Now you see it …
Historic England has set us all a new party game for the holidays – help find our missing art. Armed with a useful list of lost or stolen public sculpture, we are encouraged to track down a host of bronze, concrete and fibreglass artefacts that have disappeared into the ether over recent decades.
Some are major pieces; bronzes by Moore and Hepworth, Chadwick and Meadows are on their list and it is a fair guess that they were melted away for a fraction of their value by a couple of likely lads with a Reliant Robin round the back of the industrial estate that is by now a prime residential site. Concrete pieces, many of them hefty reliefs by William Mitchell – such as the 1968 Spirit of Brighton which was smashed up in the early 1990s – are more likely to have ended up as hardcore. But propped up, forgotten, who knows what has been left in storage or overlooked at the back of the shed? The campaign is a rather savvy starting pistol shot to HE’s forthcoming Somerset House exhibition that will tell more of the story. Perhaps by then there will have been some Eureka moments in the garages of outer southeast London?
And, while it flags up the level of loss, and hopes to run some missing pieces to earth, HE is also doing an admirable job in acknowledging the sheer quality and geographic spread of public art in the postwar period. Some outstanding pieces were commissioned by developers – such as Hepworth’s Meridian on State House Holborn, which now stands in PepsiCo’s sculpture park in the US – but on the whole they ornamented or dignified the public landscape. Examples were in courtyards of pleasant local authority housing for the elderly, the icing on the cake of a new LCC school (like Heinz Henghes’ 1960 Birds in Flight which was designed for children to handle, only for it to disappear from Elm Court School in Tulse Hill almost immediately) or to add something extra to a New Town neighbourhood. Harlow New Town, largely thanks to the efforts of its master planner Frederick Gibberd, was laced together by public sculpture – much of which, albeit of variable quality, remains and is dignified by a sculpture trail. In 2009 Harlow rebranded itself ‘Harlow Sculpture Town’ as brown signs everywhere remind you.
Public sculpture was one marker of an ambitious, aspirant and generous society, the kind of world that we urgently need to be reminded of. Well done, Historic England.
Gillian Darley is the President of the The Twentieth Century Society