'Out There' opens to acclaim

Historic England’s ground-breaking exhibition, Out There: Our Post-War Public Art 1945-85, opened at Somerset House to great acclaim. At the packed private view, Sir Nicholas Serota, Director of Tate, told us: ‘This exhibition comes at an historic moment because a number of post-war public sculptures have been listed for the first time and this will give them protection, as these sculptures are probably at their most vulnerable right now. I think people will begin to appreciate these pieces that were made 50 or 60 years ago and realise they will enormously regret their disappearance if they go…Geoffrey Clarke’s Spirit of Electricity  which has survived, is a really magnificent piece from this period and by a sculptor who should be better known – so it is such a great exhibition to have at this juncture.’

Just days before the exhibition opened, this unprecedented Grade II and Grade II* listing of 41 post-war public sculptures was announced by Historic England. The listing of these works will help prevent important public sculpture from this period ‘disappearing before our eyes.’ Roger Bowdler, Director of Listing at Historic England said: ‘These sculptures … have become a precious national collection of art which we can all share. They enrich our lives, bring art to everyone and deserve celebration.’

Several of the newly listed pieces are by well-known sculptors such as Jacob Epstein, Barbara Hepworth, Henry Moore and Eduardo Paolozzi. Some including Henry Moore’s Knife Edge Two Piece near the Houses of Parliament, Westminster, Barbara Hepworth’s Winged Figureon John Lewis in Oxford Street and Horse and Rider by Elisabeth Frink in Piccadilly are located in London and will be familiar to many, but other listed works are less well-known.

The Public Monuments and Sculpture Association, which advised Historic England on candidates for listing, seized the opportunity to champion lesser-known sculptors of the period, placing them firmly back in the spotlight and promoting their long-overdue re-evaluation. Arthur Fleischmann’s powerful kinetic sculpture The Miner originally commissioned by the National Coal Board for their headquarters at Lowton and now located at St Helens, Lancashire is one such example. While Antanas Brazdys’ Ritual of 1969, thought to be the first abstract public sculpture erected in the City of London, is another. Both have now been listed on the PMSA’s recommendation.

Highlighting important works in less prominent public locations the PMSAalso suggested listing a group of works which included William Mitchell’s, The Story of Wool in Ilkley, West Yorkshire, Fred Kormis’ Prisoner of War Memorial in Gladstone Park in Brent and Antony Gormley’s Untitled (Listening) figure in Maygrove Peace Park, Camden. This is the first work by Gormley ever to be listed having attained the 30 years of existence required for designation.

Post-war figurative sculpture features in the new listings too with statues such as David McFall’s Sir Winston Churchill, in Woodford, the London constituency which Churchill served from 1945 until his death in 1965. Two figurative statues recommended by the PMSA and now listed, were Oscar Nemon’s Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis, which stands in Hampstead where he resided and Ivor Roberts-Jones’ statue of the artist Augustus John at Fordingbridge, Hampshire, where the artist lived towards the end his life. Author of the monograph on Roberts-Jones, Jonathan Black expressed his delight, saying ‘I hope this development will make the local municipal authority appreciate the statue as one of the most distinguished examples of post-1945 public art …’ 

Another PMSA recommendation was FE McWilliam’s bronze Help, 1981, in Harlow New Town, Essex. An historically significant late work by the sculptor, from Northern Ireland, it relates to the Belfast troubles, commemorating the role of women in the conflict and is dedicated to two women peace campaigners. Portrait of Elisabeth by FE McWilliam was also listed and is again located in Harlow, signalling Historic England’s recognition of the ‘new town’s’ importance in the post-war era. Here, largely due to the vision of the architect, Sir Frederick Gibberd, public sculpture became an integral part of town planning. In total four works by FE McWilliam have been listed. Dr Riann Coulter, Curator, F.E. McWilliam Gallery, Banbridge, Co. Down told us ‘Public art was a significant aspect of McWilliam’s practice and these sculptures, which span two decades of his career, deserve to be better known.’ Other newly listed works celebrating the rich history of Harlow’s commitment to public sculpture include Willi Soukop’s engaging Donkey on a housing estate and Elisabeth Frink’s quirky ‘shy’ Wild Boar  in The Water Gardens. 

Historic England has also acknowledged the valuable role of public sculpture within architectural schemes, listing works such as Allen Johnson’s A Celebration of Engineering Sciences at the University of Leeds. While the positive impact of public art on the local community is demonstrated by the inclusion of Peter Laszlo Peri’s coloured cement reliefs on social housing estates in South Lambeth (see Sculpture of the Month below) and his striking concrete and resin The Preacher on a church in Forest Gate. Use of new materials such as cement, concrete, resin, glass reinforced plastic, polystyrene and Perspex was key in many of the innovative public sculptures of the period.

Many of these listed post-war public sculptures, together with lost works from the period, feature in the Somerset House exhibition either in the form of maquettes, contemporary photographs, film or archival documentation.

Read David Buckman’s review of ‘Out There: Our Post-War Public Sculpture’

Listen to 3rd Dimension’s round table discussion with Roger Bowdler, Director of Listing at Historic England, Ian Leith, Acquisitions Officer at the Historic England Archive and Deputy Chairman of the PMSA, and Sarah Gaventa, Guest Curator of Out There: Our Post-War Public Art. Topics include the role of Historic England, listing, key themes of the exhibition, the vulnerability and distribution of public sculpture, public awareness and education, and the legacy of the exhibition. The panel answers questions from the public and experts such as Lisa le Feuvre, Head of Sculpture Studies at The Henry Moore Institute, Kirsten Dunne of the GLAand the author and art-historian, Jonathan Black.

Main image: 1. Geoffrey Clarke, The Spirit of Electricity, Westminster, 1961. Listed Grade II (photo: © Historic England)

Aurora Corio