Mary Seacole

Lord Soley

I have been very busy just recently and one of my activities has been the Mary Seacole Memorial Statue Appeal of which I am chairman. Mary Seacole was the Afro Caribbean nurse of the Crimean war and she was buried in my Hammersmith constituency – Kensal Green cemetery.

Years ago the black community in Hammersmith told me that she was left out of the Crimean war memorial in London and yet she was very famous and popular in her day. She became a confidant of Queen Victoria. Her contribution to nursing was different to Florence Nightingale but no less important. She looked after troops on the front line. For more details see:

Today I have issued a press release naming the eight shortlisted artists chosen to submit designs for a memorial that will go in front of St Thomas’ Hospital opposite the Houses of Parliament.

The short listed artisits are: Maurice Blik; Georgia Boyd Russell; Joy Gregory: Martin Jennings; Kenness George Kelly (Fowokan); Etienne Milner; Susan Stockwell; Bill Woodrow.

When they submit their proposals I hope to put them on display and on the Mary Seacole web site – watch this space!

This will be the first statue in the UK to an individual black woman. Her autobiography is a good Victorian read if you are still stuck for Christmas presents!

3 comments for “Mary Seacole

  1. Bedd Gelert
    17/12/2008 at 1:12 pm

    And yet more bandwagon jumping here…

    One suspects that in 50 years time there will be a renewed campaign to raise money for a statue for that ‘forgotten hero’ of the Crimea, Florence Nightingale…

  2. Senex
    17/12/2008 at 4:28 pm

    Well done! But you really must learn to forgive the Russians after all it was a long time ago?

  3. Rosemary Haworth-Booth
    03/06/2009 at 4:17 pm

    I am writing in response to the announcement that Bill Woodrow has been awarded the commission to design the Mary Seacole Memorial Statue. I think Woodrow is a great artist, he has produced much illuminating and thought provoking work , but I was sadly disappointed in the decision here. Woodrow’s cluster of white cones alongside a scattering of inscribed blocks seems curiously un-connected with what Seacole was about. The abstract forms are some way from being legible as a caring figure, despite Woodrow’s explanation of them in the Coutt’s window display, and the white blocks suggest tombstones or books (a favoured motif of Woodrow’s I believe). Seacole surely was trying to avoid the tombstone by rescuing soldiers rather than committing them to the grave, and she certainly wasn’t particularly remembered for any literary or academic skills.

    Not that I was very taken with the historicising horse and rider, portrait bust, or ‘classic’ forward striding figure (an incredibly conventional piece, inexplicably drawn as runner up,) but the entries of all three women contenders seemed to be streets ahead in terms of being imaginative, contemporarary and appropriate. I particularly liked Gregory’s bench/armchair set to be made on a giant scale so it could embrace a large number of people at once, but with the warmth and generosity of makeshift resourcefulness – intrinsically a Seacole characteristic – and set in the most delightful idea of a garden – another of Seacole’s winning traits was her reliance on natural remedies. Surely what we need most in these last days before we are completely taken over by climate chaos is a reminder that accord with nature is something that can really help us forward.

    Susan Stockwell’s piece comes out of her ongoing investigations into the meaning of female dress, how it can symbolise, suggest, subvert. Her familiarity with the 19th century clothed-female form has been wittily yet formidably exploited in this figure whose proportions suggest Seacole as a world in her own right. Oddly perhaps, yet entirely appropriately, the rounded forms evoke (to me at least) the memory of a school room globe, covered in pictures of different countries and striated by lines of latitude and longitude. Like that globe, or the anatomist’s dummy, Stockewell’s figure is inscribed with legends all over, with place names (a connection with the traveller/global reach idea) and to do with her work (another connection, with medicine- related to anatomy/ knowing how the human body is arranged and works). There is the suggestion of the woman restricted (through her impossible clothing) yet rising above these restrictions (the sheer scale of the piece) and the suggestion of travelling the world and embracing all (it’s difficult not to think of art historical precedents where women use their clothes to suggest their protective role, like the over-life size Piero della Francesca Madonna della Misericordia who draws all into the shelter of her cloak). Interestingly this trope seems to have been adopted more consciously in the submission by Maurice Bilk, but the extreme attenuation of the figure results in a somewhat awkward and ungainly figure.

    Georgia Russell was the third woman contender, an artist known for her contrarily graceful disembowelling of books. Disparaging as I was of Woodrow’s reverting to his leitmotif, I feel Russell’ s piece has an altogether lighter touch. Widely acclaimed as the artist who works with scalpel rather than pen or brush, her technique of teasing something astonishing out of the cast-away (many of her book-works are from scappy second hand pieces found in flea markets) with a medical tool, makes her work peculiarly appropriate, even just as metaphor. The proudly profiled black head of Seacole is the centre of a halo of waving lines which, inhabited by boats, becomes the ocean which Seacole had to cross, not just the real one, but that of race-prejudice too. like Stockwell’s work it is both transparent and material at once- the overall effect is one of strong material presence with a far reaching but gentle embrace.

    Why, I ask, did not one of the women contenders, whose work is not only infused with the knowledge of being a woman, in what is still very often a man’s world, but which seems to suggest far more accessibly what Seacole was about , win this award. It’s a shame indeed.

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