Four shortlisted designs for a statue of eco pioneer Emily Williamson (1855-1936) were unveiled on the centenary of The Plumage Act (1st July 2021), the RSPB’s first legislation triumph and the result of Emily’s long campaign.
The ceremony took place in the grounds of her Manchester home, where the original Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) was founded over cups of tea in 1889.
Emily’s major role as a catalyst for the conservation movement has, until now, been erased from the narrative – and so the Emily Williamson Statue Campaign intends to put her name back into the public sphere and inspire a new generation of nature activists.
How the RSPB was founded in Manchester
“Emily’s story demonstrates that we can all make a difference with our actions,” said Andrew Simcock, Chair of the Emily Williamson Statue Campaign.
“Frustrated by the Victorian’s fashion for feathers and the damaging impact this was having to the natural world she took a stand that would eventually lead to a change in legislation and would lay the foundations for the RSPB.
“It’s an inspiring story and one that the four short listed sculptors have honoured beautifully in their designs.”
Tessa Boase, author and historian, says: “Five years ago no-one had heard of Emily Williamson, the RSPB’s inspirational founder.
“Having brought her story to light and started this statue campaign, I’m elated that we’ve got to this exciting milestone.
“Each of the four shortlisted sculptors has brought a unique interpretation to the Emily story, and it’ll be fascinating to get public feedback over the next four months.”
What are the shortlisted designs?
Clare Abbatt looks to the future by placing Emily next to a young girl who represents her great great niece, Professor Melissa Bateson, who now works as a bird scientist.
The intention is to engage visitors of all ages in the challenges faced by the natural world.
“I’m committed to the idea of taking something forward; of it being not just a memorial, but a living inspiration,” says Clare.
“I want to celebrate what the RSPB is doing today by creating a piece of work that engages visitors of all ages, which children in particular can enjoy and learn from.”
Billie Bond makes direct reference to ‘murderous millinery’ with a bird hat, turned upsidedown to become a bird bath.
Emily is seated quietly and contemplatively on a bench in her garden: the visitor is invited to join her, and reflect on the story.
“To me, the feathers, the hats and the birds were the most important part of the story,” says Billie.
“The statue needs to shock, to show what was happening. But I wanted the hat to also tell a different story.
“By turning it upside down, Emily is giving it back to the birds.
“The little bird perched on the rim is a robin. It’s a symbolic offering: the robin represents rebirth.”
The design of international artist Laury Dizengremel is serene and simple: a young Emily looks tenderly and compassionately at a bird held in her hand.
Laury’s aim is for people to have an instant connection to the statue.
“I want people to have an emotional response to my sculpture of Emily,” says Laury.
“I want it to have an emotional impact. I want people to be able to walk up to it, like a person, and say, “Hi there”.
Eve Shepherd has conceived a design that reveals more the closer one gets – with a crinoline dress that is in fact an organic cliff face, a nesting ground home to the birds that Emily campaigned to save.
It also reflects a concern for the future, with birds that are vulnerable today incorporated into the design; owl, heron, grebe and kingfisher.
“My version of Emily draws together both person and landscape,” says Eve.
“She protects the birds, women and girls within her care; she is the ‘mother of nature’.
“Visually, the statue will blend in with its leafy surroundings, as Emily’s verdigris skirts fade upwards to a warm conker brown.
“My work is designed to fit within nature and grow out of nature, as if Emily’s emerging from her surroundings.
“She is the conservation story. She’s Mother Nature herself.”
How to vote for your favourite
Each of the sculptors has created a maquette of their proposed design, which the public are now invited to vote for over the next four months and encouraged to support via the Crowdfunder that is helping to make this project a reality.
The plan is for the final statue to be unveiled in Fletcher Moss Park, Didsbury on the occasion of Emily’s birthday on 17 April 2023.
This is the location of Emily’s former home, The Croft, which still stands in the park and is where she held the first meeting in 1889 that would lead to the founding of the RSPB; now the UK’s largest nature conservation charity and a partner in this project.