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Jane Austen statue proposed for Winchester Cathedral Close

05 March 2024

© Steve Russell Studios

The maquette by Martin Jennings

The maquette by Martin Jennings

WINCHESTER CATHEDRAL has revealed the preliminary design of a proposed statue of Jane Austen, commissioned from the figurative sculptor Martin Jennings, to mark the 250th anniversary in 2025 of the novelist’s birth.

She is buried in the north nave aisle of the cathedral. Her memorial stone makes no mention of her literary achievements, but speaks of “the benevolence of her heart, the sweetness of her temper and the extraordinary endowments of her mind”. A brass plaque was added in 1872 at the request of her nephew, to address the omission.

The life-size sculpture is destined for the Inner Close, once the main cloister of St Swithun’s Priory. The maquette depicts Austen as risen from her writing table and looking outwards: a stance described by the author of The Real Jane Austen, Professor Paula Byrne, as truly wonderful.

“It captures Austen’s sparkling intelligence, her slender, upright figure, her lightness of touch, as we see in her novels, and her playfulness,” she writes. “The WOMAN is at the forefront of the sculpture, resplendent in her vigour and energy.”

Most of the £100,000 to fund the work has been secured, and the Chapter is confident that it will be fully funded before work is due to start next month.

Dr Gillian Dow, a former executive director of Chawton House Library, has admired Jennings’s depiction of “the quietly confident Jane Austen”. It has not, however, met with the approval of a longstanding Friend of Winchester Cathedral and former chairman of the Jane Austen Society, Elizabeth Proudman. She is quoted in the Hampshire Chronicle as saying: “I don’t think any statue is appropriate for this part of Winchester Cathedral.

“The Inner Close is where the monks had a private area, it’s a special place. I don’t think we want to turn it into Disneyland-on-Itchen. I don’t think the Inner Close is the place to attract a lot of lovely American tourists to come and have a selfie with Jane Austen.”

The Dean, the Very Revd Catherine Ogle, told the Church Times on Tuesday: “A well-considered statue in an outdoor or public space has the capacity to surprise and delight, to bring additional meaning to a place which might not otherwise be apparent to a casual passer-by.

“Look at the inspired sculptural examples of Elgar leaning on his bicycle outside Worcester Cathedral, or the Windrush group, exhausted by their journey, resting next to their suitcases at London’s Waterloo station. The proposed Austen statue at Winchester follows this tradition. She is depicted as a modest figure, lightly touching her precious desk on which lie the tools of her trade.”

She reflected that, as a Hampshire-born woman, Austen would have known and recognised the Cathedral Close as it remains today. The proposed location was close to a familiar route she would have taken, and which also became her final journey from her College Street lodgings to her place of rest in the cathedral.

The cathedral had hoped for some years to give Austen a fitting tribute as a sculpture, Dean Ogle said. “The opportunity has now arisen with a significant number of private donors and small grant providers keen to see in place the splendid and sensitive design by the acclaimed sculptor Martin Jennings. These funds are restricted by the donors to this project only.

“We recognise that, at a time of cost inflation for so many people, of anxiety about the future, and conflict in society, the idea of bringing to fruition a statue of arguably Britain’s greatest literary figure could be seen as frivolous. Funding for the arts, be it for sculpture or any other medium, is always open to question, which we understand.

“However, with the enthusiastic support of our private donors and the wider benefit it will bring to Winchester, Hampshire, and many of the Austen fans nationally and worldwide, we consider this project should proceed.”

Mr Jennings, whose statue of Sir John Betjeman stands at St Pancras Station, and who created the official coin effigy of the King, puts a strong emphasis on the developing nature of the work, the “living process” of design. “There are various things I know I want to change,” he told the audience at the public launch on Monday of last week.

“Some people have said she looks a little careworn. I don’t want her to look like she’s exhausted. I want the sculpture to express her spirit.”

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