‘I need complete freedom’: Maggi Hambling responds to statue critics

Some see a new statue commemorating Mary Wollstonecraft as an affront to the pioneering feminist, but its creator says she is used to controversy

Maggi Hambling, the renowned British artist who outraged a large section of the general public and many feminists last week, to say nothing of the surprised residents of a north London community, has defended her right to artistic freedom.

Her new statue commemorating Mary Wollstonecraft was unveiled last week, the culmination of a 10-year campaign to mark the groundbreaking feminist philosopher who started her writing career and established a girls school in Newington Green in the late-18th century. But Hambling’s work sparked a furious reaction. Rather than a statue of Wollstonecraft, she produced an abstract sculpture which features a small, naked silver woman.

The sculptor and painter, in her first response to critics, hit back at the weekend, telling the Observer she would not have taken on the job if she had been directed to produce a certain image, or even steered in a traditional direction. It is not, she said, how she responds to a commission for either public or private work: “No. I need complete freedom to respond to the spirit of my subject and could not work if constrained by convention or preconceived demands.”

The 75-year-old artist, the subject of a BBC Two documentary last month and a current show at a leading London art dealership, the Marlborough Gallery, had been enjoying a busy lockdown and a phase of renewed recognition. Yet, she argues, the storm that has blown up around her statue, unveiled on the green last Tuesday, is the kind of adversity she has weathered throughout her long career.

British artist, Maggi Hambling
Artist and sculptor Maggi Hambling. Photograph: Facundo Arrizabalaga/EPA

Reaction to her best-known statue, Scallop, on Aldeburgh beach, has been mixed since its arrival in 2003. The large shell-shaped work marks the life and music of composer Benjamin Britten and is inscribed with lines from his opera, Peter Grimes: “I hear those voices that will not be drowned.” Although not yet drowned, voices of criticism for this work have been slowly replaced with an acceptance of its status as a cultural landmark. Hambling told the Observer she was again prepared for attacks, and called upon the example of one of her literary heroes in her defence.

“I’m always braced,” she said this weekend. “As Oscar Wilde said, when critics are divided the artist is at one with himself.”

In 1998, Hambling’s sculpture, A Conversation with Oscar Wilde, commemorating the writer and showing his head rising up from a sarcophagus, was put up in central London. It caused a stir, but was judged by most critics to show both wit and nerve.

Her new sculpture was made “for Mary Wollstonecraft” and not “of her”, the fundraising committee behind the new statue has emphasised. But those who object argue that crowning Hambling’s creation with the form of a nude woman is not an appropriate way to honour the life of a pioneer widely regarded as the mother of British feminism. Others who supported the long campaign to memorialise the author of 1792’s influential book, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, complain they have not got what they were promised: a tribute to Wollstonecraft.

“I can see that it might not matter to an artist whether a work is thought to be ‘appropriate’, and it is not a word I much like myself,” said Dr Julia Long, a resident who is disappointed by the work. “But the problem is this seems to be about an artist’s ego. The fundraising campaign was called ‘Mary on the Green’, not ‘Maggi on the Green’.”

Long, a feminist and member of Object!, a group that protests against the objectification of the female form, can now see the statue from her flat and was one of those who covered the naked figure in a T-shirt last week.

Wollstonecraft, who was born in 1759 and died in 1797, was a traveller, campaigner and author, as well as the mother of writer Mary Shelley. In 1785, she founded the school on Newington Green and she is now hailed around the world as an inspirational figure for feminists.

The effort to put up a statue was spearheaded by journalist Bee Rowlatt, author of the travel book, In Search of Mary, and she, like Hambling, has been repeatedly asked to account for the unorthodox work since its unveiling. The “overwhelming scale of the response” has thrown her, she said, given that the work does not stand in a prominent London location and has been a voluntary project.

“The hostility has been upsetting, but we also recognise that over a million people have now read about Mary Wollstonecraft on BBC news alone, not to mention all the other articles and foreign media,” Rowlatt said.

The Mary Wollstonecraft statue ‘Mother of feminism’ by artist Maggi Hambling is seen covered with a t-shirt
Campaigners covered the statue in a T-shirt in protest against the objectification of women. Photograph: Paul Childs/Reuters

“By choosing Maggi we understood that we were choosing a sculpture that attempted to represent the birth of a movement, rather than a representation of Wollstonecraft herself. We were excited by the idea of getting away from putting people on pedestals, which frankly is not in the spirit of Wollstonecraft’s philosophy.”

