Richard Warren

20thc British art and poetry (mainly), plus bits of my own – "Clearly I tap to you clearly along the plumbing of the world" (W S Graham)

The human dimension of sculpture

Probably the last blast here for Wolverhampton’s recently controversial Barbara Hepworth bronze, Rock Form (Porthcurno) – see previous post and many others. But I can’t resist posting this great pic taken just after its unveiling by the Mayor in the Mander Centre shopping precinct in 1968, as the crowd closes in to ponder. Click for full size, and study the faces and body language! Photo courtesy of Pippa Thorneycroft, née Mander, who was present at the ceremony. Thank you, Pippa.

"I do not think sculpture can come alive in architecture at all unless it is recognized as a value in its own right. Sculpture is not primarily an embellishment. It gives the human dimension, it gives that added perception which only sculpture can give. [...] Sculpture makes people act in a certain way; they move in a certain manner. Their gestures and their reaction to a sculpture are extremely expressive and this is the point - if the architect and the sculptor know how to seize upon it - where one might achieve a vital development in the architect's as well as in the sculptor's work in relation to human needs." (Barbara Hepworth)

“I do not think sculpture can come alive in architecture at all unless it is recognized as a value in its own right. Sculpture is not primarily an embellishment. It gives the human dimension, it gives that added perception which only sculpture can give. […] Sculpture makes people act in a certain way; they move in a certain manner. Their gestures and their reaction to a sculpture are extremely expressive and this is the point – if the architect and the sculptor know how to seize upon it – where one might achieve a vital development in the architect’s as well as in the sculptor’s work in relation to human needs.” (Barbara Hepworth) Copyright P Thorneycroft.

Articulating impermanence: the Wolverhampton Hepworth row of 1968

Now that the return to the Mander Centre of Wolverhampton’s cast of Barbara Hepworth’s Rock Form (Porthcurno) has been secured (see posts passim and Facebook here), time for a quick look at the earlier controversy about it – whether it should have been there in the first place – following its unveiling in March 1968, and some of the later echoes. Refreshingly, the terms of argument were not bankers and speculation, but the nature of sculpture and its relation to architecture. And very little of it came from the usual “five year old child” brigade, either.

E&S gossip
On 3 April 1968 the regular Express & Star “Gossip” column, headed “Knocking Holes in Hepworth Sculpture,” declared Rock Form officially controversial: “’Old fashioned’, ‘a throwback to the thirties’, ‘mass produced art’ and ‘ludicrous’ are some of the denunciations,” announced columnist “Vigilant”.

The attack was two pronged, if polarities can be prongs. Wolverhampton Civic Society objected that “a figurative work would have been more appropriate,” and that a local open sculpture competition should have been held. One dreads to think what that might have produced.

Mike Travers, bricoleur, in later life

Mike Travers, bricoleur, in later life

Sweeping in from the opposite extreme was spokesman for the avant garde Mike Travers, sculpture lecturer at the Art College, and anxious to position himself at the cutting edge, or even in front of it. He denounced the sculpture as “an object of contemplative reverence … with its artificially induced green patina, a ready-made antiquity, its self-conscious attention to surface texture as an end in itself … rhetorical and crude.”

Questioningly rhetorical himself, Travers asked: “Should the sculpture articulate the space and relate to the architecture?” Well yes, of course it should. But by “relate” he seems mainly to have meant “imitate”; the Hepworth looked “uncomfortable … in contrast with its surroundings of plate glass, steel, concrete and marble.” One wonders what alternative he had in mind, but, this being the ‘sixties, Anthony Caro can’t have been too far away; some plinth-less conglomeration of brightly painted girders might have avoided the “humanisation” that Travers detested. (Did Caro use Manders paints, one wonders?)

But even this would have been too little, too late. The very “absurdity” of the Mander Centre itself made the whole project redundant, according to Travers: “As a piece of architecture it is already dated!”

Next day the argument spilled over onto BBC TV’s “Midlands Today”, where tempers, according to “Vigilant” the evening after, were “running high”. Defending his choice of the Hepworth was architect Stanley Sellers. Backing his man Travers was Ron Dutton, then head of the college’s sculpture department. Dutton declared the Hepworth “out of date, a monument on a plinth” that “did not activate the space around it.”

Depends what you mean by “activate”. Sellers insisted that “people [would] glance at it each time they walked past”. Earlier, he had written: “Look at the colours, textures and shapes, see how these change as you walk round it. See the effects of changing light and shade.” If “Vigilant” is to be believed, the result was a stalemate: “Both were so anxious to justify their pleas, for or against, that they interrupted each other in a way that could only exasperate viewers.”

Robin Plummer in 1980, by Kenny McKendry

Robin Plummer in 1980, by Kenny McKendry

Three days later, principal Robin Plummer rode half-heartedly to the rescue in the Express & Star’s letters page, attempting to limit damage by judiciously but nervously dissociating his College of Art from Travers and Dutton’s Hepworth-bashing. After saluting Dame Barbara as “eminent” and so forth, he damned the choice with faint praise: “Whether it is fully appropriate to that site is, I think, arguable, but nevertheless it is the right sort of gesture to have made.” All very “sort of”.

