Councillor Robert Davis, Westminster City Council

Councillor Davis is Deputy Leader of Westminster Council and Westminster Council’s Cabinet Minister for the Built Environment. In the latter capacity, he is responsible for the setting for human activities in the urban environment and Public Art in Westminster. Councillor Davis is passionate about Public Art and improving the urban environment, but admits he has critics. He was in a civil partnership with the late Sir Simon Milton, who was Leader of Westminster Council, before becoming London’s Deputy Mayor for Policy and Planning and Senior Planning Adviser to Boris Johnson. Both Davis and Milton have played a significant role in regeneration within the City of Westminster.

May we start by asking about the Festival of Sculpture, how did that come about?

It really started four or five years ago when I was on holiday with my late partner, Sir Simon Milton. In Switzerland we saw some amazing pieces of sculpture along the streets, as we also did in Lisbon where there were some fantastic sculptures. So I came back with the idea of actually taking the public realm here in Westminster and creating permanent sculptures and revolving sculptures.

The idea of distinguishing between temporary and the permanent sculpture is an interesting one. Did you want to prompt that debate?

Yes, absolutely. My officers are concerned that permanent sculptures should be able to pass a longevity test because, while you might like a piece today, would you necessarily like it in thirty years’ time? Should you clog up the space? So we devised the idea of the City of Westminster Festival of Sculpture which was intended to run for two years to take us through to the Olympics, but which has now become so successful, we have dropped the two year plan. We are finding all the space we can in the public realm and we are encouraging people to exhibit public sculpture. We don’t have any money, but we are lucky that we are in Westminster and therefore we are able to encourage the galleries and the sculptors themselves to exhibit at their expense. So it doesn’t cost us anything other than a little bit of officer time to help co-ordinate it. It is the participating galleries and sculptors’ responsibility, with our help, but they have to pay for everything – insurance and putting up their sculpture etc. We give the space for six months and occasionally we extend this period, if the sculpture is really being enjoyed by the public. We like to see a turnover and therefore the threshold of whether it is good or not is a little less of an issue, because if it is only there for six months, it’s not the end of the world if people dislike the sculpture. The idea has just taken off – it has been so successful with the public.

We now have many contributors, including many of the big galleries like the Halcyon Gallery, which are very crucial to us because they are big enough to be able to afford to do it. They bring sculptors like Lorenzo Quinn, who does fantastic sculpture like Vroom, Vroom. I am trying to encourage them to bring another one like that back to Park Lane because we have had several of his car sculptures there and the public seem to love them.

And then there are individuals like Bushra [Fakhoury], a lovely lady and quite a character, she sculpted the man with the elephant, Dunamis – Achieving the Impossible, which I adore. She gave me a brochure of all her work and asked me which ones I liked and I chose that one.

So what are your criteria for the selection of sculpture?

Have fun and enjoy. It has nothing to do with my personal taste, if people might like a piece, especially in terms of temporary display, we try to exhibit it.

A piece which I adore is the horse’s head at Marble Arch that was not part of the Festival of Sculpture. That came about when I was put in charge of the regeneration of Marble Arch. The then Leader of the Council said to me, ‘Robert, Marble Arch is a disgrace sort it out for me.’ I went away and re-designed the whole of Marble Arch. I am very proud of my achievement there. We were looking for a centrepiece and co-incidentally Nic Fiddian-Green sent a picture of the horse’s head, Still Water, to one of my colleagues, she emailed to me and it was perfect, just what I was looking for. He really wanted to lend it to us for a few months because it had been sold to Sir Anthony and Lady Bamford, so we said can we put it in Marble Arch and he loved the idea. It has been so successful and such an icon that when he had to give it back to the Bamfords after six months, he made us a new bigger one. So the one there is not the original, it is one that he has actually given to us on long term loan and I think he is happy about this, because I am sure it is good promotion for his sculpture, and people find it iconic.

Then there’s the site opposite where we rotate the sculptures, this has now got Genghis Kahn by Dashi Namdakov. Genghis Kahn has been given an extension of time, it was The Jelly Baby Family by Mauro Perucchetti before.

So is neutrality important?

