I wrote earlier about W.T.Curtis and William Burchett, architects to Middlesex County Council, who were responsible for many schools and public buildings in north-west London, including the iconic Kenton Public Library, recognisable by their brick construction, strong horizontal emphasis, flat roofs and prominent staircase tower. I was pleased to find that they’d designed my primary school, Pinner Park, in 1934, which used innovative construction methods. (Mentioned in Pevsner’s The Buildibgs of Middlesex. No usable pictures, alas.)
My secondary school, Harrow Weald Grammar, a mock-Jacobean brick construction, opened in 1933, was very different. As the building is now being converted to housing, I became curious about its designer. I was amazed to find that it was also W. T. Curtis. Curtis’s change from traditional to modern was very sudden.
The Wall Street crash and world financial crisis of 1931, one year into W.T. Curtis’ reign, forced a change in the departments’ designs in order to cut costs. Aiming to reduce spending by 30%, Curtis and Burchett adopted a more modernist utilitarian approach to school building. Their first innovations were using steel framing at Uxendon Manor School, Wembley (1934), and then concrete slab floors supported by pillars at Pinner Park School (1934). These techniques allowed flexibility in internal planning, whilst also keeping the traditional Victorian school courtyard layout.
Since I began looking for public sculptures with narratives different from those of the questionable Edward Colston and Cecil Rhodes, I’ve realised that there’s a well-established tradition of egalitarian and popular monuments in England going back at least eighty years.
The latest in my collection is The Neighbours by Siegfried Charoux in Highbury Quadrant, north London, brought to my attention by Municipal Dreams on Twitter.
English Heritage says of this listed structure, “Figurative sculpture. Commissioned 1957, unveiled 1959. Siegfried Charoux, sculpture, for the London County Council on the recommendation of the Arts Council. Cemented iron, four feet high. Two figures, realistically portrayed yet demonstrating an idealism of ‘working man’. A strong and humane representation that well suits its setting, and demonstrating the range of the LCC’s patronage.”
The post-war decades of social reconstruction, public enterprise and of art for the people also produced public murals in the same vein. I wrote earlier about the dusty and neglected History of the Old Kent Road by Adam Kossowski, also commissioned by a London local authority. Kossowski’s narrative recalls that of the South Bank Exhibition the 1951 Festival of Britain, with its displays on “The People of Britain”, “The New Schools,” “Sport” and “The Seaside”. Although they appear didactic now, this was the era of the 1944 Education Act, the NHS, New Towns and the meritocracy.
Less didactic but still demotic was Roland Emmett’s mosaic map in Hemel Hempstead.
The tide of democratic public art is so high now that it’s begun to wash round the plinths of the generals and slave traders, all of which which are all over a hundred years old. The fact that democratic sculpture has received so little attention in the current debate reflects the fact that no-one really takes much notice of public art.
Does anyone imagine you can understand the past simply by looking at statues?
That’s not exactly what’s meant by saying statues are “part of our history”, but it implies that if statues are removed people will know less about history. The history they record, however, is not the deeds of those commemorated but the beliefs of the age that made the monuments.
Most people don’t know much about history. I had an educated colleague who thought the followers of Bonnie Prince Charlie were Jacobins and that Oliver Cromwell came in with the Glorious Revolution. The statue of Cromwell in Wythenshawe Park, Manchester, which has just been vandalised by anti-racists, wouldn’t have helped him.
The protesters daubed FASCIST, RACIST and COCKROACH on the plinth. The pretext was Cromwell’s conquest of Ireland, which was pretty savage. Cromwell, as it happens also readmitted the Jews to England after an exile ordered by Edward I. If you want get het up about that too, there’s a statue of Edward above the street at 114 High Holborn and a prominent one at Burgh by Sands.
In Ulysses James Joyce wrote about about Ireland’s attitude to the Jews:
Mr Deasy halted, breathing hard and swallowing his breath.
—I just wanted to say, he said. Ireland, they say, has the honour of being the only country which never persecuted the jews. Do you know that? No. And do you know why?
He frowned sternly on the bright air.—Why, sir? Stephen asked, beginning to smile.
