Statues and Monuments

Robert Clive (1725–74)

Statue by John Tweed, 1912
King Charles Street, Westminster

Robert Clive, later Baron Clive of Plassey, played an early part in the establishment of British imperial control of India. He became the effective ruler of Bengal, and was a controversial figure in his own time. As a founder of the Empire in India he came to be lionised by many in Britain as a hero, a view of him that has been called into question in more recent years.

John Tweed’s bronze statue of Clive was completed in 1912. It shows him in formal dress with one hand resting on the pommel of his sword, the other clutching papers. The inscription on the statue’s pedestal declares him simply as ‘CLIVE’.

Statue of Robert Clive


Clive in about 1773, the year before his death, by the studio of Nathaniel Dance
Clive in about 1773, the year before his death, by the studio of Nathaniel Dance
© National Portrait Gallery, London

Robert Clive was born into a gentry family from near Market Drayton in Shropshire. He was variously educated in Cheshire, London and Hertfordshire before accepting a clerkship with the East India Company, arriving in Madras in June 1744 after a long and arduous passage lasting 15 months. Having been notably aggressive as a boy, Clive was subject to fits of depression as a man. Finding himself friendless and isolated in India, he attempted suicide, but his pistol twice failed to fire.

Clive’s reputation as a military commander was established during his first two spells in India, either side of a sojourn in England. Untrained as a soldier, he entered into the East India Company’s military service after taking part in defensive action at Fort St David against the company’s French counterpart.

The key engagements that made his name were the siege of Arcot (1751) and the recapture of Calcutta thereafter, and the Battle of Plassey (1757), at which his army defeated French forces and those of the Mughal emperor’s viceroy, Siraj-ud-Daulah, the Nawab of Bengal. This was less a military triumph than one of organisation, duplicity – involving a fake treaty – and ‘divide and rule’ tactics: the defection of some of the Nawab’s officers was vital.

The victory at Plassey was cast as revenge for the ‘Black Hole of Calcutta’, a dungeon in Fort William, Calcutta, in which some British prisoners of the Nawab had died the previous year. Clive’s manoeuvrings, and subsequent engagements against the Dutch, left the East India Company in a position of sovereign supremacy in Bengal, and made him effective ruler of the region.

As early as 1759, Clive suggested to the leading politician Pitt the Elder that the Indian territories could be brought under the direct control of the British state. This did not happen for another century, but Clive has since been feted – and resented – as the originator of British rule over India.

He returned to England in 1760, and was made Baron Clive of Plassey (an Irish peerage) two years later. In 1764 he returned to Bengal with the title of governor and commander-in-chief, and consolidated the East India Company’s rule. He has been credited by some for introducing positive administrative reforms. However, the policies of the East India Company – in particular a punitive land tax – have also been blamed for causing or exacerbating a disastrous famine in 1770, which is reckoned to have killed ten million people.

By this time Clive was back in Britain, having amassed a huge personal fortune. Even in the 1740s he had showed his acquisitive nature by charging personal levies on all goods purchased by the East India Company’s army. In the aftermath of Plassey he received ‘presents’ worth £234,000, which has been described by one recent historian as ‘one of the largest corporate windfalls in history’. Clive’s fortune bought him a grand town house in Berkeley Square – now marked with a blue plaque – as well as estates in Surrey, Shropshire, Monmouthshire and Ireland. 

Carlo Marochetti’s statue of Clive in front of the Old Market Hall, Shrewsbury
Carlo Marochetti’s statue of Clive in front of the Old Market Hall, Shrewsbury
© Photo by DeAgostini/Getty Images

Such conspicuous display of wealth excited a great deal of resentment, and newly rich ‘nabobs’ such as Clive were seen as interlopers upon traditional aristocratic privileges. Clive, who had acquired a seat in the House of Commons, became the subject of a parliamentary inquiry into corruption. He was defiant, telling its chair that given the opportunities he had for self-enrichment ‘I stand astonished at my own moderation’.

Clive was exonerated in 1773, but his fortune did not buy him health and happiness. He died the following year at his home in Berkeley Square in mysterious circumstances, and was buried in apparent haste at Moreton Say, Shropshire. It was widely believed that he took his own life, or that his illnesses led him to take an accidental overdose of opium, on which he had become reliant. A recent biography rates it as possible that he was murdered. At his death Clive was reckoned to be worth half a million pounds – a vast fortune by the standards of the day.

