The woman on the plinth: the story of Alison Lapper

She overcame prejudice to become an artist and have a family. Now she is to star alongside Nelson's Column
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The Independent Online

On one of the rare occasions when Alison Lapper was seen in public as a small girl, the reaction of the British public was to turn away and drag their children from where she and her friends were sitting.

Yesterday, some 35 years later, Ms Lapper was contemplating her new status as the subject of a work of art that will leave her naked form to be gazed upon by millions - fleetingly and lingeringly - in one of the most famous public spaces in the world.

After months of deliberation, it was announced on Monday that a white marble sculpture of the disabled artist while eight months' pregnant is one of two designs that will occupy the empty plinth in Trafalgar Square for 18 months.

The decision that Marc Quinn's 15ft classical representation of Ms Lapper will stand next to Nelson's Column from next spring is the latest triumph in the extraordinary life of a woman who was taken from her mother at six weeks and expected to die in infancy. At best, the doctors said, she would survive as a "cabbage" in a wheelchair.

In reality, the congenital condition which resulted in Ms Lapper, 38, being born with shortened legs and no arms has done nothing to impede a creative energy and feisty determination to force a reluctant society to accept her in all her guises - from a struggling artist to a full-time single mother of a boisterous three-year-old.

The combination has propelled her from the institution where she was brought up as one of 200 "strange little creatures" in an era when disability was to be concealed, to the embodiment of the battle for a disabled body to be admired on a par with any other human form.

Speaking from a beach in South Africa, where she is on holiday with her son Parys, Ms Lapper told The Independent that she was delighted with the knowledge that her 3ft 11in statue will be soon become a larger-than-life figure in front of that bastion of Establishment aesthetics, the National Gallery.

She said: "When I heard the news, I just said to myself 'yes'. My body will be there among the dead heroes in Trafalgar Square and it is a fantastic platform for saying to people 'look, here I am, this is me'.

"It is a very powerful work which encapsulates so much of what my own work tries to look at - it celebrates femininity, disability and motherhood. It makes me realise that I have come a very long way." Sitting on a beach in a bikini with Parys playing beside her and handling calls from media around the world, the contrast with Ms Lapper's own upbringing could not have been greater.

She was born in Burton on Trent in 1965 with phocomelia, a genetic condition which has effects similar to those caused by the drug Thalidomide.

Before she was two months, she had been sent to Chailey Heritage School in East Sussex, an institution dedicated to the care of children with physical disabilities. She stayed there for 17 years.

Almost from her arrival, she was filmed and photographed, wearing a panoply of experimental artificial limbs, for a scientific study. At seven months, she was fitted with a set of arms with whisks as hands. They were followed by a succession of metal legs and larger arms with hooks powered by a canister of compressed gas worn on the back. As Ms Lapper once put it: "I hissed whenever I moved."

But despite feeling safe and secure among her peers, many of them Thalidomide victims, the subtext to her childhood was one of attempts to make her "normal" by crude robotic limbs, and revulsion from a wider audience.

The artist, whose mother tracked her down again by the time she was four but with whom her relationship is described as "strained", recalled last year that it was a childhood visit to the beach that first made her aware of her physical appearance.

She said: "I suppose I first realised I was different when I was about three. A group of us were taken to Brighton beach for the day and all we could see were parents dragging their children away from us. We must have cleared the beach in about five minutes."

It is the sort of casual opprobrium that has followed Ms Lapper throughout her life. While pregnant with her son in 1999, she recalls how two women in a pharmacy discussed in her presence whether it was "right" for her to be having a child and expressed disapproval at the burden she would be on society by collecting benefits.

In fact Ms Lapper supports both herself and Parys and pays for an au pair at their specially-adapted bungalow in Shoreham, West Sussex, solely from income from her art and her part-time work as a lecturer. She is the first to admit that her existence can be exhausting.

Viewers of the BBC television series, A Child of Our Time, presented by the fertility expert Lord Winston, will have seen the artist explaining how she balances her disability with her role as a mother - gently dissuading her son when he offers to be her arms by saying: "You've got your own arms and your own life to lead."

For Quinn, one of Britain's leading and most controversial sculptors - renowned forSelf, a cast of his head made from his own frozen blood - this strength of will and clarity of purpose is precisely what he feels makes Ms Lapper worthy of sitting alongside the bronze representations of 19th-century power and prowess in Trafalgar Square - George IV, Sir Charles Napier and Major General Henry Havelock.

The artist points to Ms Lapper's achievements, from refusing to accept her "destiny" to work in workshops for the disabled and obtaining a first class art degree at Brighton University to shrugging off prejudice about her motherhood, as equally worthy of immortalisation in stone.

Indeed, there can be little doubt about Ms Lapper's determination to follow her own agenda rather than that set for her by others.

When she left Chailey, she refused to enter the sheltered workshops and enrolled in a local art college, obtaining an O-level in art before moving to London. By the time she was 22, she had completed her A-levels and both married and divorced a man 14 years her senior.

She stopped wearing the mechanical arms while a child and gave up on the prosthetic legs at 23. She describes the period as an awakening during which she came to see herself as attractive and a sexual being. For her university finals exhibition, she recovered the photographs from her childhood and contrasted them with her portraits of her unrestricted, adult body.

She is nonetheless protective of her private life. The identity of Parys's father, who is no longer with her, is known only to a few close friends, and she has said her deepest fear is that her son will be taken away from her: "I've had to work hard for everything in my life. Nothing is going to make me lose my son."

Quinn, who started work yesterday on scaling up his original 2000 sculpture of Ms Lapper to a 15ft model using materials and techniques similar to those employed by Michelangelo and Rodin, said: "She was the perfect example of what I wanted to do by looking at a new idea of heroism.

"Instead of someone who conquers the world at the head of armies, I wanted to show someone who conquers adverse situations in their daily life, who lives a full life and represents the future by being shown as she is creating a new life."

Despite his insistence that the statue, formally entitled Alison Lapper Pregnant, is meant to be a celebration rather than a provocation, it was still causing attacks of bile among traditionalists.

The London Evening Standard, apparently forgetting that the work represents a living human being, carried a picture of the statue last night with the headline: "So, is this really what we want on Trafalgar Square's empty plinth?"

Ms Lapper, who has an MBE for services to art, shrugs off such attacks as coming from the same prejudice that inspired the parents on Brighton beach all those years ago.

But while taking satisfaction in the choice of Quinn's work, she admits to a sense of disappointment that ultimately it is not her own self-portrait which will be lifted into place next spring - and blames a continuing prejudice against the art of disabled people.

She said: "I find it very hard to deal with being described as a heroine. I consider a hero to be someone who has climbed Everest. I am just living my life.

"I think what Marc has done is fantastic but it would also have been fantastic if it was a work of me by me that was going on that plinth. If the same work had been done by me and I wasn't disabled might it be my sculpture that won?

"Despite being 11 years out of art school, I haven't broken into the art world. I have not yet sold one of my photographs showing me naked with my son to a private buyer.

"Lots of people come to look at them in exhibitions but no-one wants to buy them to put them on their walls. We have not progressed enough as a society to do that."