Richard Warren

"Clearly I tap to you clearly along the plumbing of the world" (W S Graham)

The missing Wolverhampton Hepworth – “Outrageous!”


My post of June 11 flagged up what looks like the imminent loss to Wolverhampton of the city’s fine Barbara Hepworth sculpture Rock Form (Porthcurno), which has stood proudly in the Mander Centre shopping mall since 1968 – but is now mysteriously removed “for safe keeping”. The post prompted this heartfelt comment from Sir Nicholas Mander:

“Outrageous and truly sad! The previous generation of my family were proud to sponsor one of Barbara Hepworth’s most striking mature works, Rock Form, and installed it in the certain hope that it would be enjoyed by the town in perpetuity. Surely a matter of trust when the Manders company was stripped and sold after 225 years of life, work and activity in central Wolverhampton.”

Deep silence

Now you see it ...

Now you see it …

Meanwhile all enquiries about the owners’ intentions have met with a significant and deafening silence. Understandable that the owners, Delancey and RBS, might be cagey – but the city council? Emails to Councillor Elias Mattu [cabinet member with responsibility for cultural services] brought this on 6 June:

“Hi Richard. Sorry for getting your name wrong … However, I have already asked Keren Jones [assistant director for partnerships, economy and culture] to look into your concerns and report back to me and your good self as soon as possible. Please stay in touch. Kind regards …”

All very promising. But since then, despite my polite prompts, not a word from Keren Jones, and even chatty Councillor Mattu has been struck miraculously dumb. Why the nervous clamming up? Would a little squabble about a sculpture really put off a serious purchaser for the Mander Centre? Hardly, one imagines, but that scenario could be a prevailing perception, and certain people may have become a bit jumpy …

Big profit

... and now you don't! But the ghostly white rectangle left by the plinth has resisted all attempts by Mander staff - I kid you not - to scrub it off.

… and now you don’t! But the ghostly white rectangle left by the plinth has resisted all attempts by Mander staff – I kid you not – to scrub it off.

So it was with great interest, if not great expectations, that I popped in last Friday to see Nick Pitt, Mander Centre Director. Nice office, wonderful view over the city, nice coffee, nice conversation. A very nice man, actually. But not giving much away, simply advising objectors to contact asset managers Delancey’s, further “up the food chain”.

Though Nick did insist that no decision about a sale has yet been made.  But in that case, why whip out the Hepworth long before the redevelopment had even been given planning approval? And why clam up? Nothing may yet have been minuted, but you can hardly blame us for suspecting a definite intention to sell.

Rock Form was bought from Barbara Hepworth for the Mander in 1968 by its architect Stanley Sellers, who died last year (and so is no longer in a position to object to its removal), at the reduced price of £4000. Someone who ought to know tells me that at auction it could fetch well over the million pound figure recently bandied about. Even allowing for the seller’s commission, that’s not a bad profit.

Refixing an asset?

But does Wolverhampton really have to kiss its Hepworth goodbye? The city’s on its uppers these days, and asset stripping its best piece of public art is just another kick in the teeth we can do without. Hepworth’s and the Manders’ intention was that the sculpture should be enjoyed by Wolverhampton people, not by Saudi or Russian billionaires. There are two possibilities:

Judging by the artist’s impressions, the redeveloped Mander Centre will look a bit big on bland and a bit short on inspirational. Surely those whitened acres of horizontal perspective could use a focal point, a familiar marker with a bit of verticality, something iconic, something symbolic of Wolverhampton reborn and reinvigorated, the Centre past and the Centre future? Seriously, what could be better than Rock Form, whose curves and voids are both heritage-ancient and space-age-futuristic, with a popular “retro” flavour that brings the ‘sixties into the 21st century? Stanley Sellers chose well when he picked it from Hepworth’s St Ives garden. It’s just right for the Mander, and the Mander will look sadly bereft without it. How many other shopping malls do you know with something of this quality – something to be proud of? I mean, have you seen the kitsch in the Trafford Centre?

Corporate Social Irresponsibility

Plan B: if there’s no place for the Hepworth in the Mander, shouldn’t it move to Wolverhampton Art Gallery? With recent panic talk of bins unemptied and libraries down to 15 hours a week, the idea of coughing up a million is unlikely to go down too well with the council, even with an Art Fund sub. But the Hepworth was bought at a mate’s rate in 1968, and if they can’t house it, the least its custodians can decently do is to find it a new home locally on a similar basis. Counting inflation at RPI rates the £4000 paid in 1968 would be a tad over sixty grand in today’s money. That seems about the right price to me. And the massive kudos that this act of generosity would bring to the beleaguered Evil Empire at RBS would surely be a bargain in the circumstances? After all, RBS managed to find not one million but £576 million for bonuses in 2013.

