dual carriageway is mad, bad and dangerous to show. Does the Minister agree that the great British public, who have poetry in their souls, should go to and help pay for the relocation to Hyde Park?

I congratulate my noble friend on his poetic exhortation. The Byron Society has received support from the Heritage of London Trust but welcomes support from members of the public. I would encourage them to do that, so that the statue can be moved, I hope in this bicentenary year.

My Lords, Ada Lovelace, who is credited with being the world’s first computer programmer, was Lord Byron’s daughter. Her achievements are truly remarkable and surely worthy of a prominent statue in London, especially as there are more statues to animals in London than to named women. Does the Minister agree?

I certainly do. The noble Baroness is right to remind us that, sadly, Lord Byron’s marriage was brief and unhappy, but his pioneering daughter, Ava Lovelace, deserves recognition and to be remembered. Her portrait was hung in some of the state rooms in Downing Street until recently. It would be wonderful to inspire future generations of women and girls to go into computing, engineering and whatever field they choose.

Normally one is memorised in our country by a stone slab in Westminster Abbey. I think it is unlikely that the Church of England would welcome one for Byron, but he was, from 1809, when he went to Greece, a Member of this House, so could we not find a niche for him here somewhere? How many noble Lords can remember a Peer who sat in this House from 1800 to 1820? Are there any names to be offered? No. If tourists saw a statue of Bryon, they would find this House rather more interesting.

My noble friend makes an important point. Lord Byron made a number of contributions in your Lordships’ House, speaking in defence of the Luddites. He was politically engaged throughout his career. Of course, we recall his support for Greek independence—in fact, the marble for the statue was donated by the Greek Government in recognition of that. His legislative contributions bear rereading and remembering in Hansard.

My Lords, Lord Byron is rightly canonised as being symbolic of the international contribution that UK art and literature make to the world. Byron himself once said:

“But words are things, and a small drop of ink,

Falling like dew, upon a thought, produces

That which makes thousands, perhaps millions, think”.

In Greece, they celebrate National Byron Day on 19 April. Does the Minister think we should have a Byron day to celebrate the arts and the contribution that they make to our industry and culture? Does he agree that it will take more than moving the statue to ensure that we continue to revive our cultural sector?

I hope that the campaign to move the statue into Hyde Park, where it can be seen and admired by more people, will help to inspire people into art, whether that is sculpture or poetry, and to investigate history. The efforts of the Byron Society to promote this legacy are important. Many towns in Greece have an Odos Vyronos—that is, a Byron Street. He is perhaps better commemorated in Greece than in the land of his birth. I hope that this bicentenary will help inspire new generations of admirers.

A wider concern here is the protection and conservation of all our public sculpture and heritage, from ancient to contemporary, including concerns over stone and metal theft. Has the Minister seen the excellent recent report by the APPG on Metal, Stone and Heritage Crime and the important recommendations it makes in relation to heritage crime? Is the department working closely with the Home Office in this area, as well as with Historic England?

I am happy to reassure the noble Earl that, yes, we are. Historic England does a great deal of work, working with police forces across the UK on this important issue. We have to protect our public statues from, alas, vandalism and theft, and from the challenges of climate change. On this, the department, Historic England and many others work closely.

My Lords,

“To have joy, one must share it”.

That is a quotation from Lord Byron. He is hardly being shared where he is presently located. Indeed, the proposals to go to Hyde Park seem almost as bad. Will my noble friend the Minister look carefully at the activities of the Fourth Plinth Commissioning Group at Trafalgar—or “Trafulgar”—Square, where we have seen recently some very interesting choices being made as to who should occupy that plinth. In the final run-off, before announcements were made, it included a great sweet potato and an ice-cream van. Surely Lord Byron deserves better, and would be better placed there to give to the people of this country the joy that he wishes us to share.

As Arts Minister, I am certainly not an art critic. I have always lived by the motto “de gustibus non est disputandum” when it comes to the selection of artwork. The matter of the fourth plinth is the responsibility of the Mayor of London, but I certainly share my noble friend’s hopes that, in moving the statue of Lord Byron to its more prominent place by Victoria Gate, more people will be able to admire this wonderful bronze work by Richard Belt, as well as the very kind Greek donation of the marble, and learn more about Byron’s life and works and be inspired by them.