AS PART of the 500th-anniversary celebrations for the publication of Thomas More’s Utopia, Historic England (formerly English Heritage) is staging an exhibition on the troubled fortunes of public art in the UK.
It concentrates on the period 1945-85, arguing that this marked the heyday for such commissions. Much like the exhibitions of the 1970s and ’80s that highlighted the dangers faced by country houses and churches, it is a salutary tale. It also shows how art in the public place often excites raw emotions.
Only 14 of the 30 sculptures commissioned for the 1951 Festival of Britain can now be traced, and only a handful of the 50 tapestries are known to survive. Eduardo Paolozzi’s first commission (1951), for a tubular steel fountain in front of the Southbank Centre, has been destroyed; and the 1959 bronze cockerel made for Crown Woods School in Eltham, south London, by Bernard Meadows, was sold at auction in 2004, having gone missing some years before.
Such works are prey to vandalism as well as theft. In 1972, Barry Flanagan produced a piece for the Peter Stuyvesant group. At the time, it was trying to sweeten its image as a provider of tobacco by buying art. The temporary installation on Laundress Green, Cambridge, was repeatedly vandalised, and part of it appeared outside the students’ common room in Peterhouse College.
Four undergraduates, from Trinity, Christ’s, and Newnham Colleges were caught red-handed by the police one night as they attempted to dismember more of the plastic, steel, sand, and canvas work. The Revd Arthur Phillips, at Little St Mary’s, had called upon the powers-that-be to “blow up revolting art”.
Maybe the miscreants, like those who overheard Henry II fulminate against Becket, believed that they acted for good. The — to my mind — unimpressive 1973 commemorative piece by Edward Bainbridge Copnall in the churchyard of St Paul’s Cathedral, which shows the archbishop at the moment of his murder, has just been listed Grade II. So, too, has the more fascinating figure The Preacher, by Peter Laszlo Peri (1897-1967), that has hung on the side of Forest Gate Methodist Church since 1961.
Local authorities often argue that they are cash-strapped, and cannot commission. It is heartening to see how the enlightened view of one person can bring transformation. As Director of Education for Leicestershire from 1947 to 1971, Stewart Mason, working alongside commercial galleries, introduced 4450 works of art.
Different authorities had divergent views. From 1949 to1953, Hertfordshire assigned only 0.3 per cent of its schools budget to art. How much funding does your local authority currently provide for art installations?
Churches, too, claim to be short of money when they may mean short of imagination, but there are strikingly good examples of work undertaken by William Mitchell for the cathedrals of Clifton (Stations of the Cross, 1973), and the geometric decoration over the entrance to the RC Metropolitan Cathedral of Christ the King (1967), in Liverpool.
Coming hot on the heels of the announcement, in January, of Grade II listing for 41 public sculptures, including Barbara Hepworth’s Winged Figure (1963) on the east wall of John Lewis, in Oxford Street, and in the wake of the arguments over a statue of a philanthropist at an Oxford college, the exhibition is timely.
Next door, in the cramped Inigo Rooms of the East Wing of Somerset House, the National Archives at Kew, in association with the London Shakespeare Centre at King’s College, London, has a ludicrously over-priced exhibition showing half-a-dozen Early Modern documents alongside Shakespeare’s will.
The will is the last document on display, drawn up “In the name of God. Amen.” It is dated a month before he died (25 March 1616), and each of its pages is signed off by the Bard. Unless you are an autograph geek (in addition to the three countersignatures on the will, there is his attestation of the evidence he gave in the Court of Requests in Westminster Hall, 11 May 1612), or a specialist, this hurried show will do little for you.
Indeed, other than as a cash cow, it is hard to justify such an ill-conceived exhibition to start off the celebration of Shakespeare 400. The exhibition is free for those under 18, but I do not recall ever coming across any of my students at university who had the requisite command of palaeography to read a 17th-century hand enough to make sense of the show, which is staged without transcriptions, and with limited illustrative material. Maybe schools do better nowadays.
With the National Portrait Gallery just along the Strand, and Greenwich downriver, it is scandalous that we are forced to make do with small reproductions of paintings such as the Mytens portrait of Queen Anne of Denmark, and of the 1604 Somerset House Conference. On the other hand, the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust is presumably more than happy to lend the 1999 acrylic portrayal of the Bard by David Magradze.
London has recently had extraordinarily rich exhibitions about Shakespeare (in 2006, at the National Portrait Gallery; and in 2012, at the British Museum). It is a pity that the year’s celebrations begin with such a damp squib. I can only hope that the organisers might be prevailed on to let the public in free on Shakespeare’s birthday, 23 April.
Those wishing to see the documents can find some of them in the National Archives at STAC5/A12/35; SP 12/278 *78; SP 12/278 *85; REQ 4/1/4/1 f.1a; PROB 1/ 4; LC 2/4/5 page 78 AD3/908/13 and AD3/908/14.
“Out There: Our Post-War Public Art” is at the East Wing Galleries, Somerset House, Strand, London WC2, until 10 April; and “By Me William Shakespeare: A Life in Writing” is at the Inigo Rooms, Somerset House East Wing, King’s College, London WC2, until 29 May. Phone 020 7845 4600.