The Pineapple vanishes

Known fondly by the residents of Basildon as The Pineapple, it dates from 1977 when it was commissioned by the Ford Motor Company from artist William George Mitchell (b. 1925) to enhance the area in front of Trafford House, the firm’s newly acquired premises in Cherrydown East, Basildon. Trafford House was built in 1975, the year after the arrival of Basildon railway station, and was originally called Station House, but was renamed by Ford. The fountain was never given a formal title, but the sculptor says that it ‘has always been called The Pineapple and I am happy with that.’

Mitchell created many abstract and stylised public works of art between the late 1950s, and 1970s, both in the UK and internationally. This is probably one of the reasons Ford approached him to create their water feature. The sculptor told PMSA: ‘To explain why it was commissioned evokes the circumstances of the day… These new artworks… acted as landmarks and gave identity to places where infrastructure was being built – this was especially true in new towns.’ He had worked as a design consultant for the London County Council between 1957-65 on decorative work for council estates; an article in the Sculpture Journal (vol.21.1/2012: discusses his role there in the context of ‘an evolution of a classless form of public art’. Some of Mitchell’s best known works are among the nine now listed by English Heritage and include the Egyptian Hall and escalator at Harrods Knightsbridge, the Curzon Cinema in Mayfair and the doors and carved Portland stone crosses on the Bell Tower of Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral. The latter work was a collaboration with the architect Sir Frederick Gibberd, with whom he worked on a number of projects including another water feature, the series of murals, Lion’s Head Fountains, at the Civic Water Gardens in Harlow New Town (1960-63).

Experimentation with different materials which were popular at the time, such as cement, aluminium and Corten metal was another important aspect of Mitchell’s work. The Pineapplewas made from Corten metal, which is a group of steel alloys which form a stable rusty protective coat when weathered, precluding the need for painting. Mitchell explained to PMSA: ‘I chose Corten metal because it is light, reddish orange when dry and changes to a very rich red when wet. This seemed to me to be an ideal material to use for a fountain.’ Corten metal had been invented in the mid 1960s and was very much a material of the period. Mitchell reflects on The Pineapple: ‘… the sculpture would be considered to be an important work of the time – it is unusual because of the material and because of the method. The Pineapple was not manufactured by machine – each individual ‘triangle’ was produced and placed by hand. It is unique.’ The water feature was painstakingly crafted so that each ‘triangle’ dripped water and turned velvet red.

The disappearance is a real loss to Basildon’s artistic ‘New Town’ heritage. Planners at Basildon Council are well aware of the historic importance of The Pineapple, they tried to preserve it in situ and are frustrated by its disappearance. A spokesman from the planning department lamented its loss, telling PMSA that it could probably be regarded as ‘one of the gems of Basildon’. The spokesman explained that after Ford had left Trafford House in 2011, the developer, Colonnade, took over the site. Initially they were intending to hand The Pineapple over to a local interest group to install at a location of their choice, but planners at the Council wanted to keep it on site. The fountain was not listed, however, when Colonnade applied for planning permission the Council Committee granted it, but implemented several conditions, one of which protected the fountain by stating that it should be retained and renovated. Shortly after this Colonnade removed the fountain from the site outside Trafford House for safe keeping, because it was unoccupied and was subject to vandalism. It was transferred to storage in the Laindon Centre, which they also owned. The fountain mysteriously disappeared from storage and was first reported missing by Colonnade in December 2012.

What happened to the fountain? We can only speculate, but its disappearance came at a time when metal theft was rampant. Fuelled by the recession and rising metal prices, metal theft increased exponentially from about 2008, with items stolen ranging from lead roofs, to copper cable and outdoor sculpture. Ironically, in the month The Pineapple was reported lost, the Government tightened the net on rogue scrap metal sellers. They were banned from trading in cash, from operating a ‘no questions asked’ cash payment policy and police were given the power to enter metal yards suspected of illegal trading. As a result, metal theft began to decline and this trend has further improved with the Scrap Metal Dealers’ Act in October 2013 which gave the authorities the power to revoke licences of yards suspected of illegal activity. Alas, all too late for poor Pineapple!

Nonetheless, Basildon Council are insisting that the owners of Trafford House satisfy the conditions of the planning permission, which oblige them to fund and replace the missing fountain with a piece of public art. PMSA asked the Council spokesman whether the replacement would be in the form of a sculpture or a sculptural fountain. When he replied it could be either, we questioned whether the Council could insist on a fountain replacement. The spokesman then confirmed that if there were sufficient public response and lobbying, the Council could insist that The Pineapple is replaced by a fountain.

If you would like to see a fountain in front of Trafford House again it is up to you!

Aurora Corio