2005-2015: Ten Years of the PMSA’s Marsh Award

2015 marked the tenth anniversary of the PMSA’s Marsh Award for Excellence in Public Sculpture, a prestigious prize, which has grown significantly in reach and importance since its inception. In this milestone year the scope of the award was clearly reflected by the joint winners: ROOM, an intriguing semi-abstract monumental public sculpture by internationally renowned sculptor Antony Gormley on a wing of the Beaumont Hotel in London’s Mayfair, and the sensitively characterised memorial statue Squadron Leader Mahinder Singh Pujji DFC by figurative sculptor Douglas Jennings, which stands in St. Andrew’s Gardens in Gravesend, Kent.

The award was originally inspired by Brian Marsh OBE, founder and Chairman of the Marsh Christian Trust. He recalls initially approaching the PMSA to express interest in running an award for ‘the best refurbished public monument or sculpture’ in the UK. Jo Darke, the sculpture and monument enthusiast who had founded the PMSA fourteen years earlier, wrote back, immediately outlining the Association’s interest in becoming involved with administering this initiative. After several meetings an award was set up ‘to recognise exceptional contributions to public sculpture’ with works nominated and shortlisted and prize winners selected from all over the UK. A further award for Excellence in the Conservation of a Public Sculpture or Fountain along the lines of Marsh’s original idea would eventually follow in 2013.

In the early days, the judging process was relatively organic. Deputy Chairman of the PMSA Ian Leith, one of the judges who took over from Jo Darke as Chair of the Award, explains: ‘The award evolved by maintaining a simple judging panel, but one which reflected a set of diverse assessors who revolved periodically, but not too formally – procedures were not set in stone but circulating images became a central part. Votes were by a series of simple eliminations and vigorous discussion which usually took no more than an hour and a half. The ‘vision’ was the eclectic one of the PMSA, that is no bias towards figurative or abstract works but informed by those who taught art and those who wanted to bring more attention to public works which received (and still receive) little national attention.’

Even at the beginning the PMSA, as administrator of the award, had total control of proceedings. Leith remembers: ‘At the outset we were left to our own devices apart from outlining the financial matters and that the panel had a Marsh representative: this person only attended to keep an eye on proceedings without an agenda and in effect represented the man in the street. Site visits were encouraged within the budget. Brian Marsh would peek into the boardroom and make encouraging noises, but made a point of sitting down once a year with Jo for lunch.’

Jolyon Drury, grandson of the sculptor Alfred Drury, who had sat on the judging panel for two years, took over from Ian Leith as Chair of the award. He explained‘ I was aware that we needed to widen our selection base and to raise the bar of our critical faculty to keep the PMSA in the public gaze: selection for the Marsh is a serious business. So I asked Professor Brian Falconbridge – a practising sculptor, past President of the Royal British Society of Sculptors who was then Dean of the Cass School of Art and formerly head of sculpture at Goldsmiths, to be our external invigilator, setting the selection criteria.’ These were then formalised so that the award was presented ‘for abstract or figurative freestanding sculpture or relief, commemorative or otherwise, that is accessible to public view’ which has been ‘installed in a public place within the last two years’, acknowledged and commended excellence, increased awareness and discussion of public sculpture, and celebrated new work that demonstrates originality, aesthetic quality and sensitivity to its site.’

Drury was keen to introduce new specialist skill sets to the judging panel. He appointed Margaret Garlake, contemporary art critic and former editor of the Sculpture Journal, who was then a PMSA Trustee, as vice chairman. He built ‘on the selection and assessment team from strong existing members like Michael Paraskos , Christine Midgely and Sue Ridge from sculpture academe’ and added Guy Braithwaite, Quality Assurance Manager from English Heritage, and Derek Pullen from Tate with his conservation expertise. The award’ s title was changed too, the words ‘for Excellence in’ introduced to replace ‘exceptional contributions’ and, as before, Drury says, ‘Marsh continued to provide their administrator, the man (a woman, in this case) from the “Clapham Omnibus” to maintain a view of perhaps public taste.’

