It’s rare that women’s lives are honoured in statue form. In Parliament Square, there’s only one sculpture of a woman — Millicent Fawcett — while the rest are men. And, shockingly, London has twice as many statues of animals as named women (there are about 1,500 monuments across the city, fifty depict specific women while nearly 100 are of animals).
In a history-making moment, the first, full-size bronze statue of one of London's most famous authors, Virginia Woolf, was unveiled in west London last week, overlooking the riverside at Richmond-upon-Thames, where the author set up Hogarth Press and lived for a decade. After a five-year funding campaign that raised £50,000, the sculpture sits on a bench, book in hand, smiling.
The sculptor behind the Woolf sculpture, Laury Dizengremel, hopes that it will challenge stereotypes. ‘There are so few women represented in sculpture,’ Dizengremel told the Guardian. ‘I find it quite remarkable that [Woolf] will be situated where so many people will walk past, where so many women and girls will be inspired.’
But locals have different ideas about the statue. The Richmond Society previously said putting a statue commemorating her near water felt inappropriate, since Virginia Woolf died aged 59 after she drowned herself in the River Ouse near her Sussex home in 1941. She lived in Richmond from 1914 to 1924.
Charity Aurora Metro first revealed plans for the bronze statue in 2017 and won permission from Richmond Council in 2018. But campaigners claimed the riverside location was ‘insensitive’ and ‘reckless’, considering the circumstances of Woolf's death.
At a meeting regarding the statue last year, Barry May, chairman of the Richmond Society, said that the riverside location was ill-advised, insensitive and reckless. He added: a ‘figure reclining on a bench gazing over the water might distress anyone who knows her story and is in a vulnerable state of mind’.
But, speaking at the unveiling ceremony, Woolf’s great-great niece Sophie Partridge said: ‘I think the criticism is a very narrow way of thinking about it. Virginia Woolf has been defined by her death, but she is so much more than that. She is sitting by the river and, to me, the river is an expression of life.’
Partridge called the unveiling of the statue a ‘good moment’ for the family. She added: ‘My impression of her is that she was a complex person with perhaps more contrast than you would expect. She was very intelligent and vivacious, very thoughtful, interesting and interested.’
‘I am really happy to see this statue of her being unveiled, there is something about the way she is sitting in front of the river which is very natural.’
The statue by sculptor Laury Dizengremel can be found on the upper terraces of Richmond Riverside.