Illustrated companion

The international sculpture competition The Unknown Political Prisoner was organised in 1952 through the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London. The theme of the competition was intended 'to pay tribute to those individuals who, in many countries and in diverse political situations, had dared to offer their liberty and their lives for the cause of human freedom.' The competition was won by Reg Butler, having attracted some 3500 entrants from fifty-seven countries, although the Soviet Union and its satellites declined to participate. It was intended to build the monument to its planned height of 300-400 feet, on the border of East and West Berlin, but this was never done. Butler himself seems to have interpreted the theme specifically as being for 'a monument to those who had died in the concentration camps'. In a long account of the project written in 1958 Butler described being inspired by the wartime radio and radar towers around the coast of Britain which he saw as 'supra-human creatures born of the war ... with little that was benign in their personalities ...' The work, he said, consists of three elements: 'the natural rock foundation which provides a fundamentally "natural" setting, even where the monument may be sited in the centre of a city; the three women in whose minds the unknown prisoner is remembered and who set the whole dramatic context of the monument [they would have been a minimum of eight feet tall] and the tower intended as an easily identifiable symbol which both suggests the tyranny of persecution and the capacity of man to rise beyond it'. He mentioned that 'cages, scaffolding, the cross and the guillotine were some of the elements consciously in mind at the time of its evolution' and stressed that 'the presence of the prisoner is implied not stated.' He intended that the spectator should stand on the rock among the giant watchers and 'would be drawn by their gaze into contemplation of the upper vastness of the tower.'

Published in:
Simon Wilson, Tate Gallery: An Illustrated Companion, Tate Gallery, London, revised edition 1991, p.202