Top Five Public Sculptures: Frieze Sculpture Park, London

Public Catalogue Foundation Volunteer Viccy Ibbett gives us an account of her favourite sculptures from Frieze Art Fair, which recently took place in central London:

‘Frieze Art Fair is over for another year. Regent’s Park has reverted back from a hectic foundry of art sales to the idyllic landscape venerated by artists such as Adrian Berg. In short: the famously bolshy squirrels are again the masters of the lawns.

But part of the Fair has been left behind. The Frieze sculpture park is to remain in situ in Regent’s Park’s English Garden until January 10th. Clare Lilley, the director of Yorkshire Sculpture Park, selected the sculptures, which span a millennia of sculptural history and incorporate monoliths, architectural works and audio-visual pieces. Although these works are impermanent – they will be sold or removed at the end of January; many of the sculptors have created other works that are permanently sited in public spaces across the UK. The works in Regent’s Park also attest the broad range of styles, techniques and purposes that go into the formation of “sculpture”, that monumentally broad category of art that PCF aims to document over the next few years.

The Dappled Light of the Sun, 2015, Conrad Shawcross (see image at the top of post)

Regents Park in the Autumn would probably make any sculpture sing. There’s something about the way the light cuts through the damp November air, amplifying the reds and yellows of the tree canopies, and the verdant lawns. But Shawcross’ The Dappled Light of the Sun seems particularly suited to this setting. The bronze sculpture is constructed out of multiple tetrahedrons welded together into an organic whole. In an interview with Wallpaper magazine, Shawcross described the tetrahedron as “an awkward building block. If you build with them they radiate out and bifurcate, like the branches of a tree.” Placed amid the vivid foliage of the park, The Dappled Light of the Sun looks utterly at home.

Shawcross, who is the youngest member of the Royal Academy, is no stranger to public art commissions. Earlier this year the sculptor unveiled Three Perpetual Chords in Dulwich Park. The three cast irons sculptures are an homage to Barbara Hepworth who’s Two Forms (Divided Circle) was stolen from Dulwich Park in 2011. The Dappled Light of the Sun was put forward for inclusion in the Frieze Sculpture Park by the Victoria Miro gallery.

Open Screen Bove

Open Screen, 2014, Carol Bove

Bove’s Open Screen is a playful imposition into the landscape of Regent’s Park. The architectural sculpture is constructed out of steel that is welded into three rectangles. The transparent form plays with the gaze of the viewer, inviting her to look through it, rather than at it, and to appreciate the picturesque way in which it frames the vistas of the park around it. Much like the permanently installed ‘selfie frames’ that have sprung up in cities and resorts around Europe, Bove’s sculpture is self-effacing but effective at renewing the viewer’s outlook on the space around them.

Open Screen was offered for inclusion in the Frieze Sculpture Park by David Zwirner gallery.

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Large Female Figure, 1991, William Turnball

Large Female Figure is a sea-blue, paper-thin slice of anthropomorphic bronze. From a distance the figure’s womanly outline is crisply delineated. Up close it is possible to see the mesmerising details of the sculpture’s surface. The patina has a complex blend of blues and greens, and the figure is incised with minute holes indicating nipples and jewellery. The figure’s serenity and its extraordinary height recall so-called ‘primitive’ art, which inspired other modernists such as Giacometti, famous for his poised Venetian women.

This figure dates from Turnball’s mature period, when he left behind the stainless steel tubular sculptures that had helped to establish his name, in order to return to his earlier passion for ‘primitive’ art. Early in his career, shortly after attending the Slade alongside the sculptor Eduardo Paolozzi, Turnball had been selected by Herbert Read to exhibit his ‘primitive’ sculptures at the Venice Biennale. He exhibited alongside other artists whose preoccupation in common was described by Read as “the geometry of fear”.

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Anthropomorphic Monolith, Pre-Ekoi sculpture, estimated 11th to 14th century

Anthropomorphic Monolith is just as its title indicates: an ovoid chunk of smooth rock roughly carved with the features of a man. These monoliths are something of a mystery to art historians, historians, anthropologists, and anyone else who has looked with an outsider’s eye at the history of West African art work. What is clear is that the rocks were originally dredged up from river beds, where the slow action of the water smoothed them into their current shape. The rocks were carved with the features of men and propped up near villages. However, their exact significance to the carvers or to the people who lived near them is an enigma.

