« | Home | »

A Statue for Emily Davison

Tags: |

Emily Davison’s coffin outside St George’s, Bloomsbury, saluted by the suffragette guard of honour.

The Wilding Festival, organised by mostly young artists, teachers and activists, took place earlier this month in St George’s Bloombury, the Hawksmoor church which is crowned by a ziggurat and backs on to Little Russell Street, opposite the offices of the LRB. Emily Wilding Davison’s funeral took place there a hundred years ago, the magazine was collaborating with the festival, and I was asked to give a talk about female heroism. I’ve been thinking a lot about the politics of liberty and the effects of martyrdom; Bidisha, who has a book coming out about asylum seekers, and I talked afterwards in a public conversation. In the friendliest way she asked me very hard questions; we didn’t get very far with the problems of feminism, revolution, freedom of speech in the age of pornography, and casual images of death, like the newsreel of Emily Davison’s action, but we tried.

There are some straightforward issues which are smaller and easier to solve. For example very few politically important female figures are remembered in public. Emily Davison’s centenary is part of an ongoing campaign, and one plan is to raise a statue to her in London, near or in the Houses of Parliament, in order to pay tribute to her role in securing the vote for women. Emmeline Pankhurst is already there, on the Embankment; an amiable bronze that covers up her militancy completely. Christabel doesn’t have a statue, but there is another memorial campaign under way for a statue for Sylvia.

I was recently in Szeged, in the south of Hungary, and the square around the vast cathedral is like Poets’ Corner, covered in memorials wall to wall, but a much larger space and infinitely more various in its scope. Plaques, busts, bas reliefs, many of them with quotations and mottoes, pack the precinct like a students’ message board; later, as I walked around the elegant 19th-century streets, I found more – fountains, statues, tablets, inscriptions – everywhere. The town was a picture book of its past and people. I hardly recognised a single name, but I liked the feeling of the ghosts clamouring for attention, for passers-by to stop. Siste viator.

However, large bronze effigies on plinths have a way of becoming invisible, as Robert Musil warned: ‘The most striking feature of monuments is that you don’t notice them… You might as well hurl them [great men], with a memorial stone around their neck, into oblivion.’ Can you name any of the figures on the plinths in Portland Place? Or in Waterloo Place, where several great men of history are gathered, alongside Florence Nightingale?

In the case of the women – Emily Davison, Sylvia Pankhurst – let’s not have a bland, reverential effigy (Steven Berkoff is right to sound off in fury against the preening mignon that stands for Laurence Oliver on the South Bank). Let’s have an artist who can make these complicated women visible, face the contradictions of their characters, and who tackles history’s perplexing questions. Someone like Fiona Banner, who brought a Sea Harrier jet into Tate Britain in 2010, or Elizabeth Price, who won the Turner Prize last year with her intense film about the Woolworths fire in Manchester in 1979 in which 11 people died. Or Tacita Dean, who makes film elegies of rare beauty, and has created a personal pantheon (mostly of heroes so far). The suffragettes’ ideals have clear descendants in one current area of activity at least. Even if the cause of women in public life needs so much more action, artists are raising their banners.

Comments on “A Statue for Emily Davison”

  1. isobelurquhart says:

    A statue for Emily Davison? NOT – agreed. Why not something more imaginative than another disregarded effigy – perhaps up on Epsom Downs – something as arresting as Maggie Hambling’s shell on the beach at Aldeburgh for instance. Even better if it epate la bourgoisie of Epsom, similarly. Nice girl from Surrey (moi) would love that.

Comment on this post

Log in or register to post a comment.

  • Recent Posts

    RSS – posts

  • Contributors

  • Recent Comments

    • name on Who is the enemy?: Simply stating it is correct doesn't make it so, I just wish you would apply the same epistemic vigilance to "Muslim crimes" as you do to their Hebrew...
    • Glen Newey on Unwinnable War: The legal issue admits of far less clarity than the simple terms in which you – I imagine quite sincerely – frame them. For the benefit of readers...
    • Geoff Roberts on The New Normal: The causes go back a long way into the colonial past, but the more immediate causes stem from the activities of the US forces in the name of freedom a...
    • sol_adelman on The New Normal: There's also the fact that the French state denied the mass drownings of '61 even happened for forty-odd years. No episode in post-war W European hist...
    • funky gibbon on At Wembley: If England get France in the quarter finals of Euro 16 I expect that a good deal of the fraternity will go out the window

    RSS – comments

  • Contact

  • Blog Archive

  • From the LRB Archive

    Edward Said: The Iraq War
    17 April 2003

    ‘This is the most reckless war in modern times. It is all about imperial arrogance unschooled in worldliness, unfettered either by competence or experience, undeterred by history or human complexity, unrepentant in its violence and the cruelty of its technology.’

    David Runciman:
    The Politics of Good Intentions
    8 May 2003

    ‘One of the things that unites all critics of Blair’s war in Iraq, whether from the Left or the Right, is that they are sick of the sound of Blair trumpeting the purity of his purpose, when what matters is the consequences of his actions.’

    Simon Wren-Lewis: The Austerity Con
    19 February 2015

    ‘How did a policy that makes so little sense to economists come to be seen by so many people as inevitable?’

    Hugh Roberts: The Hijackers
    16 July 2015

    ‘American intelligence saw Islamic State coming and was not only relaxed about the prospect but, it appears, positively interested in it.’

Advertisement Advertisement