London’s new Mary Wollstonecraft statue is a flimsy, Barbie-like embarrassment


Maggi Hambling’s sculpture in Stoke Newington is less a celebration of feminist success (and Kamala Harris) than a prettified trinket

Maggi Hambling's statue of Mary Wollstonecraft stands in Stoke Newington
Maggi Hambling's statue of Mary Wollstonecraft stands in Stoke Newington

I’m all for more statues of female figures, and what with the present passion for overthrowing old stone men there are bases to spare. But couldn’t we have had a bronze with more oomph? Sculptor Maggi Hambling’s Mary Wollstonecraft looks like a feminist twist on The Spirit of Ecstasy wrenched from the bonnet of a Rolls Royce.

Hambling said yesterday that Mary Wollstonecraft would be “dancing a foxtrot in her grave” to celebrate Kamala Harris becoming the first female US vice-president. Perhaps. We can’t know what Wollstonecraft would or wouldn’t have wanted. But I’d hazard it’s not this silvered trinket, this mantelpiece gewgaw. 

Rarely has sculpture seemed so insubstantial. Even cast in bronze it is a flimsy thing. The proportions are wilfully off: tiny figure, blobby base, unsympathetic plinth. 

If you were being kind, you might recall Michelangelo’s Slaves or Rodin’s Thinker and Kiss. Bodies fighting free of stone, an almost Promethean battle. (Wollstonecraft’s daughter Mary Shelley would call her most famous work Frankenstein, or, The Modern Prometheus.) 

If you were being unkind, you might remember the vogue for little girls’ birthday cakes iced like the layers of a Cinderella ball gown with a favourite Barbie-doll emerging torso-up from the frosting. The body is Barbie-doll, too. Perky, slender, sleek as a Gillette Venus model. Only the fierce, furrowed brow would tell you that this woman is anything other than an unthinking mannequin.

The statue has been installed on Newington Green, but is already facing criticism Credit: Geoff Pugh

At the unveiling, there was much talk about how the commission would “start a conversation” and Hambling said that the cast bronze statue “encourages a visual conversation with the obstacles Wollstonecraft overcame.”

I always worry when curators and artists talk of conversation and dialogue. It suggests a lack of thinking through, of stopping short, of “will this do?” Make a statement, be definite, state your aim in marble and stone.

Hambling hasn’t done her subject justice. All Wollstonecraft’s eloquence is lost.

The Mary Wollstonecraft memorial statue is on Newington Green, London N16