A mooch across Wolverhampton’s depressing and disintegrating city centre usually takes me through the Mander Centre shopping mall, where at least there’s a stately Barbara Hepworth bronze to cheer me up. Rock Form (Porthcurno), one of six castings made in 1964, has stood in the Centre since its opening. At first it sat on a low plinth, but was later made the focal point of a rather tacky water feature thing, hemmed in by tinkling fountains. When that was wisely removed the sculpture was given a clean and re-unveiled on a new plinth in 2003 by the late Anthea Mander and Dr Sophie Bowness, Hepworth scholar, trustee of the Hepworth Estate and the artist’s granddaughter. Inside the plinth was sealed a time capsule, containing items donated by Wolverhampton children. On one spot or another Rock Form has been at home in the Mander Centre for 46 years and in 2003 the intention was clearly that it should stay there for a lot longer. But not any more, perhaps. My most recent stroll revealed a ghostly rectangle on the floor below the escalators where the plinth had been. So what’s going on?
Where’s the sculpture? Behind the artist’s impressions unveiled for the Express and Star, but not for much longer …
In 2010 the Mander Centre formed part of a portfolio of “distressed assets” bought by property firm Delancey, backed by a partnership loan from RBS, the British public’s favourite bankers. In late February this year the Centre management announced an ambitious revamp and extension to be completed in 2017, with a new Debenham’s signed up as an “anchor” attraction. In mid-May, surprisingly, Delancey announced that it would be offloading the Blade portfolio, the Mander Centre included. The revamp, apparently, will not be affected. Agents for the Centre’s sale are Cushman & Wakefield and the asking price is reported to be £50 million. In late March an application was made for planning permission for the first phase of the redevelopment, but no start date has yet been announced. In which case, why has the Hepworth been removed? “For safe keeping prior to development,” according to a Mander Centre spokesperson. This seems a tad premature, given that (a) there is no start in sight, (b) the projected first phase, the demolition of the Bell Street corner, is nowhere near the sculpture and (c) Centre management has promised that the site will stay open throughout the development. Perhaps significantly, the groovy artist’s impressions of the revamp show no sign of the Hepworth.
Property Week: ‘more than a million’ …
Asked to elaborate on “safe keeping”, the Centre spokesperson declined. Asked about the fate of the children’s time capsule, she was silent. Invited to offer a denial that there was any intention to sell off the sculpture separately, she flatly refused, saying simply “The sculpture has been removed for safe keeping. We would not discuss anything else further.” Awkwardly phrased, but I get her drift. In their May report of the impending sale, Property Week estimated the value of the Hepworth at “more than £1m.”
The artist’s impressions of the revamp. Lots of shoppers, all young, white, smart and affluent. (Can this really be Wolverhampton?)
But no sculpture in sight …
Am I worrying too much? In 2004 Royal Mail removed a Hepworth that had stood for 40 years outside Chesterfield post office, for temporary exhibition elsewhere. Mysteriously, it failed to come back, but was later spotted at Bonham’s, sporting an estimate of £600,000. A public outcry eventually forced its return in 2009, at a cost of £500,000 (largely from the Art Fund), though Royal Mail had been pushing for a million. I assume that the Wolverhampton Hepworth is now owned by Delancey and that they can do what they like with it. But let’s put this into some context. Wolverhampton is not unblessed with sculpture of sorts in public places (not least roundabouts), but Rock Form is by far and away the finest and most important. Its selection for the Mander Centre in 1968 was a matter of some controversy at the time, the opposing lobby favouring something trad and figurative, but the Centre’s architect Stanley Sellers, who died last year, was a St Ives insider and a close friend of Hepworth, so Rock Form it was – a bold but entirely appropriate choice. The building went on to win a Civic Trust award, and the Hepworth must certainly have helped.
‘Rock Form’ in its original location
According to Chris Upton’s authoritative account of British shopping malls, the planning committee that granted outline approval in 1964 had been partly won over by the prospect that the Centre would be more than just shops; a ballroom, bowling alley and arts centre or cinema were also promised. In the event, all these community facilities evaporated, but the prestigious Hepworth served “to soften the blow”. According to Dave Smith’s recollection, Barbara Hepworth, interviewed on local telly at the unveiling, “stressed that in donating[??] the work to the town … she intended to enrich the cultural life of the place and to give Wulfrunians a rare opportunity to … experience a piece of living art.” Put like that, it might come over as a bit condescending, but we know what she meant. The intention was good. The Mander Brothers paint magnates owned and built half of Wolverhampton, and the Mander Centre was developed on the site of their original works. The Mander family pile at nearby Wightwick Manor is still stuffed with Pre-Raph and Arts & Crafts goodies, and is now operated by the National Trust. The choice of the Hepworth was entirely in keeping with the legacy of public access to good art that has long been associated with the Mander name. Whoever may own it, the Hepworth is an iconic local landmark and part of Wolverhampton’s heritage. Which makes the Mander Centre’s silence concerning its future particularly frustrating.
‘Time is the most valuable thing anyone can spend.’ Take note please, RBS.
Sources Public Monuments and Sculpture Association entry for Rock Form (Porthcurno) Wolverhampton Express & Star 25 February 2014 Wolverhampton Express & Star 29 March 2014 Wolverhampton Express & Star 13 May 2014 Property Week 2 May 2014 Royal Mail and the Chesterfield Hepworth Chris Upton, Shopping Heaven and Hell Birmingham Museums Trust obituary for Stanley Sellers Dave Smith on Hepworth’s interview (start of Preface)