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)

Tag Archives: Rock Form (Porthcurno)

The human dimension of sculpture

Probably the last blast here for Wolverhampton’s recently controversial Barbara Hepworth bronze, Rock Form (Porthcurno) – see previous post and many others. But I can’t resist posting this great pic taken just after its unveiling by the Mayor in the Mander Centre shopping precinct in 1968, as the crowd closes in to ponder. Click for full size, and study the faces and body language! Photo courtesy of Pippa Thorneycroft, née Mander, who was present at the ceremony. Thank you, Pippa.

"I do not think sculpture can come alive in architecture at all unless it is recognized as a value in its own right. Sculpture is not primarily an embellishment. It gives the human dimension, it gives that added perception which only sculpture can give. [...] Sculpture makes people act in a certain way; they move in a certain manner. Their gestures and their reaction to a sculpture are extremely expressive and this is the point - if the architect and the sculptor know how to seize upon it - where one might achieve a vital development in the architect's as well as in the sculptor's work in relation to human needs." (Barbara Hepworth)

“I do not think sculpture can come alive in architecture at all unless it is recognized as a value in its own right. Sculpture is not primarily an embellishment. It gives the human dimension, it gives that added perception which only sculpture can give. […] Sculpture makes people act in a certain way; they move in a certain manner. Their gestures and their reaction to a sculpture are extremely expressive and this is the point – if the architect and the sculptor know how to seize upon it – where one might achieve a vital development in the architect’s as well as in the sculptor’s work in relation to human needs.” (Barbara Hepworth) Copyright P Thorneycroft.

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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.]

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.