Britain memorializes a queen, with smiles and bronze corgis

The First Art Newspaper on the Net    Established in 1996 Saturday, May 18, 2024

Britain memorializes a queen, with smiles and bronze corgis
The sculptor Hywel Pratley uses ferric nitrate and a torch flame to add a patina to a limited edition maquette of his Queen Elizabeth II statue, at his studio in London, April 16, 2024. Sculptors have immortalized past British monarchs with imposing, stern-faced statues, but for Queen Elizabeth II, they’re taking a different approach. (Joshua Bright/The New York Times)

by Alex Marshall

OAKHAM.- It looked like a corgi convention.

On Sunday afternoon in Oakham, a quaint English market town, hundreds of local residents stood behind a temporary barrier and craned their necks to see the 50 or so dogs waddling past in the local library’s gardens.

The yapping mutts were just a sideshow, however, to the main event, which was announced from a dais by Sarah Furness, a local dignitary: the unveiling of Britain’s first memorial statue to Queen Elizabeth II.

The 7-foot bronze work, by London-based sculptor Hywel Pratley, shows the queen in flowing robes, with three corgis at her feet. “What most of us remember about Queen Elizabeth is her warmth,” Furness said in a speech. “By showing Queen Elizabeth’s love of dogs, we show her humanity,” she added.

Eighteen months after Elizabeth’s death, Britain is beginning to memorialize the former monarch, with municipalities and institutions across the country unveiling statues in her honor.

Sculptors began working on some of these long before the queen’s death, including one at York Minister in the north of England, unveiled in 2022, that presents her in full regalia. Another, at the Royal Albert Hall in London, shows a younger, glamorous monarch on a night out at that concert hall, wearing a fashionable dress and tiara.

But many, including the Oakham statue, are more recent commissions. And most of those, unlike the stern statues of Queen Victoria found across Britain, depict the queen as warm and approachable.

This fall, authorities in the town of Newcastle-under-Lyme plan to unveil a work in bronze by Andy Edwards that shows the queen smiling and clutching flowers. The local government for Test Valley, in southern England, this year plans to unveil two sculptures of the queen by Amy Goodman, one of which depicts a beaming monarch waving at passersby.

In 2026, a joint committee set up by the royal family and the British government plans to unveil its ideas for a national Queen Elizabeth II memorial.

Pratley, the Oakham statue sculptor, said in an interview that depicting the queen in a relatable way reflected many Britons’ memories of her as “an almost motherly figure.”

It also reflected a move in public statuary toward sculptures that encouraged interaction, he said, rather than depictions that glared down from high pedestals. (He hoped that children would sit on the corgis in Oakham, he added.)

Furness, the local dignitary, said she came up with the idea for a monument in September 2022, almost immediately after the queen’s death. As the Lord-Lieutenant of Rutland, Furness represents the monarchy at events around Oakham, and she said that residents kept “stopping me in the street, and saying what a shock it was the queen had died and how much she meant to them.”

After speaking with a local foundry, Furness approached Pratley with a commission.

The sculptor’s first idea was for a statue depicting an elderly queen wearing a pillbox hat, sitting on a bench surrounded by corgis. That idea was “charming,” Furness recalled, but it hadn’t felt right. “If it were a statue of my grandmother, I’d have loved it,” Furness said, “but I thought for the longest serving monarch, and a statue that’ll last for hundreds of years, she had to look like a queen.”

Soon after their first meeting, Pratley changed tack and made a maquette featuring the queen in flowing robes, though he kept the corgis. With that model on view, Furness said, it had been easy to raise the statue’s cost of 140,000 pounds (about $177,000) from the public.

But in Britain, months of commemorations have also led to some fatigue, said Graham Smith, the CEO of Republic, an anti-monarchist organization. He pointed out that London’s transport authorities had recently named a subway line after the queen, adding that she hardly needed to be carved in stone or remembered in bronze, too. “Maybe we just give it a rest,” Smith said, adding “there were better people to celebrate” in public places.

At Sunday’s unveiling, the popularity of Pratley’s statue in Oakham was clear. After Furness slipped away the sheet covering the art work, the local bishop, Debbie Sellin, gave a blessing — “May it bring joy and encouragement,” she said — a bagpiper played a lament and the crowd sang Britain’s national anthem. (“God Save the King,” these days.) Then, residents and tourists lined up to take selfies in front of the new landmark.

Charlie Farrow, 62, who had brought along her own corgi, Edith, said that she thought the bronze queen looked “a little thick” around the waist, but, overall, Pratley’s artwork was “a really nice piece.”

She especially liked the corgis. “In many respects these dogs symbolize what she was,” Farrow said: “Her Majesty was fabulous, really good-natured and no trouble.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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