Anthony Caro's Sea Music


Every year over 4,000 young people, supported by their teachers, take part in ARTiculation, a public speaking initiative stretching the length and breadth of the UK.

ARTiculation invites 16 to 19 year olds to independently research a work of art, architecture or artefact of their choice and to give a 10 minute presentation to an audience at museums and galleries across the country. Adjudicators drawn from eminent artists, academics, curators, journalists and museum directors listen carefully to students’ presentations and comment on their content, structure and delivery style.

As both a rigorous and supportive initiative, ARTiculation’s extensive outreach programme introduces and develops key skills that equip students to look deeply, think critically and speak confidently.

In 2013 Molly Nickson, a 17 year old student at Townley Grammar School, captivated an audience at the Saatchi Gallery with her discussion of Henry Moore’s public sculptureStanding Figure Knife Edge in Greenwich Park, South London. Molly’s personal, direct and analytical approach to a sculpture whose form gradually revealed itself to her, with every visit to her local park, saw her win first prize at the Finals of ARTiculation at Clare College, University of Cambridge.

Now a History of Art Undergraduate at the University of Oxford, Molly revisits public sculpture here in 3rd Dimension to discuss another of Britain’s most influential sculptors of the twentieth century, Sir Anthony Caro, on the eve of the reopening and restoration of Sea Music on the Quay at Poole in Dorset.

This collaboration between The Roche Court Educational Trust and 3rd Dimension offers an ARTiculation alumnus a valuable opportunity to build upon the experience of taking part in ARTiculation and, at a particularly pivotal moment for the delivery of History of Art in our schools, presents a public forum for a young person to express and stretch their own passion for a public piece of sculpture.

Joanna Littlejohns, 
Head of ARTiculation,
The Roche Court Educational Trust

Sea Music: The Story of a Collaboration

by Molly Nickson

On 22 November 1991, a tall structure of blue-painted steel curves and walkways was unveiled on Poole Quay in Dorset. Overlooking the sea and forming a clef-like silhouette, Sea Music is the only site-specific monumental public sculpture by Anthony Caro in the UK

From a distance, it is difficult to decide whether the edifice is an industrial structure, emerging from the bricks and warehouses of the quayside, or an elegant sketch whose curving metal ribbons dance out the movement of the sea. In many ways it is both, twisting together different roles, just about in harmony. An ambitious project by Poole Arts Council in collaboration with the artist and local businesses such as Bourne Steel, this public sculpture was entirely funded by sponsorship and donations, with Caro accepting no payment. In the light of the planned conservation of the sculpture to be completed in May 2017, and the sculpture’s recent 25th anniversary, it seems a good time to look again at this major example of Caro’s work.

In 1989 Caro was invited by Tom Roberts, then chair of Poole Arts Council and also Borough Architect, to participate in the Poole Arts Festival by submitting a plan for a public sculpture. Caro and his wife, the painter Sheila Girling, owned a cottage in Dorset and knew the area well. Early in his career, Caro proclaimed against sculpture in the landscape. Caro had qualms about an overload of visual material: ‘outside when you can get back to look… from a distance, the grip of [a] sculpture is diffused.’ Throughout his career the sculptor adhered strictly to the principle that the integrity of the artwork should come first, before place or context. Although he operated in parallel with, rather than in response to art theory, his conception of a work of art as finite and discrete could not be closer in spirit to that of his friend and staunch defender, the art critic, Clement Greenberg, whose definition of modernism was to use ‘art to call attention to art’. In Sea Music, this concept of the discrete sculpture – self-contained and self-sustaining – was thrown into sudden counterpoint with the mechanics of public commission, which required the sculpture to have a function – hence the viewing platforms – and be ‘diffused’ by becoming part of the visually complex and socially charged space of a town.

