EPMAS: 100 Essex Monuments

EPMAS, the Essex Public Monuments and Sculpture recording project, has just presented 100 Essex Monuments, an exhibition of photographs taken by its volunteers, at The Minories, Colchester School of Art. These images of the diverse public monuments and sculpture across the county represent the launch and initial stage of the Essex section of the PMSA’s National Recording Project (NRP) and demonstrate the enormously important role of volunteers in helping to build the database.

The NRP was set up in 1997 and is an ongoing comprehensive survey of British public monuments and sculpture ranging from the Eleanor Crosses to contemporary work. An online digital database, it is a unique collection of over 10,000 entries on public monuments and sculpture in the UK and includes full details of the works surveyed. From 2017, it will form part of a project called ‘Your Sculpture’, which the PMSA is undertaking in partnership with Art UK, so that public and gallery sculpture in this country will be available online to everyone. The digital records produced by EPMAS will be incorporated into this NRP and Art UK master database and, when finished, will constitute an important part of the whole survey.

Bob Lisney OBE, PMSA Trustee, who leads the National Recording Project attended the opening of the EPMAS exhibition and was enthusiastic about the profile of the Essex Sculptures, especially the number of modern pieces from 2000 onwards. He told us ‘I had the chance to meet some of the volunteer photographers and recorders who have done an extremely good job in identifying items and providing us with a range of excellent photographs’. In addition to the 110 items on display, the project has identified a further 350, and more will follow . Lisney was delighted to find ‘so much enthusiasm in the community to help with the project’ and feels that ‘Essex has shown the way forward for the remaining areas of the country where the PMSA still needs to record.’ The Essex team now want to find volunteers in Southend, as the next stage starts in September.

Over the centuries, the maritime, urban and rural communities, of which Essex comprises, have all made interesting and valuable contributions to its collection of public monuments and sculpture. The county has a rich history dating back to the Anglo-Saxons – Colchester is thought to be the earliest town in Britain. Settled by the Romans, sprinkled with medieval churches, the playground of Tudor king, Henry VIII, and the home of a number important manufacturers, industrialists and benefactors – many strands are woven into the cultural history of Essex.

In the mid-twentieth century, with new towns established at Basildon and Harlow, public sculpture in Essex under went a transformation with an exciting new stimulus through the vision of architect and town planner, Sir Frederick Gibberd. Under his supervision an impressive scheme of civic public sculpture was introduced in Harlow, which its Council has now officially recognised as a ‘Sculpture Town’. Works by renowned sculptors, Elisabeth Frink, Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth appear alongside other significant artists such as William Mitchell, Willi Soukop and F.E. McWilliam, who are perhaps less well-known. The Harlow Art Trust, which was set up in 1953, still commissions works.

By the late 1980s, Essex had adopted the principle of a public art policy across the county and was the first Council to do so. It has now developed a process allocating money from the County Council’s central capital programmes’ budget to create a Public Art Common Fund. Genius Loci (Spirit of Place) a recent public art project, and recipient of this funding, has been particularly successful in delivering, largely permanent, high impact public art works in new developments throughout Essex.

Many of the public monuments in Essex have been commissioned from sculptors living outside the county, but some are by local artists. The sculptor, John Doubleday, for example, lives in Great Totham and lists among his interests raising Essex Saddleback pigs. In 2000, he was commissioned by Billericay Early Years Forum to create a sculpture in Lake Meadows Park for the town. The work, Child in the Park, is situated in a small area in a separate section of the park, which is now being made into a sensory garden. The figure is modelled on a real child, but the sculptor preferred the sitter to remain anonymous and not be ‘gender restricted’ so that children could use their own imagination to decide whether it is a boy or a girl. The base is intricate and detailed, inviting closer inspection of the seventeen small creatures which include a butterfly, dormouse, dragonfly, field mouse and assorted frogs and snakes. John Doubleday explained us that the work has a ‘didactic purpose’ to educate children about the wild animals from the surrounding countryside. The Child in the Park has a snail in his hand, and the sculptor described how he wanted to focus on the ‘less-loved creatures like snails, the un-furry and un-cuddly animals that may not be instantly appealing, but are interesting in their own way’. Around the child’s neck is a pendant with a seagull and keys which Doubleday told us represent ‘the keys to the child’s future’. He has worked prodigiously throughout the county on works such as the statue of Herbert George Columbine, a twenty-four year old private, who received the Victoria Cross, the former England cricket captain, Graham Gooch and the crime writer, Dorothy L. Sayers.

