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'Not just a memorial but a living inspiration' – Clare Abbatt

Updated: Jul 9, 2021

Clare Abbatt s an artist, a sculptor and a teacher who lives in rural Northamptonshire. She's also a grandmother, and this sense of the next generation is very much behind her proposed sculpture of RSPB founder Emily Williamson.

'I’m committed to the idea of taking something forward,' she says; 'of it being not just a memorial, but a living inspiration,' she told the statue selection panel. 'I feel passionate about the natural world; the need to protect, to fight for it.

I was so inspired by Emily’s relationship with Sir Patrick Bateson and Melissa Bateson, and really like the thought of this connection going through the generations. It’s so important to take this forward. In my entry, Emily and her great, great niece Melissa will both be looking to the skies, where the bird will be released. They’re also looking to the future.'

Clare Abbatt's statues will be at ground level: 'I want people to feel they’re very approachable, and I hope they’ll engage with them. You could devise great engagement with schoolchildren; educational activities; people having their photos taken. I want it to draw people in, so that they’re inspired to know the story behind the sculpture, ask questions, engage with nature – perhaps buy bird boxes for their children. That’s the kind of response I want.

I'm very motivated by the idea of the ‘good ancestor’: someone taking action that will resonate for decades, centuries, millennia to come. 'What we do today ripples down through the generations.'

Before entering the sculpture competition, Clare was commissioned by writer Tessa Boase to draw three, large portraits (1.5m high) of the RSPB's female founders – women who have not been remembered by history. Emily Williamson we're familiar with, thanks to our statue campaign: she founded the Society for the Protection of Birds in Didsbury, 1889. The birds flying through the drawing are to suggest both the countless species her campaign helped save, and the 'thoughts flying through her head.'

The three portraits will go on display at the Didsbury Parsonage, Thursday 1 July and Sunday 4 July, then appear at Manchester Art Gallery in September.

Also in 1889, in Croydon, Eliza Phillips started her female Fur, Fin and Feather Folk, with a focus on the cruel fashion for plumage. In 1891 the two groups merged, becoming the (R)SPB. There is no known photograph of Eliza, who (like Emily and Etta) had no children. But to be celebrated, we felt that she needed a face. A suitable image was found in an anonymous Victorian photograph album; Clare sensed that this woman's features were appropriately strong and intelligent. The bird is an egret - Eliza's favourite bird, brought to the brink of extinction by the millinery and plumage trade. Read more about the bold campaign to save the egret in Tessa Boase's blog, here.

Finally, Etta Lemon is the woman who built the RSPB. Aged 28 at its start and a member of the Croydon group, she is the dynamo who stepped forward to propel the anti plumage campaign all the way up to Parliament, triumphing with The Plumage Act of 1921. Etta was redoubtable, trenchant and fearless. Every campaigning group needs an Etta Lemon (read why here), and she's celebrated in Tessa Boase's book on the RSPB's early story, Etta Lemon, The Woman Who Saved the Birds.

Clare drew Etta Lemon with a Raggiana bird-of-paradise, since she had a passion for the species, hunted to the brink of extinction for women's hats.

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