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A Line in the Sand

State Art is like a virus, it knows no boundaries and spreads like wildfire. In fact, it’s worse than a virus because once it’s arrived you can’t get rid of it because there’s seemingly no cure. And there are plenty of students actually volunteering to contract it. And national boundaries are no protection for it spreads by telepathic brainwashing. This leads to many curious anomalies. Why, for example, should peoples of different cultures and traditions, all as equally rich as our own ‘western’ one, be interested in the brand names of State Art? A good example of this is currently doing the rounds. This piece (above) by Richard Serra comprises four large slabs of metal, each 45 feet high, spread over a thousand yards of a nature reserve in Qatar. A nature reserve! How could anyone in that country believe that an Arab population could possibly see and understand this as a “breathtaking national asset”. One can only conclude that the proliferation of State Art has caused a global pandemic of acute self-delusion. The reason why East/West West/East is in the news is because it’s being cleaned of graffiti. Authorities in Qatar are appalled that locals can’t understand the sculptures’ world significance. It was unveiled in 2014 and the artist hoped it would become a landmark, as if everywhere needs a landmark. Surely this is the fate of anything at all you might plonk in an expanse of desert. 

As an addict of the sweeping non-sequitur, Serra has clearly been listening in while Gormless, occupying the next hotel room, practices in front of the mirror. He said: “I attempt to use sculptural form to make space distinct… What that piece does is give you a point of reference in relationship to a line, and your upstanding relationship to a vertical plane, and infinity, and a personal relationship to a context – and pulls that context together. It makes it graspable. That’s actually a place out there now, and there certainly wasn’t one before. We did that simply by putting up four plates.”

Talk about stating the bleeding obvious. You could make the same claim for a line of telegraph poles.

Overlooking the conceit of an artist prepared to inflict his lack of imagination on a nature reserve… was it Moore or Caro who said “More often than not sculpture spoils landscape”?

Stonehenge: Back to the Stone Age

Authorities have decided to go ahead with building a two-mile tunnel under Salisbury plain to divert the A303 which currently skirts Stonehenge: cost at today’s estimates (which are certain to increase steeply) a staggering £1.7 billion. Are we really that rich? Is this really that important? Stonehenge was once wild. In the last months of 1963 a group of schoolboys could trudge up to it from across the Plain, where it looked as windswept as in Constable’s sketches and watercolours, and touch the stones. In his Natural History of Selbourne Gilbert White records how jackdaws nested in gaps between the stones and the only other people likely to be encountered were shepherd boys ‘idling around the place’.

Now the powers see the monument as a financial opportunity to charge (£23 for adults) and to sell tat to tourists who are fenced off and kept at a distance from the circle; in short, they’ve turned it into a relative of the mass entertainment industry. These powers are the same people who want to build a tunnel under some of the world’s richest, most archaeologically sensitive areas. Are there others out there who, on the long journey out west, look forward to the sudden appearance of the great stones as a pause for thought as they speed by? One can’t help concluding that the powers don’t want the public to have a free view of the stones from the road so that they’ll have to pay to see them. They’ll soon be flogging The Stonehenge Son et Lumière Experience.

Like that other barmy and absurdly expensive project, HS2, this all seems like too much cash spent unnecessarily. But then what is money when, as is common in our current Wonderland, you can simply magic it from thin air or borrow limitless quantities of the stuff? Next stop the evacuation and levelling of Avebury village both as a nuisance to full appreciation of the stones and an opportunity to build an ‘information’ centre with a grass roof where you can buy designer chutney with a handwritten label. And what about an A4 tunnel avoiding Silbury Hill and the West Kennet long barrow? At the more impressive Bronze Age monuments at Carnak in Brittany, and the Rings of Brodgar and Stenness in the Orkneys and Callanish on Lewis, visitors can still wander for miles unimpeded. [I visited Brodgar and Stenness a few years back. This special remote place is also a haven for red hares, which forage in nearby rock pools. Some of them sit a yard high. A family of these amazing creatures approached and snuffled at my trousers while I watched whimbrels poking about the stones. Ed]

Stonehenge was more pleasing when it was just there.

