‘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.


Vanessa Thorpe

The GuardianTramp

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