The curator, Lilley, has placed Anthropomorphic Monolith near to Turnball’s Large Female Figure, to draw attention to the relationship between the two traditions of creating. Anthropomorphic Monolith was nominated for inclusion in the Sculpture Park by Didier Claes, a Belgian gallery that took a stall at Frieze Masters for the first time this year.

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Standing Stones (Solar Symphony 8), 2015, Haroon Mirza with Mattia Bosco

Standing Stones (Solar Symphony 8) are rocks that translate sunlight into sound and LED lighting. Sunlight, apparently, sounds uncannily like a mournful blast on a clarinet; a note so low that it’s unclear where the source is. The clue is the large solar panel attached to the larger of the two rocks that constitute Standing Stones (Solar Symphony 8). On a closer inspection, it is possible to see tiny flashes of red and blue LED lights embedded in narrow seams in the rock. According to the artist, Haroon Mirza, the LED lights and the intermittent groans of sound directly correlate to the pattern of sunlight falling on the solar panel. But of course, it is impossible to know for sure.

Mirza’s Standing Stones (Solar Symphony 8) challenges traditional notions of sculpture as a static, purely visual or tactile medium. By incorporating sound into the sculpture, Mirza demands that viewers engage with the sculpture aurally as well as visually. Also, by integrating a solar panel and circuitry, which translate the changing intensity of the sunlight into sound and light, Mirza has created a constantly contemporary sculpture that actively responds to its environment. It is interesting to consider how the PCF should approach a sculpture like this in our cataloguing project, or even whether ‘audio-visual’ work like this should be included in the PCF’s definition of ‘sculpture’ at all.’


The Best of Barbara Hepworth in London

The Public Catalogue Foundation’s volunteer, Viccy Ibbett, has been out and about again, this time considering the sculptures of Barbara Hepworth that can be seen in London:

‘At her death in 1975, Barbara Hepworth was described as ‘probably the most significant woman artist in the history of art to this day.’ Forty years later, Hepworth is the subject of a major exhibition at the Tate Britain, the first large scale retrospective of the artist’s work in London for fifty years. Hepworth’s work has previously been displayed in dedicated venues, such as the Hepworth Wakefield museum, and her old studio in St. Ives, which is managed by the Tate. The sculptor’s 2D works can also be found in various collections across the country. As the Tate Britain’s exhibition draws to a close, I went out to find the public sculptures in London that constitute part of the legacy of Britain’s best loved, internationally acclaimed, modernist sculptor.Monolith (Empyrean) Hepworth1. Monolith Empyrean, 1953, Hampstead Heath

Barbara Hepworth moved to St. Ives in 1939 in order to escape a panicked London shortly before the declaration of the Second World War. Although her arrival was not auspicious, Hepworth admired the ‘barbaric and magical countryside’ of Cornwall, studded with ancient standing stones and hemmed by dramatic coastal landscapes. Thirty years later, and towards the end of her life, Hepworth declared the area her ‘spiritual home’.

On Hampstead Heath, something of the totemic phenomena of the Cornish landscape has been enshrined among the rhododendron bushes beside Kenwood House. Hepworth’s Monolith Empyrean (meaning ‘heavenly stone’) is carved from a limestone block rich with fossils. The sculpture’s outline is humanoid, but the viewer is invited to look through and beyond the sculpture by cavities that pierce right through the block, framing shifting perspectives of the gardens. The sculpture used to stand on the London Southbank, but it has occupied its place on Hampstead Heath since it was purchased by the London County Council in 1959.Single Form Hepworth2. Single Form, 1963, Battersea Park

My grandmother started Art College in the early sixties, a time when Hepworth had established her predominance over the British sculpture scene and her predilection for the monumental was exerting a hypnotic influence on aspiring sculptors. On my grandmother’s first day her tutor asked her to choose between pursuing a vocation in painting or sculpture. Without hesitation, my grandmother chose painting. Her reasoning was that, as abstraction and monumentalism were dominating sculptural creation, she did not want to work in a medium that would require her to depend on male students to carry up gigantic, heavy blocks of stone for her from the Central Saint Martin’s basement! Hepworth’s massive Single Form, in Battersea Park, made me think of my grandmother. At over ten feet tall, Single Form occupies the outer limits of what can be accomplished in a single bronze casting.

