The Diana statue proves it – Britain’s public art is at an atrocious low

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A disappointment: Diana's statue - PA
A disappointment: Diana's statue - PA

There was an inevitability about what might tactfully be called the disappointing nature of the statue of Diana, Princess of Wales, that her sons unveiled in Kensington Gardens on Thursday. The late Princess has become the patron saint of a certain type of sentimentality echoed in the statue, by Ian Rank-Broadley, much to its detriment. But also, one must go back to before the Second World War to detect a public piece of art that was well-executed, dignified and inspiring, and generally accepted by those who had to encounter it in their everyday lives.

The idea of a statue being inspiring is important: statues are not merely decorative, but intended to convey an example of greatness, whether by the achievement or the sacrifice of its subject. Think, for example, of the intensely moving statue of Edith Cavell just north of Trafalgar Square, by Sir George Frampton in 1920. Mr Rank-Broadley’s effort, sadly, does neither, but reminds one in its tenor of the plastic and gushing effigies of the Blessed Virgin Mary and Baby Jesus found in the more underfunded southern European basilicas.

That it has happened here confirms, at least, the cultural change in the representation of emotion that the late Princess achieved in her life and, more to the point, in her death. Her fountain and her playground could have been enough: why her memory required this garish Madame Tussaud’s-like effigy is still unclear to me.

By contemporary standards, some of Rank-Broadley’s other work, however, is rather good. Everybody, whether they know it or not, is familiar with him, because the effigy of the Queen on the coinage minted between 1998 and 2015 is his. His Armed Forces Memorial, The Stretcher Bearers, at the National Arboretum in Staffordshire is both moving and vivid.

He has had the occasional off-day – his bust of Charles James Fox that stands in Chertsey looks more like a caricature than even the cartoonish Fox himself did, though the sculptor himself explains on his website that the head, based on the portrait by Nollekens, has been ‘sliced’ to make it ‘post modern’.

Post-modern: Rank-Broadley's bust of Charles James Fox - Alamy
Post-modern: Rank-Broadley's bust of Charles James Fox - Alamy

Was it an off-day when he sculpted the Princess of Wales and her entourage of waifs? I fear not: for a man of his ability to turn out something so banal suggests he had been given a serious briefing, presumably by the Princess’s sons, of what was expected. The Duke of Cambridge’s artistic sensibilities include wanting all ivory works of art destroyed even if made decades or centuries ago, as if that would help preserve elephants today; and one can only begin to imagine what the Duke of Sussex, assisted by his charming and enlightened wife, think or know about statuary in that interesting state of mind called ‘their truth’.

Mr Rank-Broadley also had to struggle with the handicap that modern dress barely lends itself to dignified sculpture in the way that flowing long robes or dresses or military uniforms did in the past. What is harder to understand is why, given she was one of the great beauties of her day, the Princess looks rather plain. Perhaps it is an encouragement to the viewer to regard the composition as entirely allegorical. If so, it is much of a piece with other notable statues of the recent past which are held in low regard.

Maggi Hambling’s Oscar Wilde of 1998 was described by one critic as making the playwright look like a ‘swamp creature’. Her Mary Wollstonecraft, unveiled in Newington Green, North London last year – a naked silver woman atop what appears to be a silver volcanic eruption – received almost universal derision. Depicting apparently ‘everywoman’, why it could not depict Wollstonecraft herself is unclear.

A swamp creature: Maggi Hambling's Oscar Wilde - Alamy
A swamp creature: Maggi Hambling's Oscar Wilde - Alamy

Miss Hambling seems to see public art as a means of stimulating outrage, such as when wrecking the perfectly charming view from Aldeburgh beach by putting a huge bronze cracked seashell on it. A similarly harmless coastal view, at Newbiggin-on-Sea in Northumberland, was gratuitously violated by Sean Henry’s tedious brass sculpture Couple, not only stuck in the middle of the bay, but elevated on a stultifyingly ugly platform.

In London, one of the finest pieces of public art of the last century – Lutyens’s understated and exceptionally dignified Cenotaph – now stands within sight of John Mills’s bizarre 2005 memorial to the Women of the Second World War, which has been rightly compared to a coat-rack; those women deserved infinitely better. In Islington, at the old Gainsborough Studios, a vast head of Alfred Hitchcock – who admittedly would present any sculptor with a challenge – has been likened to a ‘melting Buddha’, and is a most repellent excremental colour to boot.

In Huyton, in Liverpool, where he was the MP a statue of Harold Wilson by Tom Murphy resembles Mike Yarwood impersonating him and, in the matey fashion of the age, has him sitting on a bench. Our forebears knew a statue was at its best when looked up to, and all the more so when the subject was on horseback – not that Wilson was famed for his equestrianism to be fair.

Sean Henry's Couple - Alamy
Sean Henry's Couple - Alamy

In the last year, since the Black Lives Matter protests prompted a re-writing of history by some on the left, statues have been more than art: they have been politicised. Hence Edward Colston being chucked in the water in Bristol for having made money from slavery, and Queen Victoria being taken down in Canada for, apparently, being Queen Victoria. Cecil Rhodes survives at Oxford, but only just.

Sometimes public art is so appalling that it is taken down, cancelled not by politics but by aesthetics: this happened to an astonishingly bad collection of four metal arches known as ‘Cornhenge’, plonked in 2019 in the main square, Cornhill, in the middle of Ipswich, and removed within months because of a public outcry. When the local council offered a replacement artwork the public effectively dared them to do so, a challenge they have wisely declined.

The problem is that even when a sculptor tries hard these days, even the comparatively best works don’t really succeed: Gillian Wearing’s statue of Millicent Fawcett (who absolutely deserved one) in Parliament Square has its heart in the right place, but it could be criticised as being too harshly literal.

Gillian Wearing with her statue of Millicent Fawcett - PA
Gillian Wearing with her statue of Millicent Fawcett - PA

There is much to be learned from the past, and one does not have to visit Michelangelo and the renaissance to find examples of how public art can be successful: and the key seems to be not merely precision and care in execution, and the use of sympathetic materials, but also a determination to convey the dignity of the subject. War and all its horrors were a great inspiration: consider Charles Sargeant Jagger’s overwhelming monument to the Royal Artillery dead of the Great War at Hyde Park Corner, or Francis Derwent Wood’s nearby memorial to the dead of the Machine Gun Corps, both of 1925.

Outside Manchester Town Hall is Theed’s 1901 statue of Gladstone, made every inch the towering presence of a man whose economic doctrines brought massive prosperity to the city. Outside the Houses of Parliament are Carlo Marochetti’s breathtaking Richard the Lionheart of 1856, and Hamo Thornycroft’s imposing and straightforward Oliver Cromwell, erected in 1899.

But then that was an age of self-confidence and not of cultural self-hatred, of dignified remembrance and not narcissistic sentiment - when public art was an expression of the national consciousness. If that is still the case, our national consciousness must be pitiful indeed.