The Duke of Wellington: The man with a cone on his head
Updated: Jul 3, 2020
The Cult of the Cone
For anyone who knows Glasgow, ‘the man with a cone on his head’ needs no introduction. Carlo Marochetti’s equestrian statue of Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington, which resides over Royal Exchange Square, has become an icon for the city. However, its cult status has little to do with the legacy of the Duke himself. It instead derives from a humble traffic cone. This innocuous, yet mischievous, character periodically sits askew atop Wellington’s head (and occasionally his horse’s).
It has been placed there often, anonymously, and in the dead of night, since the 1980s. Yet it is not (exclusively) the impulsive consequence of a raucous night out. It is used consistently and variously to amplify salient social messages, reflecting a fragment of the day’s public consciousness. It was transformed into a rainbow for Pride, adorned with stars when the UK left the EU, and - most recently - served BLM protests with a raised fist.
The cone, too, has become an anti-establishment icon and a nuisance for Glasgow City Council, who have spent millions on protective measures to prevent its reappearance. ‘The man with a cone on his head’ has become charged with the city’s comedic energy, a centre of public engagement, and a site of Glasgow’s living cultural heritage.
Bronze Casting the Empire
There is, however, a sense that the cult status of the cone has eclipsed the identity of the figure beneath - and the tangle of histories at the statue’s core. The statue was erected in 1844 amidst British Imperial expansion, at a time when Glasgow was experiencing palpable social unrest. The city saw continued suppression of all but landed elites, a sense of unsettled nationhood, and unrelenting poverty for most. The Tories hoped the Wellington statue would unify the city, traversing class and politics, in shared celebration of Imperial glory . The statue would immortalise the accomplishments of a person regarded as the “epitome of the British character” and the Union he represented . To do so, Marochetti captured the Duke's likeness, and wrapped his form with bas reliefs of his 'great victories' of Waterloo and Assaye. It would, in Tory eyes, stand as a proud site of the city’s and Britain's collective memory, beyond social and political cleavages.
The reality, however, was that the statue simply perpetuated Glasgow’s existing divisions. Most of its 695 financial supporters were Tories of the landed gentry or merchant elites of Glasgow; few Liberals championed the monument, and the working classes were excluded from the project’s committees . Chartists directly opposed such a celebration of Wellington (and others they deemed “cut throats”), and proposed that the monument should instead be a school for the poor “in order to atone for the evils this country has perpetrated and suffered” through Wellington’s military and political activity . Rather than a harbinger of unity, the statue merely served to exacerbate tensions between polarised political wings and social classes; all while sugar coating (in bronze) the political ‘evils’ the Chartists sought to redress, and the British Empire more broadly.
An Uncomfortable Site
Beside its own hidden history, the statue sits at an intersection of roads and buildings themselves entangled in the legacy of Glasgow’s slave trade. The statue faces Ingram Street, named after Archibald Ingram - a slave owner who made his fortune through tobacco plantations in America. Behind is the Gallery of Modern Art, which was once the mansion of William Cunninghame. His affluence was born from slave labour in Caribbean sugar and American tobacco plantations. The Wellington statue and its surrounding environment acts as a lasting, yet often ignored, legacy of Glasgow’s uncomfortable histories. As we start to tease apart the statue, the site, and those histories, we begin to notice that its troubling aspects exist - built into its material environment - but are not quite visible. With this acknowledgement, we are forced to confront what we need from a site like this, and what actions we take for those ends.
Unequivocally, we love our ‘man with a cone on his head’ - he has become an iconic site that playfully transforms the original meaning of the statue, to subvert initial celebration of the British Empire by Glasgow's landed elites. It stands as a powerful example of how communities can shift the meaning of a statue, by choosing how to interact with it and appropriate it for their own, refreshed ideologies. In this way it is a creative and beneficial site; absorbed into Glasgow’s repertoire of living cultural heritage.
However, while it provides an inclusive platform to manifest the city’s comedic energy, and engage with the most pressing socio-political issues of the day, does such a cone truly address Wellington’s colonial legacy? Is it enough for us to be engaging with this particular figure exclusively as part of Glasgow’s mischievous cultural heritage? Perhaps now is the time to to engage with this statue's colonial legacy, and visibly weave into the site its broader social and political history. The site could be richened with contextualisation of Wellington, his actions and epoch, Glasgow's role in this and the lasting legacy of empire. This could strengthen the weight of a cone that continues stand against established authority and material legacies of inequality.
written by Frankie Enticknap
 Glasgow Constitutional, 22 Feb. 1840.  Glasgow University Library, Special Collections. McLellan, A. Sp Coll Mu Add. q19, ‘letter to Archibald Alison’, p.20.
 Glasgow Constitutional, 22 Feb. 1840.  Glasgow Constitutional, 19 Feb. 1840