Public taste had played an important role in the genesis of the sculpture which received the PMSA’s first Marsh Award in 2005. The prize was given to Maggi Hambling for Scallop, her tribute to the composer Benjamin Britten, which stands on the seashore at Aldeburgh in Suffolk. the The judges had been keen to set a high standard and make bold, sometimes controversial choices from the outset. Scallop was one such controversial choice.

Hambling had heard that there was opposition in the town to a proposed statue of Britten and so in a virtually unprecedented move she took matters into her own hands. She explained ‘…a public commission would have been unlikely. Therefore I had to find a way to make Scallop a reality – a huge challenge which, with the help of supporters, was eventually met… Scallop’s subtitle is A Conversation with the Sea so its proximity (on the beach walked by Britten every day) to the waves is a fundamental element of this site-specific work.’

Scallop was a very personal tribute, a split vertical and horizontal form, a ‘metaphor for the structure of Britten’s music’, joined with his partner Peter Pears’ tenor voice. The sculpture divided public opinion. Some responded positively such as Roger Wright, Director of Aldeburgh Music who welcomed it: ‘It’s terrific to have such a powerful and moving response to Britten’s unique work in another art form by such a significant artist and it re-enforces the importance of Aldeburgh as a continuing inspiration to artists of our time.’ Others were less enthusiastic. Ian Leith recalls that ‘after the award [he] even had a letter from a titled lady stating that Britten had a well-known aversion to scallops!’

Leith also points out that while the award to ‘Maggi Hambling arose from the usual assessments…her status was probably enhanced by the publicity around the ridiculous local vandalism relating to a piece almost invisible to local residents.’ Hambling herself, although initially ‘surprised’ and ‘shocked’ by the graffiti, became inured and even rather bored ‘by the repetitive nature of the sprayed messages.’ Unlike Anish Kapoor’s Dirty Corner at Versailles, which the artist has deliberately left scarred by vandals, Hambling’s response was to have Scallop cleaned and was pleased that ‘the paint was easily removed and no damage caused.’ There has been no vandalism of Scallop now for some considerable time, which Hambling takes as a final tacit acceptance of the work by the locals.

Another site-specific work, Comedy Carpet in Blackpool by Gordon Young, recipient of the award in 2012 which was designed in collaboration with Why Not Associates, also became the subject of controversy and vandalism, but of a very different nature. Comedy Carpetwas commissioned by Blackpool Council as part of their regeneration scheme for the town’s honey-pot sea-front site. The work located at the foot of the famous Blackpool Tower immortalises the work of 1000 comedians and comedy writers; an exuberant celebration of ‘Blackpool as the chuckle point of the nation’ as put by Young. The finished Carpet, consisting of 320 slabs with 160,000 granite letters set into concrete, was generally well-received both by tourists and the locals. It gained not only a local Civic Trust Award, but the Tokyo Grand Prix design award also.

Five months after this enormous Carpet had been laid, however, it was subjected to ‘civic vandalism’ by contractors sent by the Council to remove some of the slabs because they were thought to be too near to the tram tracks. Gordon Young, who had spent five years creating the Comedy Carpet said he was ‘very surprised and dismayed at the time. There was a break down in communications and it illustrated to me Health and Safety isn’t some empirical science; it’s largely opinion, and in that world opinions change despite evidence or facts.’ The dedication stone,unveiled by Ken Dodd, was destroyed along with some slabs in the process of their removal. Young says: ‘After discussion we did do some mitigation work, but it is actually now an incomplete work from what was commissioned.’ This sorry tale draws attention to the fact that local authorities have a duty of care and responsibility for their public sculpture. It is bizarre in the extreme that a Council commissioned a huge and important artwork – internationally recognised as pushing the boundaries of public sculpture – was responsible for deciding on the location for its installation, but then destroyed part of it five months later because it was in the wrong place!