Single Form was constructed as a memorial to Dag Hammarskjöld, secretary general of the United Nations from 1952 up until his death in 1961. Hammarskjöld, a good friend of the sculptor, had been speaking to Hepworth about a commission for the UN site just before his tragic death in an airplane crash. Single form was first exhibited in Battersea Park in 1963. Over the next year, Hepworth recast the sculpture in three parts for the UN site, scaling the sculpture up from 10 feet to a gigantic 21 feet high.Hepworth Figure in Landscape3. Figure in Landscape, 1960, Tate Britain forecourt (temporarily)

When interviewed in 1972, in the last few years of her career, Hepworth stated that she thought ‘every sculpture must be touched. It is part of the way you make it and it’s our first sensibility: the sense of feeling; the first one we have when we are born.’ The current exhibition of Hepworth’s work at the Tate Britain suffers the major flaw of having locked Hepworth’s sculptures away in irritatingly reflective glass cases, and for having instructed its stewards to keep an eagle eye on fingers twitching to caress Hepworth’s tactile bronzes. Fortunately, on the front lawns of the Tate Britain, is Figure in Landscape, which is happily exposed for the general public to peer at, prod and stroke it to their heart’s content.

This is the second time that Figure in Landscape has welcomed visitors into the Tate Britain. In 1968, during the previous large-scale retrospective of Hepworth’s work in the Tate Britain, Figure in Landscape was positioned on the front steps of the gallery. It must be supposed that Penelope Curtis, the out-going director at the Tate Britain and lead curator of the Hepworth exhibition, is giving the nod to the work of her forebears.Hepworth Winged Figure4. Winged Figure, 1963, John Lewis on Oxford Street

John Lewis opened its flagship store on Oxford Street in 1961. To celebrate the occasion, and to project a marketable image of urbanity, John Lewis commissioned a sculpture to adorn the plain façade that faces onto Holles Street. Several sculptors entered the competition, including Barbara Hepworth. All of them were rejected. On her second attempt, Hepworth’s sculpture, Winged Figure was accepted. In 1963 the sculpture was fixed in place.

Barbara Hepworth declared that she thought ‘one of our universal dreams is to move in air and water without the resistance of our human legs. If the Winged Figure in Oxford Street gives people a sense of being airborne in rain and sunlight and nightlight I will be very happy.’ The current gleam of the aluminium and stainless steel sculpture is due to a recent restoration.

There used to be a fifth Barbara Hepworth sculpture in London. ‘Two Forms (Divided Circle)’ used to stand in Dulwich Park, but it was stolen by suspected metal thieves in 2011.’

Top Five Public Sculptures: On the Meridian, London

Viccy Ibbett, Public Catalogue Foundation Volunteer, has been walking ‘The Line’ and gives us her account of the fascinating contemporary sculpture on the Greenwich Meridian:

‘The Prime Meridian, or zero degrees longitude, or the Greenwich meridian, has long generated a mystic attraction to the area around the Greenwich Peninsula, where the Greenwich Observatory still stands. By international convention, the Greenwich meridian was chosen in 1884 to be the standard point of measurement for longitude and, by extension, international time zones. Greenwich, by dint of this association, is a place where Time itself seems to disintegrate: it is no longer the unassailable march of successive days or seasons, authoritatively documented by the hands of innumerable clocks; it is a constructed, arbitrary, mathematical solution, wedded to human history and ingenuity. Today, if you visit the area after dark, you’ll see that the sky is split in two by a green laser that demarcates East from West, the work of artists Peter Fink and Anne Bean. On the ground, due to the spectacular efforts of several artists, developers and dedicated local volunteers, you’ll find a treasure-trove of contemporary public sculptures and art projects, which document the Now at the international epicentre of Time itself.

