Richard Warren

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Tag Archives: Andrew Graham-Dixon

The Mander scandal: “Give us back our statue, say shoppers”

Yes, I know. Mandergate has hijacked this blog a bit. But bear with me. It’s important. And normal service will be resumed asa decently p. For earlier instalments on Wolverhampton’s vanishing Hepworth sculpture, go to “recent posts” (right), or see here, here and here. For bigger images on this post, just click.

“I have heard the message loud and clear. RBS cannot start to claim to be a bank that always treats people fairly unless we stop doing those things that erode trust.”
Ross McEwan, Chief Executive RBS, The Guardian, 10 Feb 2014

RBS: compulsive art hoarders!

Here’s an angle that, stupidly, I missed earlier. I hadn’t realised how fond banks are of accumulating art, whether for investment, decoration or just plain bank swank. And it turns out that RBS – Mander Centre owners – have notorious form in this area. In late 2009 RBS (bailed out by 45 billion and 80% taxpayer owned, you may recall) was revealed to be sitting on the largest corporate art collection in Britain, thousands of items including a Lowry, a Hockney, a Caulfield, a Paolozzi and a Joshua Reynolds. According to The Guardian hundreds of works were in storage against only one out on loan, despite the bank’s earnest claim to be sharing its goodies with galleries and museums. The Guardian’s report is here, and BBC Scotland’s here. Google will find you many similar.

Andrew Graham-Dixon plays the banker to salute RBS’s “social responsibility strategy”

An immediate PR counter offensive promised an end to inappropriate hoarding; public access would be provided, as reported in The Scotsman, and works would be sold off, as quoted by Bloomberg. Interestingly, even plausible art pundit Andrew Graham-Dixon was wheeled out on The Culture Show to reassure angry taxpayers that RBS were “bending over backwards to make their real treasures available to the public” (his words) and that “the so-called RBS art scandal is just a red herring”. In the seven minutes of his feature, Graham-Dixon barely bothered to look at the art, but he did do a lot of pratting about in an amusing bowler hat pretending to be a banker. He has had better moments.

daily record

Five years on, has RBS kept its promises and shaken off the hoarding habit? Far from it, according to this worrying report in the Daily Record in February this year. Only a few low value items have gone, and the value of the bank’s art holdings is still estimated at £20 million. RBS claims that collecting art is “not part of their current business direction”, but also insists that “the best works will remain within the bank’s estate”. Miserably, when approached by the Public Catalogue Foundation in 2009, RBS declined to participate by making details of their collection publicly available.

This may put the Mander Hepworth incident in a different light. If RBS / Delancey won’t say what their options are, they can hardly blame us for fearing the worst. Despite some pushing by Mark Carney and Vince Cable, RBS boss Ross McEwan has played down speculation that the bank might relocate southwards in the event of a vote for Scottish independence in just two months’ time. If Wolverhampton’s Hepworth is not sold off, where will they keep it? At this rate, it seems not beyond the bounds of possibility that it could end up as the key valuable stashed away in the RBS art vault over the international border in an independent Edinburgh.

Speaking out: Mandergate in the press

After an initial period of silence, the city council spoke out on July 14, in the form of a forthright press release by Councillor Elias Mattu, cabinet member for communities, calling publicly on behalf of the city Labour Group for the return of the Hepworth:

mattu press release

express & star
“I am calling on the current owners to either return the sculpture immediately, or publicly reassure the residents of our City that it will not be sold for their personal profit by providing them with the date we can expect to see it back on public display again.”

The 2003 unveiling [Express & Star]

The 2003 unveiling [Express & Star]

On the back of this the Express & Star was enabled to beef up its rather timid first effort with a splendid headline the following day – “Give us back our statue, say Mander Centre shoppers” – and a revival of their fine 2003 shot of Dr Sophie Bowness and the late Anthea Mander at the unveiling of the refurbished sculpture and time capsule – a great image, in which the sculpture looks extraordinarily powerful and alive. It’s not exactly a “statue”, but never mind; the thought’s the thing. When I last looked, the article had 450 likes.

Meanwhile Dr Chris Upton of Newman University has been busy in the Birmingham Post, with a scathingly witty column headlined “Between a rock and a hard place”:

“People used to arrange to meet by ‘the thing with holes in it’. Unfortunately, in an ultimate extension of Hepworthian style, the holes have now taken over completely. That is, the sculpture has vanished.

Birmingham PostShould I be worried about this? I know that the Mander family are – they were instrumental in getting the Hepworth to Wolverhampton in the first place.

Delancey’s website tells me they ‘take a lateral approach to direct property investment’, and plenty of other things I don’t understand. I have a firmer grasp of modernist art. But I shall be keeping my eye on the hole where the Hepworth ought to be. At present this particular piece of public art is anything but public.”

So Mandergate moves into the public domain. Let’s hope there’ll be plenty more where these came from.

Tweaking the record

I’ve always seen evasion as a form of deceit. But perhaps I’m plain naïve. In business, it seems, anything goes short of the litigious. So it’s been instructive to watch Delancey airbrushing out the embarrassments.

delancey community

In a previous post I highlighted their financial support of Pallant House gallery in leafy Chichester, which hosted a fine show of Hepworth drawings at around the same time that Delancey were heaving the Mander Hepworth onto the forklift in less leafy Wolverhampton. Interesting then, that the latest version of the “Community” page on Delancey’s site is now restricted to organisations they’ve supported in the last year only; conveniently, Pallant House has slipped off the bottom of the list and is nowhere to be seen.