Campaigners opposing the tunnel are investigating starting proceedings against the Government over the legality of interfering with a World Heritage Site.

Gormley: Behold the Main Man

On their regular visits to Ramsgate our readers will have closely examined Gormless’s iron man which, in 2013, was bolted to tidal rocks outside their new Turner Gallery. The initial rental, or whatever deal was cooked up, was for five years. In 2018 the sculpture’s residency was then extended until 2020. And now a new agreement has been announced to leave the rusting mummy in place for another decade. This State Art statue of liberty has attracted millions to Whitstable where it has become a challenging and subversive icon dealing with … well, you know, all sorts of things, life and death, this and that, the final frontier, internal and external, Storeman Drang. (“Absolutely magnificent.” Alan Hansen)

Wonder what’s in it for Gormless, or could he be doing it out of the kindness of his Buddhist heart? This is not for us to know. We sent our crack editorial photographer down to Folkestone to take a flattering photograph of it, but, as you can see above, the tide was in. And by the time it went out it was too dark, so a lunchtime, afternoon and evening spent in the Admiral Rodney was wasted.

Another Gormless mummy (there’s no end of them, they breed like

404 Not Found

rabbits), this one called Work (illustrated), is being loaned to Dewsbury of all places – for those of you preferring civilisation, this is the first stop on the train from Leeds to Huddersfield and is no less than the birthplace of Lord Gormless himself. It is being placed on top of a late Victorian pile in the town centre. “Having spent a lot of my childhood in Yorkshire,” declared the great lama, “I came to love its open moors and strong communities that coexist within an open landscape.” The mayor of Dewsbury followed this with some drivel of his own announcing: “How do! Culcher is at the forefront of the town’s future vision.” Indeed.

Mary Wollstonecraft Memorial, Newington Green

A silvery bronze sculpture of pioneer feminist Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797) by Maggi Hambling has been unveiled on Newington Green in north London. Revolutionary thinker Wollstonecraft lived nearby. The  £143,000 cost, which took ten years to collect, was raised by public subscription, some of which donors may now be wishing they had more productively spent their cash on drugs from dealers trading nearby. Hambling is the author of the equally tacky piece in Covent Garden dedicated to Oscar Wilde, and also that corrugated flotsam, a scallop shell apparently, on the beach at Aldeburgh to Benjamin Britten.

This one is another publicity seeking effort. How long will it take before those who make these decisions realise Hambling is no sculptor? It is hard to second guess the thinking of those who selected her for this commission Now let’s rehearse the points one by one … Yes, that’s right, all of the wrong reasons for choosing any artist. What we have is a nude woman who closely resembles one of those heroic athletes from the Soviet era. It is insulting to women to characterise them as a sideboard sports trophy. From the back it looks like a half-chewed caramel. Squirting from the top the figure is akin to the memorial of Yuri Gagarin which used to stand in the centre of Moscow, where the tiny stylised figure is launched from the end of a great arc of shiny metal – in that instance a piece of magnificent kitsch. This work isn’t just bad it’s repellent, the commemorated person deserving of so much better. Where are the anarchist statue topplers when you need them? (By the way, we didn’t really mean that.) Whatever your views of Colston as a good or bad individual his statue was a decent piece of sculpture and perhaps even the best work by the artist who made it. We prefer to think of Wollstonecraft as the original thinker presented in the Tate’s agreeable portrait of her, one of John Opie’s more memorable character studies.

The other entry considered for the commission was by Martin Jennings.

Local resident, architect Matthew Lloyd, comments:

This statue by Hambling is so very sad. Even since its unveiling it has been slated, and, yes, by the Guardian too. The Spectator has just now written about it, rather politely I thought, although in clear opposition to it.

Firstly it is ugly and badly made. The base looks like a budget graveyard memorial – and why is it not in the same material as the upper part? Then there is the middle silver blob and then this extraordinary machete of a naked woman on top. These physical and material mistakes are relatively easy to note when speaking from a design background.