Working my way south from Stratford, along the River Ley to Greenwich North, here are my top five public sculptures from along the Meridian. Most of my choices are featured on The Line, a sculpture walk conceived of by the Turner prize-winning artist, Mark Wallinger, famous in particular for his work, Ecce Homo, which stood on the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square.

1. Network, Thomas J. Price, 2013

PriceThis large-scale bronze dominates the entrance to the Lee Valley Park, which nestles on the banks of a tributary of the Lee River. The park was empty when I visited, and the figure faced northwards towards the scrubby banks of the river. The sculpture is on loan from a private collection.

The choice of bronze and the monumental size of the figure, which stands at nine feet, combine to imply that the sculpture is a commemoration. He holds a tablet phone in his hand and, in his pocket, is the rectangular outline of a second tablet. His expression is concerned, his belly protrudes, and his posture is hunched over: a classic case of Text Neck. It’s a familiar sight: Price has certainly given us ourselves in bronze.

2. DNA DL90, Abigail Fallis, 2003

Abigail FallisConsisting of 22 shopping trolleys piled on top of one another and twisted into the shape of a double helix, this sculpture was commissioned by a supermarket chain on the anniversary of the discovery of DNA’s double helix structure by Rosalind Franklin and her male colleagues. The sculpture is on loan from a private collection.

The message is simple and as clear as the ka-ching of a cash register. For playfulness and strength of purpose, this sculpture won me over immediately.

3. Sensation, Damien Hirst, 2003

HirstArt meets scientific education in this painted bronze situated on Cody Docks. The subject is obvious to anyone who struggled through anatomical drawings in pre-GCSE science classes: it’s a cross section of the epidermis, complete with hair follicles, sweat glands and blood vessels. The sculpture is on loan from a private collection.

Personally, I could take it or leave it. I mention it here as much for its situation as its intrinsic value. The sculpture is located on Cody Docks, the centre of an Arts led regeneration project masterminded by Gasworks Dock Partnership. Hirst’s sculpture benefits from its placement in the midst of the Cody Wild’s project, which is nurturing the natural flora and fauna along the banks of the River Lea. It is nearby the very heart of the Cody Dock’s development: a centre for artists and creatives including a café, gallery and studio spaces. Wandering past, late at night last week, I was lucky enough to bump into the project’s mastermind, Simon Myers, who expressed his pleasure that his project and that of Wallinger’s had coincided on this stretch of the river.

4. Vulcan, Eduardo Paolozzi, 1999

Vulcan by Eduardo PaolozziAnother monumental bronze. Paolozzi’s sculpture of the Ancient Roman god of fire and the forge stands at 26 feet tall. It is situated on the bank of the River Thames at the Royal Docks, keeping a stern eye on the northern base of Boris Johnson’s cable cars. The sculpture has been made available by Pangolin London.

The god is part man, part machine: his torso and limbs are constructed of gigantic cogs and levers. But, true to the mythology, he is lame: one foot swells bulbously and is planted on a higher ledge than the other. Like Price’s Network, Paolozzi’s Vulcan gives us an image of man’s dependence on machines; in this sculpture I wondered whether the god’s lameness is eased or exacerbated by mechanical interventions.

5. A Bullet From a Shooting Star, Alex Chinneck, 2015

Chinneck Image Credit Chris TubbsOn the lip of the Greenwich peninsula, set against the luminous backdrop of Canary Wharf, is Chinneck’s latest surreal public sculpture. An electricity pylon plunges, point first, into the earth between the towpath and the river. The sculpture weighs 15 tons and sits in foundations 25 meters deep. The sculpture has been put in place in time for this year’s London Design Festival. It is semi-permanent, but it is anticipated that the area of land it currently sits on will be the site of a residential development to take place over the next two decades.

I saw the sculpture at night, when the glass skyscrapers across the river blazed with such an intensity of gold electric lighting that they appeared as pillars of fire, the buildings’ frames almost invisible. Chinneck’s sculpture was urgent and exciting: it was as though, in order to deal with all that frenetic electronic consumption, a pylon had buried itself into the ground, earthing itself to let the electricity channelled through it pass away safely.’