—Because she never let them in, Mr Deasy said solemnly.
I’ve been reading my diary for 1993 when I worked for Luton Borough Council, where I moved from the London Borough of Camden.
Luton was the worst example of callous post-war town planning in England. It was cut in half by the massive Arndale Centre (now called The Mall), where ghosts of old vanished streets lingered in the names of corridors. In the deserted side roads, old trades survived – a grocer with a bacon slicer, a bag and case shop with a window full of jumble, a stove enameller – and an exceptionally large number of nonconformist chapels. I liked Luton, which was untidy, varied, comic and glum. Although it was in the south, it felt like a northern city, largely because of Vauxhall Motors.
The philosophy of town planning was very different in the 1990s from what it had been in the 1960s and the Council was trying to atone for its sins. The district surveyor, who was on the point of retiring when I arrived, told me that the greatest regret of his professional life was acquiring the land for the Arndale. In the town planning guidance of the period, modernism was bad and Victorianism good.
I was reminded how much I liked the town hall. It was built in 1935 to replace the old town hall burned down in the infamous Peace Day riots of 1919, when disgruntled ex-servicemen revolted against their mistreatment and their exclusion from the official celebrations. Although the mayor was lucky to escape with his life, the riots had a funny side when a music shop was looted and a piano pushed out into the street to accompany a rendering of Keep the Home Fires Burning.
The listed building by Bradshaw, Gass and Hope is a mixture of civic classical and art deco, with a Doric entrance and a neon clock. The council chamber is walnut-panelled and lit by cubist pendants and retains original fittings and finishes in timber, plaster and metal designed by the architects.
When I worked there, the office doors had PRIVATE in gold letters on frosted glass panels but no name of the officer who worked inside. The building was beautifully preserved and smelled of furniture polish, a welcome change from working in Camden town hall, whose walls were smothered in unofficial placards and whose stairways smelled of piss.
Pursuing the theme of public statues, I was curious as to why Tamás Szabó, who made the Lutz monument in Budapest, had been asked to make a statue of Abraham and Isaac on an isolated housing estate in Kisvárda, a small town in eastern Hungary.
As it happens, the circumstances were similar. Lutz saved thousands of Jews from the Holocaust and the Kisvárda statue commemorates the ghetto into which local Jews were forced before being sent to Auschwitz.
There is still a Jewish community in Budapest – and in the area around the Lutz monument and the Great Synagogue, it’s chic to eat in Jewish-style restaurants – but there are no Jews in Kisvárda. It was in the Maramures region, the centre of Hassidic Hungary. A few Jews returned after the Holocaust but they left in 1956. Their descendants probably live in Williamsburg now.
The Kisvárda town council features the Abraham and Isaac statue Touch prominently on its website. But in 2009 the figure of Isaac was taken, as the Hungarian website Köztérkép, which helpfully maps public art, explained:
For several months now (if not for a year), Isaac, the third figure, has been missing from Tamás Szabó’s ‘Touch’ on the housing estate in Tompos Street, Kisvárda.
According to a narrative in the Old Testament Books of Moses, the patriarch Abraham, obedient to the his God’s commandment, took Isaac his son to the mountain, built an altar and prepared to sacrifice him. When Abraham raised the knife to Isaac, the Angel of the Lord appeared, declaring that the father and child were merely participants in a divine ordeal, and so prevented the tragedy.
This exemplary, dramatic conflict of faith and sacrifice has been captured in many masterpieces throughout the history of art. In Kisvárda, prize-winning sculptor Tamás Szabó placed a bible-themed public work of art depicting the sacrifice on a pedestal in the urban setting of Tompos Street.
The triple statue was inaugurated on June 9, 1988. At the centre is a standing, stepping male figure. In front of him, slightly sloping and turned towards him, kneels the bound Isaac. To Isaac there comes from above a floating, leaning angel in female form.
In this bronze three-figured sculpture, Szabó created a genuine 360-degree composition. The personality of the mummified Isaac’s is unknowable. His painfully bound and leaning body can be interpreted as the futility of resistance, as impotence, as an expression of helplessness. Or so it would be if the figure were not missing from the base of the sculpture.
