New Public Sculptures at Peabody Estate

An ambitious regeneration programme is underway at Peabody’s St John’s Hill Estate in Wandsworth, South London, transforming housing dating from the 1930s into a development suitable for modern living. An important part of this initiative is a set of four brick relief sculptures commissioned from Rodney Harris and Valda Jackson, which are incorporated into the new buildings. These plot the story of the estate, past, present and future – conveying the changing mood, atmosphere and aspirations of the place and its residents.

St. John’s Hill was one of a number of similar housing estates which were the brain child of the American, George Peabody (1795-1869), who became known as the ‘father of modern philanthropy’. Born into a poor family in Massacusetts, Peabody left school at eleven and worked himself out of poverty, becoming a partner in an import and export business. He first visited the UK in 1827, settled here ten years later and in 1851 started a banking business, George Peabody and Company. In 1854 he took Junius Spencer Morgan, father of JP Morgan, into partnership and formed Peabody, Morgan & Co . Troubled by the slums he found in London, Peabody announced in a letter to The Times he was going to ‘ameliorate the conditions of the poor’. In a virtually unprecedented move, he set up the Peabody Donation Fund in 1862 with £150,000 to build dwellings for the ‘artisans and labouring poor of London’. The first of these, housing 66 families, was opened in Commercial Street, Spitalfields in 1864, which also provided laundry rooms, shops and areas for children to play. This led to the Peabody Trust, which became one of London’s largest housing associations (not-for-profit organisations providing social housing). In December 2016, Peabody announced plans to merge with Family Mosaic, this will be formalised in July 2017 and will create one of Britain’s largest social landlords, responsible for over 55,000 homes and 111,000 residents.

We met Rodney Harris at St. John’s Hill Estate to talk about his fascinating new public sculptures.

Your project seems underpinned by a sense of both renewal and reflection. Can you discuss the ethos of the Peabody Estate and its commitment to social housing?

Rodney Harris: The original estate was built in 1936 in what was then an industrial area, adjacent to the busy railway station of Clapham Junction. It required high walls to protect the residential area and create a sheltered and safe community for its residents. The first phase was important, since it was erasing part of that history by demolishing all the old flats. Therefore, the only remaining trace of the estate’s former history on this site would be brought to life again and commemorated through the sculptures. Peabody now provides a mixture of private and social housing to help ease the housing crisis in London. At St John’s Hill Estate, the original number of social housing flats for existing residents have been retained, while shared ownership and private homes have been introduced to subsidise affordable housing. The homes have been built ‘tenure blind’, with everyone able to access the same facilities, regardless of whether they are social or private residents.

After the first phase of building was complete, the residents from the old estate moved back in and there is now a great concentration of sculptures in this central area – because this is the main ‘street’ thoroughfare. One end looks out onto a little pocket of green, which forms part of Wandsworth Common, whilst the other will lead the visitor to a square, which will be completed in 2021.

I feel I am engaging with a pivotal point in the history of this estate, exploring what it meant to the residents of the past, and what it means to those who have just moved in now – capturing something of its unique spirit.

How were the sites for the sculptures chosen?

A major part of my brief was that the works should be legible and create a sculpture trail that guides people around the site. Once the general proposal for four sculptures – a sink, a porter’s uniform, a set of garden tools and two pinafore dresses – had been accepted, the specific sites for the works were governed by subject matter, location and light.

I worked closely with the architect, Hawkins Brown, who instinctively understood my vision and helped me to achieve the overall coherent aesthetic. The essence of our relationship was one of listening and responding, and a realisation that this would form the basis of our fusion of art and architecture. 

If you look at the façade on the main ‘street’ it was the only site possible with a wider wall area for the composition of the sink work, which crucially had to be on ground level. Thus, as well as alluding to the functionality of the sink, I wanted to create a certain atmosphere and intimacy with the work. In the 1930s when the Peabody Estate was built, there were communal washrooms, which were the only source of hot water and became an important meeting hub for the residents. The washrooms were dominated by women, and we heard tales of young boys quaking in fear when they entered! There was a convivial family atmosphere, and children would be sent down to the sinks to collect water for the tin baths in each flat.

Can you talk more about the particular character of the estate?

The original estate was the model of the ‘gated community’, which was locked at eleven o’clock in the evening and residents had to adhere to a set of social rules in order to apply for a flat. This was a serious social contract, based on structure, formal behaviour and codes of conduct. It was a very disciplined way of life and its guiding principles were of ‘make do and mend’, self-sufficiency and community spirit. That is why it was important to represent two sinks, because one would have conveyed another message. Ironically, in contrast to this insularity, the idea of a trail anchors the new Peabody ethos of the estate being open and accessible to the public, encouraging a wider engagement with the local community.

Uniform clearly played a significant role to indicate status within the social infrastructure, can you talk about your choice of a porter’s uniform?

