Comment

The new Thatcher statue is artistically bankrupt

The bronze sculpture of the late PM is vacuous, and the row is all too familiar. Does the Iron Lady deserve more? If so, what and why?

Douglas Jennings's statue, rejected by Westminster, will be taken up by South Kesteven District Council
Douglas Jennings's statue, rejected by Westminster, will be taken up by South Kesteven District Council Credit: PA

Margaret Thatcher was an egotist. So said Charles Moore, her biographer, who’d long suspected she was keen to be written about. Where sculpture was concerned, she proved him right. She was immortalised more than once while still alive, and she never complained on the grounds of either aesthetics or modesty. One marble statue was erected in London’s Guildhall in 2002; she turned up and praised its handbag. Another appeared in the Palace of Westminster in 2007, and she tried a joke: “I might have preferred iron, but bronze will do.” She was no loss to art criticism, or comedy.

Both statues remain in situ today. And according to South Kesteven District Council, a new 21-foot bronze of the late Baroness, designed by Douglas Jennings, will arrive in Grantham next year. This time, the resistance has been fiercer. The statue was rejected by Westminster Council, and by a unanimous vote, while Lincolnshire Police applauded its 10-foot plinth: “In general there remains a motivated far-Left movement across the UK who may be committed to public activism.” (They added, hopefully: “But not so much in Lincolnshire.”)

As with Thatcher’s portrayal in The Crown, the debate has been retro in form. Grantham’s Tory-led council will underwrite the unveiling, at the cost of £100,000, but they hope for “donations” to recoup the cash. This would appease a PM who told the Royal Academy, in 1980, that “you cannot achieve a renaissance by simply substituting state patronage for private”. The Labour opposition have called the funding “an insult to the people of our community who are currently fighting to make ends meet”. Meanwhile, Twitter has produced a handy mob, already thousands strong, who plan to throw eggs and annoy the cops. Truly, the Eighties are back. 

It seems fitting that a cultural subplot of this draining year – “Should Statues Fall? and Which Ones?” – should end in erecting a statue of the most divisive British politician since Henry VIII. That Thatcher was absurdly, heedlessly divisive is about the only thing on which everyone agrees; this is why, despite her total philistinism, she was good for British art. As the Eighties rolled along, they saw the rise of the Black British Art movement (Sonia Boyce, Denzil Forrester, Lubaina Himid), and the Young British Artists (pick your household name). They attacked the Government, with manic energy, for its stances on race and class. It was cultural war, and while it didn’t produce uniformly good art, it did produce art with purpose and rage – which, for its conviction if nothing else, Thatcher might have had some respect.

It’s fitting that, by contrast, the statue in Grantham is hostile to experiment or play. Like its Guildhall and Westminster clones, it looks as though art history were frozen in aspic, after falling into a jar two centuries ago. Moore noted of Thatcher’s personal style – which is art in the everyday – that “she lived as if the Sixties had never happened”. His observation is accurate, and he writes as an acolyte; he believes that the Grantham statue is a virtuous tribute that ought to be seen. 

Baroness Thatcher, in 2007, with her former ministers and her bronze statue in the Palace of Westminster Credit: PA

But the point of a public artwork, particularly one on which public money is spent, is to alter its environment: to prompt some fresh, unlooked-for response as that public enters the space. These little disruptions amount to “being interesting”. A piece can be interesting without being good: look at the emotions kindled by Maggi Hambling’s tribute to Mary Wollstonecraft, which had the public arguing about sculpture for once. But statues like Jennings’s, so blandly figurative, shove their subjects onto the stage – look, she’s so important that we’ve carved her in stone! – and only permit you a binary view: you are in favour, or you aren’t.

That binary, for statues, means “standing” or “coming down”. They last until they don’t, which is fair: “yes or no” is the only art criticism they deign to receive. At the end of the 19th century, a small group of politically-minded Bristolians put Edward Colston up, without the public’s approval or interest; at the start of the 21st, a similar group felled him along similar lines. Commemoration ages like everything else, and people may dislike living with pieces whose time, they feel, is up. Bristol was changed by a minority, twice, who knew that history is a living thing. 

The Grantham statue will be unveiled at some point next year, but its history may be shorter than the Tory councillors wish. Before the wildfires of the internet age, local reverence might have kept Thatcher safe – in Glasgow, you wouldn’t trust an electric fence – but when the ceremony comes, it’ll be met by a mob. At least they’ll know more of why public art matters, and how, than the woman they ritually loathe. When Thatcher spoke of the “renaissance” in that Royal Academy speech, the guests must have been nonplussed. They alone might survive without public funds, but it’s like she believed the Medicis were politically neutral – or still on the earth. 

Even so, while Thatcher ignored the organic links between art and society, she nonetheless knew they were there, and that they harboured atomic power. As she declared to the Academicians: “The health of society depends as much on the discouragement of rubbish as on the fostering of excellence.” Consensus is staid, Thatcher always believed; convictions are what we need. Here’s two for South Kesteven District Council: your Maggie is rubbish, and she will fall.