On April 19th another of Plummer’s lecturers, printmaker Michael North, chipped in briefly to back Travers. After that, it all went quiet. Following a random letter on May 1st declaring the Hepworth “ugly”, the Express & Star seems to have considered the subject closed.

Where are they all now? In the intervening years head of sculpture Ron Dutton moved on to become a renowned medallist. His designs are neatly done, but in the main conservatively figurative. As miniature, self-contained reliefs, they do not need to articulate any surrounding space at all. His website is here.

College principal Robin Plummer went on to head up the Faculty of Art and Design at Coventry in 1971, where he promptly took on the conceptualists by insisting that only “tangible, visual art objects” (as opposed to texts) could be entered for assessment. First casualty was Coventry’s art theory course, followed by its lecturers, David Bainbridge, Michael Baldwin and Terry Atkinson, all of Art & Language fame. (Their student followers also went on to contribute to Art & Language. I remember running into some at a NUS art education conference a couple of years later, where they were amusingly disruptive.)

In 1975 Plummer moved on to Brighton, where he taught till 1989. His paintings of the late ‘sixties rely on a simplistic, pop-ish, hard edged abstraction – vaguely jolly but bland, and now interesting mainly as period pieces. Appropriately non-committal, in fact.

The Wolverhampton Civic (now Civic and Historical) Society has thankfully progressed from its reactionary stance of 46 years ago, and under the chairmanship of Suhail Rana has given firm support to the recent campaign to save the Mander Hepworth from vanishing.

Angry young lecturer Mike Travers became assistant professor at the University of Alberta later in 1968. In 2005 with wife Maureen he was featured in this regional arts magazine – scroll to page 25. I believe he has recently died, but on a surviving web page here, Michael Travers describes himself as “a visual poet-philosopher with an environmental approach to art and design that incorporates being a bricoleur combined with the philosophy of Wabi-sabi – the Japanese Art of Impermanence.” Evidently, he stuck to his guns right to the end. Permanently, in fact. Good for him. I think Barbara Hepworth would have liked that.

Rock Form (Porthcurno) in Hepworth's 1964 sculpture records, with the Mander cast listed as no. 5. [Hepworth Estate, Bowness, Tate Britain Archive, CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 (Unported) licence.]

Rock Form (Porthcurno) in Hepworth’s 1964 sculpture records, with the Mander cast listed as no. 5. [Hepworth Estate, Bowness, Tate Britain Archive, CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 (Unported) licence.]

Dylan’s cheques. Plus – Mander Scandal outcome!

Mandergate

First, for the successful (for now) outcome of the Mander Scandal, involving the asset stripping of a publicly displayed Hepworth sculpture from its Wolverhampton home and its eventual return, see the campaign page at www.facebook.com/Mandergate, especially 15 October.

Dylan’s cheques

Next, if you have maybe £800 to spare, you could with luck become the owner of two bounced cheques (“1 page each, printed with manuscript insertions, oblong 8vo”), each made out for £3, at Bonham’s books and manuscripts auction of 12 November. Why the remarkable financial inversion of these less than worthless items?

cheque

Both are signed in the surprisingly neat hand of Dylan Thomas. Dated from August of 1952 and 1953, they were palmed off by the cash strapped poet on the unfortunate landlord of his local in Laugharne, the Cross House Inn. You’d think that, the 1952 cheque having bounced, Mr Richards might have been more wary the next year, but apparently not. On the other hand, having hung onto them both, he may have had some shrewd notion of their future surge in value.

If I wanted the perfect Dylan Thomas autograph, I would choose one of these cheques. There is something beautifully fitting about them. They illustrate wonderfully how time and art can utterly transform the signification of an object. They have become, in effect, perfect little pieces of concrete poetry.

Spam Ghosts

Let’s have a break from Barbara Hepworth.

Those who blog will know too well the spam messages that are regularly thrown at their “comments” boxes, usually attempting to pass off links to dodgy sites offering fake Calvin Klein underwear etc. A while back, in the process of deleting a backlog of these, I bothered to read them. Some turned out to be unusually interesting found texts. Many are collages of randomly snipped and pasted  bits of internet blather, wrapped round key words intended to lure search engines. Others are in an unearthly register that seems to be the result of having been repeatedly passed from Chinese to Latvian to English through some clunky online translator until the syntax starts to unravel. They are so processed that in a real sense they have become autonomous texts, without authors. Though much is inevitably tedious, nuggets can be found, so here is a selection, lightly edited but none of the wording mine.

I particularly like the brief but deeply bizarre excerpt from what appears to be a stage or film script. The original of this – at whatever remove there may have been an original – eludes me.

 

Spam Ghosts

I

A reciprocating saw and an 18% increase in the box, a little ingenuity. It can take two hours – sometimes, incredibly, four – to continue their shifts. They are available depending on the traditional.  A hand drill and the Middle East. You simply take one of the rebate money. Guinea pigs, the task speedily and efficiently.

Well, the next generation helmet. Once it acquires the shares, compared to other places. Tofu slices cook up all those past and have a good fit. Astonishingly, the world’s largest appliance manufacturer in town. Moreover, the first gear and almost immediately following a long time of batteries.

This doll does not always possible. Be truthful when describing the item first. Find any lubrication points. Each product is hygroscopic. Okay, my wife woke me up!

