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Consistory Court grants faculty for Oscar Wilde sculpture in Chelsea

01 May 2024

Paolozzi’s work given go-ahead by court


Sir Eduardo Paolozzi’s sculpture

Sir Eduardo Paolozzi’s sculpture

THE Consistory Court of the diocese of London has issued a faculty permitting, subject to certain conditions, a statue of the head of Oscar Wilde by the late sculptor Sir Eduardo Paolozzi (1924-2005) to be installed in Dovehouse Green, Chelsea, on the King’s Road side.

The erection of the sculpture is primarily to commemorate the centenary of the birth of Sir Eduardo, who was, from 1985 to 2005, Sculptor in Ordinary for Scotland to Queen Elizabeth II, and had a studio in Dovehouse Street when he taught at the Royal College of Art, in Kensington.

Dovehouse Green is a public garden managed as an open space by the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, but it is consecrated ground because it had originally been the burial ground for St Luke’s Parish Church, Chelsea, after being consecrated in 1736. Therefore, although Dovehouse Green is no longer attached to St Luke’s, it comes under the jurisdiction of the Consistory Court.

The petitioners for the faculty were the Rector of St Luke’s, the Revd Brian Leathard, and the senior project manager of Kensington and Chelsea Borough Council, Sarah Brion. The funding for the installation will be provided by the council’s contributions for public art, and by other funding, including public subscription. The sculpture is two metres high, and is of a head and shoulders lying on its side and placed on a plinth. The base of the sculpture is meant to be climbed on.

After public notice, one member of the public, who was identified only as “B”, objected to the proposed installation. B declined to be a party opponent to the petition, but wanted his objections to be taken into account by the court.

The Chancellor, the Worshipful David Etherington KC, acceded to B’s request, because “when someone expresses strong views publicly in the modern age that person may be concerned that online publication will involve a disproportionate backlash online from others.” Someone should not feel inhibited from objecting to a proposal in a faculty because of fears of online intimidation, the Chancellor said.

B’s objections were that the sculpture was aesthetically unacceptable as being artistic brutalism from an earlier era; that the moral character of its subject, Oscar Wilde, made the location in consecrated ground offensive; that Wilde’s work was essentially lightweight and of no real artistic significance; that the sculpture would damage the garden as a public open space, being too large, cumbersome, and poorly sited; and that the Borough Council should not be contributing public money to this project.

The Chancellor considered the objections. He said that the objection as to aesthetic acceptability entered territory that had both objective and subjective features. Objectively, Sir Eduardo’s work was both significant and recognised, and he had substantial connections with the borough. Subjectively, his work would “doubtless divide opinion”. The Chancellor, however, took into account the facts that the petitioners had engaged in consultation and would face a planning application, and that there was only one person who had “felt sufficiently roused” to object to the sculpture on aesthetic grounds.

“Art of any era has often been received initially with less praise than has ultimately been bestowed upon it,” and it was likely that “this work [would] have its admirers and detractors, but it [was] clearly a substantial sculpture by a highly regarded artist,” the Chancellor said. Aesthetics was, therefore, not a ground for rejecting the petition.

As for the objection relating to whether it was appropriate for a representation of Oscar Wilde to be permitted on consecrated ground, the Chancellor said that it was “greatly and . . . absurdly over-stated”, and also cast doubt on the objection concerning Wilde’s literary reputation.

It was certainly the case, the Chancellor said, that “Wilde’s style of writing . . . does not appeal to all tastes,” but he had had a very successful reputation as a playwright until his trials and convictions, and had “in the more modern era received acclaim both for his plays and his other published works”.

The Chancellor was, therefore, satisfied that Wilde’s work was generally considered to be of a much higher quality than B alleged. It was also important to remember that the sculpture was being placed in Dovehouse Green primarily in recognition of Sir Eduardo rather than of Wilde.

Referring to the criticisms about the Borough Council’s policies, the Chancellor said that those were not matters for the Consistory Court, and were matters between B and the Borough Council. Spending decisions were of relevance only to the ecclesiastical court if they were decisions of the PCC and imperilled the meeting of a church’s financial obligations.

The faculty, subject to conditions, was granted, but is dependent on the grant of secular planning permission.

The conditions of the faculty are that, if charnel is found during the work, it should be reinterred according to the incumbent’s directions; if articulated bodies are discovered, work should be halted until the Archdeacon has been consulted; insurers must be informed of potential for climbing on the structure; risk assessment must be conducted of the potential dangers to those with mobility problems; and if there is any damage to the structure, the Borough Council must remedy it as soon as is reasonably practicable, and within a maximum of seven days from discovery, unless the Archdeacon has, for good reason, permitted a longer period.

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