When Charles Barry designed London's Trafalgar Square in 1841, he placed plinths for statues on the four corners. Today, the first three plinths feature statues depicting George IV, Sir Charles Napier and Sir Henry Havelock.
Barry had intended for the 'Fourth Plinth', in the north-west corner of the square, to be occupied by an equestrian statue of William IV, but lack of funds at the time prevented this fourth statue from being created, and so it remained empty.
After 150 years of debate about the plinth, in 1998, the Royal Society of Arts commissioned three contemporary sculptures to be displayed temporarily on the site. In 2003, Greater London Authority assumed responsibility for the Fourth Plinth, under the stewardship of the Fourth Plinth Commissioning Group.
The first artwork to be placed on the Fourth Plinth was Mark Wallinger's statue Ecce Homo, in 1999.
The artwork shows Christ with his hands bound behind his back and with a crown of barbed wire. It presents Christ as a lone man standing before a hostile crowd, as he awaits judgement moments before he was sentenced to death.
'Ecce homo' means 'Behold the man', a reference to the words of Pontius Pilate at the trial of Jesus (John 19:5).
Unveiled in 2000, Bill Woodrow's sculpture Regardless of History was of a head crushed between a book and the roots of a tree.
The artwork represents the supremacy of nature over civilisation, as can also be found in the jungles of South America or Thailand, where deserted temples have been reclaimed by nature. Woodrow here emphasises humanity's fragility in the face of nature, suggesting that we should remain respectful of nature's power and our place in a natural order, and most significantly, learn from our history.
Rachel Whiteread's Monument was unveiled in 2001.
It was a cast of the plinth in transparent resin placed upside-down on top of the original. The light refracted through the resin, adopting a hue that was partially influenced by the weather.
In 2005 the first Mayor of London commission, Alison Lapper Pregnant, was a 3.6-metre tall, 13-tonne Carrara marble figure of the artist Alison Lapper by Marc Quinn.
Lapper was born with phocomelia and has no arms and shortened legs. The sculpture publicly celebrated a different idea of beauty. It asked us to question our narrow view of what is and what isn't socially acceptable.
The sculpture's presence was also a huge boost for disabled rights in the UK. A huge inflatable version of the sculpture was later a centrepiece of the London 2012 Paralympic Games opening ceremony.
The next artwork to sit on the Fourth Plinth, in 2007, was Thomas Schütte's Model for a Hotel – a reproduction or scaled-up architectural model of a 21-storey building.
The base was the same size as the plinth, but the angles of the hotel extended out at strange angles and different heights. That meant that from each side, a different shape and a different context or background were revealed.
The work was made in specially engineered red, yellow and blue Perspex. At the time, it was the first sculpture on the plinth to use bold colour in stark contrast to its surroundings.
In 2009 Antony Gormley's One & Other was revealed – a fascinating portrait of the UK in the twenty-first century. Every hour, 24 hours a day for 100 days, different people stood on the Fourth Plinth. The 2,400 people who took part were chosen at random. Participants used their time on the plinth as they wished – to perform, to demonstrate or simply reflect.
Gormley's work helped the Fourth Plinth to become a household name. It garnered attention across the world. It even spawned a storyline in BBC Radio 4 drama The Archers and coined a new term, 'plinther'.
Yinka Shonibare's work Nelson's Ship in a Bottle was a scale (1:30) replica of HMS Victory in a bottle, unveiled in 2010.
It was the first commission by a black British artist, and the first to reflect on its setting. Trafalgar Square commemorates the Battle of Trafalgar, and links directly with Nelson's column.
The ship's 37 large sails were made of patterned textiles typical of African dress. They are used to show African identity and independence. The work considers the legacy of British colonialism and its expansion in trade and Empire. This was made possible through the freedom of the seas and the new trade routes that Nelson's victory provided.
The work now has a permanent home at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich.
Although the original idea was for the Fourth Plinth to feature a bronze statue of William IV on horseback, it took 170 years for artist duo Elmgreen & Dragset to take this notion and create a subversive version of a traditional equestrian statue.