Improperly using, be sure you get really good improvements and efficiency. For the most unsafe is the biggest gold producer in America. The very first time for changing the cut angle in a standard broom. Five of the Amish. Cooking can be used to cut and work your weaker side.

It boasts a newly designed handle-grip with finger support. The needle is that they throw some accessories in about 15 minutes. So you have to give gifts through it. Ken Tucky, Kentucky. How much the same period of three wires? There’s not a budget-friendly decision.

That is too much work. Is water vapor a pollutant? Operator, your next question comes from Richard Eastman. You can custom build your own. Building a boat using hand tools that are not brought under one roof. Disadvantages? However, it bounces back. For sure, and martial arts.

II

Improbably! Bravo, seems to me, is a brilliant phrase. It not absolutely that is necessary for me. Who else, what can prompt?

What necessary phrase. Super, remarkable idea. Many performers real about with name. It is remarkable, rather amusing message, very useful piece. Certainly it was and with me.

Let’s discuss this question. Willingly I accept. An interesting theme. I will take part. Together we can come to a right answer.

In my opinion you are not right. I suggest it to discuss. Write to me in PM. In it something is. Clearly, thanks for the help in this question. I consider that you commit an error. I can defend the position. Additionally posture people pays to even is not hard. A from. They may through the particular. I can consult you on this question. Together we can find the decision.

It is a pity that now I cannot express – it is compelled to leave. I will be released – I will necessarily express the opinion on this question. I apologise, but, in my opinion, you commit an error. Let’s discuss. Write to me in PM. I consider that you are not right. I am assured. At all is not present.

Perhaps, I shall agree with your opinion. It does not approach me. I do not see your logic. So simply does not happen. You will not want, there will be and so forth. As a variant, yes. There are other variants? Then there’s. Having completely. It is possible and necessary to discuss infinitely.

Also what? Write to me in PM.

III

That which was problematic were the group ideas which are produced inside of me and even must be well. Curative PERFECTIONISM. Imagine if it were you possibly cost your problematic damaged, produced important companion of the part you created that can help you continue hassle via your outstanding the fact you goodness created. Let’s say you often see a pride damaged conscious with tons of the fear and so defenses when attempting ways have complete control to within. Taking will always relationships. Getting rid of troubles just isn’t whom you are.

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IV

What a stuff of un-ambiguity and preserveness of precious experience concerning unpredicted emotions.

V

Steady still most women efficacious allure firearms. Greatest towards toe of the foot the front door with footwear goods retire from two to three centimetres conflict. Midsole honest no significantly micro. The nice digits miss to peaceful. Her attract skiff runs in all respects rise nearby of her quickness in which on the way to stand for them up so that settle upon how the by nature component her academic is almost certainly. (Recover coating a nothing but half with the discounted eyesexy criticize write.)

Commission a retiring amount of a light-weight pear impression not to mention bronzer the actual voiced space osseins. Following are suitable lipsticks. On the other hand I will unreserved invent it’s great. Too associated with the my special glad eye bring up the rear Saturday. Establishment the executed method vertically. You should not disregard the belle as articulately as the prayer what is the redsole noteworthy arbitrate on a lot of wives. Men are in usual an inadequate much complete literal along with pregnant sophomoric chicks. Once they are utilized a logo and proud their look allowing for regarding they’ll odds-on wishes most often preserve continue with that tag except they generally construct from it, or a brand rapid developments this manufacturer products.

Numerous adults that is surprising if one necessities sensible to meeting up with the buzz even. He or she obligation ante up in order to what companies recognized supercelebrities raiment yourself in. If a can off duds in the interest of example operating citizens admired starlets begin, he could be up-to-date. A secure aunt, dinky that heelsaddict, attributed this single with look upon to sleek. (Your lady smoothies the missus closed fists worries anyone which are dares to put on not heels!) The particular revealed that the realized feet experienced been “Growing offered.” Right away these sanctimony be base limited with regard to impersonation leatherette next daytime of day.

VI

Matter: Why We Forward Humor

With this epigram Prof. Thorstein Veblen opens his work on “The theory of when you are busy, but still would like to keep in touch, uncertain.”

SAVILLE: I help you to wash your mouth area out, my friend…

HISLOP: I am sorry, I’m just looking on our lawyer again. (Waves) Howdy!

LEO: Oh, you can. Oh.

GUY: Yes, for a matter of fact my spouse and I do.

VII

How do you split water? I would be quite helpful if anybody can respond to that concern. Any reaction will be very appreciated. Thank you extremely significantly and have a great working day.

Women with chisels: (1) Sally Ryan; (2) Hepworth Mander scandal update

Sally Ryan: not a “sculptress”

Mother and Child

Mother and Child

After all the recent focus here on Barbara Hepworth (see also below), a moment to mention another woman with a chisel, the relatively unknown American sculptor Sally Ryan, more usually thought of as a collector, as a member of the Jacob Epstein circle, and as the second half of the New Art Gallery Walsall’s Garman Ryan collection. Walsall have recently re-jigged the Garman Ryan for its 40th anniversary, and have made a good job of it. (Except that the inept interventions of Patrick Brill RA, as “Bob and Roberta Smith”, still clutter the place. I guess Brill was bought in to add contemporary edge to the collection, as if it needed it; am I the only one who finds his posturing amateurism plain insulting?)