The initial agreement was that Roberts would source funding for the fabrication of Sea Music, allowing Caro to concentrate on creating what he wished. While Caro’s artistic freedom was considered vital, the artist’s work was only one element in Roberts’ project. There was a high level of expectation from all the collaborators, in particular the Poole Arts Council for whom the project was both an investment and, to an extent, a gamble. Tom Roberts saw the commission as part of a wider vision for Poole. As well as overseeing the commission from the original suggestion to completion, in his capacity as Borough Architect, Roberts also designed the walkways and thus had a hand in the work itself. It would be easy to dismiss his interest in Caro as that of an enthusiast eager to capitalise on a prominent international artist’s link to Poole. In fact, Roberts was a close collaborator both conceptually and practically.

Plans for the proposed sculpture were unveiled as a climax to the Poole Arts Festival in 1989. Roberts described his hopes for the sculpture’s many functions within the community. It would be a multifaceted work of art which variously suggested music, ships’ sails and water. It would be ‘a focal point in the urban scene’; a ‘marker, identifier’. For residents or visitors, ‘a marvellous platform… from which to survey maritime Poole’. Certainly the final siting of the sculpture, on top of a pumping station on Poole Quay where the High Street meets the seafront, makes both for drama and for an explicit connection with the space around it. On approaching Sea Music today, its sharp but unfamiliar silhouette diffuses into curves of steel with a solid but organic upward movement, its particular shade of blue seemingly directly derived from the surrounding warehouses and bollards. The steps and platforms, on three levels with railings and benches, make it an extension of the pumping station, and the walls and walkways which trail along the quay. In embedding the sculpture in the town and, through the walkways, physically drawing people into the relationship between town and sea, the ideas of Poole Arts Council chimed with the sensibilities of Caro who, with most of his sculptures, explicitly defined space in relation to the human body. 

A meticulously conceived structure, Sea Music’s lopsided lyricism answers only to itself. Caro’s own vision brings together both individual and social experiences of the sea and quayside, with a touch of romanticism. For him it was ‘…in no sense a traditional monument or statue. It should rather be seen as a meeting point or celebration which, hopefully, would raise the spirits, as does the sight of the yachting and the water.’ However, he was careful to make distinctions: ‘its first role must be sculptural, not architectural’. Between Caro, Roberts, and their negotiations with the manufacturing company Bourne Steel, priority was given to creating ‘a good sculpture’. Phrases such as this crop up throughout the correspondence both between Roberts and Caro and within Poole Arts Council, from conception to construction: on matters of ‘art’ the sculptor was considered the ultimate authority. It is worth establishing what precisely comprises this ‘sculptural’ element in Sea Music, which Caro felt so strongly must be separated from the ‘architectural’.

Roberts accumulated historical images of Victorian and Edwardian Poole, sending Caro sheaves of photocopies, showing steam engines on the Quay, buildings, planks and boats, some with red arrows marking the ‘wonderful sculptural forms!’ Caro, on the other hand, worked intuitively according to his usual practice of assemblage, akin to sketching in three dimensions: first making a maquette, based on an earlier piece (Catalan Double), followed by larger scale models. Caro’s assistants recalled his insistence on finishing a work properly. The decision on colour always came last. Sea Music was originally imagined in white paint with an enamel sheen to suggest billowing sails and one of the early ideas for its name was Sea Breeze; and the one-third-sized model was named Sea Adagio. Having decided on blue rather than the original white, he and Girling (who, as a painter, advised Caro on colour) took painted swatches to the seafront before the sculpture was installed, to test different hues. Caro also drew a tiny sketch of his design onto a photograph which he had taken of the view from Poole High Street towards the harbour before the installation of the work. This outline from the High Street – very similar to the initial model, Catalan Double – became a shorthand, often sketched into Caro’s letters to Roberts: a clear-cut drawing in space, a motif to be fixed in mind. Although ‘several changes were made at the last minute’, these drawings seem almost identical to the final sculpture. 

What constituted ‘working sculpturally’, then, was in fact a highly pictorial method: the refinement of Sea Music’s composition as a visual image. Of course Caro did not think of the sculpture solely as silhouette: the view from ‘inside’, halfway up the platform, was considered as carefully as that from 30 metres along the quay. However, its striking ability to be photographed suggests that Caro’s judgement rested primarily on its coherence as an outline.