rock form originalDelancey’s March 2014 Corporate Social Responsibility policy document is proudly packed with all the right noises – “avoiding commercial short termism”, “high quality spaces that people enjoy” and so on, and lists all the community arty things they support, including Dulwich Picture Gallery, The Wallace Collection and Pallant House Gallery, no less. As it happens, the Pallant’s exhibition of Hepworth drawings has just finished. Accompanying that exhibition, by a fine irony, was a talk by Dr Paul Bowness, Hepworth’s grandson, whose sister Dr Sophie Bowness, with Anthea Mander, re-unveiled Rock Form in 2003. So as Delancey’s right hand was subsidising Hepworths in upmarket Chichester, their left hand was ripping out the Hepworth in downmarket Wolverhampton …

Reading between the lines, I’m not so sure that disposal of the Hepworth is quite a done deal – yet. Rock Form is not actually on the van to Sotheby’s as we speak, but those of us who would like to see it stay in Wolverhampton, where it belongs, will need to do some button-pushing before it really is too late, and we may not have long. Here are some possible buttons …

Steve Burgin, Retail Asset Management Director, Delancey –

Tim Haden-Scott, Property Director, Delancey –

Nick Pitt, Mander Centre Director –

Councillor Elias Mattu, City Council Cabinet Member, Leisure & Communities –

Keren Jones, City Council Assistant Director for Culture –

Corinne Miller, Head of Wolverhampton Art Gallery and Museum service –

Councillor Roger Lawrence, City Council Leader –

Keith Harrison, Editor, Express & Star –

8 responses to “The missing Wolverhampton Hepworth – “Outrageous!”

  1. Steve Evans July 11, 2014 at 4:38 pm

    Who is responsible for the ‘Rock Form’? It is a jewel, a real asset to the city and we should be assured that it will be reinstated as soon as is practica.

  2. roland Twynam July 11, 2014 at 8:48 pm

    To place Hepworth’s sculpture in the Mander Centre in the first place was ridiculous. It is a park sculpture designed to fit in with nature. My suggestion is Bantock Park- the garden

    • richardawarren July 11, 2014 at 8:52 pm

      Roland – that’s certainly an interesting suggestion, though I’m sure others will disagree. Also, of course, Hepworth herself sold the sculpture at a cut-rate price specifically for the Mander Centre, and seems to have had no qualms about the location. But the point is that without some fairly vigorous protests to the owners, it’s increasingly possible that nobody will be able to place it anywhere in Wolverhampton, and we’ll never see it again …

  3. Carol Widenbar July 13, 2014 at 7:36 pm

    Carol Widenbar July 11th 2014 at 19:30
    I think the Barbara Hepworth sculpture ‘Rock Form’ would be perfect in a garden – in the centre of a formal design surrounded by decorative paving where it would cast interesting shadows throughout the day.

    • richardawarren July 14, 2014 at 11:37 am

      Carol, I’m sure it would. But my main point is that it’s likely to be a pretty exclusive billionaire’s private garden if Delancey sell it off, which is perfectly possible at the rate we’re going. So please – anyone who’s concerned about this – make your voice heard. You may not get a reply, but every objection will be noted, I’m sure, and the growing weight of opinion could have an influence. It’s not a hopeless situation – yet …

      Incidentally, we should maybe not assume from the amazing Hepworth sculpture garden at St Ives that Hepworth’s large pieces were intended as garden ornaments. Rock Form was sold to the Mander to be a piece of public art, and Hepworth was concerned that it should be surrounded by people – Wolverhampton people, what’s more. And she was more than happy that it should be located within the modernist architecture of the shopping centre, where, I think, it has looked perfectly splendid.

  4. shirley July 14, 2014 at 10:30 pm

    I grew up in Wolverhampton, as a young child I remember the old arcade, the building of the Mander Centre and the strange piece of sculpture that I didn’t really understand yet was intrigued by. I was told how lucky we were to have it and have viewed it with a special magic for most of my life. How very sad that it has disappeared. Yet I feel that you must be mistaken, surely such an iconic piece of public art bought for the pleasure of the people of Wolverhampton, can not so easily be transferred into private hands, can it?

    • richardawarren July 14, 2014 at 11:42 pm

      Afraid so. Many folk assume that the sculpture is owned by the council, but it is the property of whoever owns the Mander, which has changed hands several times – currently RBS and Delancey. So yes, it’s that easy. The whole thing is a matter of trust and integrity, which are in short supply in commercial life these days …

  5. David Hammond Wolverhampton Art College 1953-57 July 21, 2014 at 11:22 am

    A sad state of affairs but typical of how corporate business sees” ordinary people” even when “we” own the business.I don t live in Wolverhamton now but it is where I was born and I am glad to join the protest.A difficult issue to make a protest.They dont like bad publicity or losing custom.Speaking to a solicitor about it he said about searching the legal grounds for objection asking through a councilor if the council involved in original sale.If it is not the ethical tack is the only grounds for appeal.

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