Another huge work, Slipstream by Richard Wilson RA at Terminal 2, Heathrow was the award winner in 2014. At 78 metres long and made of plywood and aluminium it is viewed by around 20 million people every year. Located in just the right place, the appearance of Slipstream changes as the passengers travel on the escalators, giving the impression of a machine moving through space with spectacular manoeuvres and changing in colour and texture as it does so. Wilson too has pushed the boundaries of public sculpture with this piece, basing it on a twisting and tumbling monoplane. Inspired by the Red Bull air race, he had the ingenious idea of creating a solid sculpture from the void created by the aeroplane’s displacement. Slipstreamis a work which tends to make a lasting impact on the viewer.

Julian Wild, Vice-President of the Royal British Society of Sculptors, said ‘In the ten years of The PMSA’s Marsh Awards I have found all the winners interesting and engaging. I think last year’s winner Richard Wilson’s Slipstream really stuck in my mind. It is such a dynamic and ambitious piece that feels so much part of the new terminal at Heathrow. I also enjoyed discovering how the project evolved in the exhibition “Conception Execution Reception”.’ The Marsh judges also recognised the significance of the sculpture’s unique location and praised the boldness of its form and fabrication.

If Slipstream is one of the most frequently viewed public sculptures in the UK, Captain John Quilliam (1771-1829) by Bryan Kneale RA in Castletown on the Isle of Man which was highly commended at the 2007 award, is probably one of the least. Manxman Kneale was commissioned to create a statue of famous fellow Manxman Captain Quilliam to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Trafalgar. Quilliam had participated in the battle as First Lieutenant on Nelson’s flagship HMS Victory. On his retirement from the Royal Navy, Quilliam returned to the Isle of Man and lived close to the site chosen for this memorial. Kneale’s research into Quilliam uncovered an incredibly adventurous life and inspired the powerful portrait bust which captures the officer’s indomitable spirit. 

Other notable works have been highly commended by the PMSA Marsh Award judges over the decade including a seated bronze figure of “Charles Dickens”: the first full-scale statue of the author in the United Kingdom. “Lullaby Factory” by Studio Weave was also highly commended in the same year. This is a fantasy site-specific work, devised to disguise building development, which combines physical horns, trumpets and gaskets with the piped music of lullabies for Great Ormond Street Children’s Hospital in London. 

Site also played an important part in the Memorial to 158 Squadron by Peter W. Naylor, which was winner of the award in 2010. The memorial, consisting of seven silhouettes of airmen made from water-cut 15mm Corten steel, is located on the former RAF Lissett Airfield in East Yorkshire, which is now the site of a wind farm that has been generating electricity since February 2009 and is an integral part of this development. The memorial stands on top of a knoll, which contains the 7-link chain emblem of 158 Squadron and the figures themselves are etched on either side with the names of the 851 people who died while with the Squadron.

The Armed Forces Memorial at National Memorial Arboretum at Alrewas near Lichfield in Staffordshire by Ian Rank-Broadley won the prize in 2008. Dedicated to the 16,000 servicemen and women of the British Armed Forces who have been killed on duty since the Second World, this memorial is in a very different setting; that of national remembrance. Rank-Broadley has responded appropriately by employing clear classical references. His first group draws on the classical mythology of the death of Patroclus for its inspiration. Patroclus’ body was carried back to camp aloft on Achilles’ shield after he had been killed impersonating the hero by borrowing his armour. Rank-Broadley has treated the scene anachronistically translating it into The Stretcher Bearers. The whole concept of the memorial is a theatrical mise-en-scène, with a line of free-standing protagonists grouped as though they were taken from events in ancient history recorded on a frieze. Rank-Broadley told that he believes such classical references are important in war memorials because: ‘Both the Greek and Roman civilisations realised the importance of permanent memorials to convey battles won and the heroic sacrifice made. These physical reminders of events past have the power to impress upon the citizen that the life he/she enjoys has been achieved by the sacrifice of others. The same is still evident today. By using classical references I have related the events of a contemporary war to a long tradition and history, which is important for the memorial and for myself as the artist.’

Bomber Command by Philip Jackson at Hyde Park Corner, a more recent winner in 2013, is remarkable, by contrast, for its intense realism. Darryl de Prez, Head of Development at Whitechapel Gallery chose Bomber Command as the winning sculpture from the awards over the last ten years which he felt had made most impact. He told he had selected it because it: ‘demonstrates the timeless ability of figurative sculpture to create a powerful and evocative narrative. The detailed individual character of each aircrew member, their positioning and their scale combine to establish a real human connection with the viewer.’