I try, but one has to be careful, if a piece is making too much of a political statement, for example, it could upset people. I know I have unwittingly upset people twice, once with Genghis Khan because I was accused by some people of supporting a mass murderer, but I did point out that that was 800 years ago! And it’s a wonderful piece, but more recently I’ve upset people, because although I love history, there are some areas I didn’t study and I now accept that I may have made some mistakes. In the centre of Cavendish Square, there is a plinth, which has been empty for some time and I now know why, but no-one had told me the statue was taken down because the original statue was of someone who was vilified. A Korean lady, Meekyoung Shin, has built a replica of the original lost statue of The Duke of Cumberland in soap. My lack of history meant that I didn’t know that the Duke of Cumberland was called ‘The Butcher’ nor was I aware about the Battle of Culloden or that the Duke was personally responsible for murdering many Scots and so is vilified by them, and so of course the Scottish Newspapers started criticising me. But the whole idea behind the sculpture is that it’s melting, his leg has fallen off and so on … maybe you can say well he has now deteriorated and the Scots are getting their own back!

The irony is it was supposed to have melted within six months and it is has now been in place a year and it‘s not yet in bits, it is still basically there – so someone is having a laugh somewhere!

So has the criticism been good promotion for public sculpture?

Yes, the Westminster Council’s Labour members issued a press release about Genghis Khan, but I ended up with the piece of sculpture Genghis Khan all over the national newspapers. Even my Press Office didn’t achieve that! It is all about making people talk about art and that is exactly what I’m trying to achieve, so I am justified in saying that’s exactly what I wanted – for all the national papers to start talking about sculpture. Whether I am right or wrong, it allowed the sculpture to be represented in discussions.

Are any of the Public Sculptures in Westminster funded through CIL [Community Infrastructure Levy] or Section 106?

We don’t have CIL yet, we are working on it and we are going to have it by 2015. At the moment, we are waiting because we want to get it right and it will have such a big impact, but yes we have a planning policy that on a medium to big site, we are obliging the developers to put public art into the application as a requirement. This is usually under a Section 106 Agreement. Therefore you will find building after building in Westminster which has public art on it, because that’s what we insist on and there is an agreed budget which each project has to spend on public art. There’s a lovely building next to my private office, for example, which has the most beautiful iron work and lovely plants and flowers on the railings round the Juliet balconies, it is most stunning.

I have also given permission for a site in Curzon Street, the old Mirabelle restaurant, which will be rebuilt and again we are introducing public art. Some believed that the pavement wasn’t wide enough, but I insisted and so they are going to widen the pavement a little bit and then put the sculpture in the middle. My officers get concerned that if the pavement isn’t wide enough, it will impede the flow of people through the streets, but I think by making it a little bit wider you can still get the free flow of pedestrians and also have your lovely piece of sculpture. We haven’t chosen one yet, but we have told the developers that they have got to provide a budget for public art. As a result, it will make the environment of the new property on which they going to spend a fortune look so much nicer. So the answer simply is yes, it is a rule that, on any major application, the applicant has to provide a contribution for public art.

The PMSA now includes the Fountain Society, so we are interested in hearing about your attitude to fountains as well.

I’m a great fan of fountains. When I used to go to America a lot, I noticed that there more than anywhere else, they use water in their Public Art and we don’t use it enough. Maybe it’s because we’re the urban generation, but often it doesn’t work for us …maybe it’s the hard water. We had this wonderful water feature in Bond Street, where Winston Churchill and President Roosevelt are now installed and it constantly broke down, then the wind would blow the water and it would get splashed over passers-by and in the winter they slipped. In other places where we have fountains, they tend to break down. The one I have found which always seems to work, although I was told the other day it doesn’t always work, is the one in Barrett Street in Marylebone near Selfridges, that’s a lovely piece and very simple. We have also had problems at Marble Arch – the fountain there hadn’t been working for years, again we didn’t have the money, but we managed to get Thames Water to sponsor it and we did a really good job of totally renewing all the waterworks and it now looks splendid. Sadly people misuse it and we have to spend a lot of time and money cleaning it out and repairing it, because we find syringes in the pipes and other debris in the fountain. But I think it looks stunning.

As you say, although aesthetic criteria dominate in the choice of fountains, there are also the practicalities of maintenance, repair and restoration.

Yes, we have just spent a lot of money redoing the central sculpture of William Shakespeare in Leicester Square and it has taken nearly a year to repair the statue and the fountain. So, as far as fountains are concerned, we’re very supportive. I don’t think there are enough of them, on the other hand I want them to work. I get nervous when people come forward with a proposal for a new one, for example, the lovely Japanese guy, who designed the one in Mount Street outside the Connaught Hotel, that beautiful water feature. At first I was reluctant, because these designers all come in with their beautiful plans saying this is going to be beautiful, but in reality sometimes it is not and I said this is fantastic, but is it practical, after six years will we find it not working and the water going stagnant? But I was assured that not only was the Connaught Hotel behind it and gave us the cover of assurances, but the Grosvenor Estate also gave us a guarantee.