What I find most regrettable is what ordinary people around here will think and say. And what are local kids – often from poor backgrounds (the very run down/notorious Shakespeare estate is next door) – supposed to make of this sculpture? Will they be able to relate it to their history lessons in any way at all? Will they not be utterly confused by its frank sexuality – instead of seeing it as a worthwhile piece of social/historical commentary? This piece will just add to the constantly confused messaging that, say, schoolgirls (given that this concerns a brave, original and radical historical figure) now have to deal with every day.

Those of us who live locally now have to put up with this object for the rest of our lives. Maggie Hambling and her commissioners will no doubt be pleased by the furore it has already caused. But this tells us more about them than it considers any response by locals. This is an over-clever, elite public installation that is unskilled and a wasted opportunity.

Colston Responses

(see Alexander Adams: Colston Statue Affair)

As a sculptor myself, I find the present wave of pulling down and damaging statues by self-appointed and censorious vigilantes sickening because I know just how much hard work goes into what is known as monumental sculpture. The Colston Statue in Bristol – and by the way my father was a Bristolian and practically all of my aunts, uncles and cousins live there and I did too for a while – is obviously contentious and there was indeed a strong case for removing it but not by undemocratic vandalism even though the Bristol Civic Authorities had failed to take account of the views of those of its citizens who felt aggrieved or humiliated by this particular sculpture. Conflating the justifiable international outrage over the murder of George Floyd along with the Black lives Matter movement with the History of Slavery is anyway a bit of a distraction (as I see it) from the need to tackle the inequality in British society, which although some of it is based on deep-seated racism is also based on disproportionate power and wealth and is therefore a class issue too.

A one-sided and violent attack on selected hated symbols can be divisive and it is a very slippery slope anyway. Slavery wasn’t just something that Africans endured – there were many “white” slaves too, including (for example) homeless children taken from the streets of London and sent to work in appalling conditions in the tobacco plantations in Virginia, along with convicts who weren’t all serious felons but were imprisoned because of the consequences of extreme poverty. We (i.e. the English) made slaves of the Irish too don’t forget – so with 404 Not Found whom do you stop? Major cultural figures like for example William Shakespeare, John Donne and Edmund Spencer all had links to the ugly business of transporting unfortunates. The history of so-called civilised mankind is one of cruelty and exploitation of the weak by the more powerful, often backed up by religion. The British Empire when I was a child was shown on maps as a third of the whole world – and how did that come about?  Because we were ruthless pirates and gangsters.

It might be more grown up to acknowledge who we are and how deep our capacity for hypocrisy and dishonesty really is – I am glad that there is a statue to ‘Bomber’ Harris outside St Clement Danes in London because it points up the screaming hypocrisy of organised Christianity – it says ‘Thou shalt not Kill’ does it not and yet here is a man responsible for the killing of hundreds of thousands of German civilians – a man who ordered the most destructive raid in the whole of WW2 in Europe which wasn’t Dresden or Hamburg as most people think but the small town of Pforzheim, which because the town centre was medieval and half-timbered the RAF dropped phosphorous bombs that burnt many of its inhabitants alive – some jumped into the Nagold River but the phosphorous burning into them turned into gel which they couldn’t get off. A third of the inhabitants were killed and 82% of the buildings destroyed, so he gets a statue outside a church – that tells you all you need to know.

One last point is that our forefathers were rather good at public sculpture and they knew what a plinth was for. Some Victorian sculpture is seriously good; for example, Thomas Brock’s sculpture of the Black Prince (in Leeds City Centre) – and the Black Prince wasn’t called that for nothing. It is my considered opinion that the Royal Artillery Memorial by Sarjeant Jagger on London’s Hyde Park Corner is one of the greatest works of memorial sculpture in existence and it is powerful because of its honesty. The figure of the soldier (known as The Driver) with his back to the monument standing in an intentionally unmilitary pose gazing sardonically at the passers-by chimes with what Siegfried Sassoon had to say about the contempt the men in the trenches felt for civilians because they had not the remotest idea of the reality of the Hell that the “war to end all wars” really was… Compared to this masterpiece, unfortunately, much of contemporary commemorative sculpture is just plain awful and what is worse meaningless. If too much historical and un-PC sculpture is taken down, I hate to think what might replace it – probably something done with a computer or modelled by Madame Tussauds.