100 Essex Monuments highlights a collection of some of the most interesting works from those which have now been surveyed. Alongside the photographs, one maquette for public sculpture in Essex is also on display. This is Bird of Freedom by Jonathan Clarke, which was created by the sculptor for the Country Park in Great Notley, south-west of Braintree. The final work, which is made of aluminium and steel, stands on a site which is the highest point between Great Notley and the sea.

Clarke explained that Boudica, another of his works in the initial EPMAS survey, was his first major commission and was a joint instruction by the local Asda and the City and Council Developments in Colchester in 1999. He added that, in Essex, developers have a remit to include some public art and that in this case the developers were very supportive of his work, but later donated it to the Council so it became their responsibility.

Boudica, which now sits on the centre of the wooded North Station roundabout in Colchester, has become an iconic image locally. Queen Boudica, head of the Iceni tribe, fought against the Roman invaders and burnt their settlement at Camulodunum (Colchester) to the ground in 60AD. Clarke told us ‘I am delighted with the new site, in Boudica’s day much of Essex would have been covered in the same Silver Birch, so it seems very appropriate. It can also be seen from the train when you arrive’, which seems symbolic in itself. Boudica was originally designed with a chariot, but unfortunately the budget could not accommodate it. Clarke described the construction as ‘a real learning curve for me. She is half cast aluminium and half fabricated. The skirt and shield were fabricated from sheet aluminium and the rest is cast; the back that holds her up is a yacht mast – so she has a real mixture of techniques.’

Another public sculpture in which Clarke references the area’s links to the Roman period is Bright Future also in Great Notley this time in the centre in the Village Square. Here, a trio of Roman inspired heads clad in dramatic decorative helmets, sit atop high rough hewn wooden plinths. Local archaeological digs have revealed Great Notley as both a Roman and an Iron Age settlement. Clarke commented that this work emerges from a fusion of many influences and ‘is semi-armorial – a hybrid of historical, Mediaeval, sci-fi, African Art – it is futuristic, yet mythological. It refers to the past, but looks to the future’.

Just down the road in Braintree, there is a fountain outside St. Michael’s Church, which also features in the first section of the EPMAS survey. George Bartram, a prominent civic figure and Chairman of the Council, purchased the land where the fountain stands in the 1930s, because of concerns that the view of the church was obscured by derelict buildings. In 1937, Sir William Julien Courtauld commissioned sculptor, John Hodge, to create this large fountain, which he gifted to the town in memory of King George V. It was built where several roads converge and significantly improved the appearance of the entrance to Braintree for travellers coming from London. 

The Courtauld family are intrinsically linked to the history of Essex; they were generous patrons and philanthropists over many generations, having launched their textile manufacturing industry in Pebmarsh in 1794. Sir William, a renowned benefactor, was responsible for the hospital and Town Hall in Braintree, and also part of the County Hall in Chelmsford, being built. He contracted tuberculosis later in life and as a result wore dark glasses in court, becoming known to the local criminal fraternity as Black-eyed Bill!

Sculpted by John Hodge, the fountain was cast by Messrs. Burton of Thames Ditton. The work consists of a bronze nautilus shell with ornate art nouveau style waterlilies, which supports a naked boy holding fish as an upright otter looks on. This is surrounded by a wide concrete bowl with four bronze statues of sea lions, which have water issuing from their mouths. This appealing and quirky sculpture has become a local landmark.

Braintree Town Hall and the fountain were part of an ambitious architectural scheme sponsored by Sir William, which also included almshouses and Leahurst, a District Nurses Home. All were designed by the architect, E. Vincent Harris. A relief by sculptor, stonecutter and printmaker, Eric Gill, decorates the façade of Leahurst, which was built in 1939 and has now become a hostel. Commissioned by Sir William the relief, Mother and Child, which is included in the current EPMASsurvey, is reminiscent of Madonna and Child compositions, and is sited in a niche in the brickwork above the pediment over the main entrance.

