On why Anne Lister should have her own statue
"Why has Halifax never celebrated their most illustrious daughter?"
Anger can be a galvaniser...
When I used to teach Women’s Self Defence, I’d say, “Turn your anger into action!” or to use the old feminist adage, “Don’t agonise, organise!” The question is, what are we prepared to get so angry about that it will spur us on to doing something really BIG?
A few months ago an LGBTQ organisation in York, England, decided to put a blue plaque surrounded by a rainbow border up on the side of a church in York, to commemorate the wedding of Anne Lister and Ann Walker in 1832.
While I was delighted Anne Lister was getting some recognition at last, the trouble was the word “lesbian” was swapped for the ghastly phrase “gender non conforming”, a term that could apply to almost anyone for anything, but totally inappropriate for the incredible and very much lesbian Anne Lister.
I was furious, and like a lot of other furious people I signed the petition to stop this act of lesbian erasure; but just signing a petition simply didn’t feel like enough…
Years ago, I lived in and around Halifax, West Yorkshire, at the same time as Helena Whitbread published a sizeable chunk of Anne Lister's Diaries called The Secret Diary of Miss Anne Lister.
I saw the diaries "in the flesh" in the archives of the Halifax Library – including her coded entries, in a mix of algebra and Greek, and I took visiting lesbian friends to see her portrait at Shibden Hall where she used to live and love.
After that we would go into the shop to have a row with the staff as to why Calderdale Council would not sell the published diaries in the shop, for fear that Anne Lister's lesbianism would get out and shock the visitors!
I left Calderdale to do a ceramics degree, but I also taught a 12-week course on lesbian history at the nearby Nottingham Women’s Centre, with one full session dedicated to Anne Lister. She wrote over four million words in her diaries alone – there’s plenty of material to go on.
I then became self-employed as a ceramic sculptor, making small and large sculptures of ancient Goddesses and female archetypes, slowly but surely moving into patinated foundry bronze to colour my sculptures in as life-like a way as possible.
And then the "gender non conforming" incident got me properly furious; I was tampin’ (...as they’d say in Yorkshire).
It made me pause and think, why has Halifax never celebrated their most illustrious daughter? If a man achieved all the things she did: Polyglot, intrepid traveller, hill walker, mountaineer, diarist, entrepreneur, industrialist, landowner, scholar, infamous lover of women; there would likely have been a statue somewhere in the town trumpeting him already.
That Anne Lister did all of these things at a time when it was not acceptable for a woman to any of them, is a small blue plaque in a nearby county really the best we can do for this phenomenal woman?
And so I designed a large public sculpture for Shibden Hall, one that wove all her achievements through it and had Anne Lister striding womanfully up a rock, looking out over the Shibden Estate.
I made it site-specific so that she would be placed at the front of the building next to the steps to the library tower she had built, so that people can walk up those steps to be on a level with her, and can reach out to her open hand and find a real connection to her past in their present.
This sculpture will look like, at any moment, she could start breathing...
I contacted the Arts Council England and other organisations and they are really excited about the project, and it seems much of the funding can be found for this, so then I sent my proposal to Calderdale Council; who promptly turned it down.
Filming has recently been taking place at Shibden Hall for a HBO/BBC TV drama called Gentleman Jack about the life and loves of Anne Lister, and soon half of the world will know her name.
Calderdale Council feel no need for such a sculpture thinking its purpose is just to help improve visitor numbers to Shibden Hall; whereas it is, of course, about so much more than that.
Yes, the TV drama Gentleman Jack will bring in more visitors to Shibden Hall but how about giving something back to those visitors, something only a life-like sculpture can achieve?
Not in the least daunted, I have set up a Facebook Page and have also set up a petition to help prove to Calderdale Council – and the cultural services manager in particular – that there is a need locally, nationally and internationally for a sculpture of this kind, the first of any out lesbian in the UK.
With only 3% of Britain’s public sculptures being of named women (as distinct from allegorical figures, seasons, countries, etc), and absolutely none of these being of an out, named lesbian, the time is right to address this.
If we want Britain to be culturally diverse, we need to reflect that diversity in public art. We all of us need plentiful images of fearless women, and as a woman who slept with a loaded pistol under her pillow, there are few more fearless than Anne Lister.
All of us deserve to see a more inclusive history of Britain, not just of Kings, colonialists and military men. All of us need and deserve inspiration and representation from the past.
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