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

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.”

The Mander’s missing Hepworth: out of darkness cometh … Sainsbury’s?

Wolverhampton’s wonderful Barbara Hepworth sculpture, Rock Form, has stood bravely in the Mander Centre for 46 years – until asset managers Delancey yanked it out a few weeks ago under cover of the Mander’s future redevelopment. My last two posts tell the shameful story – here and here.

For the last month and more, the owners and their associates have sat with lips zipped, cleverly managing not to deny that the Hepworth may be sold off. And it’s not just my enquiries that have been stonewalled – every objector has met with the same. The future for this important piece of Wolverhampton’s heritage remains completely in the dark.

Coincidentally, just as the Mander Hepworth has disappeared, the huge new Wolverhampton Sainsbury’s has opened for business, with “at its heart” (as the Express & Star put it – actually on a small patch of grass by the entrance) a brand new artwork commissioned by the supermarket.

Out with yesterday's meaningless abstractions ...

Out with yesterday’s meaningless abstractions …

... and in with today's bright new corporate sculpture!

… and in with today’s bright new corporate sculpture!

Out of darkness cometh light (the city motto) is an eight metre column of stainless steel, designed by Planet Art of Pelsall, who seem to specialise in monumental stuff for supermarkets. The cornetto-ish shape is oddly reminiscent of 2012’s Olympic torches; round the base are cut simplified shapes of vanished smoky industrial buildings, from which extend trees that blossom into an Escher-style frieze of escaping birds.

There is a certain portentousness about this symbolism. I was a bit stuck on what the birds might represent, apart from, well, er, birds. But according to artist Julie Edwards they symbolise hope for the future. This must be what Sainsbury’s bosses think public art should look like. I’ve seen considerably worse, I have to say. But I’m not quite convinced that Out of Darkness will still be standing proudly in 46 years’ time. With all due respect to Planet Art, is this what the City gets in exchange for its disappearing Hepworth? And is it a fair exchange?

But perhaps Mander / Delancey / RBS could take a leaf from Sainsbury’s book? If the Hepworth goes for a million pound Burton, why not silence the objectors by filling the empty space in the revamped shopping centre with a mega-impressive sheet-metallic thingumajig, symbolic of the aspirations of a reinvigorated post-recession corporate Britain? I’d suggest a base of stylised closed doors from which extend the arms of hatchet-wielding asset strippers, releasing flocks of pound signs taking flight.

It would be a vast improvement on that fuddy-duddy old Hepworth anyway. Those timeless curves and negative spaces, that grace and balance – after all, what did they mean?

 

The missing Wolverhampton Hepworth – “Outrageous!”

Outrage

My post of June 11 flagged up what looks like the imminent loss to Wolverhampton of the city’s fine Barbara Hepworth sculpture Rock Form (Porthcurno), which has stood proudly in the Mander Centre shopping mall since 1968 – but is now mysteriously removed “for safe keeping”. The post prompted this heartfelt comment from Sir Nicholas Mander:

“Outrageous and truly sad! The previous generation of my family were proud to sponsor one of Barbara Hepworth’s most striking mature works, Rock Form, and installed it in the certain hope that it would be enjoyed by the town in perpetuity. Surely a matter of trust when the Manders company was stripped and sold after 225 years of life, work and activity in central Wolverhampton.”

Deep silence

Now you see it ...

Now you see it …

Meanwhile all enquiries about the owners’ intentions have met with a significant and deafening silence. Understandable that the owners, Delancey and RBS, might be cagey – but the city council? Emails to Councillor Elias Mattu [cabinet member with responsibility for cultural services] brought this on 6 June:

“Hi Richard. Sorry for getting your name wrong … However, I have already asked Keren Jones [assistant director for partnerships, economy and culture] to look into your concerns and report back to me and your good self as soon as possible. Please stay in touch. Kind regards …”

All very promising. But since then, despite my polite prompts, not a word from Keren Jones, and even chatty Councillor Mattu has been struck miraculously dumb. Why the nervous clamming up? Would a little squabble about a sculpture really put off a serious purchaser for the Mander Centre? Hardly, one imagines, but that scenario could be a prevailing perception, and certain people may have become a bit jumpy …

Big profit

... and now you don't! But the ghostly white rectangle left by the plinth has resisted all attempts by Mander staff - I kid you not - to scrub it off.

… and now you don’t! But the ghostly white rectangle left by the plinth has resisted all attempts by Mander staff – I kid you not – to scrub it off.

So it was with great interest, if not great expectations, that I popped in last Friday to see Nick Pitt, Mander Centre Director. Nice office, wonderful view over the city, nice coffee, nice conversation. A very nice man, actually. But not giving much away, simply advising objectors to contact asset managers Delancey’s, further “up the food chain”.

Though Nick did insist that no decision about a sale has yet been made.  But in that case, why whip out the Hepworth long before the redevelopment had even been given planning approval? And why clam up? Nothing may yet have been minuted, but you can hardly blame us for suspecting a definite intention to sell.

