The London public art war that saved 2020

Maggi Hambling’s tribute to Mary Wollstonecraft lit up a bleak winter with some social media pyrotechnics

One morning in November 1924, readers perusing their Morning Post (one assumes served by a butler, crisply-ironed on a tray with their bed-tea) were informed of a grievance in the form of a public letter.

The signatories demanded the removal of the newly unveiled sculpture in Hyde Park with as little delay as possible. The letter was signed by several public-spirited individuals who saw themselves as guardians of proper English morality. They included Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes, and Her Highness, the Ranee Margaret of Sarawak.

The offending piece of art was Jacob Epstein’s Rima. The problem was that the statue was bare-breasted. Even the Prime Minister was taken aback by the sculpture when he pulled back the curtain for its public unveiling.

Ta-da! Jacob Epstein’s Rima (Hyde Park’s Hudson Memorial Bird Sanctuary)

Epstein’s design, Conan Doyle and Co. denounced, was:

“By universal consent so inappropriate and even repellent that the most fitting course open to the authorities would be to have it removed bodily. It would be a reproach to all concerned if future generations were allowed to imagine that this piece of artistic anarchy in any way reflected the true spirit of the age.”

Echoing this sentiment, that fount of good taste and impeccable judgement, the Daily Mail screeched:

“take this horror out of our park”.

Epstein was no stranger to bad reviews. One of his earliest works were statues for the British Medical Association headquarters on the Strand. This work, too, had triggered massive scandal.

Unknown photographer. Source: https://www.royalacademy.org.uk/art-artists/work-of-art/photograph-of-the-former-british-medical-association-building-with-figures

To fulfil the commission, Epstein had made life-sized nude figures celebrating the seven ages of man. The artist had masterfully depicted the realistic saggy, wrinkly bits of the ageing human. The statues were found to be offensive simply because they were naked. A Father Bernard Vaughan, a member of the “National Vigilance Society”, wrote:

‘As a Christian citizen in a Christian city, I claim the right to say that I object most emphatically to such indecent and inartistic statuary being thrust upon my view’.

A cold November morning of 2020, the Year of COVID-19, almost ninety-six years to the date of the furore over Epstein’s Rima, I found myself wandering up a side street of Islington. A second, near lockdown of the year was in effect. There was nowhere to go. Yet, I was determined to not waste that week over-sleeping.

As an arts-type wastrel, who wishes he could live inside Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks, I find myself with a particular susceptibility for the later hours of the night. Additionally, while I am much better now, there was a period of time I didn’t like to go outdoors for days on end. Somewhat paradoxically, lockdowns are brutal for the agoraphobic. For us, leaving the house can be difficult at the best of times. When everything is closed: why bother at all?

It was permitted, however, to go for a walk. This week it had been my routine to wake early and shower. After this, I set out to obtain a bit of pastry and coffee out of a baker’s side-door. Be-masked and distanced by two metres in a queue, I would pay by a contactless transaction. All respectable establishments offered a bottle of hand-sanitiser to lubricate the transfer of goods and payment. Nourished, flakes of a croissant (consumed standing-up in the awning of some shuttered establishment) down the front of my coat, drops of coffee dripping off my fingers onto my shoes, I would walk home.

I was walking along and contemplating life when I caught a glint. A flash of silver away on the horizon. As I drew closer, walking down an arterial road that led to Newington Green, I realised that the bright object, spottable a mile away, was the sculpture.

Like Epstein’s Rima, Maggie Hambling’s work had been universally condemned in the press and on social media as reflecting poor taste. The sculpture memorialising Mary Wollstonecraft, the pioneering feminist, was felt by some to be a slap in the face of decency and human progress. Several authors reported feeling enraged when the sculpture was revealed.

Rachel Cooke, writing in The Guardian, felt Mary Wollstonecraft had been reduced to “a Pippa doll with pubic hair” and “ranks with Comic Sans when it comes to inelegance”. Caitlin Moran wrote on Twitter:

“It’s not making me angry in any way because I just KNOW the streets will soon be full of statues depicting John Locke’s shiny testicles, Nelson Mandela’s proud penis, and Descartes adorable arse.”

“Genuine question: Why present Mary Wollstonecraft as naked?,” asked celebrated children’s author Malorie Blackman. “I’ve seen many statues of male writers, rights activists and philosophers and I can’t remember any of them being bare-assed.”

That cold, bleak morning, as I walked towards it, the object caught the sun on a low angle. To me too, it felt like the object had fallen from space. But I am an Indian sci-fi geek. In my view, alien is not a bad thing.

My work and worldview, as a man, has always benefitted from the writing of women scholars, whether Susan Sontag, Hannah Arendt or Angela Carter. Furthermore, like Marxism, feminism is a school of critical theory which is fundamental to the formal, academic study of human society. I am indebted to feminist scholars in the same way my class-mate who is a physicist is indebted to Newton, Einstein and Lise Meitner. At the same time, I am totally aware that I possess reserves of unconscious misogyny. There is a lot more work I need to do on myself to develop an expanded and inclusive understanding of our world.

To me, however, it felt like the whole public square was lit-up by the ethereal light that gleamed off of Maggie Hambling’s tribute to Mary Wollstonecraft. If I had to describe it in Hindi, I would use the feminine adjective, chamkeli. The root of the word is chamak, which means ‘to shine’.

The “chamkeli” tribute to Mary Wollstonecraft

Everyone is entitled to their opinion on a piece of public art. Many women are genuinely upset by the sculpture. At the same time, the art work has been made by a pioneering female artist.

The Daily Mail describes Hambling as the “original bad girl of British art”: https://www.dailymail.co.uk/home/event/article-4297246/Meet-ORIGINAL-bad-girl-British-art-Maggi-Hambling.html

It feels like there are at least three kinds of anxieties at play here. The first, some people are scared that nudity itself is an offensive thing, and it is worse when the nudity is female. This is common sentiment amongst bystanders. I personally have very little sympathy for this view. I don’t think there’s anything sexual about this statue that there should be concerns about corrupting the local children with the object’s malign presence.

The second, is that men get important looking blackish-orange bronze sculptures, why can’t women be honoured by this aesthetic? This is a fairly reasonable position to take.

In answer, it could be said that Maggie Hambling’s vision as an artist, especially her sense of quirk, freshens up the stale, pale and male concept of formal importance. That the uniqueness of the object makes people take notice, when an ordinary bronze sculpture could have been just another relic in the park that would just make up background noise. Maggie Hambling has re-invented the concept of the public statue, through both material and form, and Mary Wollstonecraft makes a good topic for such an experiment. But there is some sympathy for the view that all experimenting always seems to be done at the expense of women.

Which brings us to the naked doll on top of the thing:

As a young student remarked:

“Hambling called her ‘everywoman’, but she is not every woman. She’s a thin, conventionally attractive, extremely privileged woman. People are working to tear that stereotype down, and the artist has built it back up again.”

So, a battle to dress this doll is undergoing as we speak.

Every time I go on a lockdown outing takeaway from Newington Green’s cafes, I often see the doll in a new outfit. Three weeks ago it was a knitted green-smock.

Then, there was this sleek affair.

And, currently, at the time of writing, it wears a festive Santa-coloured cape:

London’s vibrant art scene is shuttered by the pandemic. Nothing lies before us but months of monotony and bleakness of a shut down city. The presence of this sculpture in a public park provides a rare opportunity to experience something different and new.

It sure brought a spark to my life.

I write about culture, books, and graphic design. Life goals include a graphic novel, and a hand stand.

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