Clive did not enjoy a positive reputation at his death or in the years immediately afterwards. But after India came under the direct sway of the British Crown in 1857, his lionisation as a hero of empire began. A statue was raised to him in Shrewsbury in 1860; by Marochetti, it is similar in style to John Tweed’s later representation.

Over recent years views of Clive have tended towards the negative as the history of the British Empire has been subjected to more critical appraisal. The historian William Dalrymple has called him ‘a vicious asset-stripper’. Others have presented him more as a product of a corrupt system, and noted his personal bravery. His Oxford DNB entry concludes simply that ‘he was an architect of empire whose influence has cast a lengthy shadow over the history of Britain and India’. Of that there can be little doubt.

Commission and Design

Photograph of John Tweed’s Chelsea Studio from around 1899
Photograph of John Tweed’s Chelsea Studio from around 1899
© Courtesy of Reading Museum

The impetus for the commission of Clive’s statue came from Lord Curzon, who had served as Viceroy of India from 1899 until his resignation in 1905. Curzon formed a committee in 1907 to raise funds for statues in London and in Calcutta (now Kolkata), of bronze and marble respectively. A competition between five invited sculptors was held, in which John Tweed was unanimously judged the winner. With Edward VII’s personal approval of the model, and agreement that the statue should be sited on King Charles Street overlooking St James’s Park, the award of the commission was announced publicly in June 1909. 

Born in Glasgow in 1869, John Tweed trained at the Glasgow School of Art where he also taught before moving to London in 1890. There he worked in the studio of Hamo Thornycroft and attended both Lambeth School of Art and the Royal Academy Schools. Key professional and personal relationships with Auguste Rodin and Edwin Lutyens led to commissions from Cecil Rhodes and George Wyndham, as well as to the loan and eventual gift of the extensive body of Rodin’s work to the V&A in 1914.

Tweed’s architect was George Somers Clarke, who designed the great pedestal which makes the statue tower over the steps on which it stands. The two men were to become friends, and Tweed visited him in Egypt a number of times, producing portraits of Somers Clarke and one of his Egyptian servants at El Kab, Le Boab

The marble version of Tweed’s statue in the Victoria Memorial Hall, Calcutta, around 1921
The marble version of Tweed’s statue in the Victoria Memorial Hall, Calcutta, around 1921
© Bristol Archives/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

As the chosen site was not ready in time, the statue was temporarily sited in front of Gwydyr House overlooking Whitehall in 1912, until it was moved into its current position in 1916. The marble copy was set up in the Victoria Memorial Hall in Calcutta. A reduced version in bronze, probably the one exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1912, now sits within the Tate’s collection.

The London statue and the three narrative relief panels on the pedestal are of bronze. Clive stands with one foot forward, his left hand resting on the pommel of his sword and his right grasping some papers. Nathaniel Dance’s contemporary portrait of Clive, now at Powis Castle, and of which a number of versions survive, was probably Tweed’s source. Clive wears the formal clothing and Order of the Bath in which he sat for Dance’s portrait, but is broader in the chest and slimmer in the waist in Tweed’s depiction. The narrative panels on three sides of the pedestal (which neither Tweed nor Somers Clarke wanted, but which Curzon insisted upon) depict scenes from Clive's life, and are labelled:

Clive at the siege of Arcot / September to November 1751
Clive in the Mango Tope on the eve of Plassey / June 22 1757
Clive receiving the grant of Bengal / Behar and Orissa at Allahabad August 1765

The inscription declaims that, like a modern celebrity, the subject is known by one name – ‘CLIVE’, sculpted in low relief on the front of the pedestal with his dates, 1725–1774.