Darryl de Prez also selected the 2007 Marsh Award winner Deer Shelter (Sky Space) by James Turrell because it ‘illustrates the almost limitless possibilities for contemporary public sculpture, combining the historic and very physical feature of an eighteenth-century Deer Shelter with the ephemeral and intangible sculptural medium of light.’

He added ‘Public sculpture can and should have a meaningful impact on its surroundings and with everyone who encounters it, either by accident or design. Along with this comes a responsibility on the part of artists and commissioners to achieve excellence in planning, execution and content. By recognising and rewarding the best of public sculptures, the PMSA’s Marsh Award plays a key role in championing and maintaining the quality, diversity and impact of art in the public realm.’

While the awards have made an impact on the public they have also benefited the winning sculptors. Ian Rank-Broadley, for example, says ‘Winning the Marsh Award meant a great deal to me as it acknowledged my contribution to contemporary sculpture and recognised the achievement of attaining the highest standards in making public sculpture.’ While Gordon Young admits ‘I was surprised and I suppose flattered. I never expect to be acknowledged or rewarded by anyone.’

These statements highlight the importance of these awards in celebrating and drawing attention to public sculpture and its makers. As Julian Wild, Vice-President of the Royal British Society of Sculptors comments: ’Making public art is a complex process in which artists have to juggle integrity of ideas, time, practicalities and a response to a brief or site. The PMSA’s Marsh Award works independently to recognise and celebrate an artist’s achievement in this field without favouring a particular genre.’

Others from the contemporary sculpture world point out the significance of the award in the context to how we can engage with public space. Marsha Bradfield and Lucy Tomlins, co-directors of Pangaea Sculptors’ Centre, for example, believe that the award ‘recognises the invaluable role this art form plays in activating urban space in unexpected and imaginative ways.’ They add ‘This prize highlights this art form’s capacity to challenge our relationship to the built environment by prompting us to experience the public sphere anew and question our role in its production, maintenance and possibilities.’

And what of the future? How do sculptors and those in the contemporary sculpture world see the future of public sculpture and its role? Ian Rank-Broadley says: ‘I would like to think the function of public sculpture is probably the same as it has always been, the physical reminder of people and events past to instil a sense of history. How else does one recognise a civilisation ? We cannot imagine ancient Egypt, Greece or Rome without its monuments and sculpture. Although today there are many other things that exist in our environment that reduce the impact of public sculpture, it is still important for it to be there. The very best sculpture raises our intellectual curiosity and satisfies our innate tactile sensibilities.’ While Gordon Young thinks the future for public sculpture ‘will be influenced and linked to the debate on public provision and services and also to the education of artists and sculptors… I would imagine it would be an area and activity that will shrink but given my poor predictive powers….The one significant change which I really didn’t reckon with was the internet and digitisation. It has changed my life and work, the internal UK reward systems for artistic endeavour seems to have been much diluted by the global. How this will feed back to our national situation I do not know. Culture will be contested as much as any other human activity and I hope it’s not only Etonians who are going to get to do the contesting.’

The PMSA’s Marsh Award for Excellence in Public Sculpture is designed, as we have seen, to encompass a broad spectrum of work produced by a wide range of sculptors across Britain. The award aims to engage with the general public – the man in the street, drawing his attention to the wealth of public sculpture surrounding him to elicit a response. Julian Wild sums up the essence of the award’s importance as follows: ‘Public art is often derided in the tabloid press, but I don’t think that these publications give the general public enough credit for its intelligence. Whether it’s in a Sculpture Park, in the middle of Trafalgar Square or at Tate Modern, the audience and enthusiasm to see and discuss public sculpture has expanded exponentially over the last 10 years. Above all I think that the key is that people should either love or hate a public sculpture. It is the area in the middle that bothers me.’

Main image: Maggi Hambling, Scallop, 2003, stainless steel approx. h.366cm. Aldeburgh beach, Suffolk (photo: Leonie Summers)

Aurora Corio