Despite numerous representations over many years, Mary Anning remains one of the most enigmatic figures in the history of the South West. Andrew Carey has talked with Greta Berlin about her recently unveiled sculpture of one of Lyme Regis’s local heroes
‘The first thing my builders did when I showed her to them was to look up her skirt. Well, skirts.’ Greta Berlin is talking about her remarkable new sculpture of Mary Anning, finished in 2019, which has just been installed as the Parish Boundary Marker on the coast path between Charmouth and Wootton Fitzpaine. And there’s a lot to unpick in that throwaway remark of hers.
First, I’m not sure about the rights and wrongs of upskirting a sculpture. There are some familiar old stereotypes lurking in there. But, hang on. Mary Anning? This is not the Mary Anning we know from conventional statues of her and that painting—the stout Victorian lady with the air of Beatrix Potter’s Mrs Tiggywinkle. This is a lithe, athletic, agile, eager young woman, hammer in hand, sleeves and skirts hitched up as she steps forward and upward to examine some new curiosity in the grey cliffs between Lyme and Charmouth. (Incidentally, the hammer in Mary Anning’s right hand is one that Greta found on Lyme’s East Beach in the collapsing rubbish dump, close to where some of Mary Anning’s most important finds were made.)
But it’s not just her appearance that’s had a comprehensive upgrade. In this remarkable figure, Greta is telling us quite a lot more about Mary Anning’s inner landscape. ‘I felt she just went her own way regardless, and I wanted it to be about a woman exploring and overcoming.’ Exploring and overcoming, that is, not just the treacherous Blue Lias cliffs and the treasures buried in them, but also the constraints and prejudices and blind stupidities of contemporary 19th-century society. As a woman, she was not allowed to join the Geological Society and her contributions to the burgeoning scientific knowledge of the period were rarely credited to her.
‘I felt it must have been quite difficult for her’, Greta goes on, ‘and I wanted to represent women’s strength and courage and determination.’ As she speaks, the parallels with her own life become clear—and clearer still when she starts to talk about the skeleton of the fossil ichthyosaur that the sculpture carries on her head. ‘I’ve put things on women’s heads for twenty years.’
‘It’s something to do with women under oppression. In Kenya I discovered that, in some villages, a widow has to carry her husband’s head around with her for the rest of her life. Women have to deal with so much.’ So the fossil that Mary Anning carries on her head, which might have been the source of recognition, pride and financial security, comes to stand for the burden of family responsibilities that weighed upon her and the injustice that she daily faced as men boasted of—and grew rich on—the specimens that she had found and, often, dug out, drawn, described and sold for a pittance.
What of the sculpture then? ‘I have always loved skeletons and fossils because they’re nature’s architecture. So this piece drew me in—the architecture of the steel bars, of the armature. It’s all light engineering,’ she says. I want to argue that this work is about much more: about desire and dreaming and finding the beauty in the landscape of the human body. But I don’t need to do that, because, as she continues, I realise that calling it ‘light engineering’ is not a way of dismissing her work. It’s a way of celebrating it:
‘You have to know where you’re going… get all the rods at the right angles… the way the tensions build up with the heat as you’re welding … sloshing on the jesmonite with only a minute to work it before it goes off … carving the shapes out of flat steel with a plasma cutter … and there’s more engineering than normal because it’s not been cast.’
As we turn to leave the sculpture in its new home on the coast path, Greta says: ‘I always forget how difficult these things are to make. Looking at her, I feel amazed. How did that happen?’
And I don’t need to say, well, maybe it’s something to do with your own lifetime of exploring and overcoming, of strength and courage and determination, of desire and dreaming and finding the beauty in the landscape of the human body.
You can visit Greta’s Mary Anning if you take the brand new coast path diversion between Charmouth and Lyme Regis. From the very top of Old Lyme Hill in Charmouth, follow the new fenced path round the edge of the golf course until you come to Mary Anning in the woods. The What3Words location is: totally.ruby.thickens.
Greta Berlin’s ‘Mary Anning’ was commissioned for The West Dorset Walkers Welcome project, curated by Dorset Council’s Countryside & Greenspace Team and Cleo Evans at the Arts Development Company.