Caro’s almost exactly contemporaneous ‘sculpi-tectures’, such as Tower of Discovery and Child’s Play Tower, embrace the idea of enveloping the viewer, blending the two disciplines of ‘sculpture’ and ‘architecture’; in Sea Music, by comparison, the experience of walking into the sculpture is not at all a distinguishing feature. Caro was tempted by the interactive ‘Tower’ motif, its element of play and fun: in a letter to Roberts, he suggested that a spiral staircase be added to the top of Sea Music, with a ‘crow’s nest’. The spiral staircase was later abandoned, because Sea Music was not designed primarily for interaction. Caro said several times that he preferred it experienced ‘from land view’ framed and silhouetted against the sea; the platforms serving a different function as viewpoint and ‘meeting point’. The structure of the walkways was thus intended to be seen as separate from the main body of the sculpture. Caro changed his mind more than once about this relationship. Roberts’ designs for the walkways at first echoed the work’s curving shapes in a bid to bring the structural and sculptural together, but Caro eventually argued for a very clear distinction and a simpler design. Accordingly, the conservation of the sculpture will include the galvanizing of all the metal architectural elements as the artist wished, allowing greater distinction between the sculpture and the platforms.

Sea Music was conceived by Caro as ‘an open, free work, airy and fresh’, a reference both to its maritime inspiration and suggestive of a desire for it to retain the same sense of other-worldly newness that it had when made. Sea Music’s shape strives urgently to remind the viewer of the novelty of it being there at all. The flat top cuts off the dancing upward movement, so that the sculpture crouches gently, stooping just at the point where a vertical ribbon, like a second spine, meets the real core. Although its movement is thus restricted, the slight lopsidedness gives it counterpoint, a tug in the other direction which makes it less of a fairy-tale tower and more organic and dynamic. The expressive, almost Rococo mark-making in steel, derived from Caro’s Catalan Series, was inspired by the cast-iron railings and grilles which he came across in Barcelona.

Sea Music’s languid curves flamboyantly resist a single definitive shape, coalescing suggestively and imaginatively. Roberts, discussing the finished work, counselled that a ‘figurative interpretation [is] to be avoided’, but admitted the viewer’s inclination to anthropomorphise. Caro was selective about Roberts’ suggested sources from maritime Poole: there are few references to steam locomotives, but more than a hint of the graceful swags of sails. Often Caro’s sculptures have a distinctly industrial tenor, so this romanticism is a careful choice. Bourne Steel were aware of the need to define the sculpture against its surroundings, and early on they advised against the use of Corten steel, which would quickly weather and become unsightly. They recommended an industrial steel with a finer, more elegant look. In many ways, then, Sea Music is discrete, as Caro preferred: responding to its surroundings but, in Clement Greenberg’s phrase, remaining ‘valid solely on its own terms’. But Tom Roberts, collaborating in his various civic roles, also required the sculpture’s ‘impact to be diffused’ and regarded this as both positive and exciting.

For Caro the seafront became the background, a base for a composition; Roberts saw it as a space to be activated. The water pumping station was a pragmatic final choice of site – a spot already in need of renovation – but from Poole Arts Council’s viewpoint, its centrality in the old town also suggested its potential for expanding the social space of the High Street. Where Caro saw a project which culminated in his final sculpture, for Roberts, the Poole Arts Council and the business collaborators, the process itself was equally important. The Poole Arts Festival itself, initiated and overseen by Roberts, was in his words, ‘a fusion of the different arts all coming together’ including, among many events, a kite-making workshop, and a display of the ‘sculptures, art or toys’ of Poole artist Sam Smith. Bringing together fine art and other arts – with a view to making all accessible – was at the heart of the ‘marvellous kaleidoscope’ of the Festival.