Unlikely support for Hambling’s aesthetic might be drawn from the words of one of the many influential men who are memorialised with clothed statues in London. Winston Churchill, a keen painter, said he believed “audacity” was the first quality any artist required. But it is an argument that does not wash with many of those who use Newington Green. During the fundraising appeal, reproductions of a popular, stencilled graffiti image of Wollstonecraft on the side of the neighbouring church were sold. Dr Long is one of those who bought a print and assumed the eventual statue would resemble the stencil.

In April 2018, the committee selecting the artist for the job invited two candidates, Hambling and Martin Jennings, to make models, or maquettes, of their proposed statue to show the community. They received 747 responses, with a third coming from those living close to the green.

The argument last week recalls the surprised reaction two years ago when Newnham College, Cambridge, alma mater of Germaine Greer and Mary Beard, unveiled a work by sculptor Cathy de Monchaux to celebrate women’s academic achievements. It features a small nude female figure embedded in the middle of pages of a book that also resembles a vulva.

While Rowlatt urges critics to put their energy into supporting campaigns for the “missing” statues of other notable women, such as Sylvia Pankhurst or Virginia Woolf, one of the first public responses is more likely to be finding a good nickname for Hambling’s new work. Candidates so far include The Barbie on the Boulder and Frankenstein’s Granny, referring to the best-known work of Wollstonecraft’s daughter.

Contributor

Vanessa Thorpe

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Maggi Hambling picked to create Mary Wollstonecraft statue
Long-awaited memorial aims to capture spirit and strength of the ‘foremother of feminism’

Nicola Slawson

16, May, 2018 @12:43 PM

Article image
'There are plenty of schlongs in art' – Maggi Hambling defends her nude sculpture of Mary Wollstonecraft
Her tribute to the feminist icon caused outrage at last month’s unveiling, but the artist has no regrets. She hits back at her critics – and explains why this women’s rights pioneer had to be naked

Stuart Jeffries

16, Dec, 2020 @6:00 AM

Article image
Why I hate the Mary Wollstonecraft statue: would a man be 'honoured' with his schlong out?
Was a tiny, silver, ripped nude really the correct way to honour ‘the mother of feminism’? Admirers like me never expected to be left contemplating whether she had a full bush

Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett

10, Nov, 2020 @5:30 PM

Article image
Mary Wollstonecraft statue becomes one of 2020's most polarising artworks
Maggi Hambling’s north London sculpture aimed to provoke debate – and a survey of passersby shows it has certainly done that

Mark Brown

25, Dec, 2020 @10:30 AM

Article image
Honey, they shrunk the art … top artists create works for tiny gallery
Creative giants from Hirst to Hambling have produced masterpieces a few centimetres across for a scaled-down show

Vanessa Thorpe

28, Mar, 2021 @7:00 AM

Article image
Poor Mary Wollstonecraft – reduced to a Pippa doll with pubic hair | Rachel Cooke
Maggi Hambling’s statue to commemorate the mother of feminism is causing quite the wrong kind of stir

Rachel Cooke

15, Nov, 2020 @7:30 AM

Article image
Statue of pioneering MP Barbara Castle joins recent memorials to prominent British women
Depiction of veteran Labour MP latest in series of sculptures of significant women, including Diana Princess of Wales

Vanessa Thorpe

09, Oct, 2021 @4:00 PM

Article image
In these days of scrolling and outrage, have we lost our ability to discuss art? | Sam Byers
The outcry over the statue to Mary Wollstonecraft should not be dismissed as mere noise by either lovers of art or its creators, says novelist Sam Byers

Sam Byers

04, Dec, 2020 @12:00 PM

Article image
Mary Wollstonecraft finally honoured with statue after 200 years
‘Mother of feminism’ commemorated by Maggi Hambling sculpture in north London

Mark Brown Arts correspondent

10, Nov, 2020 @12:01 AM

Article image
Britain’s suffragettes don’t need another statue | Letters
Letters: There is already a memorial to the foot-soldiers of the women’s suffrage campaign just a few hundred metres from Parliament Square in London

Letters

19, May, 2016 @6:05 PM