Michael Sandle RA, sculptor

It is, we believe, inevitable, without strong leadership (of which we seem to be lacking in every corner of public life) that there will be a general tendency in favour of those who shout loudest, even if they are shouting for motives which have little to do with the putative subject. Churchill’s wisdom should be carved in stone above the portals of universities, museums and other places of learning: ‘Of this I am quite sure, if we open a quarrel between the past and the present, we shall find we have lost the future.’

The process of allowing local people to have a say in what goes up, or stays up, around them sounds fair in theory, though in practice may run into bureaucratic problems and claims of taxpayers’ money ill-spent. There is always the danger of this leading to the lowest common denominator, a tendency seen all too often in the choice of new sculpture for public places. Make the decisions too democratic and you run the risk of eliminating the first rate. There are no easy answers or cures: the barbarians are at the gates and we will have to do something, but quite what remains to be seen. For our parts, as art critics and writers, I will go on promoting the work I regard as worth looking at, and hope that by trying to open people’s eyes some small good will result.

Andrew Lambirth and Sarah Drury, art historians

The Royal Society of Sculptors is an artist-led membership organisation. We support and connect sculptors throughout their careers and are a place for debate and conversation about sculpture today. The Society was created more than 100 years ago to champion contemporary sculpture and the artists who create it. We welcome the debate, which has been given a new urgency by the Black Lives Matter protest, about how Britain’s past is commemorated through public art and who we choose to remember. The Royal Society of Sculptors believes that history should be explored and debated, but not forgotten. Public sculpture is a powerful way to reflect our rich and diverse cultural and artistic history. We urge those in decision making positions to think creatively as they shape public spaces and commission high quality and challenging work that highlights injustices and uncomfortable histories.

Royal Society of Sculptors

Colston Sculptor: John Cassidy (1860-1939)

In all the mealy-mouthed, arse-covering comment about the destroyed statue of Colston in Bristol, the sculptor was somehow forgotten. Art matters, but not when it doesn’t. Compared to the outrage – oh the outrage – of protesters and rioters, the loss of a major piece to a significant sculptor’s oeuvre was not considered, indeed it was unworthy even of mention.

Colston was modelled by John Cassidy, an Irish sculptor from Meath who lived nearly all his life in Manchester having arrived in the then filthy Victorian city as a student. I wonder how different reaction to the statue’s destruction might have been if Giovanni Pisano, John Gibson, Gill or Epstein had made it. Victorian figure sculptors tend to be a blind spot ignored even by thorough art historians. Some provincial sculptors, however, William Goscombe John (1860-1952) in Liverpool for example, are at least as competent as those with bigger names who operated at a larger scale and to greater acclaim in the capital.

Cassidy lived in a modest lodging, had a studio and taught all within a small area close to the School of Art in All Saints, south of the city centre. This was then a poisonous, poverty-infested area described in terrific detail in Mary Barton by Elizabeth Gaskell, who had lived a few doors down from Cassidy’s studio. At this very moment these exact streets were being painted with foggy impressionism by Adolphe Vallette, the Art School’s French head of painting and the teacher Lowry would soon most admire. From 1887 Cassidy taught modelling at the school while exhibiting annually at the Royal Cambrian, Royal Birmingham and Royal Hibernian Academies (he exhibited a modello of the Colston at the RHA in 1898) and was a stalwart annual exhibitor at the Manchester Academy, of which for a time he was Treasurer. There are two fine war memorials by him in Heaton Moor (1921) and Colwyn Bay (above), both single figures. The later one in North Wales is informed in its grittier treatment by Sargeant Jagger’s Sentry war memorial for Watts’s Warehouse, now moved to a hotel lobby on Portland Street, unveiled a few years earlier. Cassidy must have studied it closely.