I wanted to highlight a notion of hierarchy, but also the sense that the residents were looked after. I chose the porter’s uniform to reference the intrinsic social dimension which underlies all of the works. We enjoyed collaborating with residents on the project, listening to their stories and welcoming their insight and suggestions. One of the residents, Pat Champion, explained to me that each of the five blocks had its own porter and her own father had been one. The porter would wear his normal clothes with dungarees over the top and then the very formal jacket, which has a faint military air, alluding to the fact that many were in the Services during the war. I felt it was important to depict the uniform casually hanging up, to evoke a memory of the ritual and ceremony of putting it on, and performing that particular role of the porter. The work is also sited in the place where the porter’s entrance had stood, so there is a direct correlation and dialogue between past and present.

The medium of brick suggests solidity and permanence, yet the role of light is transformative, a lyrical temporality…

Yes, light is a very important aspect of my practice, and when I work, I am always aware of the impact of light on the forms. Another reason that the site of the sink was perfect was the particular angle the light pours in from the side, sometimes throwing the sculpture into sharp relief – the edge of the image clearly delineated. Yet at other times of the day, when the sun is low and the light warm and diffuse, the contours become less defined, edges dissolve and the image almost recedes into the brick. As you say, brick has that sense of permanence, so I like the paradox that nature plays a part that I cannot control and the works are brought to life in an unpredictable way. The play of light and shadow on the undulating folds of the pinafore dresses is particularly haunting, and accentuates the sense of volume.

These effects are transitory, yet between the garments there is a subtle ambiguity, a suggestion of gesture as one leans towards the other – perhaps alluding to a sibling relationship. They almost seem to be holding hands…

Yes, we wanted to infuse them with character and perhaps cause passers by to pause and wonder who they were, when they lived and what their life was like? Again as with the porter’s uniform, these kinds of dresses were an integral part of the social and moral code of the Peabody. Girls would be expected to wear pinafores to protect their clothes underneath, so that they could be presentable to visitors. It was also important to convey that sense of movement and animation, although the clothes are hanging up, there is still an unsettling feeling that they are alive. The position and height play a significant part in this and the dresses seem to float mysteriously across the space.

With the prominence of the nail and different shaped hangers, they almost become heads – like surrealist personages. To me there is a surreal thread running through your practice – I am thinking of the brick Toaster .

That is a really interesting interpretation. There is a sofa too! I like the humour that using brick can bring to these works – that notion of the absurd. Even the sink has an underlying dry humour! The ‘personages’ are surreal in another sense, they have a strange, unnerving quality – yet they allude to the domestic and have a comforting familiarity.

Can you explain the types of brick you have used here on the estate?

I design and make the works together with artist, Valda Jackson – it is very much a collaboration. The process begins when the architect specifies the type of brick. The sink is in red brick, which is from the Vande Moortel brickworks at Oudenaarde in Belgium. The Vande Moortel brick comes in different shades, and is heavily sanded and not suitable for carving. The darker blue black brick of the porter’s uniform comes from the Janinhoff Brick Company in Münster, Germany and is very similar to an English engineering brick. Here we have directly carved into the brick, we were able to do that because we specified that we needed some which were an extra 50mm deep to give us a slab on the surface to cut away to reveal the work.

Both processes involve the sculptures being modelled in clay before being directly fired, and with the Belgian brick, it is modelled into a clay slab. Then a plaster mould is taken, the brick clay is pressed in and it is finally cut up into brick shapes. Towards the end of the process, I did become quite anxious. The Janinhoff Brick Company sponsored the build and gave us free bricks, but when it came to the final phase, I did not trust the work going back to Germany to be fired without me – so I went over to Münster to supervise! Essentially I took the wet blocks after they had been carved – I packed them very carefully as you can imagine!

If you compare and study both types closely, you can see that the red brick has a different gauge, the bricks are slightly thinner, therefore the joints are tighter so there is less disruption of the image. 

Yet in a certain light, the various shades seem to almost fragment the surface, and the sink image can seem disparate. The darker brick also has a tonal range, but the grey colour evinces a ghostly vision, a sense of the ethereal and intangible…

Yes, I like that idea of presence and absence, an almost illusory dream-like quality. The joints are more pronounced, and with the subtle tones, the porter’s uniform appears to both fade and gently emerge. It is there, but not there – hovering between states of reality. An interesting tension arises here with the sculpture emerging, yet the brick implicitly camouflages it.

There is also an element of melancholy and loss in these sculptures, a poignant elegiac quality which their modesty resonates.

In a way they are a form of monument, as they commemorate the way of life that was lived on the estate and its heritage. It was a domestic life and very much rooted in an idea of community and shared values.

What is the history of this open area?

