A Statue of One’s Own: the new Virginia Woolf sculpture that’s challenging stereotypes

Passersby are encouraged to take a selfie with the monument that artist Laury Dizengremel hopes will inspire women and girls

The first full-size bronze statue of Virginia Woolf was unveiled on Wednesday, overlooking the riverside at Richmond-upon-Thames, where the author set up Hogarth Press and lived for 10 years.

The result of a five-year funding campaign, the sculpture will sit on a bench, book in hand, smiling. Passersby are encouraged to stop for a selfie.

“I was keen to show her happy, to challenge the stereotype,” says Cheryl Robson, a local publisher who organised the fundraiser. Early in the campaign, the statue faced objections from some members of the Richmond Society, who found its location “insensitive and reckless” given that Woolf later died by drowning in the river Ouse. Evidently, local people disagreed: in two consultations, they voted 83% and 92% in favour of the project and much of the £50,000 target was met from hundreds of small donations.

New statue of Virginia Woolf by Laury Dizengremel.
‘I find it quite remarkable that [Woolf] will be situated where so many people will walk past’ … The new statue of Virginia Woolf by Laury Dizengremel. Photograph: Steve Robson

Woolf’s time in Richmond, from 1914-24, was a “very creative period”, according to the historian Anne Sebba. There, she finished and published the novel Night and Day, and essays and short stories such as Kew Gardens, and worked on The Common Reader and Mrs Dalloway. In 1924, she wrote in her diary: “[I have never] complained of Richmond, ’til I shed it, like a loose skin. I’ve had some very curious visions in this room too, lying in bed, mad, and seeing the sunlight quivering like gold water on the wall. I’ve heard the voices of the dead here. And felt, through it all, exquisitely happy.” Sebba lives nearby and says she can’t wait to take her young granddaughters, who have been curious about the author, to see her statue.

This is music to the ears of its sculptor, Laury Dizengremel. “There are so few women represented in sculpture,” she says. “I find it quite remarkable that [Woolf] will be situated where so many people will walk past, where so many women and girls will be inspired.” The idea for a seated Woolf, welcoming interaction, was sparked partly by John Coll’s statue of the poet Patrick Kavanagh, which sits beside the Grand Canal in Dublin. “People put their hands on his knee and round his shoulder,” she says. “I love it when you can see the wear.”

Dubliners, of course, enjoy a particular rapport with their authors’ statues. There’s Oscar Wilde, reclining on a rock in Merrion Square Park; an abstract memorial to WB Yeats in Stephens Green; and James Joyce standing in the middle of North Earl Street, whose tilted chin and natty cane have earned him the affectionate nickname “the prick with the stick”.

In Britain, though, we have a more complicated relationship with our public monuments. In 2020, for example, a group of men stood guard over a statue of George Eliot in Nuneaton to “defend” her from a Black Lives Matter demonstration. Later that year, Maggi Hambling’s memorial to Mary Wollstonecraft drew criticism from people who found her tiny, generic, metal form perplexing. “The figure had to be nude because clothes define people,” Hambling argued. A statue of Jane Austen in Basingstoke’s market square has proved more popular. “My daughters have always loved it,” says Fiona, a teacher who lives nearby, “I think because it’s at ground level, so they can touch and see it up close.”

This eye-level connection matters, according to Lucy Branch, an author, bronze restorer and presenter of the podcast Sculpture Vulture. “White men on plinths are the overwhelming subjects of public sculpture in the UK … However, in the last five years, I think there’s been a shift – public sculpture like Our Emmeline in Manchester by Hazel Reeves … has token items left for her daily, [and] is dressed in different clothes to represent women of different professions … She is everywoman and her condition, in conservation terms, remains high because people are engaged with what she represents.” Like Dizengremel and many modern sculptors, Branch is a fan of relatable heroes without pedestals.

So too is Martin Jennings, the sculptor of Philip Larkin at Hull Paragon station, George Orwell at BBC Broadcasting House, Charles Dickens in Portsmouth and John Betjeman at St Pancras station. Growing up, authors and artists, not politicians, were his heroes, and he re-reads all of a writers’ work and at least one biography before beginning a sculpture – “so you’re inhabiting their world, and out of that comes an idea that people will engage with.”

At St Pancras, a discreet observer can see busy commuters stop and follow Betjeman’s gaze upwards towards the roof, and then look down to find the lines of poetry at his feet. “That’s something I expected might happen,” says Jennings, who hopes that his sculptures, their locations and the inscribed quotations will complement each other. He’s also amused to hear that Betjeman is developing a shiny patch of bronze where people have patted his tummy.

Dizengremel hopes that Woolf will become similarly polished as riverside walkers get to know her. “It’s going to get rubbed raw and once in a while it will need to get re-patinated – big deal,” she says. Bronze Virginia holds her counsel, and only sits and smiles.


Katy Guest

The GuardianTramp

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