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 vanity of sculpture

Images can be copied perpetually, but a piece of sculpture is unique to the space that it occupies. Which can hardly bode well for its survival. The “real” presence of sculpture encourages a sense of resistance to mortality, but in the real reality it ain’t so.

On arrival at Sheffield School of Art in 1975 I was arm-twisted into the Sculpture Dept just to make up the numbers. (As I have never been able to think or work three-dimensionally, this created a problem or two.) The department at that time was the fiefdom of Bryan Macdonald, a faintly patrician figure in his early forties who appeared to me somehow older. He seemed to have settled back comfortably on the laurels of his earlier career, having progressed from pleasing modernist-Hepworthian carving to great big boring constructivist metal jobs. Visiting speakers were usually pulled from his personal contacts, so we saw a lot of Richard DeMarco (since translated to sainthood) and of the oddly annoying Bruce Maclean (ditto). Maclean came to announce the death of painting, showed us images of his own deadpan, mannered performances, and then of course, a couple of years later, re-branded himself as a painter. Of sorts.

The watchword of the time was “truth to materials,” so standing stones were very much the thing, DeMarco putting us through his endless holiday slides of Maltese prehistoric temples. This maxim came to be extended to an abhorrence of almost any interference with ingredients, so the studios were soon littered with arrangements of the bucket-of-sand-and-length-of-rope school.

Bryan still got the odd local commission, which the departmental technicians were kept busy fabricating (in time that they should have spent assisting students, it seemed to me). I recall the prolonged birth of a great big stainless steel thing on poles, destined for a public space in Rotherham. The geometric flangey bits forming the pergola roof were supposed to rise and fall kinetically in the breeze, but on erection it was discovered that they were stuck, so the whole thing was disassembled and brought back for further welding and riveting. I see from the Hallam University public art website that it finally went up at Greasborough Library in 1980, though they had to fill the legs with concrete to keep it standing. Against the odds, it’s still there, though looking a little the worse for wear, and very much compromised by nearby trees. The flangey bits still don’t work.

weston park hospital

A more embarrassing fate met Bryan’s earlier magnum public opus at Weston Park Hospital, Sheffield, in which a kinetic grid of stainless steel parts (circular, supposedly representing cancer cells) was this time applied to a wall of the hospital building – in the centre of this shot. The “cells” were to be rotated by motors, and the whole shebang cost £30K, a sizeable sum in 1972. I quote from the Hallam public art site:

“The moving portions of the piece were switched off after complaints about noise from patients and staff at the hospital. Efforts were made to lubricate the moving parts and subsequent leaking fluid from the motors is thought to be responsible for the staining on the exterior wall of the hospital. Installation of the work was a difficult and complicated undertaking requiring the use of specialist equipment including a thermic lance.”

Even worse, for much of the ‘nineties the sculpture was completely masked by an enormous Cancer Care Appeal chart. By then, I suppose, it had come to be seen as some sort of unimportant decorative plaque.

milford haven
What of his other works? They are not too easy to trace. Here, at the 1968 opening of an oil refinery in Milford Haven, Her Maj looks a little bemused at a rather Caro-esque Macdonald commemorating, well, something to do with oil. Is it still there? The refinery site has long since changed hands.

unityunity nowGoing further back, here is Unity, a metre tall chunk of carved alabaster from 1965, when Macdonald was Gulbenkian Fellow at Keele University. I quite like the look of this – a sort of hard-edged but Hepworthy Moebius strip hugging itself. But here it is in its current location at Keele, shamefully stashed away with the notice boards and recycling bins, as snapped by a thoughtful visitor and uploaded to flickr. And what of Cantilever, from the same era, and once in the Senior Common Room at Keele, but now, according to the Public Monuments & Sculpture Association site, suffering from “cracks, splits, breaks, holes”? Another infinity loop, but with real poise and zing, and appearing rather well carved in walnut – the best of this little bunch, to my mind. As for what he was making in the ‘fifties and early ‘sixties, I can find no trace, at least online.


