A British Artist Says That Very Bawdy Sculpture in the Finale of ‘Fleabag’ Is Based on His Own Work—and He Wants an Apology
Artist Jamie McCartney was moved to speak out after seeing Phoebe Waller-Bridge discuss the work on a talk show.
Having your artwork show up on a blockbuster television show starring Oscar- and Emmy-winning actors would be a dream come true for many. But what if no one asked your permission first?
Jamie McCartney, a UK-based sculptor, photographer, and painter whose work focuses on the human form, claims that’s exactly what happened to him in one of the decade’s most talked-about shows. Art directors from Fleabag initially reached out about commissioning one of his genatalia-themed sculptures for the series. But after the conversation went nowhere, he was surprised to see a strikingly similar work on the show.
After trying to let it go, he’s gotten angry enough about the (ahem) cock-up to go public.
“It makes me angry and miserable and I feel impotent,” McCartney told Artnet News. “I just wanted to move on, but every time that work is shown I get the same abuse—that I’m inauthentic. My reputation has been tarnished and my authenticity questioned while a TV show reaps the benefits.”
McCartney first made headlines back in 2008 with his monumental work The Great Wall of Vagina, which featured casts of over 400 women’s genitals arranged in a grid. His website also presents a number of plaster penises he began making on commission back in 2006, including grids in various states of erection, angling up and out like fingers pointing.
It was these works that caught the attention of art directors working on the BBC show Fleabag, starring and written by Phoebe Waller-Bridge. In emails reviewed by Artnet News, at least two individuals working on designs for the show reached out to McCartney in April 2016 looking to commission a “wall of cocks” for what would be a sex-themed exhibition. The emails include notes about certain works on McCartney’s website that would be suitable and ask for specs relating to cost and time for fabrication.
According to McCartney, after the initial spurt of correspondence from March 30 through April 6, the art directors went quiet. He reached out the following week, but never heard back. Neither the individuals nor a representative for the BBC responded to Artnet News’s request for comment.
In fall 2016, the final episode of Fleabag season one aired, featuring a “Sexhibition” that presents the work of a sexually liberated artist played by Olivia Colman. The piece-de-resistance is a plaster grid of penises.
McCartney said he eventually forgot about the whole thing, but he was moved to speak up after Waller-Bridge revealed on the popular Graham Norton Show in April 2020 that she had kept the prop from the show and now uses it “as a hat rack.”
“He can not persecute BBC legally as he knows this will be extremely costly for him,” McCartney’s gallerist, Denia Kazakou, told Artnet News, “but we are tired of artists taken advantage of this way.”
Since interest in Fleabag has spiked following the release of its acclaimed second season on Amazon last year, McCartney has also found himself facing charges of plagiarism from fans of the show. “This isn’t an attempt at originality. Um have you seen Fleabag? It’s literally the exact same thing,” one commenter wrote during an Instagram live talk with McCartney.
In recent years, a growing number of artists have attempted to fight large corporations like General Motors, BMW, or H&M for allegedly using their work without permission in advertisements and campaigns.
McCartney, for his part, just wants to set the record straight. “Somebody should take responsibility for the harm they’ve done,” he said. “Artists deserve better.”
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