Image credits: Photos of Network, DNA DL90 and Sensation by Viccy Ibbett; photo of Vulcan by Matt Brown; photo of A Bullet From a Shooting Star by Chris Tubbs.

‘Für Das Kind’ at Liverpool Street Station

Viccy Ibbett, Public Catalogue Foundation Volunteer, tells us about a touching sculpture at Liverpool Street station, commemorating the help given to refugees in World War II:

‘In Liverpool Street station it is easy to miss my favourite of London’s public sculptures, Für Das Kind – or ‘For the Children’, a bronze of two children with suitcases that is tucked away by the entrance to the underground station. It is easy to miss not only because the sculpture displays such a regular scenario of commuters and baggage that it blends into the crowd, but also because real life commuters are liable to interpret the statue’s generous plinth as an invitation to hunker down beside the little boy with their own baggage while waiting for a train.

The statue honours the famous Kindertransport system that sprang up in the UK during the second World War. In the early years of the war, the UK waived immigration restrictions in order to welcome over ten thousand European children who were fleeing from Nazi persecution. Children who arrived in the UK were placed with a foster family and promised a sum of money should they succeed in re-establishing contact with their families after the war.

The sculpture has had a chequered history. The artist, Flor Kent, originally dedicated quite a different sculpture in 2003. Then, the sculpture occupied a more prominent place in the station and consisted of only the bronze girl, standing beside a monolithic glass suitcase, which contained actual artefacts brought over to the UK by children arriving by Kindertransport. Now, the sculpture has been relocated to its current spot by the underground station and features both a boy and girl, with smaller bronze suitcases.Fur das Kind_ViccyLast week I was touched to notice that the sculpture had been transformed again, and this time not by the artist but by an anonymous commuter. A profusion of red, pink and white carnations had been placed in the arms of the girl, and over the plinth. It was a gesture of solidarity with the refugees currently attempting to escape into Europe, whose plight was most recently thrown into relief by the discovery of the drowned body of a two year old boy from Syria on a beach in Turkey. The sculpture no longer functioned merely as a reminder of the generosity of the British public in the past; it demanded that today’s refugees are afforded the same basic human consideration. As a work of commemoration, and as a piece of social activism, the flowers affected a potent renewal of the sculpture’s original message.

This use of art to convey a pressing social need reminded me of the efforts of state-sanctioned artists during the Second World War, who were commissioned by the British government to record the war effort at home and abroad. Of these, Mary Kessel stands out for her delicate studies in oils of German refugees after the German surrender. In her diaries, written in Berlin at the time this painting was made, Kessel instructs herself to ‘remember for ever those things that war has made’. Today, art has again been an important element in the public response to the refugee crisis. Creative Collective for Refugee Relief is an online platform where artwork can be sold and the profits donated to NGOs working with refugees.

When I returned to Liverpool Street Station the next day (to get a sharper photograph), the flowers were gone. I was disappointed. I even considered updating them myself. But despite and perhaps even because of, its short-lived nature, the carnations decorating the Für Das Kind sculpture succeeded in their aim of reminding me and other passersby of the imperative that the British recollect their past generosity and re-enact it today. The Für Das Kind sculpture itself, and its availability for this sort of public interaction, was an essential conduit for this message.’

Image credits: Image within text by Viccy Ibbett. Featured image

Introducing our Sculpture Collection Researcher

The Public Catalogue Foundation recently advertised for a Sculpture Collection Researcher for the Development Phase of the Your Sculpture project. After an intensive recruitment process, we are delighted to announce that the successful candidate is Dr Anthony McIntosh. Anthony’s role, which is funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund, will be to survey the UK’s public organisations to gain an understanding of the nature and extent of their sculpture collections. He will also research the location of public monuments and sculpture around the UK.

Here, Anthony introduces himself and tells us about his interest in sculpture:

“I have recently been appointed as the Sculpture Collections Researcher for the Your Sculpture project. As a development of the superb Your Paintings website, it is a really exciting initiative and I am equally excited to be part of this early development stage.

