When shy little Wales tries pomp and pageantry, she is quite good at it.

Take one memorable occasion on 27 October 1916 in Cardiff, when David Lloyd George, then Secretary of State for War and six weeks from entering Downing Street as Prime Minister, unveiled the Welsh Historical Sculpture: a series of Serravezza marble statues, commonly known as the ‘Heroes of Wales’, in City Hall.

Financed by Viscount Rhondda, the scheme’s glorious pantheon of Welsh heroes range from Owain Glyndŵr to Saint David, Dafydd ap Gwilym to Boudica.

But one figure from the eleven originals is gone. (Well, sort-of.) Pembrokeshire-born Sir Thomas Picton, revered for so long as the most senior officer to die at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, was boxed off last year after a vote where local politicians derided his “abhorrent behaviour” as the tyrannic Governor of Trinidad at the turn of the nineteenth century.

The National Wales: Sir Thomas Picton statue in Cardiff City Hall being boxed up, after the council voted for it to be removed. Photo: Huw Evans Picture AgencySir Thomas Picton statue in Cardiff City Hall being boxed up, after the council voted for it to be removed. Photo: Huw Evans Picture Agency

Last time I checked, Cardiff Council was still trying to get permission to have the Lieutenant-General and his box out of the building. Its current state in the Marble Hall slightly taints the Neo-Baroque splendour of the place.

Now another Picton relic is being moved, this time from the National Museum in Cardiff next door. A full length portrait of the man in military uniform – given to National Museum Wales in 1907 and thought to be previously exhibited at London’s Royal Academy in 1816 – has been publicly relegated from the ‘Faces of Wales’ gallery to the institution’s storeroom.

Albert Houthuesen’s Trelogan-inspired Portrait of William Lloyd has taken his place on the hallowed wall.

The National Wales: The National Museum's portrait of Sir Thomas Picton (left) has been replaced with a portrait of a Welsh worker by Dutch artist Albert Houthuesen (source: Amgueddfa Cymru - National Museum of Wales, Albert Houthuesen Trust and Bridgeman Art Library)The National Museum's portrait of Sir Thomas Picton (left) has been replaced with a portrait of a Welsh worker by Dutch artist Albert Houthuesen (source: Amgueddfa Cymru - National Museum of Wales, Albert Houthuesen Trust and Bridgeman Art Library)

Cue the Cymric culture war.

While controversies of public interest normally galvanise an entire nation’s collective fury against an uninformed English commentator or offensive Tory cabinet minister, this week we saw a surprising patriot-versus-patriot free-for-all ignited by the darling of Welsh civic society, Huw Edwards.

“As a journalist I feel uneasy about this element of ‘censoring’ history,” the BBC broadcaster wrote on Twitter. “Should not Picton remain on display as a reminder to Wales of an aspect of its past – no matter how disgraceful?”

He has a very good core point: I have no interest in censoring our past, no matter how dreadful it looks in a contemporary context, either. Yet, that is not what’s happening here. The painting will be back up soon, as Welsh societal leaders reminded Mr Edwards; instead of “censoring”, the museum is ensuring “good and bad” interpretations of Picton are added to an otherwise grand portrait of a contextless subject. For an institution where interpreting history is its core function, surely this isn’t too peculiar?

Mr Edwards was also right, however, that timescales of reinstating the portrait and exact details of that re-interpretation were scant from the National Museum press release. (The fact that its social media manager kept tweeting out the copy and the accompanying BBC Wales article didn’t change that.) But being Welsh, by teatime the war ended “harmoniously”. Although the BBC are reportedly “discussing” impartiality guidelines with the newsreader after his posts, at least he was invited to visit National Museum Wales to discuss how best to ensure “Picton’s use of torture and slavery is not forgotten.”  

This is to be welcomed, primarily because it is discussion that is usually missing from these debates. Interest in the Picton saga spread like wildfire on social media and had substantial pick-up in the British press, and with it the narrative of having a sensible conversation about how we should present contentious historical figures went out the window. Instead, cries of ‘erasing’ history, from pressure groups such as Save our Statues, ring out – who clearly misunderstand the purpose of a national museum to provide context of events and people throughout their galleries and exhibitions.

How we treat statues, of course, is a slightly different matter. My view is that in pretty much all instances of interpreting how historic objects should be presented and what they represent – whether it be statues or paintings – it is usually better to do so on an individual basis: in the context of understanding the significance of the work from a historical/creative perspective, where it sits or stands, who sees it, what value does it give the public, and whether it’s actually relevant to an audience.

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This entire debate and the criteria above is all subjective, too. Thomas Picton is clearly no exception. My view of him, I suspect, is similar to many others. His deep links to the slave trade and horrific barbarism as a colonial ruler – remember Picton was convicted of ordering the torture of a 14-year-old girl when in Trinidad – doesn’t hide that he was the most capable and significant Welsh military general of the Peninsular and later Napoleonic Wars. We should not bury him permanently from history in a place of history because this dichotomy is problematic.

A progressive civic society finds ways to tell these stories in a way which is cognizant of the public mood of debates today and aware of the socio-political context before. It is much easier said than done, made more complex by the corrosive nature of public debate fuelled in part by modern communication. But new technology can also help us tell complex stories that go beyond a simple plaque or subtext. Museums across the world have found innovative ways to do so – I remember experiencing them for myself in the several historic institutions around Oxford as a student.

Therein lies an opportunity for the National Museum. And, of course, for wider society, which benefits from being better informed about its complicated history. These debates are being held more and more in Wales; for example, last month, Denbigh voted to keep its statue of explorer HM Stanley.

The Welsh Government launched an investigation last year into who is remembered in public spaces, as well. And there were even wild whisperings recently that Nelson in Caerphilly was being renamed.

We will all take a different view on these things, and that’s fine. But at least in Wales, we can try and have that debate in a more civilised way than elsewhere. Right, Huw?

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