Ama Menec is a British based wildlife, feminist and historical sculptor mostly known for her bronzes. Ama has been campaigning for a life-sized statue of Regency diarist Anne Lister – known as “Gentleman Jack” – to be erected in Calderdale, West Yorkshire, where Lister lived much of her life. Anne Lister has been dubbed “the first modern lesbian”. This is the story of Ama’s campaign to honour Anne Lister with a public statue.
Anne Lister (1791-1840) has been rattling around in my head for 30 years, so it is with a bit of a relief to finally finish my maquette, (small scale model), and send her to the foundry for casting this week. Now I can sit back and enjoy the ride as she is transformed from plastoline, (a mixture of terracotta clay and wax), via pink silicone, to green wax and white china clay, to finally hot foundry, copper-penny looking, bronze. Then I’ll meet up with her in Stroud, Gloucestershire, to oversee her patination which is where the magic really happens. Via a gas torch and a lot of chemicals, she will come to life in full technicolour. Anne Lister striding womanfully across the highest peaks of the French Pyrenees, coat billowing, holding one of her famous diaries in her right hand, her left held in open invitation for you to join her in her adventures.
I first came across this Regency and early Victorian powerhouse of a woman at a talk in Halifax, West Yorkshire given by local historian Helena Whitbread. I read Helena’s book at the time called I Know My Own Heart, later reissued as The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister, visited Shibden Hall where Anne Lister lived, and took visiting lesbian friends to first gaze at her portrait in the Great Hall, and then to go and have a row with the shop staff, as Calderdale Council who own Shibden Hall refused to stock this book for sale. In the 1990s they worried visitors would not come to Shibden if they knew about Anne Lister and her ‘scandalous’ lesbian romances. In some ways things have changed greatly in Calderdale, in part thanks to the hit TV series Gentleman Jack, but in one very important regard, things have not changed at all.
How to sum up a life for those who have not read the many books or watched the two dramas about Anne Lister? Well funnily enough that is exactly what I have tried to do in my sculpture of her. She has been called everything from “a great lover of women” to “a rake”. As a girl she was thrown out of her same sex school in York for “being a distraction to the other girls”, (I should say so, I’ve seen what she etched onto the window at the head of the class, as well as the copycat declarations of same sex love scratched onto glass by other girls 10 – 40 years later around the corner), and only readmitted once her young Anglo Indian lover had left school. A girl who was confident her sexuality was “God given” and thus perfectly natural, thanks to her early non-censored education in the classics; there are Greek and Roman lesbians to be found if you are given a boys’ education. Later in life a landowner and business woman, and the first of the “Intrepid Victorian Women Travellers”. A woman of considerable vigour, with a thirst for knowledge and interested in absolutely everything, who truly epitomises the phrase ‘life-long learning’. And most importantly of all, a diarist who put onto paper everything she thought, heard, studied, said, did and felt, often in staggering detail, with the juiciest bits in her own unique code she called ‘Crypt Hand’, and often with a beautiful turn of phrase. In life she wanted to be a writer; in death she has become rather a famous one, globally.
Ama Menec finishing off her Anne Lister maquette
So, why have I been sculpting Anne Lister? Fast forward some considerable time during which I had considered transcribing Anne Lister’s journals but rejected that idea on health grounds, her ‘Plain Hand’ handwriting is often dreadful! I attended Art College during which I also taught Lesbian Herstory, (one lesson on Anne Lister, obviously), became a full time sculptor and slowly transitioned from ceramic to foundry bronze. Because of its cost, many bronze sculptors have inherited wealth to prop up their sculptural aspirations. Being working class, I did not. Then in 2018 during Devon Open Studios these great loves converged, following a conversation with two gay men from Halifax who told me Calderdale still had done nothing to honour their most illustrious daughter, and a chat with another sculptor who was working on an eye-wateringly expensive, and huge, public sculpture for Halifax of the disbanding Halifax Regiment. I did a bit of research and found that Halifax had not just done nothing to honour Anne Lister, but that her tombstone was in three pieces, with her name removed and nowhere near her body; in short the ultimate dishonouring you can do to anyone after their death.
I suggested I make a life size statue of Anne Lister for Shibden Hall which Calderdale Council refused. I set up a petition, which got 10,000 signatures from all across the world in under two months in support of my idea, and still a flat “No”, “We have no money” etc. This despite my offering to do the fundraising myself, as many catch-up statues of Britain’s amazing and under-recognised women, community-lead initiatives are doing. Still “No”. Then there followed talks with the University of York to place a public statue of Anne Lister within the grounds of Kings Manor where she went to school, underneath her famous graffiti, which was eventually declined because of “planned work” to the site. A bit of a relief really, as it is a Grade 1 medieval listed building requiring archaeological surveys, planning permissions and possibly craning the finished statue over the medieval roof; it was giving me sleepless nights!
Then the filming of Gentleman Jack occurred and things started to look more promising. The University of York announced the building of a new college to be called the ‘Anne Lister College’. They are interested in buying a maquette, when finished, to see if it might be suitable as a larger scale piece for the college, and Calderdale sent slightly more positive feedback for something for Shibden Hall or for Halifax, so I started working seriously on my maquette.
Maquettes are three-dimensional sketches to aid the making of a full-sized sculpture, and as a rule, don’t use an armature inside them as this gets in the way as the idea develops. However, given the dynamic nature of Miss Anne Lister I had to make use of one, and remove it and other bits of metal and replace them several times as she took shape. A maquette is where you figure out the form, the clothing, the details and the support. Anne Lister has had three different bases, the last being a real brain teaser as showing her famed ascent of Vignemale, she being officially the first person to climb it. Strangely, for one so detailed in her diaries and it being so momentous an occasion, (she was racing to conquer Vignemale before a Russian Prince could stake his claim), she left very little information on the route she took!
Anne Lister striding womanfully across the highest peaks of the French Pyrenees, coat billowing, holding one of her famous diaries in her right hand, her left held in open invitation for you to join her in her adventures.
The most famous and beautiful declaration of same sex love from her diaries: “I love and only love the fairer sex, and thus beloved by them in turn, my heart revolts from any other love than theirs” is emblazoned across the outside of the mountain peaks in both ‘Plain Hand’ twinned with her original ‘Crypt Hand’. Ranged around the inside edge is a partial list of her lifetime achievements, (there simply isn’t room to fit them all in!), but most importantly included is that ever illusive, ever omitted, crucial ‘L-word’, to properly honour this proudly lesbian woman who defied every convention of her time.
This maquette is being cast now as a limited edition of 25, and they are available to order now at £2,000 each. A 50% deposit of £1,000 secures your number of the edition. Please email me via my website www.amamenec-sculpture.co.uk if you would like to have a mini Miss Lister marching across your desk or mantelpiece.
Meanwhile Calderdale has lost its courage again and gone back to its habitual “No”. They don’t respond to community lead initiates it seems, and are not interested in addressing the gender imbalance of most sculptures being about men, (95% in fact if you discount female royals and allegorical figures), and are also sculpted mostly by men. Anne Lister often found Halifax stifling and parochial, and so frequently escaped to York where she was more accepted, and had a considerable network of lesbian friends. It is easy, even now, to see why.
To read more about Ama’s campaign for a life-sized sculpture of Anne Lister to be displayed in Calderdale please go to her website www.amamenec-sculpture.co.uk