Reg Butler

Final Maquette for ‘The Unknown Political Prisoner’


Not on display

Reg Butler 1913–1981
Painted stone and painted bronze
Object: 445 × 205 × 165 mm
Lent by the Estate of Reg Butler 1986
On long term loan


Final Maquette for ‘The Unknown Political Prisoner’ 1951–2 is a sculpture by the English artist Reg Butler that is primarily made of bronze wire. It is the final version of his winning entry for an international competition to design a sculpture on the theme of ‘The Unknown Political Prisoner’. Three earlier maquettes for the work (Tate L02989–91) are also in Tate’s collection, as well as an enlargement of the final version (Working Model for ‘The Unknown Political Prisoner’ 1955–6, Tate T02332). The Final Maquette consists of an upright tower with three ‘legs’ set into a painted plaster base, with the legs supporting a triangular platform made of bronze sheeting. Poles of different heights rise straight from the platform and stretch upward, and two of these are joined by horizontal bars to form a ladder-like structure. Facing out from the platform on another side is a horizontal rectangle with curved corners made of metal piping. Next to two of the structure’s three legs on the base stand comparatively small figures, their faces angled upwards.

After taking part in the South Bank exhibition of the Festival of Britain in London in 1951, Butler spent fifteen months working on his proposal for the competition. Butler’s earliest maquettes for the project (Tate L02989–91) were made between 1951 and 1952, revealing the artist’s initial ideas for his submission. In them, we see Butler experimenting with the base and vertical form of the tower and the placement of a central figure representing the unknown prisoner. Having trained as an architect, Butler worked as a blacksmith while a conscientious objector during the Second World War, and forged metal, the chosen material for his submission, subsequently became a constant presence in his sculptural work. Butler’s preoccupation with scaffolding and cage-like structures and single figures in space pervades his work from this period, here encapsulating the political tension that would become the lasting impact and legacy of the unknown political prisoner project. In his final maquette for the sculpture Butler abandoned the individual figure, choosing instead to place the three smaller figures he called ‘watchers’ (Butler in ‘Reg Butler’ 1958, accessed 23 November 2018) at the base of the unoccupied tower, gazing up at the vast structure. Sketches of these figures are in Tate’s collection (Tate A01061–3).

Organised by the Institute of Contemporary Arts, London in 1952, the international competition to design a sculpture on the theme of ‘The Unknown Political Prisoner’ was intended to promote interest in contemporary sculpture and, as its subject suggests, ‘have commemorated all those unknown men and women who in our time have given their lives or their liberty in the cause of human freedom’ (quoted in Marter 1994, p.30). Attracted by the chance to have their maquette realised on a monumental scale in a site ‘of world importance, such as a prominent situation in any of the great capitals of the world’ (The Unknown Political Prisoner competition entry form, Tate Archive TGA 955/1/12/256), 3,500 artists from fifty-seven countries submitted entries for the competition, although in the event none of the proposed monuments were ever constructed. The competition’s final exhibition was held between March and May 1953 at the Tate Gallery in London, where the judging took place, and Butler received the Grand Prize. Subsequently, he made the vastly enlarged Working Model for ‘The Unknown Political Prisoner’ for the Academy of Fine Art, Berlin, where it was hoped the project would be realised at a site overlooking the Soviet Zone in West Berlin.

Together, Butler’s works from ‘The Unknown Political Prisoner’ competition reflect a key period in the artist’s career in which he worked predominantly in forged and welded iron, developing the linear aesthetic with which he is most frequently identified. Speaking on the BBC in 1958 in a feature on his sculptural practice, the artist lamented the public’s misapprehension of the work: ‘Generally speaking, it’s been thought of as five bob’s worth of bent wire, quite devoid of any relationship to human beings or human problems – “a nice bit of abstract art”’ (Butler in ‘Reg Butler’ 1958, accessed 23 November 2018). However, he saw the solidity of the tower and the gazing figures that stare from the base of the final version as ‘the really human part of it … a kind of stage set, high up, overlooking the world around’ (Butler in ‘Reg Butler’ 1958, accessed 23 November 2018).

Further reading
‘Reg Butler’, The Artist Speaks, BBC Television Service, 21 September 1958,, accessed 23 November 2018.
Reg Butler, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery 1983, p.60.
Margaret Garlake, The Sculpture of Reg Butler, London 2006, p.134.

Helen Little
April 2011
Arthur Goodwin
December 2018

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Display caption

Butler won an international competition to design a monument to The Unknown Political Prisoner. The competition was intended to pay tribute to those who had been imprisoned or lost their lives in the cause of human freedom. Butler interpreted the theme specifically as being for 'a monument to those who had died in the concentration camps'. Had it ever been built it would have risen 300-400 feet high. It combines a rock foundation, three women 'in whose minds the unknown prisoner is remembered', and a tower to suggest 'the tyranny of persecution'. The original model was destroyed by a Hungarian refugee while on display at the Tate in 1953.

Gallery label, March 2001

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