Since finishing my PhD at the beginning of 2014, I have been working as a freelance researcher and lecturer. I have done work for a diverse range of clients that include Professor Mark Stocker of the Museum of New Zealand in Wellington, NZ, and a company in Hastings who are engaged in creating several installations in Dover to commemorate the centenary of the Great War. I am currently carrying out research work for Ann Compton, who was Project Director for the wonderful Mapping Sculpture online database. Ann is currently writing a book about the makers and methods of sculpture in Britain between 1851 and 1940. In addition to working as a researcher, I occasionally give lectures at the University of Brighton on the use of oral history as a research tool.

Although I love to look at new public sculpture, ironically I am often drawn more to those pieces that have disappeared, or that are being grossly neglected. I am fascinated by the lost biographies of sculpture that once graced our streets and parks. I have an article in the forthcoming issue of the Sculpture Journal that discusses a statue of Captain William Pechell (below), a hero of the Crimean War. Matthew Noble_1I discovered the statue in 2007 slowly disintegrating in undergrowth in Brighton’s Stanmer Park. This statue by Matthew Noble once dominated the vestibule of the Royal Pavilion, but is now a sad example of what can happen to important pieces of commemorative sculpture once the generation who erected it have gone. Matthew Noble_2I have recently been digitising the Captain’s letters home from the Crimea for the Somerset family in Worthing.

Before I started my PhD, I was the Research Officer for the Sussex Recording Project, a collaborative project between the University of Brighton and the PMSA that aimed to detail all of the public monuments and sculpture in Sussex. You can find the database online at: I still occasionally add new objects to the database at the request of the sculptor. During that project I discovered many fascinating stories of ‘lost’ objects. Not many people, for instance, would know that the allegorical group of statues surmounted by Queen Anne at the steps of St. Paul’s Cathedral is a copy (below, first image), and that the original is eroding away behind The Ridge in Hastings (below, second image). Queen Anne_1

Queen Anne_2The detective work involved in revealing these lost and neglected pieces is often fraught with difficulty, but ultimately really rewarding when their present or past existence can be brought to the public’s attention.

After the Sussex project ended I worked as the Administrator for the Public Monuments and Sculpture Association (PMSA) in London, until I received a full Arts and Humanities Research Council grant to continue with my PhD studies full time. The work that the PMSA continues to do on the National Recording Project is integral to the discovery of many such objects and I would like to pay tribute to the individuals all over the country who have worked tirelessly to record, and where possible photograph, our sculptural heritage. Very often they are receiving no financial or other institutional support but are carrying out this work fuelled only by a passion for sculpture and a determination to document this aspect of the nation’s heritage for posterity – usually resulting in the publication of another superb volume in the Liverpool University Press Public Sculpture of Britain series. Our own Sussex volume was published in November 2014.

My PhD focused on two case studies – both public monuments that have been moved or demolished. One of them, the Prince Albert Memorial Clock Tower in Hastings, is probably talked about as much now by the people of the town as it was before it was demolished in 1973 (see below).HastingsMy PhD explored the way in which public monuments can become so central to community life that they come to represent the identity of particular towns and cities and of the people who live there. They become places embodied with meaning and sites rich with individual and collective memory. My study also revealed the importance of large central monuments to a range of community events such as carnivals, Whit walks and other ad hoc celebrations, such as those at Christmas and New Year. I am also very interested in objects associated with parades and processions such as banners, particular forms of dress (both of these often homemade) and in rituals such as ‘marking the bounds’.

Amongst the many things that my previous roles and my PhD studies revealed, one of the most important, I think, is that the monuments and public sculpture that local communities embrace and become emotionally and passionately engaged with are not always those that academics and experts feel are ‘worthy’ of study or conservation. That fact alone has frequently made me think about what the word public really means in the term public sculpture. I recently visited Seaham in County Durham on the way back from the Borders in order to look at a new sculpture titled ‘1101’.Tommy_2The sculpture by local artist Ray Lonsdale, and named ‘Tommy’ by locals had been placed on the seafront temporarily, but had become so loved by the local community that they raised the £85,000 necessary to purchase it and it will now stay onsite permanently. I viewed the work for approximately two hours and during that time there was a constant stream of people of all ages arriving to look at the piece; families, individuals, young people, disabled people. It has clearly become part of the fabric of the community there and is already functioning as a spatial and temporal location for the creation of public memory. I remember thinking that what I was witnessing was the real meaning of the phrase public sculpture.

