Statue for Mary Wollstonecraft
During the second London lockdown, I reduced my cycling trips into town in comparison to the first lockdown. The weather had alot to do with this, as it is pretty hard to motivate yourself to get out on a bike in nine degree weather and 40% chance of rain. My bike tires are skinny, so rain makes me slip everywhere. However, my friend and fellow tour guide Rob provided me with the perfect motivation for an outing.
First, I have to explain our history. Rob is a fantastic tour guide, a mentor to me in many ways, and he is always guiding in the most unique places. When I became a tour guide, I thought for sure this would get me out and about in London. Alas, while I am in London alot, I am mostly in the touristy parts - The Mall, Westminster, City of London, Camden. As much as I want to take people on a tour in Hampstead, I don’t get as much demand for those tours from my clientele who are only here for a short time and need to see all of the sights. On the other hand, Rob’s clientele is more British-based, and he does out of town tours to places like Rochester or the Isle of Sheppey. We became friends through a guiding group, and have always enjoyed each other’s conversation. In fact, we have our own little club called The Cake Society. It is basically us meeting for cake and conversation. We are serious about our cake research, and feel that it is one of those important tasks that tour guides have to sacrifice for.
Rob and I planned to meet up in Newington Green for a cake meeting. There was much buzz about the new statue for Mary Wollstonecraft and I thought it would be great to go see it. To my delight, Rob said, “I’ll take you on my Newington Green tour!” Naturally, we were both excited to do any kind of touring, even at a comfortable social distance. Newington Green isn’t on the tourist path, but since Rob’s vast knowledge takes him to the far and beyond, I felt very special to be able to explore this new-to-me area with an expert.
I planned my cycle trip from home to the green, and saw that I could enjoy an almost traffic-free ride by taking the foot tunnel in Greenwich, the path along the Thames in Canary Wharf, the canal up to Victoria Park, and then some cycle lanes through Hackney and Dalston. I headed out on a cold but drizzly day and made it to the green in an hour and twenty minutes. Our plan was to bring a thermos of coffee and find some cake, but I forgot my thermos. Oh well, I went over to Lizzie’s on the Green (a small cafe in this park) and glanced at the menu. My stomach informed me I was hungry, and I found myself ordering a fish finger sandwich. Much to my surprise, it was the BEST fish finger sandwich I have ever eaten. Seriously!
Rob and I sat on a bench (distanced for safety) and talked about the sculpture. Maggi Hambling’s statue is causing quite a stir. Mary Wollstonecraft was a writer who is best known for “A Vindication of the Rights of Woman”. She wrote it in 1792, which caused quite a controversy herself. There hasn’t been a statue to her, and the campaign and fundraising to commission one included my friend Rob’s hard earned cash. “I contributed to this, so I feel let down.” We discussed how the sculpture has been a missed opportunity.
I made a video of myself as I arrived to the park to see the sculpture. I was shocked and puzzled when I saw it in real life. The newspaper articles had shown a few photos and I was expecting something bigger. The figure at the top is no larger than a Barbie doll. My initial reaction was “the 1970’s power muff was a bad choice.” When seeing it in public, I didn’t change my mind. It is important to mention that the plinth says “For Mary Wollstonecraft”. This means that it is not supposed to be a statue OF her. It also seems that with every critique on social media of it NOT being of her, there is someone (usually male) who attempts his best mansplaining with “It isn’t supposed to be OF her, it is FOR her.” Yes, we know. We just don’t like it.
Wollstonecraft’s statue is beautiful and evokes emotion. The problem is, we don’t have enough basic, representing sculptures of women in London. Most of the sculptures and statues are of men, seated or standing in a dignified way with quotes of their life on the plinth. Even some of the more abstract sculptures (like a cyclist or a business person on a mobile phone) are all represented by men. Wollstonecraft was a rebel in her time and she influenced many. Her daughter gave us Frankenstein. She shaped Jane Austen’s point of view and that of Elizabeth Bennet. Her views lit a fire and inspired Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Millicent Garrett Fawcett. We can say that we as women do many things because of Wollstonecraft. So, it just seems appropriate that we would have a proper statue of her, instead of a controversial work of art for her.
In a way, the piece is echoing her accomplishments, and I get it. But let’s put the shoe on the other foot. If it was a footballer who had done something great, and a sculpture had been commissioned, what would you expect? You would expect something like the famous sculpture of Bobby Charlton statue outside of Manchester United’s stadium. If the artist had decided to pile up a bunch of clay and shape it like some waves from the ocean, then place a small Ken doll sized non-descriptive person on top with no clothes and no reference to football… I can see the fans rioting in the streets already!
So with that in your mind, try to understand how women are feeling. The first question we might have is “What was Maggi thinking?” The second question is “Why is she naked?” The third question is “Why isn’t it of Mary?” I’ll try to answer: Maggi Hambling is known for impressions and pieces that cause a controversy. She made the famous Oscar Wilde memorial in London, which I include when guiding about writers in Covent Garden. She isn’t known for sculpting images of the person. Maybe they chose the wrong artist? Maggi claims that women are defined by their clothing, so making her naked was the best choice. And she has stated that the work is in honour of the achievements made by women on the shoulders of Wollstonecraft, and that is a better memorial than a representation of the woman herself.
Rob and I disagree! We think that since there are so few statues of women in London, we needed a portrait style representation. Had we already seen an overwhelming display of great women who did great things, we might have allowed this one to slide. And with that, we enjoyed some lovely cakes from a nearby cafe. As they say in Britain, “We set the world right”. This means that we gossiped and talked about the problem until it was talked to death!
I cycled home and found myself thinking about this one item for several days. Not the statue…. the fish finger sandwich. How can a park cafe make such an excellent food item? Was it a fluke? I had to investigate further. Ten days later, I persuaded my husband to cycle with me back to Newington Green. He said “I’m not a fish finger sandwich fan. I’ll probably eat something else.” On arrival, he just ordered the same thing I was having. We found a bench near the statue and he took the first bite. “Wow! This is NOT what I expected.” He thought by fish finger sandwich, I was alluding to three warmed up frozen, breaded fish sticks on two pieces of white bread. Instead, we sank our teeth into a rich brioche bun, crunched on crisp lettuce, the homemade tartar sauce tingled our tongues, and the fish fillet was coated in a perfect golden batter.
The final conclusion is simple. You might travel up to Newington Green to see the statue of Mary Wollstonecraft, but you will be blown away and forever changed by the fish finger sandwich at Lizzie’s on the Green!