There aren’t too many people perhaps who would compare Harlow to Florence, or at least not favourably, but withhold the cynicism because the Italian city did inspire an important part of the New Town’s founding vision. Frederick Gibberd, Harlow’s architect-planner, believed that the ‘Civic Centre should be home to the finest works of art, as it is in Florence and other splendid cities’. Later, his book Town Design set out his vision of the ‘kind of environment he hoped to achieve, one in which the creative arts were to be valued and given an important role in the community’. (1)
What follows is a roughly chronological run-through of some of the sculptures and art works dotted around Harlow which aimed to fulfil the ideals of Gibberd and those who supported him. It’s not a comprehensive account – the Harlow Sculpture Trail guide lists 84 works across Harlow – but rather a record of those which caught my eye when I walked the town (it was a long walk!) last year. (2)
It looks at their origin and form and, in practical terms, it looks at them in their physical context rather than as isolated works of art – not in an ‘ironic’ way but rather in an attempt to assess the extent to which what we’d now call Gibberd’s place-making has been successful in giving Harlow and its community a shared sense of civic pride and identity.
To begin with, though, there is a broader context – a post-war world which, in the words of Labour’s 1945 election-winning manifesto, aimed ‘to assure to our people full access to the great heritage of culture in this nation’. The open-air sculpture exhibitions organised by the LCC in 1948 were only one aspect of this but its first great flowering was the 1951 Festival of Britain.
Of the many works of art commissioned specifically for the Festival, four were to find their way to Harlow in its earliest days, their transfer approved by the then Minister of Housing and Local Government, Hugh Dalton.
By far the most celebrated of these was Barbara Hepworth’s Contrapuntal Forms, initially created for the Arts Council with a South Bank setting. Hepworth herself wanted it placed in the Civic Centre – perhaps echoing Gibberd’s own sense of its defining role and status – but, with that being very much work in progress, she accepted it be located in one of the first residential areas completed, Glebelands in the Mark Hall neighbourhood.
Their reception seems to have been mixed. A local pub landlord thought he could have done no worse with his own hammer and chisel; local women apparently asked why posts for clothes lines were erected – they would have been more useful. A ‘water-works engineer’s wife and mother of three small children’, whose windows directly overlooked the work: (3)
Felt disappointed when the figures came. Most of us did. A couple of tall, flat-headed forms with holes through their middles. I can understand something beautiful, or something really grotesque…but these, I can’t see where the art comes in.
But she smiled and added, ‘if they were not there we should miss them’. And indeed, when a proposal was made to re-site it centrally, local residents objected to losing ‘their sculpture’. It remains in its suburban setting, perhaps accepted as much as loved but a local fixture nonetheless.
Another Festival of Britain piece was Alan Sorrell’s Working Boats from Around the British Coast, originally made to decorate the Nelson Bar on HMS Campania, a converted aircraft carrier which toured the country’s ports as a mobile exhibit for the Festival. In Harlow, it originally found a place in the Moot Hall, the 19th century vicarage converted to serve as a community centre for Mark Hall but disappeared from view till acquired by the National Maritime Gallery in 2014. (4)
A third seems to have been the design of the architect Leonard Manasseh for a bar – the ’51 Bar – at the Festival site itself but details of how and in what form this reached Harlow are sketchy. Does anyone know? Manasseh himself died, aged 100, in March this year – the last surviving architect to have been directly associated with the Festival.
The trajectory of John Piper’s mural The Englishman’s Home, the final Festival piece to be relocated, is much clearer. Its home was initially the Assembly Hall of the Harlow Technical College where it remained until 1992 when the building was remodelled and subsequently demolished. You’ll find it now, ‘price on request’, with Liss Llewelyn Fine Art in Bond Street. (5) The small black and white image of the work in place on the South Bank hardly does justice to its rich and dramatic use of colour and form.
All this might seem a little careless but, despite these losses, Harlow has cherished and greatly expanded its arts collection and we’ll examine a cross-section of the wide range of works which remain in place in the paragraphs which follow.
With Mark Hall the first neighbourhood completed and the Stow as its first neighbourhood centre, it was fitting that Chiron (the eldest and wisest of centaurs in Greek mythology) by Mary Spencer Watson was placed before the Moot Hall in 1953, a celebration of the coronation.
Chiron was donated by the Harlow Development Corporation but in June 1953 the Harlow Art Trust was formed to oversee future acquisitions. The Trust was, as you might expect at the time, a body of the great and the good – its first chair was Philip Hendy, Director of the National Gallery and among the trustees were the philanthropist Patricia Fox-Edwards and Gibberd himself. Ms Fox-Edwards would become Lady Gibberd in 1972 when she married Frederick after the death of his first wife. Fox-Edwards was the youngest trustee – she eventually succeeded Hendy as chair in 1971 – but she played a formative role in the Trust’s early development, visiting degree shows and researching the work of young sculptors to buy or commission.
The signature acquisition of the Trust at this time, however, was commissioned from one of the most celebrated of contemporary sculptors, Henry Moore who happened to live not far from Harlow in Perry Green. Moore suggested a work ‘conceived on human and classical lines’ and his Harlow Family Group possessed a striking resonance for a New Town dubbed by the Daily Mirror ‘Pram Town’: in 1957, almost one in five of Harlow’s population was below school age. Moore himself had recently become a father too.
It was unveiled in May 1956 by Sir Kenneth Clarke, the chair of the Arts Council, who congratulated Harlow ‘on behalf of all those who believed in civilisation – for maintaining the great tradition of urban civilisation in making a work of art a focal centre of a new town’. Quite an imprimatur. Originally placed on an open site near St Mary-at-Latton church in Mark Hall, the Times report suggests it gained an early popularity: (6)
Within an hour of its unveiling, the Family had already entered into the life of Harlow. Small boys were getting up on the pedestal, clambering over the woman and taking occupation of the empty place in the man’s lap. At one moment, indeed, the family of three had expanded to one of seven.
Although it was later moved and now occupies a site in the main foyer of the new Civic Centre, it seems to have retained its hold on the affection of local people, singled out as special to Harlow and linked with the personal memories and childhood associations of its residents. (7)
Just outside the Civic Centre in the remodelled Water Gardens lies another Moore sculpture, Upright Motive No 2, also created by Moore in the mid-1950s but bought by the Trust in 1963 with the aid of the Gulbenkian Foundation.
In contrast, there’s something charmingly homely about both the setting and the form of Willi Soukop’s Donkey. The original was cast in 1935 for Dartington Hall in Devon but this version was made for Harlow in 1955 and placed unobtrusively in the middle of an ordinary-looking (though, in fact, architect-designed – by Jim Cadbury-Brown) housing estate in Mark Hall South. It’s actually quite hard to find but seek it out, adjacent to 5 Pittmans Field, and you might treasure it as much as this young girl did.
You can continue to follow this journey and the chronology of Harlow’s public art in next week’s post.
(1) Gilliam Whiteley, ‘Introduction’, Harlow Arts Trust, Sculpture in Harlow (2005)
(3) ‘Miss Hepworth Puzzles a Town: the Contrapuntals’, Yorkshire Post and Intelligencer, 29 December 1951
(4) Royal Museums Greenwich Collection, Working Boats from around the British Coast
(5) Liss Fine Art, John Piper: The Englishman’s Home, 1951
(6) ‘Mr Moore’s “Family Group”: Work Commissioned for New Town’, The Times, 18 May 1956
(7) Clare Healey, ‘Is Public Art a Waste of Space? An Investigation into Residents’ Attitudes to Public Art in Harlow’, MSc in the Built Environment, University of London, 2008