Last month I wrote about my favourite literary statue, so this month I thought I’d discuss my least favourite. Sometimes those in charge of literary legacies get it all wrong (in my humble opinion, at least). This one can be found at Newington Green in London and it was erected in 2020, so it’s a very new statue. There’s a real shortage of statues of women writers around the world, and this was at least an attempt to redress the imbalance, but what a mess it has turned out to be!
The statue depicts pioneering feminist Mary Wollstonecraft. It was designed by sculptor Maggi Hambling, after a ten-year campaign to raise the money for it. It depicts a naked Mary rising out of a rock and is intended to represent the spirit of womanhood. It was also meant to stimulate debate and it has certainly succeeded in that. Protesters have covered it with T-shirts, others have condemned it as a naked Barbie doll, a blank robot, while some have praised it as “the sculpture of an idea”.
What it has achieved is that far more people stop to look, take photos and visit Newington Green (local café owners are happy about the extra traffic).
The other close contender for designing the statue was artist Martin Jennings (who designed the statue of Jane Austen that went up a few years ago) – his proposal was for a more conventional statue, depicting Mary wearing clothes and standing by a pile of books. It’s not especially exciting but at least it is dignified and gives some idea of what she achieved.
I must admit I detest the new statue. Somehow it seems to demean the woman whose deep intelligence shines through so superbly in the John Opie portrait which hangs in the National Portrait Gallery. For me, the nakedness is meaningless, it doesn’t look like Mary, and it fails to represent her incredible achievements. You might feel differently – if so, do let me know.