Artist Gillian Wearing on creating the suffragist sculpture for Parliament Square #BehindEveryGreatCity
The original brief for this project was a statue to women's suffrage. But votes for women were won by a whole movement, not just one person, so one of the first ideas I had was to incorporate a frieze of tiles, going around all four sides of the plinth, as a way of paying tribute to the wider suffrage movement. These tiles, I decided, would include both women and men, and consist of photographic portraits etched in granite, with their names underneath.
In April 2017, it was announced that Millicent Fawcett would be the main figure. Millicent was a suffragist and strongly believed in non-militant activism – as opposed to the suffragettes, led by Emmeline Pankhurst, who believed strongly in militancy. I had initially thought that all those represented in the tiles would be suffragists, like Millicent was. After discussions with Gillian Murphy, from the LSE Women’s Library, as well as historian Elizabeth Crawford, and suffrage academic Julie Gottlieb, we settled on a list of names.
However, while away on a trip, I started to question my reasoning about only including suffragists. The logic worked, but I realized I was missing out on an opportunity to highlight the fact that many different people were part of this fight for equality. The suffragettes in particular risked their lives for the vote, and there can’t be any greater sacrifice than that. With a slight panic, I explained to Jo Baxendale at the Mayor’s Office - which had commissioned the project - that I wanted to open up the list to include suffragettes.
Jo organized a meeting with a larger group of suffrage academics and historians, so we could debate who would be ideal for representation on the tiles. There are now 59 people included on the tiles, with Millicent standing above, who brings the total to 60. The majority of these figures are women, meaning there will now be more women than men commemorated in Parliament Square.
As soon as I heard the main figure was going to be Millicent, I immediately knew I wanted to have her with a banner, saying: "Courage calls to courage everywhere". Millicent had said those words following the death of suffragette Emily Wilding Davison, who was hit by the King’s horse at Epsom Derby. Her acknowledgement of Emily’s sacrifice in this beautiful quote brings the suffragists and suffragettes together, literally under the same banner. They're fabulous words, and they can speak to people on many different levels. Of course, it also harks back slightly to my early 1990s ‘signs’ series of photographs, where people were asked to write anything they wanted on an A3 piece of paper.
Will Britain Get Through This Recession by Gillian Wearing, 1992/93 (From the collection of British Council)
I was initially a bit stumped about what age Millicent should be portrayed as in the sculpture, she lived until age 82 so there were many moments to focus on. I called Caroline Craido Perez – who had successfully campaigned for the statue – to get her advice. She immediately said she should be represented at the age she became leader of the NUWSS (the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies), which was 60 years old.
When you look at all the other sculptures in Parliament Square, they're all about people changing history in some way, and that's exactly what the women's suffrage movement did. Those statues all celebrate older, middle-aged men, after they've achieved something. They're not young men, so it wouldn't have made sense to show Millicent as a younger woman, because all her achievements came later in life. Even though she started campaigning at 19, and spent six decades trying to get votes for women, it wasn't until towards the end of that period that she actually achieved those goals.
Most of the sculpture is machine-made from a 3D-printed cast. This is done using a photogrammetry setup, where someone stands in the centre of a space, while cameras circling around the figure capture their pose from all angles. Those images are then composited and turned into a 3D image. For this I needed a model with a similar build to Millicent, to be photographed wearing a traditional costume, and in the pose that I needed for the statue. I asked award-winning costume designer Deirdre Clancy to create a walking suit based on one similar to Fawcett’s.
Millicent Fawcett's head, recreated for the statue, courtesy of Gillian Wearing (From the collection of Mayor of London)
I also felt it was important to incorporate an actual object of hers, to bring an authenticity to the sculpture. I looked at a bag she owned at the LSE Library, but it was a battered old thing that would have looked a bit out of place. Then I heard about a brooch that belongs to the Fawcett Society, and their CEO Sam Smethers actually brought it down to Pinewood studios to be 3D scanned.
3D Systems, who undertook the scanning and printing, composited the images and then printed out the scans. This was then sent to MDM Props to be assembled into one piece. The shoes and head were sculpted in clay, a fabric banner was made and cast, and finally my own hands were cast. I chose to use my own hands as I am similar in age to the woman being depicted, and I noticed that Millicent wore a wedding band ring like mine. Once all the components were assembled, they then had to be disassembled again, in order for them to be cast in bronze at AB Foundry.
Millicent Fawcett with Frances Balfour, Ethel Snowden, Emily Davies and Sophie Bryant at a suffrage demo in 1910 (From the collection of LSE Library)
It has been an honor to design this sculpture, and I was fortunate to have freedom to make all the creative choices about the work. Ultimately, my wish is that the statue sends a message of encouragement and hope to people. When you come together with a powerful message, and you succeed – as was the case with women's suffrage – then that's something that has to be remembered and celebrated by history. I hope it encourages people in the future to make their voices heard.