As Roberts stated, ‘Sea Music has been built entirely by local endeavour, and as such the story of the achievement is as important as the work of art itself. It is a story which should be told’. Roberts’ phrase ‘100% for Art’ (his justification of the Sea Music project in the original proposal to Poole Arts Council) can be understood not only to imply deference to Caro’s artistic judgement, but as a statement of his aim to treat every aspect as part of a larger artistic project. This involved many more contributors. Roberts had persuaded David Sands, the managing director of Bourne Steel, to have the parts of the sculpture custom-made based on Caro’s designs; a gift and investment which proved a considerable challenge, and a chance for the company to experiment with various technical innovations. In the press release marking the unveiling of the sculpture, written by Roberts, the focus is decidedly upon process and people: the heroes are ‘small firms inspired by local patriotism’ who ‘combine to sponsor a masterpiece’, to which Anthony Caro ‘gave his services’. Even more telling is the distinction made between the sculpture ‘coming to birth’ (a reference to the large-scale collaboration) and Caro’s contribution.

The final page of the press release is a striking display of photographs showing several views of the sculpture, along with images of Tom Roberts and David Sands. This spread, entitled ‘Sea Music: the People and the Product’, does not feature the artist at all; Caro is pictured in another section of the article which describes the making process. What had been required of Caro was a sculpture which would be for and about Poole. In many ways, the commission procedure worked in his favour; he was expected to work as he always did, to produce a signature piece of work. Thus not only was he given a great deal of free rein, he was also protected from the considerable complaints from locals, at the outset of the installation, that the sculpture was ugly or useless. These complaints were directed not at the artist, who was just doing his job, but at the Borough Council – especially as at first there was a misconception that the project was a waste of public money. As was soon made clear, the funds came entirely from gifts. The knowledge that the work was constructed in goodwill, and occasioned the renovation of an area of the quay which had been in disrepair, seems to have redeemed its reputation.

But Caro’s language of poetic abstractions inevitably has its own, subtler impact on the town’s image of itself. Caro himself found an incisive way to describe his work: ‘Just as music is a succession of notes which make up a melody or a sonata, so I take anonymous units and try to make them cohere in an open way into a sculptural whole.’ His reluctance to place a sculpture outdoors was related to this delicate and highly visual harmony: Sea Music’s walkways needed to become ‘architecture,’ Caro ultimately felt, to mark the sculpture itself as ‘art’ – enabling uninterrupted viewing. A certain agreement seems to make this sculpture work despite its crowded setting. Tom Roberts as architect provided both the physical frame of the walkways which performed a function. Poole Arts Council understood Caro’s use of steel shapes as a romantic metaphor for the sea and industry around them: in bringing people together through art, it was a conscious analogy for an ideal Poole. As Roberts proclaimed, the sculpture was ‘all about Poole, in the end’. In the build-up to the renovation and a new exhibition exploring the sculpture’s creation in the nearby Poole Museum, further ways have arisen for this work to become part of the town’s identity and to stimulate discussion about it.

Sea Music condensed the vision of the Poole Arts Festival into one durable monument. From its first conception, it has been viewed in the light of certain events – its commission and building, its integration into the town, and now its conservation. However, the conservation inevitably brings the sculpture out of this original context of collaboration and festival: altering the walkways, enhancing the lighting and signposting, will frame it as an artwork, emphasising its discrete nature. Equally, though, the new work brings the sculpture closer to the life of the town than it has ever been. The signposts describing the sculpture will also point to the history of the quay and seafront; the exhibition will draw visitors to the Poole Museum which also explores the place and its identity. The shift in key is that of community art project – living and ambitious but not without its sceptics and compromises – to monument and heritage display. Sea Music’s second unveiling following its restoration, revealing its renovation and the changes to the walkways, is planned for May 2017. I hope that, following this renewal, the structure will be celebrated for Caro’s delicate poetry and the vision, which Poole Arts Council had for their town.

Main image: Anthony Caro, Sea Music, 1991, The Quay, Poole, Dorset (photo: David Ward & Poole Museum)

With thanks to Barford Sculptures (the Caro studio) and The Roche Court Educational Trust and, for sharing materials and help with resources. Special thanks also to Stephen Feeke, Director, New Art Centre, for his attention to this article.

Aurora Corio