A bronze statue of Princess Diana was unveiled last week, on what would have been her 60th birthday, in the Sunken Garden at Kensington Palace. She is depicted by the sculptor Ian Rank-Broadley in a pleated shirt and plain pencil skirt, cinched together by a huge belt with an embellished buckle. Her arms reach out around two children (not her own), with a third close behind. Rank-Broadley’s vision is one of a modern Madonna in sensible shoes. Kensington Palace describes the statue as reflecting her ‘character and compassion’ with the ‘portrait and style of dress […] based on the final period of her life as she gained confidence in her role as an ambassador for humanitarian causes’. Outside Kensington Palace, the statue has been widely mocked, with critics questioning why one of the world’s great beauties looks so browbeaten, with such an unflattering hairstyle. (Comparisons have been made to the sports commentator Clare Balding, Cristiano Ronaldo, Coronation Street’s Ken Barlow, and a sleep-paralysis demon.) Sculpting faces, and especially a face as recognisable as Diana’s, is no easy task. But for someone as stylish and widely photographed as Diana was, the dowdy choice of clothing is more disappointing.
Finding fault with the outfitting of statues is nothing new. In the early 19th century, G.W.F. Hegel suggested that the main problem with more contemporary statues was one of fashion: namely that ‘our modern clothing is entirely unartistic’. He lamented the level of construction such clothing involved. Rather than the ‘fine, free and vital outlines of the body’ revealed by clinging Greek drapery, contemporary clothing said nothing about the spirit of a figure or the ‘sensuous beauty’ of their physical form, and everything about the technical constraints of tailor’s work. It wasn’t just that these garments were stiffly made, obscuring and moulding the body. It was that the artist, and thus the statue, became subject to the whims of style, which could easily change – ‘When the fashion is over, we cease to be used to it, and what pleased us a few years back now suddenly seems ridiculous.’ Two centuries later, we are less likely to judge our statues against works of antiquity, whether marble or bronze, but the same concerns about fashion and expression linger. The way contemporary statues are attired – or aren’t – remains a lively and occasionally fervid topic of debate.
From the early days of her marriage, when Diana wore sensible frocks and piecrust collars all the way through to the sleeker, more glamorous looks that represented her growing freedom from the Royal Family, fashion was a tool that Diana used to shape her public image. What she wore also functioned as a barometer of the times, incorporating all of the flouncy excess of the eighties before settling into the slicker silhouettes of the nineties. Many of the outfits for which she’s best known and loved wouldn’t pass muster on a statue standing in the grounds of Kensington Palace in perpetuity. Imagine casting Diana in her ‘I’m a Luxury’ sweater or that sexy off-the-shoulder revenge dress? But still, the choice of garments here is particularly perplexing. Of the many hundreds of outfits she wore, why pick one that looks so secretarial?
The simple answer is that the outfit was inspired by a Christmas card from 1993, the first card Diana sent after her separation from Prince Charles. In the picture, Diana stands contrapposto with her two sons. She is wearing a black skirt and silk lavender shirt. Her belt buckle gleams gold. But in bronze all of the pleasures of texture and colour are lost, and so is the softness of the outfit. This problem of loss is particularly acute in the clothing of women’s statues. Men’s tailoring is structured, the fabrics heavy. Most men’s clothes hang, they do not drape. But, as any designer knows, women’s garments are meant to be viewed in motion. Just as a smile line rendered in bronze becomes heavy and sinister, a stilled pleat in fabric feels devoid of life.
Hegel wasn’t wrong when he complained that contemporary fashion tethered statues too closely to their time. We are used to seeing statues of men clad in the uniforms of power and public office: military garb, overcoats, suits. Although the lapel or buttons may change, the meaning is constant. By contrast, women’s dress has been through a much more drastic set of changes, and so the garments of statues become emblems not just of the woman wearing them but also of the era in which they lived. Consequently, statues such as Diana’s often become wrapped up in additional assessments of style, as well as whether the outfit feels fitting.
The aim of public statues, in part, is to commemorate history and keep it alive. They are slivers of past inserted into the present, helping to shape our collective memory. If realism reigns, of course a statue of a suffragist, such as Millicent Fawcett, should feature long skirts and sensible tailoring, while Cilla Black should don a Sixties minidress, as she does outside the site of the Cavern Club. But what if clothes are meant to offer something more than mere accuracy? They are a significant part of the limited arsenal available to sculptors to create character and mood, along with pose, expression, texture, and material. That’s what makes the statue of Mary Seacole outside St Thomas’ Hospital so powerful – her cloak blown back by the wind, as she grabs it in a gesture of tenacity. Same too with the terrific statue of Donald Dewar in Glasgow, hands clasped behind his back and suit gently wrinkled as he looks paternally over Buchanan Street.
There are other approaches available, of course. The Modern Martyrs above the West Door of Westminster Abbey, which were unveiled in 1998, manage to combine timelessness with historical specificity since each of the ten statues wear draped fabric or robes reflective of their era, story, and geography. Other sculptors have done away with clothes entirely. Pointless uproar ensued last year when Maggi Hambling revealed her homage to Mary Wollstonecraft in Stoke Newington. Much of the outrage centred on a renowned feminist writer being represented by (though, crucially, not depicted as) a tiny, pert-breasted woman atop a silvery eruption. The critics failed to appreciate that sculpture does not have to be boring, as Hambling previously proved with her divisive tribute to Oscar Wilde, camply gesticulating as he melts into the Strand.
Hegel lamented fashion as something which took the viewer away from the statue. But Diana was fashion. Her clothes – irreverent, calculated, entirely of their time – were an intrinsic part of her public existence. In depicting Diana as compassionate but drab, the sculptor has failed to see her in her entirety. If a sculptor chooses to clothe their subject, the clothing must speak. Here it only whispers.