Reg Butler

Second Maquette for ‘The Unknown Political Prisoner’


Not on display

Reg Butler 1913–1981
Bronze sheet and wire on plaster base
Object: 470 x 210 × 210 mm
Lent by the Estate of Reg Butler 2011
On long term loan


  1. This is one of three early maquettes (Tate L02989–91) in Tate’s collection made by the English sculptor Reg Butler for an international competition to design a sculpture on the theme of ‘The Unknown Political Prisoner’. All three consist of an upright tower made of bronze wire with four ‘legs’ set into a painted plaster base, supporting one or more platforms made of bronze sheeting. Three poles rise straight from the highest platform and stretch upward to form the upper sections of the maquettes, with horizontal bars joining them. In two of the maquettes (Tate L02989 and L02991) a lone figure stands on a platform looking upwards, while in the other (Tate L02990) the figure is attached to one of the poles.

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. These three works are Butler’s earliest maquettes for the project and 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 the central figure representing the unknown prisoner. Butler’s preoccupation with scaffolding and cage-like structures and single figures in space pervade his work from this period, here encapsulating the political tension that would become the lasting impact and legacy of this project. In his final model for the sculpture (Final Maquette for ‘The Unknown Political Prisoner’ 1951–2, Tate L01102), Butler abandoned the tortured figure, choosing instead to place three smaller female figures he called ‘watchers’ at the base of the unoccupied tower, gazing up at the vast structure. Sketches of these figures are in Tate’s archive collection (Tate A01061–3). Butler worked as a blacksmith while a conscientious objector during the Second World War, and forged metal subsequently became a constant presence in Butler’s sculptural work and became the chosen material for his submission.

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 Archives 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 at the Tate Gallery in London between March and May 1953, where the judging took place. Butler’s finished submission can be seen in the aforementioned Final Maquette for ‘The Unknown Political Prisoner’, for which he received the Grand Prize. Subsequently, he made the vastly enlarged Working Model for ‘The Unknown Political Prisoner’ 1955–6 (Tate T02332) 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

These are three early ideas for Butler’s submission to the international sculpture competition The Unknown Political Prisoner. Ostensibly devised as a tribute to those who surrendered their liberty for the cause of human freedom, the competition later turned out to be CIA-sponsored anti-Soviet propaganda. Butler won first prize, securing him international fame. The plan to reproduce his design on a monumental scale in West Berlin was never realised.

Gallery label, September 2016

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