The statue is situated on the Clive Steps, King Charles Street. Photo by DANIEL LEAL-OLIVAS/AFP via Getty Images

Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

Detail of the bronze relief panel on the pedestal depicting Clive receiving the grant of Bengal. Image in public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Detail of the bronze panel relief on the pedestal depicting Clive in the Mango Tope on the eve of Plassey. Image in public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Photo by View Pictures/Universal Images Group via Getty Images


Workmen removing the statue of Clive from Gwydr House garden in November 1916
Workmen removing the statue of Clive from Gwydr House garden in November 1916
© Photo by Topical Press Agency/Getty Images

Curzon’s successor as Viceroy of India, Lord Minto, considered the projected statues of Clive in London and Calcutta to be a needlessly provocative gesture at a time when nationalist sentiments were stirring strongly in India. Lord Morley, the Secretary of State for India, agreed with him, remarking sardonically that life would have been easier for both of them had Clive lost the Battle of Plassey.

Notwithstanding this divide in political opinion, the statue was placed before the public in August 1912 at its temporary location – without ceremony, despite press expectations that the king would unveil it. One press report noted that while it showed Clive as a ‘fighting general’, the pose was ‘free from the suggestion of Bombastes Furioso, so often manifest in works of this kind’.

The statue’s removal to its present location four years later was also done without formalities; the First World War was then raging. A scheme for a set of ornamental gates to go up behind the statue was abandoned, apparently owing to cost.

In July 1919, 500 officers from the Indian Army’s Peace Contingent, visiting London for a belated victory parade, lined up opposite the statue prior to attending a reception hosted by the Secretary of State, Edwin Montagu. This is the only reference that has been found to the site being used for an event associated with India. Apart from that, a hunger march was addressed from the steps by one of its leaders in January 1923, and Winston Churchill took a salute there on the occasion of the Lord Mayor’s Show in November 1942.

The site chosen for the statue had been criticised in the Pall Mall Gazette (13 Feb 1912) by Wilmot Corfield, an Anglo-Indian philatelist, as ‘little short of a blind alley’; he thought that ‘no location in London is too good for the victor of Plassey and the saviour of Calcutta’, and that it should go in Trafalgar Square. Another newspaper correspondent in January 1927 described the statue’s location as ‘somewhat obscure’.

The statue’s height and its main inscription were other points of contention. One letter-writer believed that

the one word ‘Clive’ … many wayfarers read as ‘Olive’ … How many have the faintest notion of what Clive did? … At present most of the London statues appear to be intended for well-informed persons ranging in height from 7ft to 9ft. (The Times, 11 July 1923)

When the statue’s panels and associated inscriptions were cleaned in July 1974, it was discovered that the word siege had been misspelt as ‘seige’.

Recent reaction to the Clive statue has tended to reflect changing attitudes to the British Empire. A review article in 1976 noted the difficulties of explaining it ‘to the visiting foreigner’. Sir John Mortimer, appointed in 2000 to chair a committee to fill the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square, questioned the ongoing relevance of statues to the likes of Clive, and three years later, the London mayor Ken Livingstone was reported to have proposed its removal. Calls for the statue to be moved and contextualised have been made since.


The statue has been at its present location since December 1916. It is situated between the two flights of the Clive Steps, which run upwards from St James’s Park into King Charles Street, between the Treasury building to the south and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to the north. Nearby, on the park side of Horse Guard’s Road, is a monument to the victims of the Bali bombings in October 2002.

Lord Curzon, determined that it should occupy ‘some commanding position in the capital of the Empire’, had identified the site eight years earlier, partly because of its proximity to the India Office ‘from which, but for Clive, conceivably the affairs of India might never have been controlled’ (The Times, 15 July 1908). The India Office was then housed in the adjacent part of the Foreign Office building (and contained, incidentally, two existing statues of Clive).

Curzon intimated that this site for the statue had the support of the then king, Edward VII. His proposal that the road be renamed ‘Clive Gate’ was not, however, adopted, probably because the gates proposed to close off the street were never built.

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Further Reading

HV Bowen, ‘Clive, Robert, first Baron Clive of Plassey’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford, 2008) (access via public library membership: accessed 12 August 2021)

R Harvey, Clive: The Life and Death of a British Emperor (London, 1998)

W Dalrymple, ‘Robert Clive was a vicious asset-stripper. His statue has no place on Whitehall’, The Guardian, 11 June 2020 (accessed 12 August 2021)

L Tweed, John Tweed, Sculptor: A Memoir (London,1936)

N Capon, John Tweed: Sculpting the Empire (Reading, 2013)

P Ward-Jackson, Public Sculpture of Historic Westminster, 1 (Liverpool, 2012) 108–11

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