Oriel College have decided not to take down their statue of Cecil Rhodes, despite concerted pressure from the #RhodesMustFall campaign. In a statement released today they said: “The overwhelming message we have received has been in support of the statue remaining in place.” Some have suggested this followed threats made by potential donors to withdraw legacies worth in excess of £100 million. I managed to get hold of the reclusive 93-year-old son of sculptor Whitney Groat, the man behind the Rhodes statue, for an alternative view.
Mr Groat, thanks for taking the time to talk to me. I know you rarely give interviews. What are your first thoughts on hearing about today’s decision?
Well, it’s about bloody time.
That those spineless fools at Oriel took to the helm.
So you’re happy the statue is staying? Do you have any suggestions as to what might have swayed their decision in end?
Of course, I’m happy. And the reason it’s staying is blindingly obvious. It’s a work of art. A brilliant one. A national treasure. If you found out that the subject of Rodin’s Thinker was a war criminal you wouldn’t petition anyone for its removal. It makes not a jot of difference.
You regard it as a national treasure then, unfairly maligned?
I’ve been trying to have it listed for nearly three decades now, since my father passed away. Then suddenly all these bongo-drumming sissies come along – excuse my language – with no notion of true art. Whitney Groat was the finest commercial sculptor of his generation. You must know, I imagine, that he worked on and off on the Rhodes commission for four years?
I wasn’t aware of that, no.
Rhodes himself was dead, but his sister was very insistent about how she wanted the sculpture to look. It nearly drove my father mad. She wanted a magnifying glass in his right hand, for example, to represent Rhodes’s great attention to detail. My father managed to persuade her a hat would be more appropriate.
Is the hat significant?
No, but it features virtuoso chiselling. Note, also, his left foot protruding over the base and the way his right hand seems to be holding a shilling piece or a crust of bread. My father liked his sculptures to convey a story. This one centres on Rhodes’s famous love of pigeons. He wanted the viewer looking up at it from below to imagine that Rhodes was about to throw them a crumb of bread.
I’ve read that your father completed over nine hundred sculptures over the course of his long life. Why is it you feel a particular attachment to this one?
That’s a hard question. The answer is personal, very difficult to talk about.
If you’d rather I moved on… –
No, it’s quite alright. My father would very often – and this was common practice at the time – model his subjects on family members. This was particularly necessary in the case of Rhodes as he had been dead for several years.
You’re saying it’s not Rhodes we’re looking at?
That’s the thing. Firstly, the body was modelled, as was popular, on that of Gladstone – he was known for his robust figure. As for the face, you may see a businessman of somewhat outdated – and I’ve been told questionable – morals, but I see only my aunt Eleanora. It’s all I have of her. And I won’t hear you say a word against her. She was a saint.
On that bombshell, Mr. Groat continued to talk about his aunt for some time – he was particularly keen to stress that her breath smelt of muesli even after a lamb supper – but he didn’t reveal anything further or wish to comment again on #RhodesMustFall. He was emotional when we said goodbye, tears streaming onto his musty tweed, and asked that anyone else wishing to contact him please respect his privacy.