Gillian Wearing's statue of Millicent Fawcett is an era-defining image of an undersung hero

The unveiling of a statue of suffragist and women's rights campaigner Millicent Fawcett by British artist Gillian Wearing in Parliament Square in London 
The unveiling of a statue of suffragist and women's rights campaigner Millicent Fawcett by British artist Gillian Wearing in Parliament Square in London  Credit: AFP

A bronze statue of a grave and determined-looking middle aged woman bearing a placard with the words “Courage Calls to Courage Everywhere”, Gillian Wearing’s image of the Suffragist Millicent Fawcett is the first statue of a woman ever to grace London’s Parliament Square. 

It honours a pivotal, but sadly neglected figure, who began her campaigning in 1866, when she was only 19, long before the far better-known Emmeline Pankhurst. The words on her placard are taken from a speech Fawcett gave at the funeral of the suffragette martyr Emily Davison, who threw herself under the feet of the King’s horse as a protest, at the 1913 Grand National. 

Wearing’s work uses the words to update and subvert the kind of conventional bronze statuary seen elsewhere in the square, in images of great male leaders such as Sir Robert Peel and Winston Churchill, employing the spiky humour that made her a leading figure of the YBA group of artists, who shook up the British art scene in the Nineties and early Noughties. 

Where fellow YBA Damien Hirst is best known for his dead sharks, and Tracey Emin for her unmade bed, Wearing, now 54, is primarily known for photographs of random members of the public holding signs that bear handwritten statements concerning what is on their mind. They are lifted above banality by the slightly sinister pathos created in the disjuncture between the appearance of the person and the words they are holding. A confident-looking City worker’s sign, for instance, reads “I’m desperate”, while a pretty young woman holds up the words “I hate this world.”

Wearing’s apparently artless formula had an immediate appeal for the public imagination from the moment it first appeared, in 1992. Since them, it has been widely parodied and imitated, most recently in a Transport for London advertising campaign that entirely missed the original’s distinguishing note of dark and subversive humour. 

British feminist and suffragist Millicent Fawcett Credit: Getty

Now, Wearing herself has revisited the format, with a life-size statue that eschews the pomposity present in many of the male statues, and is dignified and convincing. Wearing’s best work is typically marked out by a slightly sarcastic whimsicality: but for once she has gone against type and given us a fine sentiment absolutely straight. And that feels entirely right in relation to this era-defining image, of an undersung figure who is at last taking her place in the pantheon of the country’s great political personalities.