Statue of Anne Lister, TV’s Gentleman Jack, unveiled in Halifax

The Guardian
The Guardian
Suranne Jones unveils the statue of Anne Lister at Piece Hall, Halifax on Sunday.

A bronze statue of the 19th-century diarist Anne Lister, known as Gentleman Jack, has been installed in Halifax, the West Yorkshire town where she lived.

The artwork was unveiled on Sunday by Suranne Jones, who starred as Lister in the recent BBC One drama Gentleman Jack, and Sally Wainwright, the award-winning creator of the show.

Lister, who is sometimes described as the first modern lesbian, is known for her extensive diaries detailing her life as a landowner and entrepreneur, her travels across Europe and her relationship with Ann Walker, to whom she was notionally married.

The £25,000 installation, called Contemplation and created by sculptor Diane Lawrenson, is now on permanent display at the Grade I-listed Piece Hall.

Jones said it was important that Lister was visible to the mainstream. “[In Gentlemen Jack] She has to gender-shift, in a way, and is hiding in plain sight. She is constantly facing challenges every single day of how people look at her and view her. And now in 2021 she’s sat here in the middle of the Piece Hall, where everyone comes to have their family days out. I think that’s what’s important about this specific piece of art.”

She said she was “fiercely proud” of the show and that she was part of Lister’s story.

“To be able to be on the BBC at nine o’clock on a Sunday night, with this character in full glory, has been amazing, and also fans have welcomed me as a straight actor to play Anne Lister and I enjoy being an ally – I enjoy the responsibility.

“It’s one of the hardest roles I’ve had to play, because the language is really tough and I’m in almost every scene. I’m fiercely proud of what we’ve created here. It just speaks to visibility that there’s Shibden Hall [Lister’s family home in Halifax, which is open to the public] and now this beautiful statue, which is just glorious. I’m just very proud to be part of it.”
Suranne Jones with the scriptwriter of Gentleman Jack, Sally Wainwright. Photograph: Charlotte Graham/Rex/Shutterstock

Series two of Gentleman Jack wraps this week. Filming was disrupted several times due to the pandemic, the death of Jones’s father, and the birth of co-star Sophie Rundle’s baby.

Wainwright has spent years transcribing some of the diaries’ estimated 5m words written in secret code detailing Lister’s liaisons with other women, as well as portraying the network of relationships between women of the gentry and aristocracy in early 19th-century Halifax.

She said the lifesized statue “captured a lot” of Lister’s character. “I think it’s really sensitive but robust, and I love the way it’s deconstructed, where it’s just slightly abstract. It’s kind of rough and ready but it’s really alive.”
Suranne Jones with Sally Wainright at the unveiling of the statue of Anne Lister on Sunday. Photograph: Charlotte Graham/Rex/Shutterstock

She added: “I hope [local people] will talk about Anne Lister, about who she was and why she’s important. I hope they’ll see this image of her, which is a very intelligent, very athletic woman, and it will inspire them.

“But I have no doubt people will put top hats and red noses on her at Christmas, they’ll be sitting on her and putting their arms round her and all sorts.”

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