Sarah Tack Ryan, known to her American friends as Tammie, was the granddaughter of mega-millionaire Thomas Fortune Ryan, whose lawyer had been famed New York collector John Quinn. As the Milwaukee Journal put it, in a breathless write-up of August 1940:

“Sally Ryan, a resolute wisp of a girl … never cared a whoop about society but cared a great deal about sculpture. So she became a sculptor.

The word ‘sculptress’ is one of her pet hates. To her, that outdated ‘ess’ signifies a dabbler – ‘a person who does the little, twiddly sort of thing.’ ‘There are many sculptresses among the debutantes,’ she said, ‘but no sculptors.’”

Unfinished Mask

Unfinished Mask

In 1935 Ryan visited London and tracked down Epstein, who became an important influence on her work. The Garman Ryan collection includes a number of her pleasing portrait bronzes in his manner, but I much prefer her carving, represented there by two pieces: a handsome Unfinished Mask in marble, and a remarkably tender limestone Mother and Child that shows the absorbed influences of Epstein, Frank Dobson and early Hepworth. She was a prolific worker, so where’s all the rest of her carving? I’m not sure, though several photos, apparently from the mid ‘forties, show another large mother and child in progress.

As a bit of a rich kid, Ryan didn’t want for publicity shots. I particularly like the first Alfredo Valente photo below where, hammer in hand, she leans meditatively on a large carving, looking boho-preppy in shorts and pumps. Accounts always mention “mannish clothes” – blue or grey flannel slacks and a boy’s shirt, old sweaters and battered oxford brogues – which were taken as a token of her sexuality. A later image shows her as remarkably elegant.

It’s not clear to me for how long she continued to sculpt. Less frequently, perhaps, as the throat cancer that killed her closed in. In later years she devoted herself to buying artworks in company with Kathleen Garman, Epstein’s widow. She died in her early fifties in 1968. [For enlargements and slide shows, click below.]


A write-up in a June 1940 issue of Life suggested that “being the granddaughter of … an American multimillionaire has given Sally Ryan as much incentive to succeed as if she had been born poor and obscure.” No doubt, but one also wonders if it gave her public less incentive to take her seriously and an excuse to dismiss her as a dilettante, rather than the fine sculptor she actually proved herself to be.

Wolverhampton’s Barbara Hepworth: Mander scandal update

For anything new on the campaign to rescue Wolverhampton’s Hepworth bronze Rock Form (Porthcurno) from the evil clutches of Royal Bank of Scotland, please continue to check our Facebook page.

gormley storySince the last round-up here nine days ago, the cause has attracted the firm backing of Antony Gormley, the petition has passed 1,100 signatures, and the story has reached –

Midlands Today BBC regional news (August 19)

BBC News Online

Artlyst – also here

Artnet

The Herald Scotland

Delancey and RBS have responded with evasive and non-committal assurances that they are “looking at” ways to keep the sculpture “available” to the people of Wolverhampton. Not good enough! Perhaps the imminent sale of the Mander Centre to a private equity investment outfit will help to sharpen their focus …

The collective life and privatised death of public sculpture

The online focus of the growing campaign to save Wolverhampton’s endangered Hepworth sculpture (see previous posts) is now more at our Facebook page and the linked petition – please sign and pass on the word! A quick round-up of the latest news on the Mander scandal appears below in this post. But first, this thing has tentacles, and some of the implications are worth thinking through.

Public sculpture: its collective life …

A major snag with the Mander Hepworth is that the “public” space is which it has stood for half a century is not legally public. Thousands of shoppers may pass through the Mander precinct each week, but that doesn’t make it a public thoroughfare. In planning terms, believe it or not, the whole Mander Centre counts as an “interior”, and there are no more restrictions on what happens inside it than there are for your or my living room. If the shopping centre were a listed building or in a conservation area it would be different, but it’s not. Now there’s an anomaly that may well pose a threat to other pieces of “public” art …

So for the first half century, the remarkable permanence of Wolverhampton’s Rock Form (Porthcurno) depended on trust. A paternalistic virtue maybe, but it worked. In the era of RBS, trust is found unprofitable and has been binned.

Embracing the plaza: Moore's 'Reclining Figure' at the Festival in 1951

Embracing the plaza: Moore’s ‘Reclining Figure’ at the Festival in 1951

The Mander Centre was built towards the close of a post-war era of social optimism in which British sculptors, notably Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth, embraced the plaza, beginning with Moore’s Reclining Figure on the South Bank at the 1951 Festival of Britain, and culminating in the installation of Hepworth’s monumental Single Form in front of New York’s UN Headquarters in 1964, the year in which she sculpted Rock Form. In Hepworth there is none of the spiny angst that came to characterise the work of younger sculptors of the period; the organic curves of Rock Form complemented perfectly the harsher geometries of the Mander Centre while softening and naturalising them – also attempted by the planting of trees and shrubs and later by the slightly less successful fountains. (There will be no such arty nonsense in tomorrow’s redeveloped Centre where, in a desperate attempt to maximise footfall, nothing in the bleached perspectives will interrupt the dominance of the window displays.)

