The Fourth Plinth is the northwest plinth in Trafalgar Square in central London. It was originally intended to hold an equestrian statue of William IV, but remained bare due to insufficient funds. For over 150 years the fate of the plinth was debated; in 1998, the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA) commissioned three contemporary sculptures to be displayed temporarily on the plinth. Shortly afterwards, Chris Smith, the then Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport commissioned Sir John Mortimer to conduct a public enquiry that sought opinions from public art commissioners, critics and members of the public as to the future of the plinth.
The final report recommended that the commissions remain a rolling programme of temporary artworks rather than settling permanently on one figure or idea to commemorate. In 2003, the ownership of Trafalgar Square was transferred from Westminster City Council to the Mayor of London and this marked the beginning of the Mayor of London’s Fourth Plinth Commission as it is now known.
This work, by a leading Anglo-Nigerian artist, consists of a replica of Nelson's ship, the HMS Victory, with sails made of printed fabric in a colourful African pattern inside a large glass bottle stopped with a cork; the bottle is 4.7 metres long and 2.8 metres in diameter. According to the Greater London Authority, the artwork is the first "to reflect specifically on the historical symbolism of Trafalgar Square, which commemorates the Battle of Trafalgar, and will link directly with Nelson's column. It is also the first commission by a black British artist." The work proved popular, and its removal in early 2012 led to fears that it would be sold to a Korean collector. The Art Fund launched a public appeal to raise money to buy the work from the artist.
By April 2012 the money was raised, including £264,300 donated from the public and £50,000 each from The Art Fund and Shonibare's gallery Stephen Friedman. The work was the first of the commissions to be relocated and is now part of the permanent collection of the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, London.
There is a plinth at each of the four corners of the square. The two southern plinths carry sculptures of Henry Havelock and Charles James Napier. The northern plinths are larger than those as they were designed to have equestrian statues, and indeed the northeastern plinth has one of George IV. The fourth plinth on the northwest corner, designed by Sir Charles Barry and built in 1841, was intended to hold an equestrian statue of William IV but remained empty due to insufficient funds.