Over 200 busts of municipal worthies are scattered around north-west town halls. He also carved mythological characters for the listed Midland Bank building on King Street and modelled full-length figures of the patrons of John Rylands Library on Deansgate (Enriqueta Rylands, above). There are, of course, the obligatory royal effigies, including Victoria (like most sculptures of her a mound of jowly, lacy blancmange) and her fat eldest son, both in Whitworth Park next to the gallery and opposite the Royal Infirmary which King Edward had recently opened.

The Colston statue, certainly among his most polished original works, was intended to be paid for by public subscription, which, falling short of the required amount, was made up by “an anonymous gentleman”.

A single man, little is known of Cassidy’s private life and few documents remain. He died in a Whalley Range convent leaving unfinished a half-length carving of Pope Pius intended as a gift for the Mother Superior; he is buried in Southern Cemetery.

Sent From Coventry

Part of the Coventry City of Culture fantasy, called Thirteen Ways of Looking, is the contribution of the Herbert Art Gallery. It will pack them in like never before. This is what you’ll find from the 13 artists … “X explores ideologies of gender and cultural dominance, exploring the place of Pakistani women within marital and domestic spaces; X works with pattern and textile, addressing issues surrounding feminism, faith, Muslim women and women of colour; X explores Cypriot cultural displacement which she activates through archives; X expresses colonisation, war, lost histories and identities; X tells the story of a Chinese woman having recently migrated to a Western country; X focuses on the migrant experience, specifically around journeys, environment, storytelling and documentary; X breaks up the exhibition space and “decentres” the spectator from the usual way that the gallery space is utilised; X works in response to the New Cross Massacre – 1981 in which 13 young black people lost their lives in an apparent act of racist violence; X was part of the BLK Art Group, a group producing work that engaged directly with the socio-political issues of the time; X explores the experiences of persons who have left their country of origin and who are now at ‘home’ in another; X explores the experiences of persons who have left their country of origin and who are now at ‘home’ in another; X makes use of the disruptive connotations of collage and montage to undo the association of the nation with fascism; X explores Black female subjectivities within narratives of the future; through deconstruction and disorder X challenges the way audiences predominantly view and experience art within a white cube space.”

As the head of Coventry’s culture stated, a very diverse collection indeed. Not to mention more exploring than Humboldt.

Change in the Air?

In September Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden sent a letter to 22 public bodies warning them that unless they show impartiality they might lose their public subsidy. He stated: “The Government does not support the removal of statues or other similar objects.” He also advised them that they “should not be taking actions motivated by activism or politics.” The letter was sent to major museums as well as quangos like the Arts Council. With a spending review imminent, the following was an obvious threat: “The significant support that you receive from the taxpayer is an acknowledgement of the important cultural role you play for the entire country,” he wrote. “It is imperative that you continue to act impartially, in line with your publicly funded status, and not in a way that brings this into question.” 

Soon after Dowden’s letter, Baroness Stowell, chair of the Charity Commission, addressed her organisation’s annual meeting. Here are some extracts: “And one of the most important ways in which we will deliver on that purpose is by helping charities and others understand what the public expect of charity and what they value about it – beyond the specific causes which individual charities promote … Being a registered charity carries with it the weight of certain public expectations. And any gap between these expectations and reality risks damaging the standing of charity in the eyes of the public … Charities need to understand that their status is not a badge that once gained grants legitimacy in perpetuity … Because charity is not a bottomless well of goodwill it has to be lived and demonstrated. Not misused for political expediency. So I am determined to ensure the Commission protects the boundaries of charity.”

Dowden and the Baroness might follow up their remarks by looking at the activities of the ICA which we’ve frequently identified here as promoting political agendas which have nothing to do with either their charitable status or art. Despite its atrocious performance the ICA has recently been given a £789,000 bail-out by the Treasury.

