Maggi Hambling and the trouble with statues

Statues have become the object of frenzied debate in recent months. They must persist, at least, as a memorial to themselves – to stand above fleeting passions in reach of the eternal.
My Post(19) (1)
Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on email

Last week, the sculptor Maggi Hambling’s new memorial to Mary Wollstonecraft was unveiled in an East End park and, to quote the Guardian, it has been causing the ‘wrong kind of stir.’ Oh the irony. Wollstonecraft was the Regency author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, the poet Shelley’s mother-in-law and the mother of Feminism – an icon of the Left. Hambling is also a controversialist, with a mission to upset the Establishment applecart at every chance. But even Left-wingers object to her reduction of Wollstonecraft to a ‘Pippa doll with pubic hair.’ A small female nude at the apex of an erupting lava-like cone, the figure, not intended as a portrait, has raised objections from local people who feel it sends the wrong signals in a public space where sex attacks have taken place. 

Plenty of ‘Right-wing’ statues have been bashed too, or even toppled. In June, Edward Colston’s statue in Bristol was thrown into the harbour because of the subject’s reprehensible links to the slave trade. The Fellows of Oriel College, Oxford, appear to be backing away from their defence of the statue of their benefactor, the imperialist Cecil Rhodes. The Archbishop of Canterbury, despite being an Eton-educated white 64-year-old who once worked in the oil industry, is anxious to demonstrate his woke credentials by looking ‘very carefully’ at the statues in Canterbury Cathedral to see if they should be there (although the cathedral is the responsibility of the Dean and Chapter and not the Archbishop).

Statues have been part of the Classically planned city for millennia. They are a natural accompaniment to its architectural tradition of public squares, crying out for a centrepiece, and avenues needing a focal point in the distance. They create a constant dialogue with the past. For example, the equestrian statue of William III in the middle of St James’s Square contains and preserves the memory of a 2nd century statue of Marcus Aurelius on the Campidoglio in Rome.

We live in an era of an abundance of new memorials and statues, although the old ones provoke such hostility. Their numbers are inflating, and so is their size. Look, for example, at the memorials relating to the Second World War that have been created in recent years. These include the Bomber Command memorial on Green Park, the Animals at War in Park Lane, the gates of the Commonwealth War Memorial on Constitution Hill and the Women at War memorial on Whitehall. Already, Britain is thought to have around 100,000 war memorials, most of which date from the First World War but display a new roll of honour for the Fallen of the Second World War and sometimes subsequent wars. How many more do we need? How big can they get? Women in War, which depicts a row of overalls hanging on coat pegs along one side, to indicate that the women who are being commemorated returned to normal life, is about the same size as the Cenotaph near which it stands. Yet the Cenotaph, whose centenary was marked last week, is the national memorial to the Fallen of all the wars that Britain has fought since 1914 and the focus of Remembrance Day ceremonies.

It isn’t only Britain that has a problem with statues. New Delhi has a compound of statues from the Raj, where they are arranged as though they’re at a particularly unexciting cocktail party. Hundreds of Soviet political heroes have been purged from Moscow. Here, statues are like the House of Lords, in that their number swells inexorably, since new ones keep being added without any of the old being turfed out (and unlike their Lordships, statues never die). And also like the House of Lords, the new intake can be disappointing. The Nelson Mandela statue on Parliament Square (2007) isn’t a patch on Churchill (1973).   

When Edwin Lutyens, who designed the Cenotaph, visited the trenches of the Somme in 1917, he was so appalled by the human suffering he had witnessed that the only conceivable memorial, he told his wife, would be a gigantic brass sphere. He never built one but the Cenotaph is another exercise in geometry. If the lines of the slightly canted sides were continued they would meet at a point 1,000 feet above the ground. The fractionally curved top is a segment of a sphere whose centre is 900 feet below the pavement. There is no representational sculpture beyond a wreath. Mathematics reaches towards the universal and the eternal. If only the creators of today’s memorials understood.

Clive Aslet

Clive is an award-winning architectural historian and journalist, acknowledged as a leading authority on Britain and its way of life. Clive’s 'The Real Crown Jewels of England' will be published by Little Brown in September. He spent lockdown working on a book about country houses for Yale University Press.

Subscribe to Engelsberg Ideas

Receive the Engelsberg Ideas weekly email from our editorial team.

By subscribing, you consent to us contacting you by email. You may unsubscribe at any time, and we’ll keep your personal data safe in accordance with our privacy policy.