Visible Women

London is getting a Mary Wollstonecraft statue, because visibility matters

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Moya Crockett
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Artist Maggi Hambling has been commissioned to create a tribute to the pioneering writer and campaigner, known as the “foremother of feminism”.

In April, Gillian Wearing’s much-anticipated statue of Millicent Garrett Fawcett was unveiled in central London. It was a historic moment: the leading suffragist is now the first and only woman to be commemorated with a statue in Parliament Square, under the shadow of Big Ben and alongside political giants such as Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela and Winston Churchill.

However, there are still vastly more statues commemorating men than women in the UK. It’s estimated that there are 16 times as many monuments to men nationwide, a ratio that skews even more drastically in men’s favour if you take tributes to Queen Victoria out of the equation. (Fewer than 5% of female statues are of real, historical, non-royal women.) In London, over 90% of statues commemorate men.

Now, those statistics are set to improve ever so slightly with the arrival of another statue of a trailblazing feminist. Acclaimed British sculptor Maggi Hambling CBE has been commissioned to create a statue paying tribute to Mary Wollstonecraft in Newington Green, north London, where the “foremother of feminism” set up a school for girls in 1784.

Wollstonecraft, who died in 1797 at the age of 38, is best-known for writing the groundbreaking treatise A Vindication of the Rights of Women: with Strictures on Political and Moral Subjects. Widely regarded as one of the first feminist texts in the Western world, The Rights of Women argued that women were not naturally irrational or inferior to men, and would be able to contribute significantly to society if they were only provided with the same education as their male counterparts. 

An impression of what Maggi Hambling’s Mary Wollstonecraft tribute will look like at Newington Green

Plans for a statue of Wollstonecraft have been in the works since 2010 thanks to the efforts of the campaign group Mary on the Green. Hambling was commissioned to create the statue on the evening of 14 May, after several artists submitted proposals for how they would commemorate Wollstonecraft.

“I’m really excited at the prospect of realising my idea, inspired by the trailblazer Mary Wollstonecraft,” said Hambling. “I hope this piece will act as a metaphor for the challenges women continue to face as we confront the world.”

Hambling’s tribute to Wollstonecraft will be a striking, abstract sculpture on a narrow black plinth, showing the figure of an anonymous woman emerging from the top of a vertical ripple of silvered bronze. The plinth will bear one of Wollstonecraft’s most famous quotes, taken from The Rights of Women: “I do not wish women to have power over men, but over themselves”.

“The sculpture is designed to encourage a visual conversation with the obstacles Wollstonecraft overcame, the ideals she strived for, and what she made happen,” Hambling said. “In this sculpture female forms commingle, rising inseparably into one another, transmuting and culminating in the figure of a woman standing free, her own person, ready to confront the world. The figure embodies all women.”

Jude Kelly is the former artistic director of the Southbank Centre, the founder-director of the Women of the World (WOW) Festival and one of the patrons of the Mary on the Green campaign. She described Hambling as a “modern legend” who was “a wonderful choice to capture the spirit and strength of Wollstonecraft”. 

Artist Maggi Hambling in October 2017 

Hambling, who was awarded an OBE for her services to painting in 1995 and a CBE in 2010, has form when it comes to creating powerful – and often divisive – tributes to late, great figures from British and Irish history. Women feature prominently in her portraits, which include a painting of the Nobel Prize-winning scientist Professor Dorothy Hodgkin, currently on display as part of the National Portrait Gallery’s Rebel Women Trail.

She is also known for her fondness for paying tribute to the dead through her art. In 1998, she created the first public memorial to Oscar Wilde outside of Ireland: a bronze bench on Adelaide Street in central London, engraved with Wilde’s famous line “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars”. A grinning version of the writer’s head emerges from the sculpture, prompting The Independent to decry it as “a wilfully tacky, silly, Tussaudian tragedy”. The committee that commissioned Hambling to create the sculpture, in contrast, praised her “witty and amusing” design.

In 2003, Hambling installed a 12ft-high stainless steel scallop shell on Aldeburgh beach in Suffolk, in honour of the late English composer Benjamin Britten. That monument proved similarly contentious, and has been vandalised multiple times since it was erected – but Hambling has never been afraid of controversy. Last year, she told The Telegraph that she lived by the advice once given to her by an art teacher: “It has to be water off a duck’s back. You are your own best critic, and whatever anyone says – just don’t let it get to you.”

She added that she would never create a portrait or sculpture honouring someone she didn’t admire, which explains why she turned down the chance to paint Margaret Thatcher. “As with any other painting, a portrait has to be a work of love, and that’s not what I felt for Mrs Thatcher.”

Members of the Mary on the Green group hope that Hambling’s Wollstonecraft installation will be completed next year, but the campaign still needs £60,000 to reach its funding target. You can help by donating here.

Stylist’s Visible Women campaign is dedicated to raising awareness of women who’ve made a difference, celebrating their success, and empowering future generations to follow their lead. See more from Visible Women here.  

Images: Getty Images / Courtesy of Mary on the Green


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Moya Crockett

Moya is a freelance journalist and writer from London, and a former editor at Stylist.