The Crocs are Crying Again

The Royal Academy is to shed 150 jobs, 30% of its workforce (it has 371 full-time employees) in order to save £8 million a year. The plague has cost it 75% of its annual revenue. So here is a charity in need of state charity. They’ve applied for a grant from the £1.57 billion culture fund by the Chancellor but haven’t yet heard how much he’s prepared to divvy up. Wouldn’t it be more sensible to wait until they know exactly how much they’ll get before they make threats against jobs? They say that redundancies will affect all layers of the organisation, from the bottom right through to the bit just above the bottom. One obvious solution might be to ask the 130 RAs to pay for their membership as they would in any other Gentleman’s Club. And why not just cut down on the number of RAs, a large proportion of whom are useless and shouldn’t be there anyway. At the moment the most famous and well-heeled artists of the day are the first beneficiaries of this Charity – which in the perverse, topsy-turvy world of State Art is probably considered exemplary. 

Coverage of this story featured in every case the old chestnut that the RA is independent and doesn’t receive any public subsidy … Yes, that lie again. The RA calls itself “privately funded” but lives rent free in a building owned by you and me. But they wouldn’t pay much for a palace on Piccadilly, would they? Palaces in Mayfair? Ten a penny. And neither do they receive anything from the Lottery, which doesn’t count as public subsidy, even though it is. Anyway, it was only £12.7 million. What’s free rent and a handful of peanuts between friends?

The RA has 22 employees earning over £60,000 a year, with six of these earning more than the Director of Tate Britain. It has £47 million in investments and £98 million in fixed assets. The President is paid £70,000 p.a., the Secretary £180,000 p.a. and

the Keeper £50,000 p.a.. The RA’s own collection comprises 990 paintings and 25,000 drawings and prints.

They borrowed £10 million to join the front and back of the building which they have to start paying back in 15 years and on which they pay low interest rates. As soon as this redundancy story emerged it immediately provoked the idea of selling the Michelangelo tondo or other works from their extensive collection that hardly anyone ever sees. It wouldn’t be the first time they’ve flogged stuff in order to live high on our hog for a little while longer. An unnamed RA, doubtless some Trot in a silly hat, was quoted as saying the sale was justified.

Masked Balls

Pre-plague average daily attendance at the British Museum was 18,000. The current daily intake is 2,200. Assuming the average stay is a couple of hours (probably less considering most foreign visitors exhibit interest in virtually nothing other than the advertised crown jewels) and the daily opening is eight hours, at any one time there must be a maximum of 550 inside. Across the entire site, which in square footage probably exceeds by five times the average out-of-town superstore, that represents a far more sparse scattering of visitors than you’d get in, say, Tesco’s where entry is free, easy and unbooked to all-comers.

The DCMS should stop dithering, get a move on and allow museums and galleries to throw open their doors and let visitors take their chances while behaving responsibly. What likelihood is there in any museum or gallery of spending “sustained face-to-face contact with a stranger”? The answer is none. You can’t catch Covid19 from Pericles.

As the Director of the British Museum said recently: “People are like oxygen to the British Museum. We can’t wait to have people back breathing life into the space. The whole point of a museum is to share our collections with people. We need people back, we need their input. People will be able to see the museum in a way they haven’t seen it before.”

That said the BM, being empty, is a better place to visit now than it has been for at least 50 years. Fill your boots while you can.

Not to be Trusted with History

“Active fun and useful experiences.” This, it turns out, is the future of the National Trust whose pictures will be put into store to make room for something, er, ‘more useful’. The NT, which for some Wokeist reason is troubled by its own elitism, rejects accusations of dumbing down to raise cash in order to replenish losses incurred during the lockdown. They have reduced the number of specialist curators from 131 to 80 while, no doubt, introducing expensive consultants to advise on how to attract those who aren’t members and who are otherwise uninterested in our history. Why not just change the name to The Disney Trust: build a Big Dipper at Petworth and snake part of it rattling in a glass tunnel through that unforgettable sculpture gallery? [Don’t be ridiculous. Ed] The Trust’s silly flirtation with contemporary work of a State Art persuasion, which hardly anyone understands, justifies or wants to see, has clearly not had cash registers ringing the anticipated tune.

The NT has promised that they will be “meaningful and relevant for the 21st century.” Oh no not that!