Since 1907, a bronze statue of Greek poet Sappho has resided in Letchworth Garden City. Sculpted by Thomas Nelson MacLean and presented to Letchworth by his wife after his death, the statue was, for a while, the only public statue in the town. His wife was persuaded to give the statue to Letchworth Garden City by her sister who had moved to the town, and since then it has had a range of homes around Letchworth, and now resides in the Howard Gardens. The statue currently on display, however, is actually a replica, as the original was stolen in 1998. The new statue was unveiled as part of the celebrations for the renovation of the gardens, showing the statue’s continued importance in the town.
Sappho is a fascinating historical figure, despite relatively little being known about her life. She was born around 620 BCE and lived in Mytilene, on the island of Lesbos, though even these details are inconsistently reported. She was both a musician and a poet, and her poetry is lyrical, with strong themes of love and emotions. She was, and still is, regarded as a great poet, with Plato calling her “the tenth muse”. Only fragments of her poetry remain, and scholars agree that many of these fragments appear to refer to Sappho’s love for women. For example, fragment 31, one of Sappho’s most famous fragments, is commonly interpreted as a poem about being in love with a woman, the effects of this love, and jealousy at seeing her beloved with a man. As Anne Carson says in the introduction of her translation of Sappho’s work, If Not, Winter:it seems that [Sappho] knew and loved women as deeply as she did music”
Interestingly, Sappho is relevant today not only because of her poetry, but also because of the impact her life has had on the terms and identities used by the LGBTQ+ community. Not only does the word lesbian come from the island of Lesbos, but the term sapphic also comes directly from Sappho, as it was originally used to refer to Sappho’s poetry.
The statue of Sappho finding its home in Letchworth Garden City also brings to mind another interesting connection to the LGBTQ+ community. Letchworth was the first Garden City, established in 1903. The Garden City movement had its roots in socialism. Ebenezer Howard, who put forward the idea of Garden Cities, was inspired by writers such as Peter Kropotkin and Herbert Spencer, and Raymond Unwin, one of the architects who designed Letchworth, was a member of the Socialist League. Interestingly, Unwin was inspired by, and regularly visited, Edward Carpenter. Carpenter was openly gay and wrote about and advocated for rights for LGBT people, despite this being illegal, and lived with his partner, George Merrill. He also promoted rural living and built and designed his own house, Millthorpe, and it was this which inspired Unwin whilst he was designing Letchworth Garden City, thus showing how Carpenter indirectly impacted the Garden City movement. Women’s equality was also promoted in the Garden City movement. These progressive origins of the movement help to explain why Garden Cities were often appealing to LGBT people at the time, showing how fitting the presence of Sappho’s statue in the first Garden City is.
The Radical Roots of Garden Cities – Quintin Bradley. https://criticalplace.org.uk/2015/09/23/the-radical-roots-of-garden-cities/
If Not, Winter: Fragments of Sappho – Anne Carson.
Sappho: Queering the Garden City – Keith Fitzpatrick-Matthews. https://northhertsmuseum.org/sappho-queering-the-garden-city/
Millthorpe and Edward Carpenter – Historic England. https://historicengland.org.uk/research/inclusive-heritage/lgbtq-heritage-project/homes-and-domestic-spaces/millthorpe-and-edward-carpenter/
Assemblage Theory, Gardens and the Legacy of the Early Garden City Movement – Graham Livesey (Cambridge University Press). https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/arq-architectural-research-quarterly/article/abs/assemblage-theory-gardens-and-the-legacy-of-the-early-garden-city-movement/BBEB455A12EE163F365084151CCEB33D
Sappho – Poetry Foundation. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/sappho