Powerless Structures, Fig. 101 was a golden-bronze sculpture of a boy astride his rocking horse, unveiled in 2012.
In situ, the child became a historical hero like the other statues in the square. Instead of acknowledging the heroism of the powerful, the work celebrated the heroism of growing up. As yet, for the boy there is no history to commemorate – only a future to hope for.
The work is now in the Arken Museum of Modern Art, Denmark.
Unveiled on the Fourth Plinth in 2013, Katharina Fritsch's Hahn/Cock was a huge sculpture of a cockerel. Standing almost five metres tall, the vivid blue artwork really stood out in the square.
In art, the cockerel is a symbol of regeneration, awakening and strength. Fritsch said it reflects our image of ourselves: 'people can see themselves, their character, in animals'. The statue also comments on the masculine character of the square, with its formal equestrian statues and many statues of men.
Hahn/Cock is on long-term loan to the National Gallery of Art, Washington from the Glenstone Museum, Maryland, USA.
In 2015 another Fourth Plinth artwork was unveiled which directly referenced the equestrian statue of William IV originally planned.
Gift Horse by Hans Haacke was a skeletal, riderless horse in bronze.
It was based on an etching by English painter George Stubbs, for his book The Anatomy of the Horse. Tied to the horse's front leg was an electronic ribbon with a live ticker of the London Stock Exchange. This completed the link between power, money and history.
David Shrigley's Really Good was cast in bronze with the same dark patina as the other statues in the square, the comic extension of the thumb bringing it up to ten metres in height. It was unveiled in 2016.
Shrigley's ambition is that this will become a self-fulfilling prophecy – that things considered 'bad', such as the economy, the weather and society, will benefit from a change of consensus towards positivity.
Shrigley's daily tirade of satirical vignettes takes the British tradition of satire into three and four dimensions. In his drawings and animations, protagonists express their dark impulses and are subject to the violence and irrationality of life, while his sculptures are often jokes in 3D form, reflecting the absurdity of contemporary society.
Following on from Shrigley's work in 2018, The Invisible Enemy Should Not Exist is a project started by Michael Rakowitz in 2006.
It attempts to recreate more than 7,000 objects looted from the Iraq Museum in 2003 or destroyed at archaeological sites across the country in the aftermath of the war.
For the Fourth Plinth, Rakowitz has recreated a lamassu, a winged bull and protective deity that stood at the entrance to the Nergal Gate of Nineveh (near modern-day Mosul) from c.700 BC, until it was destroyed by ISIS in 2015. There are other examples of lamassu in the British Museum, the Louvre and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
The lamassu is made of 10,500 empty Iraqi date syrup cans, representative of a once-renowned industry decimated by the ongoing wars in Iraq.
Unveiled in 2020, Heather Phillipson's vast physical and digital sculpture THE END topped the Fourth Plinth with a giant swirl of whipped cream, a cherry, a fly and a drone that transmits a live feed of Trafalgar Square.
The work's title suggests both exuberance and unease, responding to Trafalgar Square as a site of celebration and protest, that is shared with other forms of life.
Unveiled in September 2022, Oxford-based artist and writer Samson Kambalu is the latest artist commissioned to mount a sculpture on the Fourth Plinth in London's Trafalgar Square.
The sculpture, entitled Antelope, is based on a photograph of Baptist pastor and anti-colonialist John Chilembwe and European missionary John Chorley. Chilembwe is wearing a hat in defiance of a colonial rule that forbade Africans from wearing hats in front of white people.
In an interview with Art UK, Kambalu said it's 'the most playful work I've made! You have the white guy [John Chorley] and next to him is the Black guy [John Chilembwe] who is twice as big as him. You can't do that in the middle of London. Trafalgar Square is the heart of the British Empire. This is the place of authority of whiteness. The Fourth Plinth sculpture is the most playful, most subversive thing I've done.'
Following the death of Queen Elizabeth II, there has been some talk of using the Fourth Plinth as the site for a permanent statue commemorating her. As always with the Fourth Plinth, we will just have to see – we look forward to what's coming next.
Katey Goodwin, Deputy Director at Art UK