Proposals to honour one of Edinburgh’s most famous feminists with a statue on the Royal Mile have been put on hold after a bitter row about the choice of sculptor.
Campaigners planned to erect a bronze statue to Dr Elsie Inglis, a suffragist and medical pioneer who established hospitals for poor women and children in Edinburgh, near the site of a maternity hospital she founded.
But they have suspended the plans after a furious backlash when it emerged this week they had selected the royal sculptor Alexander Stoddart to produce the work.
“The reaction to our decision has comprised both positive support and negative but what’s concerning is the level of vitriol directed by some of the contributors, which is bordering on the defamatory,” the trustees said in a statement.
“Given this position, the trustees have taken the decision to pause the process and reflect on both the positive and negative feedback received, particularly from our supporters to date, to consider our options and will make further comment after this period of reflection.”
Their Twitter account and Facebook pages, both the focus of angry complaints, have been deleted.
Anger erupted after the trustees suspended their open call for designs and instead commissioned Stoddart, the King’s sculptor in ordinary in Scotland, even though he had not originally applied. The competition was intended to promote an emerging artist who was inspired by Inglis’s life and work.
Natasha Phoenix, a sculptor and ceramicist from East Lothian who estimates she invested 650 hours on her proposal for the statue, said that given the controversy and now the project had been put on hold, the trustees should hand it over to external experts to oversee. The commissioning process should then begin afresh.
“They should step aside,” she said. “They’ve done excellent fundraising and they’ve obviously got good links and lots of people involved.”
Phoenix was not critical of Stoddart’s appointment because of his gender, but she said the trustees lacked artistic expertise and knowledge of how to commission. “It’s a group of five people who don’t know anything about contemporary sculpture.”
The trustees said their approach changed after seeing television pictures of the Queen’s funeral cortege and the lying at rest ceremonies at St Giles’ Cathedral last month, close to the site of the proposed statue. Those images led them to believe “the statue needed to meet with the historical consciousness of the Royal Mile”.
In late September, they tweeted: “The call to artists has been suspended indefinitely owing to considerations that have been brought to the attention of the trustees in recent weeks. This information has therefore rendered the brief as published suboptimal to ensure the successful outcome of the project at design scheduling and budgetary levels.”
The furore has brought fresh attention to the absence of female statuary in Edinburgh, which has dozens of monuments to male soldiers, kings, intellectuals and physicians. Those include one of Stoddart’s best-known works, a large bronze of the philosopher David Hume outside the high court near St Giles’.
Stoddart, who has been approached for comment, also has a sculpture of Adam Smith further down the Royal Mile. At present, the only women immortalised in sculpture in the city are Queen Victoria and Mary Queen of Scots.
Sara Sheridan, the Edinburgh-based author of a book on the lack of female statues, Where are the Women?, said she could not understand why the competition was cancelled or why Stoddart was “parachuted in”. His work was already over-represented in the city, she said. “I’ve supported this campaign since it started. Sadly I am no longer able to do so with authenticity.”
She said there were other notable, exceptional women who also deserved statues in Edinburgh, including Sophia Jex-Blake. She became the first female doctor in Edinburgh who then donated her home to become a hospital after helping force the university to allow her and six other women to study medicine.
Sheridan suggested Eliza Wigham, a Quaker anti-slavery campaigner; Muriel Spark, the author of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie; or Mary Brunton, a novelist from Orkney whose work more than 200 years ago helped redefine femininity.
Sheridan said it was essential to memorialise female success. “We’re not short of amazing foremothers – we just forget that history,” she said. “Therefore young women don’t realise that they come from amazing and therefore they can achieve amazing.”