The Your Sculpture project is in its infancy but will, without doubt, become the most important initiative to date in ensuring that our rich sculptural heritage is documented and the data made easily accessible online to everyone. I am delighted to be a part of that undertaking.”

If you would like to contact Anthony about the project, please email:

Looking up in London: Epstein’s British Medical Association Sculptures

Charlotte Hollands, Public Catalogue Foundation Volunteer, has been casting her eyes up, instead of down at the ground, and has discovered a wealth of fascinating sculptures above her head:

‘Public sculptures found up above us are often hidden in plain sight. Many are proudly placed above underground station entrances or tucked tightly into the façades of public buildings. Being above our eye line, they are often neglected from the appreciation they deserve.

During my walk to the Public Catalogue Foundation offices in Covent Garden in London, I travel along The Strand, often bustling along with the rest of the city, my eyes down and concentrating on crossing the traffic safely. Yet since I started researching for my Art History dissertation a year ago, I feel like I’ve been let into a little secret. As I cross the road, if I look up at Zimbabwe House, 429 The Strand, and just above the arched windows, there features a number of stone-carved sculptures, which appear as if they have blended into the facade of the building.

These are Epstein’s 18 sculptures designed in 1906–1908 for the British Medical Association building. American-born British sculptor Jacob Epstein (1880–1959) was commissioned by the building’s architect, Charles Holden, to create sculptures which embodied the work of the BMA. Thus, these sculptures depict the various ages of man, with titles of Youth, Infancy (The Newborn), Mentality (or The Brain), Chemical Research, Maternity, Primal Energy and Form Emerging from Chaos (or Matter), with Epstein leaving some of the individual sculptures with no official title.

Epstein’s carvings were met with mixed reviews. He was, of course, a modern sculptor, which raised both fear and praise from the public and the art world. The 8ft high sculptures in Portland Stone were met with a distinct criticism of their realistic portrayal of the nude body, opposing the classic, beautiful iconographic nudes already seen in public sculptures. So much so, that in 1908 the Evening Standard and St James’s Gazette strongly campaigned against Epstein’s figures, but after much debate, the sculptures remained in situ, with the support of the BMA.

In 1935, however, the Southern Rhodesian Government (the new owners of the building after the BMA) also threatened to remove the sculptures, with a final breaking point in 1937, when the head of one of the sculptures fell to the ground injuring a pedestrian. It has since been suggested that this type of Portland Stone was particularly susceptible to acid found in the atmosphere which led to the severe erosion of the sculptures. Epstein had also been known to describe the continual furore surrounding his sculptures as the ‘thirty years’ war’. This potential danger from erosion resulted in Epstein’s carvings being ‘cut back’; hence only the ruins of the sculptures remain visible to us today, on what is now Zimbabwe House, home to the Embassy of Zimbabwe.

It is sometimes difficult to comprehend that a collection of sculptures met with such furious debate at its conception, now quietly exist, often unnoticed and partially obscured by trees on a busy main street in Central London. So my advice is to always look up when walking in a busy city, as you never know what you may see and what stories can be discovered.

If this post has interested you, there is a particularly good essay written by Sarah Crellin, titled ‘Let There Be History: Epstein’s BMA House Sculptures’ in Modern British Sculpture edited by Penelope Curtis and Keith Wilson, 2011.’

Hidden Dramas in Covent Garden

Susannah Bray, Public Catalogue Foundation Volunteer, takes us on a tour of the some of the sculpture that can be seen near the PCF’s head office in the heart of London’s theatreland:

“Avoid the traps and focus in closer. What you might find may impress you.