This triple form has been vandalised many times and Isaac is probably being guarded in a better place now. But will someone send the angel to return him to the pedestal and back to that missing moment of tragic sacrifice?
Isaac remained in the council’s possession for some time, but it’s not entirely clear whether he was stolen or simply removed and whether he has been returned or not.
There are obviously bigger issues around public statues at the moment than artistic merit but I wondered about it. Are statues even art?
If they are, they occupy a different space from gallery art. Everyone knows the equestrian statue in Whitehall (above), but who knows its creator, Adrian Jones? Jones and The Duke of Cambridge are ignored except as landmarks. Some of the creators of statues shown here have been hard to trace. Paul Day, creator of The Meeting Place in St Pancras Station, has been treated worse and has been consistently ridiculed since his statue went up in 2007.
I asked on Twitter for suggestions about statues of artistic worth.
I learned –
We now put figures democratically on park benches and not on plinths.
Soldiers and politicians are out. We memorialise ostracised figures like Oscar Wilde and Alan Turing and rebels like Gandhi and Emmeline Pankhurst. (Perhaps Antony Gormly’s Turing monument in Cambridge will be more convincing than Glyn Hughes’s bloke on a bench.)
We have lots of blokes. As Daniel @djbirkinshaw tweeted, “In Leyland they don’t have statues of slave traders or war criminals. They have this bloke. Just an ordinary worker. Life sized, not on a pedestal, just walking in the middle of the path with the rest of us.” I couldn’t find out who the artist was – he or she doesn’t seem to be recorded. Beeston has a beekeeper, also on a bench.
There are one or two black figures, like Mary Seacole and Nelson Mandela. After Colston we will see more.
Public art by noted artists, like Elizabeth Frink’s Walking Madonna in Salisbury, is uncommon. Public bodies may be reluctant to commission work from established sculptors after the long-term mistreatment of Henry Moore’s Family Group in Harlow New Town – or to spend proper money on art. No-one on Twitter nominated The Angel of the North – a shame.
The Communist-era statue of Slovene liberator Boris Kidrič in Ljubljana got a few votes, which pointed up the fact that shouty politicians standing on the ground are also rare: it’s almost unknown to find a public sculpture without a plinth.
Georgia has a surprising number of striking monuments and I very much liked the one of an unidentifiable poet in Kutaisi – if you know who he is, please get in touch and I’ll add his name.
Top of my list of monumental art, also in eastern Europe, is the monument to Carl Lutz (top of post), Swiss vice-consul to Budapest, 1942-5.
Lutz saved half the city’s Jewish population from the Nazi deportations in 1944. Tamás Szabó’s sculpture recording Lutz’s achievement depicts an angel high up on the wall letting down a bolt of cloth to a prostrate victim. It’s a stone’s throw from the Great Synagogue, which publicly remembers the names of those who were murdered. Szabó anticipated his Lutz monument in an earlier sculpture of Abraham and Isaac, Érintés (Touch), on a housing estate in Kisvárda in east Hungary. It has a comparable nobility to the Budapest installation but it gets few visitors.
The toppling of the Colston statue brought to mind Saddam’s statue in Iraq, 2003, and Stalin’s in Budapest, 1956 – and then other episodes in which works or art were destroyed for what they represented. (Memorial statues, incidentally, are often bad and I would happily see the statue of John Betjeman at St Pancras station pulled down.)
Without much thought, I wrote on Facebook about the destruction of religious images in the English Commonwealth and the 1643 Act of Parliament that ordered the demolition of church monuments that contravened the second commandment – and that on top of the iconoclasm of a hundred years previous. For many years, I said, Cromwell’s soldiers had visited churches to destroy pictures, crosses, stained glass, altar rails and rood screens. If you want to see medieval Christian art you have to go to the continent, and not just to Catholic countries because even Lutherans didn’t go in for vandalism the way that English Puritans did.
