Not Diana, the Princess of Wales, We Had Known, and It’s Hard Lines on Us
Notes on the Diana-statue unveiled on 1 July 2021 in the Sunken Garden at Kensington Palace
By Elena Vassilieva
“Omnes ita perterriti erant, ut nemo resistere auderet. Alle waren so erschreckt, daß niemand Widerstand zu leisten wagte.” – August Waldeck (1891)
The ancient secret to a triumphantly successful sculpture is hidden in time, space, and divine afflatus. While I was catching glimpses of the first Royal Family-commissioned statue of the Princess Diana, I couldn’t stop wondering, why some artists are capable of curving quasi-fetishistic pieces that would be looked at with adoration and veneration, whereas others, although having skills, reputation, and accolades, are nonetheless losing the game? I realised that those breathless ones, who sculpt their pieces with zeal and love, forgetting themselves, must possess the power of turning lifeless material into something that would transcend the boundaries of its own space and influence a human being in such a profound way that the latter would believe indeed the statue empowers him with strength, gives him hope, and galvanizes him into action.
For instance, I still remember when I had stepped inside the garden of the Rodin Museum in Paris for the first time. It was in the morning, after the rain, and all the statues were covered with raindrops, the place was filled with the aroma of roses; I was instantly spellbound and couldn’t leave the garden for a very long time. All the statues there seemed to breath and exude that mysterious something that is called inspiration which brings you utter joy. I thought I would burst into a thousand pieces, that overwhelmed I was by the whole splendor of Rodin at that particular moment. A similar effect I had been expecting from the Diana-statue in the Sunken Garden at her home, while contemplating my future visits there.
High expectations? Not at all. When one thinks that it is Diana, the supernal woman with the air of being once the Roman goddess, from whose image a statue was made, say, of the Diana of Versailles, Diane a la biche, at the Louvre. All of a sudden, magically, she seemed to have stepped down from the pedestal, and then began to live among us. The Roman goddess in appearance and a rather bashful, humble young woman in her demeanour, she started captivating hearts even before she became the Princess of Wales, but when she did, everyone thought that she adorned the title and not the other way around. Now, who would dare to be called the Princess of Wales again? The Duchess of Cornwall, an intelligent woman, turned the title down quite adamantly, kudos to her for this! Perhaps, in one hundred years there will be someone in the House of Windsor who would resemble Diana and will be given the title again.
And perhaps, one day, there will be a sculptor who will be able to capture Diana’s spirit and her unforgettable beauty that was so generously supported by her kind, bright, conscientious, honest, passionate, effervescent, and romantic nature. The nature that is similar to that of goddess in classical mythology: to be a god or goddess but be devoid of the sanctimonious saintliness, in the sense of uprightness and self-righteousness (in classical culture, I find it difficult to name at least one god or goddess, let alone simple mortals, who would have it), little wonder, she had such a strong and complex personality of a perfectionist. The way, for example, she greeted the Italians in flawless and accent-free Italian, while on honeymoon on board the legendary Royal Yacht Britannia in the summer of 1981, reveals a lot about her character, her sense of duty, and her attitude towards the people. One can easily see that she made her best effort preparing this excellent greeting speech in the language of the people she was visiting. One can also guess that when she loved, she loved wholeheartedly and passionately, expecting reciprocity. Another important thing that manifested, I dare say, in her nature of a goddess, was her intolerance to any kind of betrayal, especially by those who were/are brazen enough to claim they knew her that well they were/are allowed, to this day, to judge her public and particularly her private life, be it her former best friend or employee, e.g., the butler, equerry, biographer, or journalist as if desperate to diminish her persona and to steal a piece of the glory and love she has received from the people all around the globe, not knowing that this way they only belittle themselves. There was no dissonance between the external and internal side of her personality, and if there were, then her beauty would’ve been fleeting. But it wasn’t the case.
Depiction of her face and body in the statue in an exact, realistic, manner, as the Princes might have wished, is a task that is per se relatively easy, given that Diana is a classical beauty, and therefore any idealisation of her image is superfluous. One just must go to Paris and spend days and nights at the Louvre, with the Diana of Versailles, copying her boldly; afterwards, one may want to add some refinement and the finishing touches that would make the Princess of Wales recognisable. There is no other way to do it if the precise physical likeness to the Princess Diana is sought, and if the artistic style of sculpting should be realism (naturalism), and if the sculptor doesn’t want to stumble. When one was born with divine looks, one can’t possibly be deprived of them, for the simplest reason that looks are a fact, the truth. Remember what Gertrude Stein once famously said: “Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose?” This fact matters a great deal here. Every single part of her figure should be studied carefully in order to avoid postmodern kitsch and the effect of “the Diana in name only.” For any experienced and classically trained artist with good logical, spatial, and mathematical skills, it shouldn’t be very difficult to do it at all, particularly because of the initial striking resemblance between the two Dianas. Also, the Princess Diana as a statue shouldn’t be necessarily wearing what she wore in real life, even if the Princes insisted (they aren’t sculptors, after all, and how I wish they were!). Instead selecting an attire that would mirror her spirit and accentuate her personality would be much wiser. Her real clothes are not going to make the statue look like Diana, anyway, if the “it” that brings her back to us sculpturally isn’t there. No doubt, it’s the luxury to know an artist you could trust blindly, only then he can be given full creative freedom, and only then you are going to delight in his creation. But if one has no luxury of the sort at one’s disposal, then the commissioner ought to guide the artist through the process with his approval or disapproval of what is going on in the studio. It’s worth being vigilant to ensure that the artistic vision doesn’t divorce from the commissioner’s vision.