They have guaranteed that if anything goes wrong, they will spend the money making sure it keeps going, so I have got the assurance there that there is a long term commitment and there is the proper finance behind it. Just a little aside, there is a plaque on the footpath between the Connaught and the water-piece dedicating it to Simon Milton because he was very involved in the regeneration of the public realm scheme around Mayfair.

Are there any other public memorials to Simon?

Yes, there is one off Piccadilly Circus and there is going to be another statue of him in Paddington shortly. There’s a new building in Piccadilly owned by the Crown Estate in Eagle Place opposite the Meridian Hotel, there is public art there on the top of the building, a frieze, a most beautiful colourful frieze and on the corner of the building there is a bust of Simoncarved in high relief in stone by Alan Micklethwaite. There are four scenes on the relief from his life; one is the GLA Building, where he was Deputy Major of London, one is the Westminster Council House which is our sister building where we have our council meetings, then Simon’s Cambridge College, Gonville and Caius is represented by the great college Gate of Honour and then his parents’ business the Sharaton’s Patisseries, is symbolised in the foreground by an éclair and a slice of gateau. Simon lived on that site when I first met him, as he lived above the family’s Sharaton’s patisserie which used to be there. [See The Evening Standard].

There is going to be another statue of Simon by Bruce Denny in Paddington, the life-size maquette, is being cast in bronze now and next summer the sculpture will be installed in the Paddington Developments, at the centre of which is an external stepped auditorium in the open–air, and Simon is going to be sitting there as though he is watching what is going on.

There will also be a third statue, which is going to be outside Boris’s GLA and that is being undertaken by the greatest, well who I think is the greatest, sculptor at the moment, Philip Jackson. However, that is at an early stage and probably about two years away.

The PMSA gave the Marsh Sculpture Award this year to Philip Jackson for the MemorialBomber Command at Hyde Park Corner. There has been some controversy about the Memorial because of its position. The Editorial in November’s issue of The Burlington Magazine, for example, speaks of the ‘pile up’ of such works at Hyde Park Corner.

A lot of the criticism has in the past has been levelled at the architect, Liam O’Connor, who designed the outer structure of the Memorial. My understanding is that the criticism has been very vehement, but only from a few individuals. There have been two main complaints, the first is that Green Park was always intended to be green and have nothing in it at all and that was what has distinguished it from everywhere else, until now, although the Canadian War Memorial is also there. Then there are others who think the Memorial is too big and too grand, but that’s the Liam O’Connor structure. I have never heard any criticism of Philip’s seven airmen.

Are you under pressure to find space for such Memorials?

Yes, this is another issue we must mention – permanent memorials. We are under pressure because everybody wants to commemorate something in the central part of Westminster … we are talking about Hyde Park Corner and Whitehall … it is a big issue. We have a policy which says no, except in exceptional circumstances, and then they all try to prove why their memorial is exceptional. We had this great amount of pressure about the Korean War Memorial. You know the Korean War is the only major war which hasn’t been commemorated and we eventually accepted it and again Philip Jackson is involved and is now working on the sculpture. We’ve agreed to put it up outside the Ministry of Defence on the Embankment side. The President of South Korea was here recently on a State visit and we had a ceremony there, at which she cut the first turf, since the Memorial is not ready yet.

Might we ask you about the Westminster Public Art Advisory Panel and why it had to be abolished?

There were a variety of different reasons. We felt that we are the one Council that has a whole team of professional planning officers who specialise in design and are experts and these professional expert advisers are probably more appropriate. Some Councils don’t put the resources we do into having professionals advise us on issues like design, and therefore we felt that it was an unnecessary body.

We just feel that we can cope with the tremendously professional team of conservation and design officers which we have here and very few councils have similarly dedicated teams.

Finally what are your feelings about the Fourth Plinth and the City Arts Initiative?

Well, I think it’s exciting, the only issue I have there sometimes is – what is art? The one I had a problem with and deliberated about and didn’t decide until the last minute whether I was going to refuse the application or not was Gormley’s ‘One and Other’. Of course the Fourth Plinth is not my responsibility but Boris’s, but any sculpture (live or otherwise) has to be given planning permission. While I love Gormley’s work, I had to question whether just having people up there playing on their mobile phones or shouting was really art. To complicate matters there were several structures that were erected in the Square for support, which made the Square look very ugly. Most of the other exhibits The Rocking Horse, The Ship in the Bottle– I love them and now The Blue Cockerel and people arguing about whether it’s good or bad – I love it.

Main image (photo: Westminster City Council)

Aurora Corio