National Recording Project

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Detail from: Memorial to 158 Squadron by Peter W. Naylor, 2009

Victoria Square (River, Guardians, Youth and Object (Variations))

Summary

Type Sculpture , Shaft , Fountain

     The main focal point of Mistry's scheme for Victoria Square is the monumental female figure of The River, situated beneath the facade of the Council House within a pool, and acting as a fountain which sends water cascading down to lower pools at the level of New Street. Rapidly nick-named 'The Floozie in the Jacuzzi' by the local press,(1) the nude's proportions are descended from those of Matisse's figures, whilst as a reclining nude she points to the precedents of Giogione, Botticelli and Picasso's Vollard Suite. The waters that spout from the ball that she holds flow down to the youthful figures below, so she acts as a giver of life in the way that the Indian River Ganges is revered as a goddess because of its fertility. This is in contrast to the European tradition of masculine representations of river gods, though sources signifying the life-giving effect of water are also often surmounted by female nudes, possibly associated with Diana/Natura. She stares out into the surrounding space, neither challenging or inviting. In this way she follows in a long line of encapsulated female nudes in painting and sculpture, though the civic body has been criticised for this display of patriarchal domination through the enclosure of a passive female form in such a traditional manner. The sandstone pool that she reclines in has six large salmon carved in bas-relief on its floor. This acts as a cryptic explanation of the whole water scheme: the pool is filled by the rays of water (sunlight) from The River's orb; the lotus, being associated with the tranquility of Buddha, sets a calmness over the entire scene; the figures of Youth are reflected in the water as emblems of its life-giving qualities; then once the cloud has passed, the cycle can begin again. Two Guardians flank the lower level of Mistry's scheme. These are large, mythical beasts with the animal bodies and human heads. One, the more masculine figure, has a winged body with the forelegs of a lion and the rear legs of a bull, and the horns and ears of a bull on a human face; the other, female creature, has cloven hooves on the forelegs and claws on the rear, with a more entirely human face. Their title is a play on regard/ guard, as their never sleeping presences both 'protect' the site and look out to the city beyond. Mistry had already created several similar creatures since 1985, the most recent being a Reguarding Guardian at the National Museum of Wales, Cardiff (1990).(2) The tradition of mythical beasts made up from parts of various animals is a long one, the most obvious precedent for Mistry's Guardians being the Sphinx, part lion, part human. It was a sphinx's riddles that Oedipus solved, sphinxes were used to guard Egyptian tombs (the most famous being the huge one at Giza) and they act as a perfect embodiment of enigma which sums up the sculptor's non-specific iconological programme. However, Mistry has quoted other beasts as well which have acted as precedents: the gate guardians of the Great Stupa at Sanchi in India (1st century AD), which include a pair of winged lions with similar postures as these creatures; and lamassu from the palace of Ashurnasirpal at Nimrod, combining the agility of a bird and the strength of a bull with human intelligence.(3) Monumental lions which act as embodiment of national pride are also a feature of major civic spaces in Britain: in Trafalgar Square in London four huge lions by Landseer are combined with fountains and Nelson's monument to create a space which Birmingham's planners were obviously aware of and Mistry has adapted to a more non-specific and timeless purpose. At the bottom of the water cascading from the monumental figure of The River is another pool containing the smaller and more intimate group of Youth. A boy and a girl are poised facing each other across three bowls of a gentle fountain. Sitting on a cube and cylinder respectively, with an egg and a cone in the water beside them, this contemplative pair receive the life-giving water from above, with the symbols, although non-specific in their attributes, act as eternal constants within the mythological setting.(4) For example, the egg acts as a further clue to the continuation of life as given by the waters. These figures also play a part in the explanation of the whole scheme as given by the quote from T.S. Eliott's 'Burnt Norton' around the rim of the upper pool In contrast to the frontal, horizontal nature of the overall scheme, the two sandstone pillars which act as lampstands at each corner of the upper area are statements of verticality acting as definitions of the boundaries of Mistry's vision for the square.(5) The council initially refused to install these two obelisks because it was felt that they were unnecessary and did not relate to the other elements. However, without these anchor points it would be difficult to determine the scale of the scheme from the upper terrace, and after Mistry's insistance, they were duly erected. Both are abstract, although they can be seen as scale models of light houses, pagodas, Mexican pyramids, or even temples in their architectural details. Mistry refused to explain the reasoning behind their inclusion and the necessity for them to act as lamp stands is unclear, particularly as the whole area is well lit at night.
     After the redevelopment of Centenary Square and its successful integration with a number of pieces of public art, the City Council embarked on an ambitious restructuring of the city centre which has included extensive pedestrianisation and a total redesign of Victoria Square. Once a nondescript area cut off from the Council House by a road, Victoria Square has been transformed into what the council sees as a civic space rivalling many European counterparts, dominated by the water feature which now draws the eye up from the level of New Street to the facade of City Hall. The process behind the creation of this new space was a long and often fraught one, and the project cost £3.2 million overall, funded by the European Regional Development Fund and the Henry Moore Foundation. The council originally commissioned Marta Pan, a French artist, to design a new layout for the square, and although her basic idea of a cascade of water with flanking flights of steps was accepted, she was not invited to take the scheme any further. Mistry was eventually commissioned to finish the project, within the restraints already laid down by the original plan.(6)His solution was to have a focal sculptural fountain at the top level, The River, with flanking Guardians at the lower level. Water runs down to a lower pool where Youth is sited between the Guardians. In addition, two obelisks, The Object (Variations), were to be sited on either side of the upper area. Water was seen as an essential part of the scheme by the council, because of the existing civic pride associated with the modernisation of the water works in the 1800s (and commemorated by the Chamberlain Memorial Fountain in Chamberlain Square). Equally, a multi-cultural approach to the centre-piece was desirable to reflect the city's diversity of ethnic groups. Finally, the works had to be of sufficient stature to hold their own against the recently installed Iron:Man, by Antony Gormley, outside the TSB bank, and the re-sited monument to Queen Victoria. Mistry's scheme pulls together a number of disparate threads into a whole that, whilst not entirely coherent, manages to fulfill such an exacting brief without sacrificing too much integrity. The scheme must be seen as a whole, something that was brought to a head when the council initially refused to install the two obelisks on either side of the square because it was felt that they were unnecessary. However, without these anchor points it would be difficult to determine the scale of the scheme from the upper terrace, and after Mistry's insistance, they were duly erected. Mistry is quoted as saying that 'what pleases me is that the arsenal of vocabulary would end up creating a cohesive impact.'(7) The whole redevelopment was opened by the Princess of Wales in May 1993, as recorded by an inscription along the wall at the bottom of the westward flight of steps.
    