Rock Form was bought from Barbara Hepworth for the Mander in 1968 by its architect Stanley Sellers, who died last year (and so is no longer in a position to object to its removal), at the reduced price of £4000. Someone who ought to know tells me that at auction it could fetch well over the million pound figure recently bandied about. Even allowing for the seller’s commission, that’s not a bad profit.

Refixing an asset?

But does Wolverhampton really have to kiss its Hepworth goodbye? The city’s on its uppers these days, and asset stripping its best piece of public art is just another kick in the teeth we can do without. Hepworth’s and the Manders’ intention was that the sculpture should be enjoyed by Wolverhampton people, not by Saudi or Russian billionaires. There are two possibilities:

Judging by the artist’s impressions, the redeveloped Mander Centre will look a bit big on bland and a bit short on inspirational. Surely those whitened acres of horizontal perspective could use a focal point, a familiar marker with a bit of verticality, something iconic, something symbolic of Wolverhampton reborn and reinvigorated, the Centre past and the Centre future? Seriously, what could be better than Rock Form, whose curves and voids are both heritage-ancient and space-age-futuristic, with a popular “retro” flavour that brings the ‘sixties into the 21st century? Stanley Sellers chose well when he picked it from Hepworth’s St Ives garden. It’s just right for the Mander, and the Mander will look sadly bereft without it. How many other shopping malls do you know with something of this quality – something to be proud of? I mean, have you seen the kitsch in the Trafford Centre?

Corporate Social Irresponsibility

Plan B: if there’s no place for the Hepworth in the Mander, shouldn’t it move to Wolverhampton Art Gallery? With recent panic talk of bins unemptied and libraries down to 15 hours a week, the idea of coughing up a million is unlikely to go down too well with the council, even with an Art Fund sub. But the Hepworth was bought at a mate’s rate in 1968, and if they can’t house it, the least its custodians can decently do is to find it a new home locally on a similar basis. Counting inflation at RPI rates the £4000 paid in 1968 would be a tad over sixty grand in today’s money. That seems about the right price to me. And the massive kudos that this act of generosity would bring to the beleaguered Evil Empire at RBS would surely be a bargain in the circumstances? After all, RBS managed to find not one million but £576 million for bonuses in 2013.

rock form originalDelancey’s March 2014 Corporate Social Responsibility policy document is proudly packed with all the right noises – “avoiding commercial short termism”, “high quality spaces that people enjoy” and so on, and lists all the community arty things they support, including Dulwich Picture Gallery, The Wallace Collection and Pallant House Gallery, no less. As it happens, the Pallant’s exhibition of Hepworth drawings has just finished. Accompanying that exhibition, by a fine irony, was a talk by Dr Paul Bowness, Hepworth’s grandson, whose sister Dr Sophie Bowness, with Anthea Mander, re-unveiled Rock Form in 2003. So as Delancey’s right hand was subsidising Hepworths in upmarket Chichester, their left hand was ripping out the Hepworth in downmarket Wolverhampton …

Reading between the lines, I’m not so sure that disposal of the Hepworth is quite a done deal – yet. Rock Form is not actually on the van to Sotheby’s as we speak, but those of us who would like to see it stay in Wolverhampton, where it belongs, will need to do some button-pushing before it really is too late, and we may not have long. Here are some possible buttons …

Steve Burgin, Retail Asset Management Director, Delancey – steve.burgin@delancey.com

Tim Haden-Scott, Property Director, Delancey – tim.haden-scott@delancey.com

Nick Pitt, Mander Centre Director – Nicholas.Pitt@mandercentre.co.uk

Councillor Elias Mattu, City Council Cabinet Member, Leisure & Communities – Elias.Mattu@wolverhampton.gov.uk

Keren Jones, City Council Assistant Director for Culture – Keren.Jones@wolverhampton.gov.uk

Corinne Miller, Head of Wolverhampton Art Gallery and Museum service – Corinne.Miller@wolverhampton.gov.uk

Councillor Roger Lawrence, City Council Leader – labourleadersoffice@wolverhampton.gov.uk

Keith Harrison, Editor, Express & Star – claire.hancox@expressandstar.co.uk

Wolverhampton’s Barbara Hepworth – how safe is “safe keeping”?

rock formA mooch across Wolverhampton’s depressing and disintegrating city centre usually takes me through the Mander Centre shopping mall, where at least there’s a stately Barbara Hepworth bronze to cheer me up. Rock Form (Porthcurno), one of six castings made in 1964, has stood in the Centre since its opening. At first it sat on a low plinth, but was later made the focal point of a rather tacky water feature thing, hemmed in by tinkling fountains. When that was wisely removed the sculpture was given a clean and re-unveiled on a new plinth in 2003 by the late Anthea Mander and Dr Sophie Bowness, Hepworth scholar, trustee of the Hepworth Estate and the artist’s granddaughter. Inside the plinth was sealed a time capsule, containing items donated by Wolverhampton children. On one spot or another Rock Form has been at home in the Mander Centre for 46 years and in 2003 the intention was clearly that it should stay there for a lot longer. But not any more, perhaps. My most recent stroll revealed a ghostly rectangle on the floor below the escalators where the plinth had been. So what’s going on?

