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)

Articulating impermanence: the Wolverhampton Hepworth row of 1968

Now that the return to the Mander Centre of Wolverhampton’s cast of Barbara Hepworth’s Rock Form (Porthcurno) has been secured (see posts passim and Facebook here), time for a quick look at the earlier controversy about it – whether it should have been there in the first place – following its unveiling in March 1968, and some of the later echoes. Refreshingly, the terms of argument were not bankers and speculation, but the nature of sculpture and its relation to architecture. And very little of it came from the usual “five year old child” brigade, either.

E&S gossip
On 3 April 1968 the regular Express & Star “Gossip” column, headed “Knocking Holes in Hepworth Sculpture,” declared Rock Form officially controversial: “’Old fashioned’, ‘a throwback to the thirties’, ‘mass produced art’ and ‘ludicrous’ are some of the denunciations,” announced columnist “Vigilant”.

The attack was two pronged, if polarities can be prongs. Wolverhampton Civic Society objected that “a figurative work would have been more appropriate,” and that a local open sculpture competition should have been held. One dreads to think what that might have produced.

Mike Travers, bricoleur, in later life

Mike Travers, bricoleur, in later life

Sweeping in from the opposite extreme was spokesman for the avant garde Mike Travers, sculpture lecturer at the Art College, and anxious to position himself at the cutting edge, or even in front of it. He denounced the sculpture as “an object of contemplative reverence … with its artificially induced green patina, a ready-made antiquity, its self-conscious attention to surface texture as an end in itself … rhetorical and crude.”

Questioningly rhetorical himself, Travers asked: “Should the sculpture articulate the space and relate to the architecture?” Well yes, of course it should. But by “relate” he seems mainly to have meant “imitate”; the Hepworth looked “uncomfortable … in contrast with its surroundings of plate glass, steel, concrete and marble.” One wonders what alternative he had in mind, but, this being the ‘sixties, Anthony Caro can’t have been too far away; some plinth-less conglomeration of brightly painted girders might have avoided the “humanisation” that Travers detested. (Did Caro use Manders paints, one wonders?)

But even this would have been too little, too late. The very “absurdity” of the Mander Centre itself made the whole project redundant, according to Travers: “As a piece of architecture it is already dated!”

Next day the argument spilled over onto BBC TV’s “Midlands Today”, where tempers, according to “Vigilant” the evening after, were “running high”. Defending his choice of the Hepworth was architect Stanley Sellers. Backing his man Travers was Ron Dutton, then head of the college’s sculpture department. Dutton declared the Hepworth “out of date, a monument on a plinth” that “did not activate the space around it.”

Depends what you mean by “activate”. Sellers insisted that “people [would] glance at it each time they walked past”. Earlier, he had written: “Look at the colours, textures and shapes, see how these change as you walk round it. See the effects of changing light and shade.” If “Vigilant” is to be believed, the result was a stalemate: “Both were so anxious to justify their pleas, for or against, that they interrupted each other in a way that could only exasperate viewers.”

Robin Plummer in 1980, by Kenny McKendry

Robin Plummer in 1980, by Kenny McKendry

Three days later, principal Robin Plummer rode half-heartedly to the rescue in the Express & Star’s letters page, attempting to limit damage by judiciously but nervously dissociating his College of Art from Travers and Dutton’s Hepworth-bashing. After saluting Dame Barbara as “eminent” and so forth, he damned the choice with faint praise: “Whether it is fully appropriate to that site is, I think, arguable, but nevertheless it is the right sort of gesture to have made.” All very “sort of”.

On April 19th another of Plummer’s lecturers, printmaker Michael North, chipped in briefly to back Travers. After that, it all went quiet. Following a random letter on May 1st declaring the Hepworth “ugly”, the Express & Star seems to have considered the subject closed.

Where are they all now? In the intervening years head of sculpture Ron Dutton moved on to become a renowned medallist. His designs are neatly done, but in the main conservatively figurative. As miniature, self-contained reliefs, they do not need to articulate any surrounding space at all. His website is here.