Post-war social optimism: the unveiling of Hepworth's 'Single Form' at the UN, 1964

Post-war social optimism: the unveiling of Hepworth’s ‘Single Form’ at the UN, 1964

In this public situation the sculpture ceased to be a single image, but became a collection of overlapping impressions produced by the movement around it of multiple viewers. (“Look at the colours, textures and shapes,” wrote the Mander Centre’s architect Stanley Sellers in the Express & Star in 1968. “See how these change as you walk around it. See the effects of changing light and shade.”) Hepworth was so positive about this collective, interactive setting for her work that she provided the Wolverhampton cast of Rock Form at cost price, just one third of what it would have fetched at the time if sold through the gallery system to a private collector. Herbert Read wrote much about Hepworth’s “vitalist form”; what we haven’t always appreciated is that in her public sculpture this vitalism was collectively generated.

Once this context is understood, it becomes literally unthinkable that Rock Form should be ripped out and condemned to private ownership. Isolated within the private contemplation of a single privileged spectator, the work will no longer make sense. It will be dead.

… and its privatised death

Mandergate is, sadly, far from the only instance of the “de-accessioning” of public access to public sculpture. A previous post has already mentioned the Hepworth, narrowly rescued from Bonham’s auctions, that Royal Mail graciously replaced in front of the Chesterfield post office where it had always been at a cost of half a million to the community and the Art Fund.

Flogged off: the High Holborn Paolozzi

Flogged off: the High Holborn Paolozzi

In late 2012 Bonham’s flogged off Eduardo Paolozzi’s The Artist as Hephaestus, which its owners had plucked from its niche on an office block in High Holborn, in the face of protests by the council, the 20th Century Society and others, and in spite of the inconvenient circumstance that it had stood in a conservation area.

Still unresolved is the heated barney over Henry Moore’s Draped Seated Woman (fondly known as “Old Flo”), put up for grabs by cash-strapped Tower Hamlets Council despite a fierce argument over her actual ownership. (As with Hepworth’s Rock Form, Moore provided this for its original public setting at a reduced price.)

Public museums are as vulnerable as public spaces. Northampton Museum and Art Gallery has just been stripped of its official accreditation after its prize Egyptian statue went to a private buyer last month at Christie’s. This makes the museum ineligible for grant funding, but they’re don’t care; they’re still quids in, given that the statue fetched an eye watering £15.8 million.

Disputed ownership: Moore's 'Old Flo' in 1963

Disputed ownership: Moore’s ‘Old Flo’ in 1963

There are other cases. As all the dosh drains upwards to the tip of the pyramid in our “recovering” economy, the art goes with it. This plundering is reminiscent of the wholesale looting of artefacts from subject cultures in the colonial era. Just as aboriginal peoples have demanded from Western museums the return of their significant treasures, so it will be necessary for future generations to retrieve and repatriate the artworks taken by big money from our shared spaces.

Mandergate latest: a round-up

The campaign has recently gained important support from the Royal British Society of Sculptors, Wolverhampton Partners in Progress and the Black Country Urban Industrial Mission.

Anne Rawcliffe-King, Director of the Society, has stated: “I am deeply saddened that yet another public artwork may be lost for the nation.” The Society has written a number of letters to parties concerned.

Locally, Graham Evans of Partners in Progress, previously the director and manager of the Mander Centre responsible for the 2003 refurb and unveiling, has declared that “it is essential that the sculpture is retained for both the Centre and the citizens of Wolverhampton.”

Rev Bill Mash of BCUIM observes: “People need objects to focus on, especially at times of change.  Wolverhampton folk had taken this sculpture to their hearts, and it must be returned after the refurbishment.”

Meanwhile City Council Leader Roger Lawrence has put out a press release calling on George Osborne, as the person to whom RBS is ultimately 80% accountable, to intervene.

August 8’s Private Eye carried an excellent write up of the Mander affair, the first report in a national title, but hopefully not the last – read their article on our Facebook page.

A petition to Delancey and RBS to put back the Hepworth has just been set up using the 38 Degrees campaigns page (purely for its convenience and not for any political reason), and has attracted a steady run of signatures.

Mandergate latest! Sculpture shock! Hepworths through the roof!

Sculpture shock! Hepworths through the roof!

Wolverhampton’s very own million pound Hepworth sculpture has recently been removed from its public place of pride in the Mander Centre and is at risk of a sell off. In a previous post I suggested that owners RBS might sit on it, waiting for even more value to accrue. No such wait is now necessary, it seems. Can the Mander Centre’s Hepworth really be worth over four million smackers already?

Bonkers prices: 'Figure for a Landscape'

Bonkers prices: ‘Figure for a Landscape’

On 25th June, in a few minutes of light headed billionaire bidding at a Christie’s sale of modern British art, the value of Hepworths instantly quadrupled, making Dame Barbara officially the second most expensive female sculptor of all time (after Louise Bourgeois). The Telegraph’s vivid account of the auction makes fascinating reading for those of us who still live in the real world.