Covent Garden, one of London’s busiest hotspots, is not just home to the hustle and bustle of theatre life, but to a huge amount of sculptures waiting to be uncovered. Some of Britain’s greatest actors, writers and directors are immortalised within the concrete of central London. Some notable names, such as Charlie Chaplin, will lead you through London on an uncommon trail that will make you discover places you never knew existed and have walked past in day-to-day life.

We begin with Agatha Christie. Agatha is particularly easy to miss. The likely person would bypass this sculpture in the heart of theatreland either because they are late to their play at the West End or are too excited by the prospect of meeting a fanciful flower girl in Covent Garden. However, this is a treat not to be overlooked. The bust of her head appears in profile within a solid surrounding of bronze, safely nestled from pedestrians. Her smiling face is a warm welcome against the chill. More than eight of Christie’s plays have been performed on the West End, with particular  The Mousetrap credited as the longest running play in the world.image1Above: Agatha Christie Memorial, Ben Twiston-Davies, 2013.

Not a stone’s throw away, in the north of Leicester Square, opposite the Leicester Square Theatre, you will find one of the heroes of the golden age of Hollywood; Charlie Chaplin. You will come across him in character, absently mindedley waiting your arrival. He doesn’t have a voice unlike another popular work by John Doubleday, Sherlock Holmes (1999), but almost appears, like on screen, that he doesn’t need one.

Chaplin appears to have a good view of the beginning of Chinatown and stares out to where Wilfred Earnest Lytton once lived, but he has not always been sited there. Previously he stood in the middle of Leicester Square, resting on a cane. This cane is now gone and you can only presume that it didn’t make the journey. Something to note is Chaplin’s change in height, as although never being tall in real life, between 1981 and 2011 he gained height physically and commemoratively by being placed in Leicester Square on a plinth. Following the remodelling he was moved without his plinth to Leicester Place.image2Above: Charlie Chaplin, John Doubleday, 1981.

Following the streams of people heading back east is recommended, as between Covent Garden and Bedford Street is a place of perfect serenity; St Paul’s Church garden. On my visit some restoration work was being done, but it is still worth a look. In the garden sits Neptune’s fountain, a piece fit for the water god himself. Although I was unable to see Neptune as the area directly behind the photo was cordened off, the back side reveals a ‘Baroquism’ of a scallop shell that leaves you wondering where an indignant Galatea has been left. St Paul’s Church is a stone’s throw away from the covers of Covent Garden and gains its fame from being referred to as ‘The Actor’s Church’. You can easily imagine flows of actors and playwrights en route from tavern to theatre, praying that they really do not break a leg.image3Above: Neptune Fountain, Philip Thomanson, 1995.image4Above: Doorway to Inigo Jones Garden. The Neptune Fountain can be glimpsed through the door.

Being in Covent Garden, it would be unthinkable to not think about dance, and, just on the other side of The Royal Opera House, a Young Dancer ties the ribbons of her ballet shoes. The grace and preciosity of her art can be seen in her posture, which Plazzotta captures in his sculpture. She perches half on the stool for moment to retie the ribbons before she leaps back into the rehearsal. The piece seems timeless, encompassing every hopeful dancer.image5Above: The Young Dancer, Enzo Plazotta, 1988

The last sculpture, if you recognise it for what it is, will probably be the most memorable. Found on Adelaide Street, many a passer-by will rest on this piece and not realise that they are actually regaining their strength on a nod to one of Britain’s greatest playwrights, Oscar Wilde. Indeed what they are actually sitting on is his coffin, which he seemingly rises out of and attempts to engage you in conversation. image6

Above: A Conversation with Oscar Wilde, Maggi Hambling, 1998.

Wilde, who died in 1900 at the age of 45, had been imprisoned for two years and in a way this controversial work feasibly reflects his life. It is far better, however, to look at a sculpture without any previous knowledge or bias of others’ opinions, just appreciating the art for the way you see it. Note: at the time of observation the whole of Adelaide Street was being dug up, making it hard to take a photo without any road works. I am sure Oscar would not have minded being submerged in the contemporary.”

Thanks very much to Susannah for taking us on this mini sculpture trail around London WC2.