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 the college’s decision today?
It’s about bloody time.
Those spineless fools took the helm.
So you would say you’re happy the statue is staying? Do you have any suggestions as to what might have swayed their decision in end?
The reason it’s staying is obvious. It’s a work of art. A national treasure. If you found out the subject of Rodin’s Thinker was wanted for gun-smuggling in Phnom Penh 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. Then suddenly all these tambourine-waving hippies – excuse my language – come along with no notion of what constitutes 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 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 concerns 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, quite difficult to talk about really.
If you’d rather I moved on… –
No, it’s quite alright. My father would often – and this was common practice at the time – model his subjects on family members. This was particularly necessary in the case of Rhodes given that, as mentioned, he’d been dead for several years.
You’re saying it’s not Rhodes we’re looking at?
That’s the matter of it. Firstly, the body was modelled, as per popular demand, on that of Gladstone – 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 my aunt Eleanora. And I won’t hear you say a word against her. She was a wonderful woman.
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 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 wishing to contact him please respect the privacy of his family at this time.