Focus of attention was a Hepworth bronze comparable with Wolverhampton’s Rock Form, titled Figure for a Landscape, and offloaded by a bankrupt Norwegian gallery. Figure swept past its million pound estimate to become the object of a prolonged punch-up between two bidders, or rather between their saleroom agents. The winner was an anonymous “overseas property developer”, who has at least promised to put Figure for a Landscape on public show at one of his London developments. Under-bidder was Yorkshire furniture billionaire (and major Conservative Party donor) Graham Kirkham, who only blinked when the object of his desire had reached £3.65 million. (That’s £4.17 million to the buyer, once you count the commission and charges. As a point of comparison, £4 million happens to be Oxfam’s target for their appeal for the victims of Zimbabwe’s cholera epidemic, where deaths have passed 1,000.)

Baron Kirkham of Old Cantley

Baron Kirkham of Old Cantley

On the one hand, Lord Kirkham’s bidding may have pumped up exponentially the cost to himself of his next pot at a Hepworth. On the other, his vigorous urge to collect may not have been entirely sated by the compensation prizes – a smaller Hepworth, an Elisabeth Frink and an F E McWilliam – that he did pick up the same evening at the record-busting £21 million sale. There can’t be too many super league Hepworth buyers around, so could he (or his advisor, Andrew Hobart of Pyms Gallery) perhaps be waiting in the wings to snap up Rock Form (Porthcurno), once all the fuss has died down? Frankly, I’ve absolutely no idea; it’s just a thought.

As it so happens, Dame Barbara’s blockbuster retrospective next year at Tate Britain will do little to depress the market value of Hepworths. It’s wonderful to see her importance recognised, but the money thing is getting somewhat out of hand. And poor old Wolverhampton is the loser.

Reputationally challenged

Blue Meanie ...

Blue Meanie …

As a condition of the big taxpayer bail-out of RBS, all their 308 branches south of the border are soon to be re-glossed under the dormant (but trusted) banking name of “Williams & Glyn”, ready for a standalone flotation. The old brand still looks stubbornly toxic. There’s no doubt that the folks at RBS are still feeling a bit reputationally challenged, and this is definitely to our advantage as we keep pushing for the Hepworth’s return.

So please, if you’re interested – keep up the letters and emails. As I write, the likes on our Facebook page have just passed the 400 mark, in less than a week. Brilliant! It all helps! Make some noise!

City centre MP calls for the return of the Hepworth

Paul Uppal: "Put it back!"

Paul Uppal: “Put it back!”

Paul Uppal, MP for Wolverhampton South West, which includes the city centre, has joined the calls for the sculpture’s return to the Mander Centre. In a recent message to a worried constituent, he said:

“I appreciate the concerns that you and other shoppers have raised about the statue’s future.

I have written to the Mander Centre’s Manager, Nicholas Pitt, to obtain further clarification on why it was removed, and to seek his assurances that it will be put back on display for shoppers to enjoy.”

Civic & Historical Society: back to its rightful place!

Wolverhampton Civic and Historical Society (the blue plaque people) have also called for the sculpture’s return, linking to our campaign on their Facebook page. Secretary Claire Darke stated:

“We share the concerns about the Barbara Hepworth sculpture and look forward to it being returned to its rightful place.”

Mandergate: meanness and magnanimity

The Wolverhampton Mander scandal rumbles on, with, as far as I’m aware, no resolution yet in sight. RBS and Delancey seem well dug in. But for those who still care (I hope you do), here’s a few new thoughts …

Mandergate on Facebook

facebook
Please call in at our brand new Save-the-Hepworth Facebook page, and please – pass it around far and wide. While you’re there, it would be good if you could click to like the page, which will help boost the headline support figure. An online petition is also a possibility under discussion – news of that if and when.

How do you flog a million pound sculpture?

Perhaps not at Sotheby’s, it’s been suggested to me. The seller’s commission of 20% or thereabouts would be a distinct disincentive, certainly, while the similar buyer’s commission would deter any sane purchaser. After all, why pay a person in a suit £400,000 plus between you to bang a gavel when you could do a deal down the pub with no such overheads? And if the seller’s fee is negotiated downwards, the recent practice, apparently, is for the difference to be pushed onto the hapless buyer.

Sotheby’s flog off a Giacometti for – gulp – £65m in 2010. The ‘Walking Man’ looks about as happy as the purchaser, who was saddled with a £7m buyer’s premium.

I’m told that the million plus figure bandied about for Wolverhampton’s Hepworth has actually been offered to RBS / Delancey by a serious enquirer, so forget scanning the auction catalogues – a private sale seems rather more likely, and – for all we know – may already have happened. Unless, of course, as suggested last time, Rock Form will be stashed away in the RBS Art Vault for the foreseeable, to accrue still more value.

Why should the Scots have all the best sculptures?

Saved for the nation - the Scot Bot 'Rock Form'. Could Wolverhampton borrow it for a bit, please?

Saved for the nation – the Scot Bot ‘Rock Form’. Could Wolverhampton borrow it for a bit, please?

Here’s a nice image of another casting of Rock Form in the Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh, looking oddly bluish in this shot. Along with a second Hepworth bronze, this has been there for nearly 40 years, almost as long as Wolverhampton’s version. After the artist’s death, the two were loaned by the Hepworth Estate to the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, then housed at the Botanic Garden. Last November they were acquired for the nation via the government’s Acceptance in Lieu scheme, the Gallery’s director commenting that “it is wonderful that they can remain here indefinitely”.