First version: your sculpture is showing …

debenhams

That’s better!

The rather groovy artist’s impressions of the 2017 revamped Mander Centre also featured in an earlier post. The earliest versions of these included a little “before” image for comparison in the lower left corner; one of these, unavoidably, included the prominent shape of the Hepworth sculpture. In the later version, as issued to the press, this embarrassment has disappeared.

Finally, while we’re on evasion, let’s revisit the Mander’s much quoted statement that

“The sculpture was removed on the advice of our insurers, for safe keeping prior to development. The majority of the redevelopment will take place on the lower level, where the Barbara Hepworth sculpture was located. As such, the current landlords were advised by insurers that this valuable piece be removed and stored securely off-site.”

Seems reasonable. But “prior to development” is the key phrase here; when is the work actually due to start? All a bit vague. Helpful then, that supervising architect Trevor Colman was interviewed on Wolverhampton City Radio at the announcement in February, his comments preserved on YouTube:

Trevor Colman: "... starting on the site next year ..."

Trevor Colman: “… starting on the site next year …”

“It’s really now got to the point where it’s able to be announced because we’re starting on the site next year to complete in Summer 2016 with the department store to fit out and be open for trading by Christmas 2016.”

Next year? That’s next year as in 2015? Colman says this at 1.10 on the video and repeats it later. So the sculpture was removed at least seven months before the earliest start date? I’ve heard of safe keeping but that’s ridiculous. But of course, what may be coming up a lot sooner is the impending sale of the Mander Centre – minus the Hepworth, it seems.

“Prior” to redevelopment, yes. Also “prior” to the Day of Judgement, if it comes to that …

temporarily unavailable

Still more to tell: Andrew Graham-Dixon on Edward Burra, BBC 4, Monday 24 October

Two and a bit cheers for “I Never tell Anybody Anything”, Andrew Graham-Dixon’s responsible presentation on Edward Burra last night on BBC 4. After the well plumbed depths of James Fox’s recent series on 20thc British painters, it was a considerable relief to sit through something that was engaging and informative, which didn’t appear to peddle wilful inaccuracies, and – best of all – that showed us stacks of paintings, without too much poncing about for the camera. Doctor Fox – watch and learn.

Jane Stevenson’s 2007 biography, Twentieth-Century Eye, must have given Graham-Dixon his story pretty much on a plate, and Stevenson was decently acknowledged and pulled in as a talking head. Though her book doesn’t illustrate a single piece of Burra’s work; is it a bit too easy to go for Burra as just one more glittering life-full of bohemian shenanigans? Boho-bio’s can be a frothy genre.

Edward Burra, 'Dandies', 1930

No, the work’s the thing, and Graham-Dixon gave us plenty of that, including the bonus of late landscapes and ballet designs. But even so, his commentary, cued maybe by Stevenson, was tempted into the too-frequent weakness of this sort of programme – art primarily as a window into biography, one-off interpretations that neatly tie the imagery, in purely symbolic terms, to traumatic personal life moments, etc. Agreed, some of the earlier work risked saying little and sliding into shallow social observation, but what about the later? Is horrors-of-the-war all we can make of it? The religious elements in the later work were acknowledged, but were mostly slid over. And the lone-furrow narrative swept past any consideration of the broader art context.

Burra exhibited in the 1936 Surrealist Exhibition in London. His involvement was cautious, but the debt to surrealism is clear in his work. And there are many other echoes in the paintings: Dix and Grosz in the early satirical stuff (he may have adored Paris, but he drew like a German, and owed little to cubism beyond a fondness for lino and woodgrain); Chas Laborde in the street observations; Douanier Rousseau in the flat naiveties; a bit of William Roberts in the stiff everyday figures and a bit of Wyndham Lewis in the abstracted allegorical figures; El Greco, Michael Ayrton – and even a hint of Dali – in the dramatically draped figures of the later work, and so on. This network of connections raises the Big Question of just what Burra’s art might have been about, beyond his own life story.

But Graham-Dixon wasn’t telling us. Not much, anyway. Perhaps because Burra himself famously and doggedly refused to comment. “What has meaning?” a frustrated interviewer asked Burra shortly before his death. “Nothing”, came the pat reply. Well, that’s all of us off the hook, then. But as John Rothenstein noted, Burra’s “constant theme” became “tragedy upon a more exalted level”, “the prevailing sense of the imminence of vast issues, and of vast catastrophes”. Christopher Neve quoted Burra as saying “I am always expecting something calamitous to happen”. Nigel Gosling saw in Burra a permanent state of “restrained terror”.  And even the low-life and cabaret pictures were less ‘thirties pop art than essentially anxious visions of the moral climate of Europe between the wars, whatever the particular moral angle.

What Burra painted was no less than the human condition. There is a good deal more to tell here, but the telling would require some hard analysis.

Burra at Pallant House, Chichester (includes the film interview)