The Courtauld family was also the original owner of the Old Silk Mill in New Street, Chelmsford, which was the site of the world’s first wireless component manufacturing facility, opened by Guglielmo Marconi in 1898. The Marconi Wireless and Telegraph Company, was one of the largest employers in the town and, at one time, provided a living for 8,000 people. It was from these Chelmsford premises that Marconi transmitted the first ever broadcast of live public entertainment, by the famous Australian soprano Dame Nellie Melba in 1920. He subsequently set up broadcasting stations at Writtle in Chelmsford and at Marconi House in London, which became the BBC. 

A monument to honour Marchese Guglielmo Marconi as an influential local historical figure was proposed by Peter Turrall MBE, Chairman of the Marconi Veterans Association, and planned for the millennium. Commissioned by Chelmsford Borough Council, it was funded by them, together with local businesses, as a joint project. A competition for the commission to create the Marconi Monument was won by the sculptor, Stephen Hincklin, and the life-size bronze statue of her father was finally unveiled in February 2003 by Princess Elettra Marconi. Initially it was erected in the entrance hall of the Essex Record Office, which was rather off the beaten track, until it was transferred to the Marconi Plaza near the Civic Theatre.

In its new location, the Marconi Monument has now been mounted on a stainless steel tripod-like plinth, which raises it much further off the ground and adds to the dramatic composition of the figure. Hincklin explains that ‘the hand gesture which projects the lightening bolt is really the idea of the transmission into the ether’ and that his intention was to convey the story of Marconi in a symbolic way.

A much less dramatic statue, and far earlier one, which features in the EPMAS Chelmsford survey is that of the celebrated lawyer Sir Nicholas Conyngham Tindal (1776-1846), who was born in the Moulsham district of Chelmsford and was a much respected son of the county town. He entered Parliament as MP in 1824 and was Solicitor-General from 1826 until 1829, when he was appointed Lord Chief Justice of Common Pleas, a post he held until his death. He is renowned for his successful defence of Queen Caroline for adultery in 1820 and for being responsible for the introduction of the special verdict of ‘Not guilty by means of insanity’.

After his death in 1846, the Tindal Testimonial Committee commissioned a commemorative statue of the Chief Justice from one of the most pre-eminent sculptors of the Victorian period, Edward Hodges Baily. A sculptor with a large practice whose monuments were generally admired, and who is probably most widely known for his colossal statue of Nelson (1842) on top of the column in Trafalgar Square, London. Baily’s statue of Tindal, however, was not well-received. Art-historian, Rupert Gunnis, recorded that it ‘aroused a great deal of unfavourable comment in artistic circles, where it was alleged that he had patched up an old model by J. Bacon R.A.’ and further noted The Art Journal of 1867’s assertion that it was ‘Sir William Blackstone’s statue made to do new duty.’ Baily’s seated bronze statue of Tindal, mounted on a stone pedestal, which was erected in 1850 in the centre of Tindal Square, Chelmsford, opposite the Shire Hall, certainly has an uncanny compositional resemblance to Bacon the Elder’s seated marble figure of Blackstone (1784) in Codrington Library, All Souls, Oxford! 

In complete contrast to the Baily, the contemporary work, A House for Essex  is also in the EPMAS survey. In 2014, Grayson Perry and FAT Architecture were commissioned by Living Architecture to create a holiday home. The house represents a loving tribute to the area and Perry, who was born in Chelmsford, dedicates his house to a fictitious character named ‘Julie’, penning an elaborate narrative for her, inextricably linked to local towns. Elements of the house hint at her character and life, making it a very personal experience to stay there. The architecture recalls the vernacular tradition of wayside and pilgrimage chapels, and the colours of the tiled roof blend into the landscape, whilst the simple pitched roof alludes to surrounding agricultural buildings. This reflects the ethos of the house, welcoming and modest, yet unequivocally grand and ornate. The building’s singular character has an Alice in Wonderland quality, almost akin to a child’s play house or a gingerbread house with the quixotic sculptures on the roof encapsulating the atmosphere of folly-like whimsy. The interior is similarly contradictory with a modestly scaled entrance porch leading to a richly finished and decorated double galleried main room with a mosaic floor that celebrates the history and spirit of Essex.

