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)

Monthly Archives: August 2014

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 To her, that outdated ‘ess’ signifies a dabbler – ‘a person who does the little, twiddly sort of thing.’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.”