Of course, there are many other ways how the Princess could be portrayed. I shall take the liberty of imagining at least one of them, which might be a marble sculpture of the Princess, inspired by her image on the photo, taken superbly by Richard Young, when Diana and the Prince of Wales were on their summer voyage on Britannia in 1981. It may have also been one of the happiest moments of her life, because she radiates as much happiness there as later, when she is in the company of her beloved Princes, William and Harry. On that photograph, she wears an oversized white blazer and a triple strand pearl choker with a turquoise and pearl flower clasp, a present from the Spencer family on her 18th birthday (see the photo above). It’s hard to say what time of the day it is, but the exquisite airiness of her face has that fragile freshness of the morning and reflects her grace with such an elegant ease. The colours, including the light, are not only gorgeously right here, they are also incredibly harmonious with her whole being, creating an impression of the unity between the Princess and Nature, the space around her, that is. The composition and perspective are so successful that there is the fluidity of the contours and lines between the space of the Princess’ figure and the surroundings. And one thing one simply can’t miss here is the poetic nature of the Princess and the fineness of the moment. Should the sculptor decide that the Diana’s blazer in this marble statue shall be a line diffused into the pedestal, that will do, but should s/he think that the legs are necessary, that’ll do, too. But only if those will be the Princess Diana’s legs, not someone else’s. I would give preference to the first version, simply out of fear that the sculptor won’t be able to curve her legs in a proper fashion. In the end, it doesn’t matter at all which version it is, the sculpture just ought to entrance the spectator and give him aesthetic pleasure.
The statue in the Sunken Garden is executed in the style of realism, yet, it is not the Princess Diana. I don’t know who it is. It does remind me a little of one of the faces Mr Rank-Broadley had sculpted in the past, and did it very well, splendidly, in fact, but the handsome face of the Opening the Lock Gate’s character has little to do with Diana. And whose idea was it to politicise the sculpture by adding children who aren’t her sons? Diana’s personality needn’t be squeezed into any ideological frame and be peppered with the momentous messages of political correctness, for she was, still is, the epitome of kindness and compassion herself. Who would forget her as one of the most public-spirited human beings who ever walked on this planet? As a result, the sculptural ensemble is so inept in its composition, so intimidating in its nearly Herculean size and proportions, and the overt political editing/messaging only adds to its absolute soullessness and sad detachment, all of which is upsetting to a viewer like myself. And had the Princes decided not to unveil the statue on her birthday this year, the world wouldn’t have lost anything, on the contrary, we would’ve been still nursing hopes for THE statue of Diana, the one that would do justice to her. On that note, did I interpret it correctly, Earl Spencer, that you might have been as baffled as many of us upon seeing the unveiled statue in the Sunken Garden? There was a moment on one of the photos where you looked as if you just had a bite of the sourest apple you had ever tasted. Or was it just a wink caused by the sun?
One may wonder who is going to venture to sculpt the Princess Diana next? George Herbert Tyson Smith would have been best, of course, given his deep interest in ancient Egyptian and Romano-Greek culture. Alas, he is on the other side. Nigel Boonham perhaps then? He created a fairly good bust of the Princess and got her gracious approval despite the fact that he aged her mercilessly, in my view. Lesley Pover, a very interesting and fine artist, got Diana’s bones and bashfulness quite well, but lacked the desired likeness. Tom Murphy, a very thoughtful and skillful sculptor with such a sparkling enthusiasm, he might give it a try, since he has already been experimenting with a few Diana-sculptures. Besides, his Above Us Only Sky-John Lennon-statue (2002) at the Liverpool airport is such a successful work that it had received high praise from Her Majesty the Queen and Yoko Ono. If Mr Murphy could repeat this triumph of his with the Princess as well, that would be a dream come true. However, other talented sculptors may also reside and create outside of Great Britain.
P.S. Oh, but I still have to come and see all the flowers in the Sunken Garden redesigned by Pip Morrison.
(Written on 9 July 2021 in my white clover garden on Cape Cod.)
Copyright © 2021 by Elena Vassilieva. All rights reserved.