The county of Essex seems to have fair number of obelisks. One of particular local historic significance is the 15 foot grey granite memorial in the grounds of Colchester Castle, which was erected to Sir Charles Lucas and Sir George Lisle for their part in the English Civil War. Lucas was son of the Colchester aristocrat, Sir Thomas Lucas, while Lisle is thought to have come from London and to have been related to George Villiers, 1st Duke of Buckingham. Both were professional soldiers, fighting on the side of the Royalists in the First English Civil War and both had sworn not to take up arms again against Parliament. During the Second Civil War, however, they fought again and took a leading role in seizing Colchester. The town held out under siege for nearly three months before surrendering to Sir Thomas Fairfax, the Roundhead General leading Oliver Cromwell’s Parliamentary forces, on 28 August 1648.

Lucas and Lisle were sentenced to death by firing squad and were executed in the grounds of Colchester’s Norman Castle. The obelisk marks the place where they fell, according to local legend, grass would no longer grow there and since the area is now concreted over the myth cannot be disproved! Over time. Colchester’s Parliamentarian sympathies were forgotten and this was one of several myths which quickly grew about the Royalist defence of the town, which reinforced the town’s loyalty to the Crown. In the years following the siege, a martyr-cult developed surrounding Lucas and Lisle and the site of their execution became a tourist attraction. The obelisk, a typical Victorian memorial design, was erected on the opening of the Castle Park by Henry Laver JP, FSA, a former mayor of the town, who was also founder of the Castle Museum.

The Colchester monumental stonemason company, L.J. Watts Ltd, has been heavily involved in the construction of local public monuments and memorials in Essex since the late eighteenth century. L.J. Watts was a highly successful businessman, a stonemason and architect, he also pioneered the mass production of tombstones and fireplaces from his premises and stoneyard, Castleworks, outside the Castle in Colchester. The life-size standing statue of Queen Victoria on Marine Parade, Dovercourt in Harwich, which was unveiled in 1904, is a typical example of the firm’s work. Raised by public subscription following the monarch’s death, the monument consisting of white Carrara statue on a Cornish granite base, was designed and constructed by L.J. Watts. The company had installed a similar statue of Queen Victoria two years earlier, seated on this occasion, for the new Town Hall in Colchester. Jo Darke, founder of the PMSA, in her Monument Guide to England and Walesnotes that the crowning glory of this grand building is St. Helena, patron saint of Colchester, who was reputedly the daughter of Old King Cole (Coel). Darke records wryly that the statue ‘began as the Virgin Mary, but was modified when funds ran out…’

L.J. Watts was also responsible for the First World War Memorial in the small market town of Coggeshall. It stands on the site of a crater in the recreation ground in East Street where one of two German bombs fell on 21 February 1915. No-one was killed by the blasts, but a local agricultural worker’s wife died of shock. The memorial to the fallen of Coggeshall in the Great War, with names of those lost in the Second World War later added, was funded by public subscription and erected in 1920. The monument, consisting of a bronze figure of Victory mounted on grey Cornish granite, was designed and made by L.J. Watts. The sculptor and founder of the bronze Victoryare not known. The statue, however, seems to have a certain stylistic debt to the figure of Victory on top of the exceptionally fine Colchester War Memorial by C.H. Fehr, which was designed in 1919, but not erected until 1923, when it was put up by L.J. Watts. 

Charles Leonard Hartwell, who is today perhaps best known for his war memorials, designed the First World War commemorative bronze, Angel of Victory, which was unveiled in 1924 and stands serenely holding symbolic wreath and palm in the Marine Gardens on the south-west side of the pier in the centre of Clacton-on-sea. A static, passive and reflective female figure, this statue contrasts quite distinctly with some of Hartwell’s more familiar spirited masculine fighting compositions, such as the bronze figure of The Bugler (1904) on the Royal Sussex Regional Memorial to the fallen of the Boer War in Brighton and St. George and The Dragon (1923), the First World War monument in St. John’s Wood, London, near Lord’s Cricket Ground, with a further cast in Old Eldon Square, Newcastle-upon-Tyne. 