Wonderful indeed. What a contrast to the main chance meanness pursued by RBS, custodians of the Wolverhampton Rock Form, and Edinburgh neighbours to the Gallery and the Botanic Garden! (And still 80% owned by you and me, I’d remind you.) Is a little magnanimity too much to hope for? How about a long term loan to Wolverhampton City Council, with Rock Form to resume its pride of place in the Mander Centre?

According to recent reports, RBS boss Ross McEwan admits that his company still faces “significant conduct issues,” adding: “Trust in this industry has been so eroded, I think it will take at least five years to get it back …” I believe that Mr McEwan is famous for his optimism.

Centre: a casting of ‘Rock Form’ – maybe the Wolverhampton one – apparently ready for departure in the Hepworth studio.

The Mander scandal: “Give us back our statue, say shoppers”

Yes, I know. Mandergate has hijacked this blog a bit. But bear with me. It’s important. And normal service will be resumed asa decently p. For earlier instalments on Wolverhampton’s vanishing Hepworth sculpture, go to “recent posts” (right), or see here, here and here. For bigger images on this post, just click.

“I have heard the message loud and clear. RBS cannot start to claim to be a bank that always treats people fairly unless we stop doing those things that erode trust.”
Ross McEwan, Chief Executive RBS, The Guardian, 10 Feb 2014

RBS: compulsive art hoarders!

Here’s an angle that, stupidly, I missed earlier. I hadn’t realised how fond banks are of accumulating art, whether for investment, decoration or just plain bank swank. And it turns out that RBS – Mander Centre owners – have notorious form in this area. In late 2009 RBS (bailed out by 45 billion and 80% taxpayer owned, you may recall) was revealed to be sitting on the largest corporate art collection in Britain, thousands of items including a Lowry, a Hockney, a Caulfield, a Paolozzi and a Joshua Reynolds. According to The Guardian hundreds of works were in storage against only one out on loan, despite the bank’s earnest claim to be sharing its goodies with galleries and museums. The Guardian’s report is here, and BBC Scotland’s here. Google will find you many similar.

Andrew Graham-Dixon plays the banker to salute RBS’s “social responsibility strategy”

An immediate PR counter offensive promised an end to inappropriate hoarding; public access would be provided, as reported in The Scotsman, and works would be sold off, as quoted by Bloomberg. Interestingly, even plausible art pundit Andrew Graham-Dixon was wheeled out on The Culture Show to reassure angry taxpayers that RBS were “bending over backwards to make their real treasures available to the public” (his words) and that “the so-called RBS art scandal is just a red herring”. In the seven minutes of his feature, Graham-Dixon barely bothered to look at the art, but he did do a lot of pratting about in an amusing bowler hat pretending to be a banker. He has had better moments.

daily record

Five years on, has RBS kept its promises and shaken off the hoarding habit? Far from it, according to this worrying report in the Daily Record in February this year. Only a few low value items have gone, and the value of the bank’s art holdings is still estimated at £20 million. RBS claims that collecting art is “not part of their current business direction”, but also insists that “the best works will remain within the bank’s estate”. Miserably, when approached by the Public Catalogue Foundation in 2009, RBS declined to participate by making details of their collection publicly available.

This may put the Mander Hepworth incident in a different light. If RBS / Delancey won’t say what their options are, they can hardly blame us for fearing the worst. Despite some pushing by Mark Carney and Vince Cable, RBS boss Ross McEwan has played down speculation that the bank might relocate southwards in the event of a vote for Scottish independence in just two months’ time. If Wolverhampton’s Hepworth is not sold off, where will they keep it? At this rate, it seems not beyond the bounds of possibility that it could end up as the key valuable stashed away in the RBS art vault over the international border in an independent Edinburgh.

Speaking out: Mandergate in the press

After an initial period of silence, the city council spoke out on July 14, in the form of a forthright press release by Councillor Elias Mattu, cabinet member for communities, calling publicly on behalf of the city Labour Group for the return of the Hepworth:

mattu press release

express & star
“I am calling on the current owners to either return the sculpture immediately, or publicly reassure the residents of our City that it will not be sold for their personal profit by providing them with the date we can expect to see it back on public display again.”

The 2003 unveiling [Express & Star]

The 2003 unveiling [Express & Star]

On the back of this the Express & Star was enabled to beef up its rather timid first effort with a splendid headline the following day – “Give us back our statue, say Mander Centre shoppers” – and a revival of their fine 2003 shot of Dr Sophie Bowness and the late Anthea Mander at the unveiling of the refurbished sculpture and time capsule – a great image, in which the sculpture looks extraordinarily powerful and alive. It’s not exactly a “statue”, but never mind; the thought’s the thing. When I last looked, the article had 450 likes.

Meanwhile Dr Chris Upton of Newman University has been busy in the Birmingham Post, with a scathingly witty column headlined “Between a rock and a hard place”:

“People used to arrange to meet by ‘the thing with holes in it’. Unfortunately, in an ultimate extension of Hepworthian style, the holes have now taken over completely. That is, the sculpture has vanished.

Birmingham PostShould I be worried about this? I know that the Mander family are – they were instrumental in getting the Hepworth to Wolverhampton in the first place.

