Magazine Music

The Empty Plinth

A brief search for the great artworks that were never made.

Leonardo da Vinci couldn’t be there the day they unveiled the great, bronze horse he’d started working on in 1482. Hundreds were, as a vast sheet slipped free of a statue as tall as a two-storey house and heavier than a London bus. But the timing didn’t suit the Renaissance polymath. It was 10 September 1999, and he’d been dead 480 years.

Leonardo spent the best part of two decades in Milan not making this horse – and it isn’t the only intriguing hole in our cultural history. What’s your favourite song on that album John Lennon and Paul McCartney made in 1974? Don’t you love Angela Carter’s sequel to Jane Eyre? And have you ever been to a movie all-nighter and caught the film Salvador Dalí made with the Marx Brothers?

No, you haven’t. Because the buggers don’t exist. But they nearly did. And lost works can tell us stories as intriguing as the Mona Lisa’s.

Leonardo, for example, is known as a man who couldn’t finish anything, but this isn’t entirely fair. As artist in residence at the court of Lodovico, Duke of Milan, he painted portraits, decorated rooms in the palace, staged pageants with elaborate props and costumes, designed a tower for the city’s cathedral and even planned a sewerage system. He also sketched furiously – including studies of horses, and ideas for a new method of casting in bronze. He left behind about 6,000 sheets of notes and drawings when he died, which may only represent a fifth of his output. There was also the small matter of the refectory wall in the convent down the road. Yes, Leonardo was painting The Last Supper at the same time.

Workload was not the problem for John Lennon. In 1974, he and Yoko Ono had split up for a time, and he was in the middle of the 18-month bender he called his ‘lost weekend’. One particular March evening found him in a recording studio with Harry Nilsson and Stevie Wonder, among others. You can hear Lennon on the surviving bootlegs saying, ‘You wanna snort, Steve?’

It does sound as though by the time McCartney turned up, everyone else had been at the Colombian incoherence powder for some time. Not for nothing is the session known as A Toot and a Snore in ’74. The remarkable collection of musicians launches into several numbers, and doesn’t finish one of them successfully. The idea that inspiration can be found in intoxication never sounded less convincing. There’s something, though: the ease between Lennon and McCartney is another nail in the coffin of the idea that they despised each other. It makes what might have been even more poignant.

Of course, if Salvador Dalí is anything to go by, some people can be intoxicated without ingesting anything. The idea of him working with the Marx Brothers is enough to set the mind reeling. Unfortunately, his films with Luis Buñuel were a result not just of collaboration, but of Buñuel working his friend hard, rejecting the surrealist’s usual ideas and forcing him to come up with something fresh. Dalí’s ‘script’ for Giraffes on Horseback Salad is 600 words long, and largely concerns dwarves, an indoor flood, a drowned ox, and ‘a competition for the person who can ride a bicycle the slowest with a stone balanced on his head’. It is clearly a first draft – and one in which the Marx Brothers are only there to serve his vision. His timing was off, too. It was 1937: Groucho and the boys had A Night at the Opera behind them, and A Day at the Races just ahead. We can probably forgive them for thinking they had better things to do.

Search for Dalí’s proposed title, though, and you can find his story treatment online and screen the film in your head. Because everyone’s creative. Ever rewritten an email to make sure that someone in HR couldn’t misinterpret it? I rest my case. If you want to know what Angela Carter would have done with Jane Eyre, you can take what we know from her synopsis – Rochester’s daughter, Adèle, watches her mother being guillotined, seduces her father by mistake, and is rescued from prison by Jane – and let your mind run where it will. Carter said it would have been ‘very sulphurous and over-the-top… with some laughs’.

But if there’s a project I watch in my head more than any other, it’s Oliver Postgate’s Babushkas. In retirement, the creator of Bagpuss and Clangers had an idea for a series ‘set in Soviet times … about the mothers of Mother Russia – a heavy and caring matriarchy … who really ran the Republic. I asked Postgate’s son Dan about it, and he said: ‘It’s an incongruous idea for a children’s programme. But, then, he had an idea for a show hosted by a bird that would play records with its beak as if it was a stylus – and its catchphrase was “Have you got a fish in your pocket?”’ I hope I speak for all of us when I say: #wouldwatch. Sadly, by the time Babushkas had occurred to him, Postgate’s gentle, hand-crafted style had fallen out of fashion in a world of fast, multi-channel television.

In the end, what did for Leonardo’s horse was politics. He’d got as far as creating a 24-foot clay model in 1492, and might have started casting two years later if the King of France hadn’t chosen that moment to invade northern Italy. Quite suddenly, the duke thought a few cannons might come in handy, and redeployed the 158,000 pounds of bronze Leonardo had been hoping to use.

Then, one day in 1977, retired airline pilot Charles Dent read a National Geographic article about this unmade horse, and devoted the rest of his life to making the statue happen. Given whose footsteps he was following in, perhaps it’s fitting that he spent so long researching and creating preliminary designs that he didn’t live to see it, either.

Maybe it’s safer not to go to such lengths. Psychology research suggests that daydreaming is good for us, making us less bored, more creative, and possibly kinder, so why not spend some time today thinking how you might animate the Babushkas? Dan Postgate thought it could be ‘cardboard cut-out, like Ivor the Engine… elaborate Moscow scenes, loose brush, on grey paper…’ When I interviewed Postgate’s archivist, Loaf, he mused about stop-motion animation – and as he talked, something magical happened. ‘Maybe they’d be Russian dolls,’ he said, and there they were. I could see them. ‘An army of smaller versions of each woman inside her. They could pop out and go and do things. Then they’d retreat, restore themselves, and their husband doesn’t know what’s happening.’

You could imagine Sibelius’ 8th symphony instead, or flick through cartoonist Martin Rowson’s sadly non-existent Book of Farts. If this article inspires you to do nothing else, though, you should definitely spend a couple of minutes searching the term ‘green bird tower’, to see what one architect didn’t manage to put up in place of Battersea Power Station. Pondering the idea of a vividly coloured, 442-metre sex toy adorning the London skyline is life-enriching.

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