Another Essex coastal town, Harwich, has a rare example of a polychromed cast iron public drinking fountain. Located on the approach road to Harwich Railway Station, it was manufactured by a company much further afield. This fine octagonal shaped Victorian drinking fountain, probably dates from around the 1860s and is grade II listed. It bears a plaque recording the maker as George Smith and Company, known as the Sun Foundry, which was a highly regarded manufacturer of ornate architectural ironwork in Glasgow and was responsible for the façade of Selfridges in Oxford Street, London. The fountain has a single demilune basin set into its arched panelled pillar, with a chain for a suspended cup so that the thirsty passer-by could drink, and a basin at ground level for his dog. It is topped with an ogee cupola which has fleur de lys on alternate panels and an acorn finial.

Drinking fountains were introduced into Victorian Britain to try to persuade the working classes to drink water rather than alcohol and thus avoid unruly drunkeness, but more importantly, because they were fed by mains, they were an effective weapon against cholera. The finial of the acorn on this fountain, a motif for security and abundance, possibly symbolises the safety of this plentiful water supply. 

One unusual monument listed in the EPMASsurvey, which caught our attention is the striking Paxman Crankshaft which is situated outside the New Magistrates Court in Town Station Square in Colchester. It was placed there as part of a major redevelopment programme which makes reference to the engineering and broader heritage of the district. The Crankshaft monument commemorates the Britannia Works which played an important part in Essex’s rich industrial heritage. The Britannia Works traces its history back as far as 1833, when it was set up as an iron foundry making nails. The early twentieth century saw the firm diversifying into sewing machines, lathes and machine tools. Britannia took on a new lease of life during the First World War, when it made war supplies and munitions and soon became world famous for its metal lathes. The Britannia Works’ most important contribution, however, came in the Second World War, when it produced diesel engines for every tank landing craft between 1939 and 1945, and made the engines for Winston Churchill’s ‘Nellie project’ of trench-digging machines.

Another industrial monument featuring in the EPMAS survey which directly refers to Essex’s industrial past is the Lathe in Mascot Square, Colchester. The Colchester Lathe Company was founded there in 1887 and received a gold medal in the Franco-Britain exhibition of 1908. The company, now based in Yorkshire, is still thriving today and was awarded a Queens Award for Industry in 1968.

A final work from the EPMAS survey so far, which, following the PMSA’s recent conference on Émigré Sculptors to Britain, intrigued us was Constellation by the Czech sculptor, Franta Belsky. Dating from 1953, Constellation is sited at the Colchester Institute. Belsky had links to the town, teaching part-time at Colchester Schools of Art in the 1950s. He undertook many architectural commissions for schools and institutions across Essex and Hertfordshire and played an important part in the post-war utopian movement to integrate art into people’s everyday lives. Dr. Cannon-Brookes , a specialist on Belsky’s work, commented on the stylistic influences which appear in Constellation and its place in his oeuvre, making the following assessment ‘The elements of archaism evident in Constellation are, in my opinion, in part, inspired by Archaic Greek and Etruscan models, but the whole assemblage is thoroughly eclectic.’ Cannon-Brookes also drew attention to the dichotomy in the Belsky’s output, pointing out that while ‘for his portrait sculpture he remained faithful to the Czech classic tradition, he more or less adopted the Modern Movement for his abstract composition.’

The diverse works discussed in this article just scratch the surface of the wealth of public sculpture and monuments which will eventually comprise the Essex survey. We eagerly awaits both the completion of the survey and the eventual publication of the Essex volume in the PMSA Public Sculpture of Britainseries. These books, published in association with Liverpool University Press, contain a full history of all the major sculptures in regions surveyed, researched by some of the country’s leading art-historians.

Main image: Jonathan Clarke, Boudica detail, 1999, aluminium, North Station roundabout, Colchester (photo: Nikki Hazelton)

100 Essex Monuments: A Photographic Exhibition of 100 Public Monuments and Sculptures
The Minories, 74 High Street, Colchester, 13-20 August 2016.

Aurora Corio