College principal Robin Plummer went on to head up the Faculty of Art and Design at Coventry in 1971, where he promptly took on the conceptualists by insisting that only “tangible, visual art objects” (as opposed to texts) could be entered for assessment. First casualty was Coventry’s art theory course, followed by its lecturers, David Bainbridge, Michael Baldwin and Terry Atkinson, all of Art & Language fame. (Their student followers also went on to contribute to Art & Language. I remember running into some at a NUS art education conference a couple of years later, where they were amusingly disruptive.)

In 1975 Plummer moved on to Brighton, where he taught till 1989. His paintings of the late ‘sixties rely on a simplistic, pop-ish, hard edged abstraction – vaguely jolly but bland, and now interesting mainly as period pieces. Appropriately non-committal, in fact.

The Wolverhampton Civic (now Civic and Historical) Society has thankfully progressed from its reactionary stance of 46 years ago, and under the chairmanship of Suhail Rana has given firm support to the recent campaign to save the Mander Hepworth from vanishing.

Angry young lecturer Mike Travers became assistant professor at the University of Alberta later in 1968. In 2005 with wife Maureen he was featured in this regional arts magazine – scroll to page 25. I believe he has recently died, but on a surviving web page here, Michael Travers describes himself as “a visual poet-philosopher with an environmental approach to art and design that incorporates being a bricoleur combined with the philosophy of Wabi-sabi – the Japanese Art of Impermanence.” Evidently, he stuck to his guns right to the end. Permanently, in fact. Good for him. I think Barbara Hepworth would have liked that.

Rock Form (Porthcurno) in Hepworth's 1964 sculpture records, with the Mander cast listed as no. 5. [Hepworth Estate, Bowness, Tate Britain Archive, CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 (Unported) licence.]

Rock Form (Porthcurno) in Hepworth’s 1964 sculpture records, with the Mander cast listed as no. 5. [Hepworth Estate, Bowness, Tate Britain Archive, CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 (Unported) licence.]

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5 responses to “Articulating impermanence: the Wolverhampton Hepworth row of 1968

  1. Brendan Flynn November 4, 2014 at 11:18 pm

    Many thanks for all your efforts to retain the Hepworth for the people of Wolverhampton. It is arguably the finest piece of sculpture in Wolverhampton and its loss would have had a serious impact on the reputation of the city.

    I do feel some sympathy though for those who felt that the location of the work was inappropriate. It always looked marooned and forlorn amongst the clutter of shop window displays and the hideous piped music they insist on playing throughout the Mander centre. Like many of Hepworth’s works, it craved clear, open space, sky and sunlight to bring its forms and surfaces to life. Would it be possible to bring it out into the open at last – maybe in the garden in front of the city archive where it would have some company in the the big William Pye sited 50 yards away next to the School of Art?

    Who knows – maybe the “city” of Wolverhampton could behave like a city and use it as the starting point for a major linear sculpture park that follows the route of the ring-road. What other artists might be appropriate? I’d like to see Roy Kitchin, Anthony Gormley, David Nash, Stephen Cox, Elizabeth Frink, John Paddison and Nicholas Munro’s colossal fibreglass King Kong – but this time cast into bronze. Wolverhampton once had a national reputation as a centre of excellence in sculpture between the wars and we could build on that aspect of the city’s history.

    • richardawarren November 6, 2014 at 4:13 pm

      Hello Brendan. Personally, I come down on the side of wanting to see it stay in the Mander Centre, given that Hepworth was certainly involved in the original decision. But I do appreciate where you’re coming from. To be honest, it will have to stay indoors, simply because it’s uninsurable outside, and I think that all parties involved now agree on that. But yes, I love your vision of the city reinvigorated as a centre for sculpture!

  2. Michael Peverett November 5, 2014 at 9:38 am

    That’s a fabulous post – funny and moving and serious. Thank you for all the research!

  3. Melanie Whyatt November 7, 2014 at 6:52 am

    Thank you for such an entertaining and well-researched history. Knowing the work survived so many learned naysayers might make me appreciate it more. And what an insight into the Express and Star of yore! Can’t imagine today’s version devoting column centimetres to art critics, though in fairness, it played a pretty helpful part in your campaign.

    • richardawarren November 7, 2014 at 9:31 am

      Yes, the world of the Express & Star was a bit different then. On the other hand, this was the Enoch era, when the paper banged on vocally about immigration just about every day. So some things have improved …

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