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Mary Wollstonecraft statue group co-founder defends design: ‘What’s so shocking about the female form?’

PUBLISHED: 21:37 17 November 2020 | UPDATED: 21:37 17 November 2020

Maggi Hambling's statue in Newington Green, dedicated to Mary Wollstonecraft. Picture: Ioana Marinescu

Maggi Hambling's statue in Newington Green, dedicated to Mary Wollstonecraft. Picture: Ioana Marinescu

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A founder of the group which commissioned the statue for Mary Wollstonecraft on Newington Green has defended the controversial choice.

Maggi Hambling's statue in Newington Green, dedicated to Mary Wollstonecraft. Picture: Ioana MarinescuMaggi Hambling's statue in Newington Green, dedicated to Mary Wollstonecraft. Picture: Ioana Marinescu

Anna Birch, director of Fragments and Moments theatre company and a founding member of the Mary on the Green campaign group, said she was not surprised by controversy around the sculpture, which was erected on November 10.

Maggi Hambling’s 10ft silvered bronze-cast piece, A Sculpture for Mary Wollstonecraft, depicts female forms twisting together as one silver mass to hold up a figure of an unidentified, nude “everywoman”.

READ MORE: Mary Wollstonecraft statue comes to Newington Green after decade-long campaign

It is intended to personify the 18th century radical thinker’s spirit, rather than portraying her likeness.

However, the £143,000 design has drawn criticism from high profile commentators such as journalist Caitlin Moran.

Maggi Hambling's statue in Newington Green, dedicated to Mary Wollstonecraft. Picture: Ioana MarinescuMaggi Hambling's statue in Newington Green, dedicated to Mary Wollstonecraft. Picture: Ioana Marinescu

Anna stressed, however, that the working group initially approached about 35 artists before two shortlisted designs were subject to a “large” consultation of nearly 750 people - 230 residents of Newington Green, 157 Londoners and 360 people who lived elsewhere.

The other shortlisted design was a traditional likeness by Martin Jennings.

An “expert panel” of men and women were informed by the consultation when making a final decision.

“What’s so shocking about the female form? It’s ridiculous in 2020,” Anna said.

She urged the public to appreciate the whole piece, rather than focussing on the toppiece: “In lockdown, people are not as safe to see it so we are really reliant on photographs, which have focussed on the statue on the top.

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“The small body that is so photographed, it’s a small portion of the whole sculpture.

“We do not know what Mary looked like - there is a painting in the National (Portrait) Gallery and she looks great in the 18th century, but it’s 2020, we were not going to put a woman in a frock.”

Hambling is no stranger to controversy – a 12ft steel piece called Scallop unveiled in Aldeburgh in tribute to Benjamin Britten polarised opinion in 2003.

Anna added: “Wollstonecraft herself had a huge outcry in her lifetime, her pamphlets were grabbed and read by everyone, she had huge coverage for her work, but after her death she was hidden and erased, they just hated her.”

Mary Wollstonecraft, author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, is revered as a mother of feminism.

“We are not saying everyone will love it and everyone has a right to make their decision, but the silver beacon is out there and people can enjoy it,” Anna added.

“We got value for money. Hambling is a global artist, and we have managed to bring Hambling onto Newington Green.”

Amid the controversy, Anna offered her support to other campaigns seeking to commemorate women: “It has taken us over 10 years and if we can help them, we will.”

A statement by the Mary on the Green group reads: “There’s no question that Maggi Hambling is a challenging artist, and this is not your average memorial.

“It doesn’t depict Mary Wollstonecraft herself, but represents the birth of a movement: this figure is, to use Wollstonecraft’s own words, ‘the first of a new genus’.

“The work celebrates her contribution to society with something that goes beyond the Victorian traditions of putting people on pedestals. It seeks to spark conversation and to stimulate debate, both online and on Newington Green: to encourage people to think about what public art is and can be.”

It said Mary would have loved the “diversity of views, openly expressed”.


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