Bryan later moved to the Darwin Institute of Technology in Australia. He died there in 1990, only in his late fifties, leaving behind a handful of video interviews with other forgotten academics. The Sheffield Poly School of Art at the Psalter Lane site was demolished a couple of years ago; there are some desperate photos of the abandoned buildings here, and a tribute page somewhere on Facebook.

macdonaldIt all seems a bit sad, really. Leaving aside the problematic issue of the current direction of sculpture, which after minimalism has veered off into dire post-modernist kitsch, the validity of sculpture in a culture of representations has to be in doubt. What will have happened in twenty years’ time, for example, to all those Pegasi, rusting steel girders and similar giant clutter, intended as signifiers of industrial “heritage”, that now grace the roundabouts of the West Midlands? How shall we break to them the bad news concerning their hopes of permanence?

Though in this Advent season, when we are invited to contemplate the Four Last Things – Death, Judgement, Heaven and Hell – the mortality of sculpture may at least throw into relief the sheer scandalous audacity of the Christian hope of the resurrection of the body, and of the final permanence of matter.


5 responses to “The vanity of sculpture

  1. Alan Munton December 3, 2012 at 1:59 pm

    A very moving piece, with some affecting photographs, despite the hint of disapproval at the beginning. Interestingly contextualised, too! Paradoxically, paintings and drawings might seem to have a greater chance of survival. Ourselves as objects, our creations of objects….

  2. picturetalk321 December 8, 2012 at 1:06 pm

    This is part hilarious, part tragic. It’s so sad to see all these orphaned works, made with such hopes (and partly with such hubris! Rotating cancer cells? Wut??). But it’s salutary to remember all the local art that sits around our towns and not only the big international names. Great detective work!! (I still haven’t got over the thermic lance.) The piece with the ‘flangey bits’ is oddly moving in its funny little public part, trying to bring public statuary to a municipal site. Thanks for this!! A bracing read, and great pics.

    • richardawarren December 8, 2012 at 4:03 pm

      Thanks! I appreciate your comment very much. Since writing this, I’m beginning to suspect that we have moved into an era where there is something intrinsically tragic about almost any piece of public art, though I haven’t yet figured out quite why that might be …

  3. norman kemp November 10, 2013 at 3:26 pm

    Can I add my little piece of history please.I (Norman Kemp)was a student under Bryan Macdonald(68 to 71) and in my final year helped to make the stainless steel sculpture on Hallam university( along with Chris Boulton).I was cutting out the round shapes and rolling the sides,while Chris was doing the argon welding.All those dangerous industrial machines we access to were actually there for Bryan to make his own stuff.Health and safety?? I never saw the completed thing as I moved on to Chelsea art school in the September. Bryan was a nice guy and a good tutor but I’m never sure he was any good as a sculptor. Hadn’t realized at the time just how screamingly 70’s the thing was.I suspect the piece will be sold off as scrap in the future,probably a good thing.

    • norman kemp April 6, 2014 at 11:30 pm

      In addition,I found out in 2005 that the building shut down and is now demolished, shite 60’s design. Apparantly Bryan formed a new department called the “plastic arts” and then ,guess what,he gained the derogatory nickname of “plastic mac”,thereafter moved to Australia and died of a heart attack. Very sad really.I and my year in 1968 or 69 were the very first students to occupy the new building.
      I remember walking into it with a mate and we chose our studio on the first floor and simply moved in. Then all those amazing machines followed us, metal folders,benders,rollers and shears and a forge plus the woodworking stuff. Bryan made full use of them in his public art. And why not. So much art nowadays is so low tec and ephemeral, no need for those satanic machines to make art. On reflection,maybe Bryan wasn’t completely self interested when ordering all that stuff,he believed that was the way ahead.He did it for us. However,nice bloke as he was, I still don’t like the art he produced,a product of it’s time and not timeless.

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