Mary Wollstonecraft Returns

Anna Aslanyan

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‘A taste for the fine arts requires great cultivation,’ Mary Wollstonecraft wrote in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), ‘but not more than a taste for the virtuous affections.’ She often uses the word ‘art’ disparagingly: women have to learn ‘the great art of pleasing’, while ‘we breed them to useless arts, which terminate in vanity and sensuality’. That hasn’t deterred artists from producing images inspired by Wollstonecraft; several have appeared in Newington Green, North London, where she founded a girls’ school in 1784. One of them, a stencil portrait by Stewy, first painted on the wall of Newington Green Meeting House in 2013, was removed a few years ago during renovations. This week the artist returned to put it back.

‘Mary would have walked past this spot,’ Stewy said when we met outside the building on Tuesday morning. He used to walk past it himself when he lived in the area, and the plaques commemorating Wollstonecraft gave him the idea to create his own tribute. To design his stencil – a ‘poor man’s blue plaque’ – Stewy looked at the existing portraits and enlisted the help of the historian Roberta Wedge for Wollstonecraft’s dress and hairstyle, as well as her height (as a middle-class woman, she would probably have been slightly taller than average). After painting the mural, he made a number of prints and gave several to a local group campaigning to put up a monument to Wollstonecraft. In 2020 a sculpture by Maggi Hambling appeared on the green. We crossed the road to look at it.

‘It’s like hot lava coming out,’ Stewy said of the statue’s abstract part. ‘There is heat and there is energy.’ Neither of us was sure what to make of the naked female figure on top. When the statue was first unveiled, people queued to take pictures of it; a man in front of me invited me to go ahead of him. ‘Take as long as you wish,’ he said. The statue looks impressive at night: a silvery plume billowing over the green. Back in 2020, there was no shortage of criticism: some wanted more naturalism, others less. The first Christmas, the figure got covered with a toy Santa outfit (‘It doesn’t look like Santa,’ a passerby said, prompting a discussion about what it did look like). The following December, a group gathered around the plinth to listen to an impromptu lecture by a young woman who referred to the area as ‘the birthplace of radical feminism’.

Feminism is still very much work in progress, but some advances have been made. In 1798, shortly after her death, the Anti-Jacobin Review cross-referenced the entry for ‘Mary Wollstonecraft’ to ‘Prostitution’; the single entry under that heading read ‘see Mary Wollstonecraft’.

Stewy thinks of Wollstonecraft as a woman full of ‘strength and dignity’, which he tried to capture in the pose of his figure. His choice of location was determined by his interest in psychogeography. He often refers to his portraits as ghosts inhabiting in-between spaces, ‘able to stop time’. His other works in London include a stencil portrait of Malcolm McLaren a short walk from the green; there used to be one of Joe Orton in Islington, now gone without a trace. Looking at street art I often wonder about who owns it. I asked Stewy what he thought. ‘It’s for everyone,’ he said.

We retraced our steps to the building. Stewy took out his original stencil, dated 1 March 2013, and a spray can. We talked about where best to position the figure. Then I watched as he painted first the bottom half, then the top, and finally his signature underneath. The whole process took just over three minutes. A few passersby turned their heads with interest, reminding me how popular the original mural had been.

Wollstonecraft was born on 27 April 1759. Her birthday will be marked at the end of this month with a series of tours, talks and discussions. Earlier this year, an art exhibition by local schoolchildren included collages that mentioned feminism, equality and #MeToo, and a stunning portrait of a Black woman in a turban. Another youth project, in 2020, produced a collection of poems inspired by Wollstonecraft. ‘When we grow up,’ one of them says, ‘we will change the world.’