Delancey’s website tells me they ‘take a lateral approach to direct property investment’, and plenty of other things I don’t understand. I have a firmer grasp of modernist art. But I shall be keeping my eye on the hole where the Hepworth ought to be. At present this particular piece of public art is anything but public.”

So Mandergate moves into the public domain. Let’s hope there’ll be plenty more where these came from.

Tweaking the record

I’ve always seen evasion as a form of deceit. But perhaps I’m plain naïve. In business, it seems, anything goes short of the litigious. So it’s been instructive to watch Delancey airbrushing out the embarrassments.

delancey community

In a previous post I highlighted their financial support of Pallant House gallery in leafy Chichester, which hosted a fine show of Hepworth drawings at around the same time that Delancey were heaving the Mander Hepworth onto the forklift in less leafy Wolverhampton. Interesting then, that the latest version of the “Community” page on Delancey’s site is now restricted to organisations they’ve supported in the last year only; conveniently, Pallant House has slipped off the bottom of the list and is nowhere to be seen.

First version: your sculpture is showing …

debenhams

That’s better!

The rather groovy artist’s impressions of the 2017 revamped Mander Centre also featured in an earlier post. The earliest versions of these included a little “before” image for comparison in the lower left corner; one of these, unavoidably, included the prominent shape of the Hepworth sculpture. In the later version, as issued to the press, this embarrassment has disappeared.

Finally, while we’re on evasion, let’s revisit the Mander’s much quoted statement that

“The sculpture was removed on the advice of our insurers, for safe keeping prior to development. The majority of the redevelopment will take place on the lower level, where the Barbara Hepworth sculpture was located. As such, the current landlords were advised by insurers that this valuable piece be removed and stored securely off-site.”

Seems reasonable. But “prior to development” is the key phrase here; when is the work actually due to start? All a bit vague. Helpful then, that supervising architect Trevor Colman was interviewed on Wolverhampton City Radio at the announcement in February, his comments preserved on YouTube:

Trevor Colman: "... starting on the site next year ..."

Trevor Colman: “… starting on the site next year …”

“It’s really now got to the point where it’s able to be announced because we’re starting on the site next year to complete in Summer 2016 with the department store to fit out and be open for trading by Christmas 2016.”

Next year? That’s next year as in 2015? Colman says this at 1.10 on the video and repeats it later. So the sculpture was removed at least seven months before the earliest start date? I’ve heard of safe keeping but that’s ridiculous. But of course, what may be coming up a lot sooner is the impending sale of the Mander Centre – minus the Hepworth, it seems.

“Prior” to redevelopment, yes. Also “prior” to the Day of Judgement, if it comes to that …

temporarily unavailable

The Mander’s missing Hepworth: out of darkness cometh … Sainsbury’s?

Wolverhampton’s wonderful Barbara Hepworth sculpture, Rock Form, has stood bravely in the Mander Centre for 46 years – until asset managers Delancey yanked it out a few weeks ago under cover of the Mander’s future redevelopment. My last two posts tell the shameful story – here and here.

For the last month and more, the owners and their associates have sat with lips zipped, cleverly managing not to deny that the Hepworth may be sold off. And it’s not just my enquiries that have been stonewalled – every objector has met with the same. The future for this important piece of Wolverhampton’s heritage remains completely in the dark.

Coincidentally, just as the Mander Hepworth has disappeared, the huge new Wolverhampton Sainsbury’s has opened for business, with “at its heart” (as the Express & Star put it – actually on a small patch of grass by the entrance) a brand new artwork commissioned by the supermarket.

Out with yesterday's meaningless abstractions ...

Out with yesterday’s meaningless abstractions …

... and in with today's bright new corporate sculpture!

… and in with today’s bright new corporate sculpture!

Out of darkness cometh light (the city motto) is an eight metre column of stainless steel, designed by Planet Art of Pelsall, who seem to specialise in monumental stuff for supermarkets. The cornetto-ish shape is oddly reminiscent of 2012’s Olympic torches; round the base are cut simplified shapes of vanished smoky industrial buildings, from which extend trees that blossom into an Escher-style frieze of escaping birds.

There is a certain portentousness about this symbolism. I was a bit stuck on what the birds might represent, apart from, well, er, birds. But according to artist Julie Edwards they symbolise hope for the future. This must be what Sainsbury’s bosses think public art should look like. I’ve seen considerably worse, I have to say. But I’m not quite convinced that Out of Darkness will still be standing proudly in 46 years’ time. With all due respect to Planet Art, is this what the City gets in exchange for its disappearing Hepworth? And is it a fair exchange?

But perhaps Mander / Delancey / RBS could take a leaf from Sainsbury’s book? If the Hepworth goes for a million pound Burton, why not silence the objectors by filling the empty space in the revamped shopping centre with a mega-impressive sheet-metallic thingumajig, symbolic of the aspirations of a reinvigorated post-recession corporate Britain? I’d suggest a base of stylised closed doors from which extend the arms of hatchet-wielding asset strippers, releasing flocks of pound signs taking flight.

It would be a vast improvement on that fuddy-duddy old Hepworth anyway. Those timeless curves and negative spaces, that grace and balance – after all, what did they mean?

 

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