Nick Rowling, an art historian who knows more about it than I do, put me right. Cromwell’s bad press seems to stem partly from William Dowsing, an active iconoclast in Suffolk. Dowsing fixed upon Popish relics in the Cambridge colleges, foreshadowing the campaign to remove the statue of Cecil Rhodes in Oxford:
“now we have an army at Cambridge it might be a fitt time to write to ye Vice Chancellor of Cambridge & Mayor to pull down all ther blasphemous crucifixes, all superstitious pictures and reliques of popery according to the ordinances o’ parliament.”
But Dowsing was not typical of the Commonwealth. This is what Nick said:
Sadly, Marshall, you are merely perpetuating a Royalist myth about Oliver Cromwell. The great period of ecclesiastical iconoclasm occurred during the reign of Edward VI and was directed by Thomas Cromwell (no relation). This stopped after Mary became queen.
Under Elizabeth many churches fell into decay but in Catholic (recusant) parts of the country much medieval art was saved. The real problem was that most of the great buildings – especially the monasteries were sold to the vast army of Protestant lawyers who financed the protestant revolution and the stones and lead were sold for scrap. These were the ‘bare ruined choirs where late the sweet birds sang’ referred to in Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73.
Everything changed when Laud was appointed Archbishop of Canterbury by Charles I and he did a great deal to protect, preserve and restore the fabric of many English churches and cathedrals though by then most of the artistic treasures of the medieval monasteries had disappeared.
Oliver Cromwell seems to have been totally indifferent to church worship, saying that God could just as well be worshiped in a barn, but he did issue explicit commands that damaging churches was a capital offence. And it is thanks to General Fairfax that the glorious glass of York Minster, for example, was preserved after the Battle of Marston Moor, when the Parliamentary army was prevented from sacking the city of York.
For the next two hundred years church and cathedral buildings simply decayed, and it wasn’t until the Victorian period and the agitation of high church revivalists like Pugin that anything was done to restore medieval architecture, but the problem is that church ‘restoration’ was in the hands of cultural barbarians like George Gilbert Scott – architects who actually destroyed some of the greatest surviving works of medieval architecture under the claim that they were restoring and ‘improving’ it! And if it hadn’t been for William Morris who was so shocked and appalled when he passed through Burford and saw what the ecclesiastical vandals were doing that he founded the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings.
Since then, thankfully, much of what was thought to be lost has been uncovered again behind later tombs or under whitewash: glass has been found, sculpture has been identified in English country houses, and some of the greatest masterpieces of medieval art were opened to the public for the first time. The best example of this are the Royal Chapels in Westminster Abbey which were preserved intact because they were not places of public worship but the property of the crown.
How do I know all this? Well, about thirty years ago I was commissioned by the BBC to make a programme about this very question – it was called The God that Rules (BBC2/Open University, 1984) – and what astonished us when we began to research it was just how much medieval art has survived if you know where to look for it, and how the myth that Oliver Cromwell was responsible for the iconoclasm is simply untrue.
We really looked hard to find the evidence that Oliver Cromwell was an iconoclast, but it simply isn’t there. What we did discover almost everywhere were modern guidebooks blaming the destruction on ‘Cromwell’ but they were clearly confusing Oliver with Thomas. And I am certain that much of Ely survived because Oliver Cromwell was MP for Ely – further evidence that he wasn’t an iconoclast.
Another thing we learned was that medieval art was very much ‘an international style’ and that artists and works of art traveled all over Europe. For example, almost every stone screen in England was destroyed but there is a wonderful example of English craftsmanship remaining in Trondheim Cathedral, which appears to have been made by Canterbury craftsmen and then exported to Norway in the 12th century. And Nottingham alabaster sculptures were also exported all over Europe – there is a wonderful collection for example in the Bargello in Florence.
In the end we found that we had so much material to choose from to make our programme that we confined ourselves to just four ecclesiastical buildings. But one thing which still amuses me is that we had a reputation of being a gang of marxist anarchists, and BBC management kept on trying to censor our programmes, but we were absolutely scrupulous in only quoting 17th century voices – Milton, Cromwell, Winstanley, and of course the Bible itself – so we got away with it!