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History shows us the naked truth – British public art is always assailed by puritans

Maggi Hambling’s statue for Mary Wollstonecraft is sparking the same debates that engulfed the Duke of Wellington 200 years ago

Maggi Hambling's statue for Mary Wollstonecraft has been covered up this week
Maggi Hambling's statue for Mary Wollstonecraft has been covered up this week Credit: Reuters

Statues, like everyone else, are having a strange year. Following the tearing down of various historic figures tied to the slave trade by Black Lives Matter protesters, a new controversy has arrived this week, in the form of a £143,000 bronze sculpture depicting a small unclothed woman emerging from an amorphous, vaguely female-shaped swirl. 

The statue is dedicated to Mary Wollstonecraft, though it is not supposed to be “of” her, but “for” her. As its sculptor, Maggi Hambling, clarified: “The whole sculpture is called ‘for Mary Wollstonecraft’ and that’s crucially important. It’s not an idea ‘of’ Mary Wollstonecraft naked… the sculpture is for now.”

The sculpture, which sits in Newington Green, where in 1785 the 25-year-old Wollstonecraft co-founded a boarding school for girls, has already attracted a great deal of attention, much of it critical. Many have objected to such a magnificent writer and thinker being represented by an “everywoman” figure, perhaps especially one with perky breasts and a strangely padded pudenda – like “The Spirit of Ecstasy wrenched from the bonnet of a Rolls Royce”, as Laura Freeman wrote in The Telegraph, or, as Jo Bartosch put it in The Critic, “a metal Barbie riding the crest of a £143,000 turd”.

But many others have criticised the sculpture for its nudity – a sin compounded by Hambling, who cheekily said “she’s more or less the shape we’d all like to be”. Feminists rightly object to the limiting of women to their bodily being, and while Wollstonecraft herself was keen that women have strength of “body and mind”, she also desired the cultivation of reason and soul, independently of men: “[Woman] was not created merely to be the solace of man, and the sexual should not destroy the human character.”

A statue of Einstein, Darwin or Churchill with their kit off would surely seem disrespectful. But we have been here before, and with male nudity, no less. In June 1822, an 18-foot-high statue of Achilles was erected in Hyde Park as a memorial to Arthur Wellesley, the first Duke of Wellington, to celebrate his victories in the Peninsular and Napoleonic wars. Funded by Ladies of England, a patriotic women’s group, the sculptor, Sir Richard Westmacott, using 33 tons of bronze melted down from enemy cannons, cast Achilles with his armour off, clutching a shield and a sword, his robe draped over one arm.

George Cruikshank's cartoon of the Wellington Memorial and its pronounced male proportions Credit: Hulton

The sculpture caused immediate uproar, due to Achilles’s visible penis. The virility and beauty of the massive hero remain in no doubt, and Laurence Olivier is later said to have described the sculpture as having “the best arse in London”. A contemporary satirical cartoon by George Cruikshank came out depicting Achilles as intensely steatopygic, under the heading “This BRAZEN IMAGE was erected by LADIES”. A small child is depicted asking: “What is that, Mama?” The public outrage became too intense, and the Ladies who commissioned it, keen to uphold decorum, were upset: a small fig-leaf was added to Achilles’s manhood.

Yesterday, following the Wollstonecraft statue’s unveiling, various wags briefly dressed her up in a cape made of face-masks, and stuck gaffer tape over her nipples and genitalia. Perhaps this act had an element of prudery similar to that which greeted Wellington’s statue – a gesture from the new puritans who routinely attempt to police the cultural life of the country – or perhaps it was intended in a more light-hearted way, to make the female figurine into a kind of superheroine, more befitting of Wollstonecraft’s importance.

Hambling claims that her work “encourages a visual conversation with the obstacles Wollstonecraft overcame”. If the obstacle was “finding her clothes”, this suggestion makes sense, but let’s take Hambling’s statement seriously for a moment. Wollstonecraft did indeed overcome extraordinary obstacles, including poverty and a violent father, not to mention repeated personal attacks upon her for both her work and private life. But what can this tribute to her tell us about women’s lot today?

The statue of Achilles has a small fig-leaf, though a bigger one was demanded by some Victorian critics Credit: Philip Halling/CC BY-SA 2.0

Perhaps there is, in fact, something brave about depicting a naked woman in a public place, even if the woman in question looks pneumatic and as if she’s wearing a merkin. What issues do women face today that we can draw out in a discussion about the statue? The female body does indeed remain remarkably taboo, and a source of great discomfort for many, men and women alike. Young women often want to hide their bodies as they become increasingly visible to men, and there is still enormous amounts of shame regarding the biological functions of the female body, from menstruation to miscarriages to the menopause. Our culture is torn between an absolute pornographisation of the female body and an inability to talk about it rationally and honestly.

We should not be puritanical about art. It is one of the few remaining arenas in cultural life where immediate politicisation and offence might be avoided, or at the very least, where this upset can occur and yet be discussed freely and openly. In that sense, then, Hambling’s statue seems to have done its job, by using the female body to cause a stir – even if it has left many unhappy about the work as an adequate tribute to the woman who inspired it. The debate itself is a positive thing. Hopefully we can keep thinking about new art, all art, with good humour and an open mind.

Besides, a visit to a statue is always a good excuse to get some exercise during another lockdown.