Mander Centre director Nicholas Pitt manages to mask out the sculpture while parading his artist's impressions for the Express & Star

Where’s the sculpture? Behind the artist’s impressions unveiled for the Express and Star, but not for much longer …

In 2010 the Mander Centre formed part of a portfolio of “distressed assets” bought by property firm Delancey, backed by a partnership loan from RBS, the British public’s favourite bankers. In late February this year the Centre management announced an ambitious revamp and extension to be completed in 2017, with a new Debenham’s signed up as an “anchor” attraction. In mid-May, surprisingly, Delancey announced that it would be offloading the Blade portfolio, the Mander Centre included. The revamp, apparently, will not be affected. Agents for the Centre’s sale are Cushman & Wakefield and the asking price is reported to be £50 million. In late March an application was made for planning permission for the first phase of the redevelopment, but no start date has yet been announced. In which case, why has the Hepworth been removed? “For safe keeping prior to development,” according to a Mander Centre spokesperson. This seems a tad premature, given that (a) there is no start in sight, (b) the projected first phase, the demolition of the Bell Street corner, is nowhere near the sculpture and (c) Centre management has promised that the site will stay open throughout the development. Perhaps significantly, the groovy artist’s impressions of the revamp show no sign of the Hepworth.

property week

Property Week: ‘more than a million’ …

Asked to elaborate on “safe keeping”, the Centre spokesperson declined. Asked about the fate of the children’s time capsule, she was silent. Invited to offer a denial that there was any intention to sell off the sculpture separately, she flatly refused, saying simply “The sculpture has been removed for safe keeping. We would not discuss anything else further.” Awkwardly phrased, but I get her drift. In their May report of the impending sale, Property Week estimated the value of the Hepworth at “more than £1m.”

Lots of shoppers, all young white, middle class and buying stuff. Can this be Wolverhampton?

The artist’s impressions of the revamp. Lots of shoppers, all young, white, smart and affluent. (Can this really be Wolverhampton?)

But no sculpture in sight ...

But no sculpture in sight …

Am I worrying too much? In 2004 Royal Mail removed a Hepworth that had stood for 40 years outside Chesterfield post office, for temporary exhibition elsewhere. Mysteriously, it failed to come back, but was later spotted at Bonham’s, sporting an estimate of £600,000. A public outcry eventually forced its return in 2009, at a cost of £500,000 (largely from the Art Fund), though Royal Mail had been pushing for a million. I assume that the Wolverhampton Hepworth is now owned by Delancey and that they can do what they like with it. But let’s put this into some context. Wolverhampton is not unblessed with sculpture of sorts in public places (not least roundabouts), but Rock Form is by far and away the finest and most important. Its selection for the Mander Centre in 1968 was a matter of some controversy at the time, the opposing lobby favouring something trad and figurative, but the Centre’s architect Stanley Sellers, who died last year, was a St Ives insider and a close friend of Hepworth, so Rock Form it was – a bold but entirely appropriate choice. The building went on to win a Civic Trust award, and the Hepworth must certainly have helped.

'Rock Form' in its original location

‘Rock Form’ in its original location

According to Chris Upton’s authoritative account of British shopping malls, the planning committee that granted outline approval in 1964 had been partly won over by the prospect that the Centre would be more than just shops; a ballroom, bowling alley and arts centre or cinema were also promised. In the event, all these community facilities evaporated, but the prestigious Hepworth served “to soften the blow”. According to Dave Smith’s recollection, Barbara Hepworth, interviewed on local telly at the unveiling, “stressed that in donating[??] the work to the town … she intended to enrich the cultural life of the place and to give Wulfrunians a rare opportunity to … experience a piece of living art.” Put like that, it might come over as a bit condescending, but we know what she meant. The intention was good. The Mander Brothers paint magnates owned and built half of Wolverhampton, and the Mander Centre was developed on the site of their original works. The Mander family pile at nearby Wightwick Manor is still stuffed with Pre-Raph and Arts & Crafts goodies, and is now operated by the National Trust. The choice of the Hepworth was entirely in keeping with the legacy of public access to good art that has long been associated with the Mander name. Whoever may own it, the Hepworth is an iconic local landmark and part of Wolverhampton’s heritage. Which makes the Mander Centre’s silence concerning its future particularly frustrating.

'Time is the most valuable thing anyone can spend.' Take note please, RBS.

‘Time is the most valuable thing anyone can spend.’ Take note please, RBS.

Sources Public Monuments and Sculpture Association entry for Rock Form (Porthcurno) Wolverhampton Express & Star 25 February 2014 Wolverhampton Express & Star 29 March 2014 Wolverhampton Express & Star 13 May 2014 Property Week 2 May 2014 Royal Mail and the Chesterfield Hepworth Chris Upton, Shopping Heaven and Hell Birmingham Museums Trust obituary for Stanley Sellers Dave Smith on Hepworth’s interview (start of Preface)