Richard Warren

"Clearly I tap to you clearly along the plumbing of the world" (W S Graham)

Tag Archives: Stanley Sellers

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.]

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)