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Art for the public realm

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A forthcoming exhibition celebrates the  post-war boom in public art, much of which is now threatened by poor maintenance, theft and predatory property owners

With the ascendancy of the Modern Movement in architecture came the idea that art was a desirable complement to its denuded forms. In 1950, Le Corbusier proclaimed ‘La Synthèse des Arts’, both in respect of his own work as painter, sculptor and architect, and as a general principle. It was not a new idea, and part of its attraction was that it seemed to link back through time to the great ages of the past.

The ideal of a combination of sculpture and painting with architecture had many advocates in Britain in a continuous line from Prince Albert to the Arts and Crafts movement. Modernism was indeed welcomed by many artists if only because it looked as if it might give them larger opportunities to fill its empty spaces. Nearly all positions on the artistic spectrum between Royal Academicians and Abstractionists advocated the nobility of serving the public and posterity with work on public buildings, as did the emerging body of left-wing social realists who constituted the Artists International Association.

The political commitment to post-war reconstruction made budgets available for art

The promise was not an empty one. Even in the difficult years after the war, the political commitment to reconstruction made budgets available for art, although I remember the architect John Brandon-Jones saying that he would always include sculpture in the landscaping budget in order to avoid unwelcome scrutiny. The South Bank exhibition in 1951 displayed mural paintings and sculptures that were intended to set a new standard, and for a while no new building was complete without some form of art.

Public art

Public art

Winged Figure (1961), by Barbara Hepworth, commissioned for John Lewis building, Oxford Street, London

Historic England’s forthcoming exhibition Out There, curated by Sarah Gaventa, at Somerset House, sticks to sculpture in the round and in relief, coinciding with the announced listing of 41 of them. Post-war ‘retro’ is still fashionable, and public art has, gratifyingly, always attracted public interest and media attention, so this will undoubtedly be popular. Some of the examples from the new listings will be familiar, such as the Barbara Hepworth Winged Figure, 1963, on John Lewis in Oxford Street, or the Henry Moore Knife Edge Two Piece, 1967, in Westminster’s Abingdon Gardens, beside which politicians pose for TV interviews. Others may be glimpsed from a passing car or bus.

Historic England, then English Heritage, first started listing post-war sculptures in connection with its post-1945 listing push in the 1990s, spreading beyond the literal category of ‘architectural importance’. Precedents were also set for listing murals independently of the buildings containing them, as happened with the enormous Ivon Hitchens canvases of 1954 at Cecil Sharp House. In other cases in those relatively palmy days, the presence of art, even if theoretically moveable, helped to strengthen the case for listing a building, as with the 1960 Sanderson Building in Berners Street with its John Piper stained glass and mosaic and garden sculpture by Jupp Dernbach-Mayern. After some initial resistance, it became possible to list the building-sized sculpture that is Victor Pasmore’s Apollo Pavilion at Peterlee.

Once works are removed they can simply disappear from view

A further purpose of the exhibition is to raise considerations of the protection of these works, and although only sculpture is covered here, murals and other flat art come under the same heading. Listing is the only statutory instrument available for the purpose, but it comes nowhere near the standards of conservation that would be expected for works in gallery collections, which are, rightly, cosseted to a high degree. Out there, it’s a jungle. There is no inspection regime to monitor the condition of these works and, once removed, they can simply disappear from view, as happened with the 1933 Eric Gill reliefs in the Midland Hotel, Morecambe, which turned up in the back of van in Pontefract after the death of the hotel owner and have now been reinstated in their original location as part of the building’s restoration.

Public art

Public art

Meat Porters (1959), by Ralph Brown. Harlow, Essex

Predatory property owners see the pound signs in their lump of stone or bronze. One of the new listings, Rosewall, 1960-2, by Hepworth, was commissioned with public money by the Post Office for its accountant general’s office in Chesterfield, but put up for sale by Royal Mail in 2005. After much public protest, The Art Fund contributed £500,000 (well below its market value) to vest it in the local council and resite it in the town in 2009. In Wolverhampton, Hepworth’s bronze, Rock Form, donated by the Mander family in 1968, was removed in 2014 by RBS, the owner of the Mander Shopping Centre, with a view to sale. After protest, it promised to return it, but instead it has been lodged in the local gallery. In Worthing, the bronze heads by Elisabeth Frink known as the Desert Quartet, 1989, were installed as part of a planning condition for the Montague Shopping Centre. The Avon Group, hoped to sell them in 2007, but they were saved by listing after strenuous efforts by the Twentieth Century Society and the Public Monuments and Sculpture Association.

These attempted thefts from the public domain are only a degree less disastrous than thefts of bronzes whose fate is to be melted down for scrap. It is against the latter risk that the Barclay School in Stevenage has brought its fine Henry Moore Family Group of 1950 indoors rather than leaving it on the purpose-designed plinth.

Possibly worse, as has frequently occurred with murals, is the situation where the work is considered to be of no commercial value and is wantonly destroyed. This can happen overnight, without even the chance to record photographically. Knowledge about the location of works is the first requirement but is very incomplete – something Historic England is aiming to redress, although the field is large, both geographically and stylistically.

It would be unrealistic to expect even a fraction to achieve statutory listing, but it is surely a good time to consider what other forms of sanction and structured decision-making could be implemented to avoid past losses and near losses.

Alan Powers is a former chairman of the Twentieth Century Society

  • Out There: Our Post-War Public Art, is at the East Wing Galleries, Somerset House, London WC2 from 3 February until 10 April
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