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 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.

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