I Reported on Princess Diana — Here's What the New Statue Gets Exactly Right

Prince William and Prince Harry "wanted people to think about the woman they knew as a mother... someone who had a special touch with children," writes PEOPLE's Chief Foreign Correspondent Simon Perry

Princess Diana Statue
Prince William and Prince Harry. Photo: Dominic Lipinski - WPA Pool/Getty

Seeing a newly unveiled statue of Princess Diana up close, as I was lucky to do last week, you can appreciate what her sons Prince William and Prince Harry, through sculptor Ian Rank-Broadley, were trying to achieve.

The princess stands strong, at one end of the Sunken Garden where she loved ending her morning jog with a stroll and chat with the gardeners who were out there early in the day.

The princes wanted people to think about the woman they knew as a mother — but also as someone who had a special touch with children, and did so much for them. And that is clearly the legacy that they had in mind when helping to create the memorial.

The Duke of Cambridge and Duke of Sussex arrive for the unveiling of a statue they commissioned of their mother Diana, Princess of Wales
Prince William and Prince Harry unveil a statue of their mother, Princess Diana, at Kensington Gardens. Alamy Stock Photo

For me, it initially conjured up the image of Diana at the kindergarten — the striking photograph taken before she was engaged to Prince Charles, with young children around her in a sunlit garden. But of course there are countless pictures of Diana, with her sons, or with children she met on her travels or on engagements around the U.K. The sculpture is, in fact, set later in her life.

The collection of children gathered around her, though, is something that spanned all 16 years of her public life, a constant that William, 39, and Harry, 36, no doubt wanted to portray. Moreover, the boy scampishly appearing from behind her is no accident as the artist — who worked so closely with William and Harry — wanted to reflect some of the mischievousness that her boys adored and that appealed to the countless children she met.

Sculptor Ian Rank-Broadley with his statue of Diana, Princess of Wales
Dominic Lipinski/WPA Pool/Shutterstock

Plenty of people have said it doesn't "look" like the princess. Getting her exactly right would be a nearly impossible act to pull off. But it had to represent her, without being an avant garde interpretation. In hundreds of years time, people will have to look at her and say, "Yes, that's Diana, Princess of Wales."

The image I saw cast in bronze was most definitely of the woman I remember. I saw Diana several times but was lucky to be in the same room as her on two occasions — once relatively close. She was famously tall, of course, but that day, I always recall, her stature made her appear to tower above the guests at the reception. She was greeting people and chatting enthusiastically after a talk on landmines. At that point in life, she was happy, athletically toned from her dedication in the gym and striking out confidently on her own,

This was indeed the later period of her life; the time which the princes — aged just 15 and 13 when she died in 1997 — wanted to capture and likely the time they remember best. By then, she was separated, coming out of her unhappy marriage, a stronger woman with ideas and several missions to follow.

<a href="https://people.com/tag/prince-harry/" data-inlink="true">Prince Harry</a>, Duke of Sussex gestures at the unveiling of a statue of his mother, Princess Diana
Prince Harry. DOMINIC LIPINSKI/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

Standing at about 8 feet tall, the statue is one and a quarter times her height, and for good reason. It means that people walking around the Cradle Walk of beech tree hedges set a few feet higher than the garden can see her from every vantage point. Unfortunately for visitors, you can't get up close to it — the nearest spot is about 10 feet behind her statue where there's a gate. But her position at one end of the garden creates a peaceful place for her, and makes it possible to be viewed by everyone, from different angles rather than those who might otherwise have clustered around the installation.

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The garden is a beautifully peaceful spot. Deputy Head Gardener at Historic Royal Palaces, Graham Dillamore says they moved the grass closer to the pond "to give a softer feel." And he said in coming years, the plants are designed to "tumble down" over the edges of the raised borders. "Next year there will be even more flowers."

And there will be even more visitors.

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