Inscriptions

(Carved round rim of bowl, quote from T.S. Eliott's ‘Burnt Norton') 'AND THE POOL WAS FILLED WITH WATER OUT OF SUNLIGHT, AND THE LOTOS ROSE, QUIETLY, QUIETLY, THE SURFACE GLITTERED OUT OF HEART OF LIGHT, AND THEY WERE BEHIND US, REFLECTED IN THE POOL. THEN A CLOUD PASSED, AND THE POOL WAS EMPTY'

Related works : The maquette for Pan's scheme is in store at the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery

Contributor details

Contributor Role
Mistry, Dhruva Sculptor
Furnee, Bettina Letter carver

Element details

Part of work Material Dimensions
River Sandstone, bronze 2.8 x 2.5 x 4m
Objects (Variations) Sandstone 2m high
Youth Bronze 1.5m x 1.5m
Guardians Sandstone 3 x 2.5 x 5m

PMSA recording information

Reference Region
WMbiBIxx177 BM
General condition Fair
Surface condition
  • Biological growth
Structural condition
  • Cracks, splits, breaks, holes
Vandalism
  • Graffiti
Road Victoria Square
Precise location None
A-Z ref None
OS ref None

Sorry, we have no precise geographical information for this item.

Date of design None
Year of unveiling 1993
Unveiling details May 1993
Commissioned by Birmingham City Council
Duty of care Birmingham City Council
Listing status Not listed
At risk? Not at risk

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