The Children of Calais
21 June 2018
‘The Children of Calais’ is an unusual piece of public art in a country that tends to memorialize heroes, royals and victories. Britain has a lot of men on horses, columns and pedestals, and quite a few Queen Victorias gazing across towns and parks. But things are slowly changing. April this year saw the first statue to a woman in Parliament Square, Millicent Fawcett. ‘The Children of Calais’, unveiled by Alf Dubs in June, is something different again. The six life-sized, bronze figures, three girls, three boys, that compose the piece are designed to provoke debate about the inhumanity of our response to the children – those most vulnerable to neglect and abuse – caught up in the ongoing refugee crisis.
Award-winning sculptor and conceptual artist Ian Wolter was inspired by Rodin’s famous ‘The Burghers of Calais’, an edition of which lives in the shadow of the Houses of Parliament. Rodin was commissioned by the City of Calais to commemorate the six burghers of their city who, in the fourteenth century, were prepared to sacrifice themselves to the English king, in order to save their citizens from starvation under siege. The six men are portrayed at the moment they walked out of Calais to their certain death, one carrying the key to the city in an act of silent surrender. Every figure subtly portrays desperation in a different way. Although they are standing close enough to touch one another, each is lost and alone in their misery. Yet as well as expressing sorrow and defeat, they also capture heroic self-sacrifice and human dignity.
‘My six figures are English children,’ Ian explains, ‘children I know, in contemporary clothes, but in poses echoing Rodin’s burghers, with the tallest child holding a life-jacket in place of the Calais city key. Refugee children are simply children at the end of the day, forced from their homes and at the mercy of strangers whose language they may not even speak. When children are portrayed in the way Rodin approached his sculpture, the loneliness and desperation is overlaid with their need for adult care and protection.’ Refugees are not just a contemporary phenomenon. Starvation, war and disease have driven people from their homes for centuries. Labour peer Alf Dubs, who travelled up from London to unveil the sculpture in the North Essex market town of Saffron Walden, is a former child refugee himself.
Just six years old when he left Czechoslovakia, he carried not a key or life-jacket but a simple packed lunch for his journey across Europe on the eve of the Second World War. So terrified was he of wasting his precious meal, that he did not eat at all for two days, until he arrived at London’s Liverpool Street Station. Alf was one of 669 children rescued though Nicholas Winton’s Czech Kindertransport initiative. In 1939, Winton forged Home Office paperwork; in 2003 he was knighted for his ‘services to humanity’, and there is now a plaque to commemorate the rescue in the House of Commons.
“I am emotionally involved’ with the issue of child refugees, Alf made clear at the ‘Children of Calais’ unveiling, but ‘not just because of my background. I believe that most people, if not all in the country, think that we can do more for child refugees… I have never said that Britain should take them all. We should simply take our share.’
It was Save the Children that first informed Alf that there were 95,000 unaccompanied child refugees in camps in Europe, who fell outside of EU law giving families the right to live together. This inspired his ‘Dubs Amendment’, a proposal that Britain should take some 3,000 of these children to live in safety in the UK, even though they had no family link here. Alf already knew the then Home Secretary, Theresa May, because, as Maidenhead locals, they had met at Nicolas Winton’s 100th birthday party. May, however, asked Dubs to withdraw his amendment, a suggestion he rejected.
After returning to the Lords, the Dubs Amendment was finally passed, though later scrapped after only 350 unaccompanied children had been brought to safety in Britain. In 2017 Britain’s inappropriately named Immigration Minister, Robert Goodwill, announced that we had done our bit and ‘met the spirit of the amendment’. Now the issue is being debated again. ‘It is important to recognise that campaigning is not the perogative of any one political party’, Alf made clear, with a quick look at the Conservative MP of Saffron Walden, Kemi Badenoch, who attended the reception after the unveiling of the Children of Calais sculpture. Yvette Cooper, the chair of the Commons home affairs committee, described the government’s approach as ‘completely inadequate’ just days later, but Alf insists ‘we’re getting there – it just takes persistence.’
‘What communities choose to commemorate in their public spaces is an expression of what is important to them’ sculptor Ian Wolter said. ‘The people who came to the unveiling of my piece donated over £600 to Safe Passage, there has been huge press interest, and if also some criticism on social media it can only be good if art provokes debate.’
The lives of the six Burghers of Calais, as represented by Rodin, were eventually spared in an act of mercy by the English king’s pregnant wife. ‘I liked that element of the fourteenth century story,’ Ian adds, ‘because in my work it suggests the possibility of a happy ending for child refugees. That in the end, humanity may hold sway.’
First published by the City of Sanctuary here