This area was the garden. During the war it was turned into allotments, where residents were encouraged to grow food for themselves. Indeed self-help was one of the main principles behind the first Peabody estates, which were originally designed to house London’s working poor – such as clerks, nurses or public service officials, who worked in a steady job, but could not afford a good standard of accommodation. I chose the gardening tools as emblematic of this way of life and I like the idea that they had been casually left there against the wall or hung up. They also have a personal significance, because one is modelled on my mother’s!

The composition is particularly subtle in its use of negative space, the shapes between the tools…

That’s right, it is similar to the empty space under the sink, where the nothingness – the void is activated. Here the spaces between the tools, is as important as the tools themselves. I was also aware of the distortion of thickness in the long handled trowel, as the tool appears to shrink or bulge according to the placing on the joints.

How does the process affect the texture of the brick, and how does your technique impact on the architecture?

The clay is pressed into a mould, but we do not smooth it off afterwards so it has a grainy, rough texture. The wrinkles you get when you push clay into a mould are retained and they become part of the life of the work, it’s so immediate and vital. I want to be able to alter the physical ‘skin’ of the building. Brick has so many associations, it’s all around us, the most basic building material. Working with clay, you connect with something ancient, something of the earth itself. Brick can be architectural and sculptural, but it was once soft and my work reminds people of these different material states. I love Victorian buildings where the brick was often heavily adorned and sculptors, used red bricks, which were known as ‘soft rubbers’, because they rubbed them together to create very fine joints and were soft enough to be directly carved. These buildings seemed more malleable than their modern counterparts, I wanted to recall this and create a similarly plastic surface.

How did you come across your relief technique?

The breakthrough came when I was working with a brick company. I used to carve right into the brick, and that would leave a definite cavity around the relief within it, but then I realised that a relief is actually proud of the surface and brings the brick forward. I began thinking of the distance away from the plane, and that a raised form, when light hits it, would be invested with dynamic volume – obvious really! I asked the company to make me bricks that were deeper, but still maintained their structural integrity, still 100mm deep but with a 50mm extra capacity for relief.

Who has influenced you?

Walter Richie (1919-1997), who also worked in brick, his social conscience influenced me, and the idea of ordinary people, what they did, and how they lived. The material of brick engages with this on a fundamental level, and in a poetic, metaphorical way too.

How many more works will there be in the final phase of buildings, and can you talk about the gestation of the project?

We are just working that out with the architect now. There may be one or two massive ones, or a series of smaller multiples – maybe hundreds! The whole project has taken about two years, but a specific image is made over six months, and we usually allow three or four months for carving. The works were then at the factory for a month and then installed on site in just a week!

In summary each sculpture takes six months, but we are working on them all at the same time. The process began here at Peabody with a six month consultation, based in the community centre where we held workshops and events. It was such an exciting period because people brought in photographs and told us stories, so we could get a real flavour of the period.

Peabody is a very large organisation, so naturally everything was very structured. However, now that the first phase is complete, I am hoping they will have the confidence to say ‘just go for it Rodney’ and I can do something on a much bigger scale and with much more colour!

There is a different demographic now, how will this be reflected in your work?

I am fascinated by both the aspirations of the people moving in, and in the attitude of the existing tenants. I may not look to the past for inspiration in the next wave of works, as they may be meditations on a possible future. I see it loosely as the first phase engaging with the past, the second with the present and the third with the future. The whole process has so far taken two years.

How does the collaboration with Valda Jackson work?

Valda and I have many complementary skills, she is an immense talent and has her own very successful and distinct practice. We have a very fluid working relationship and collaborate on many projects. On some projects, she will take the lead, and on others, I will. It is a natural organic process and we work without a rigid structure. We both carve and share according to the type of image and process involved.

How does this work relate to your practice? I am thinking of your University of Bristol Map project…

The map project utilises colours available in the ground, natural earth colours derived from rock and natural materials and printing with them. Essentially this work is about revealing the true colours and materiality of a place. Just as the context of this Peabody Estate forms the conceptual foundation for the relief works, the map project calls upon the unique geological characteristics of an area as the fundamental material for imagery.

Are any of your other public art commissions similarly contextual?

Diatom is quite a dramatic one ! It looks like a virus, a tessellated icosahedron, based on the geometry of a football. Like the Peabody, there is a similar kind of story in that it relates to the context of the location of the Potteries in Weston-super-Mare and how people used clay there in a factory called the Royal Potteries. A diatom is made of silica that eventually forms rock by gradually eroding to form clay over millennia. So the intention behind Diatom was to re-engage local people with their immediate surroundings and history, and show them how the make up of the land, being predominantly clay, had influenced industry in their area.

What is your definition of public art?

Public art adds magic to a place, I hope I have done that here.

Main image: Valda Jackson, Pinafores, 2015, red brick, St. John’s Hill Estate, Wandsworth (photo: Rodney Harris)

Aurora Corio