Last week’s post looked at the ideals which generated Harlow New Town’s unique programme of public art works and its early years. Frederick Gibberd, Harlow’s architect-planner, had envisaged its civic centre as ‘home to the finest works of art’ – both a homage to the past and its Renaissance glories and a mark of the cultured urbanism aspired to in England’s new Elizabethan age.
This is a record of my visit last year, an eclectic mix therefore, rather than a comprehensive record – a sympathetic attempt to see and understand the works in situ and in the context of the mission Gibberd proclaimed.
By the early sixties, Harlow town centre – Gibberd’s broadly conceived civic centre – was taking off. FE McWilliam’s Portrait Figure, stands in West Walk, bought by the Harlow Art Trust in 1957 after featuring in the London County Council’s open-air sculpture exhibition that year. It’s a portrayal of the sculptor Elisabeth Frink when McWilliam’s student at the Chelsea School of Art.
Another female figure of much greater vintage was acquired in 1960. Auguste Rodin’s Eve (part of an unfinished duo – Rodin died before completing Adam) can be found in the Water Gardens rather awkwardly placed just in front of Five Guys – a burger chain, nothing more laddish.
Not too far away is Ralph Brown’s Meat Porters, commissioned by the Trust from the artist (persuaded to change its original and appropriate name, Figures with a Carcass) and placed in the recently completed Market Square in 1961: ‘a focus of views in two kinds of civic space, a square and a street…and a pivot between them’. There’s also something fitting, though far less high-minded, about its current backdrop. It’s another striking work which seems to have a happy association with Harlow childhoods.
Gibberd’s Civic Square – his Florentine piazza – and its complement, the Water Gardens, were completed in 1963. I’ll confess to missing one of the latter’s most striking elements, William Mitchell’s Seven Reliefs/Mosaics which served as fountain heads for the Garden’s elongated water features – my apologies to the redoubtable artist who, born 1925, remains alive and kicking. That perhaps is a commentary on the now truncated form of this space. Despite Grade II listing and a vigorous campaign by the Twentieth Century Society, Lady Pat Gibberd and others, new values took priority and, if you Google ‘Harlow Water Gardens’ now you’re more likely to be directed to the ‘300,000 sq ft of retail space and a 70,000 sq ft new town hall’ completed in 2004.
Also easily missed is a work entitled Returning from Work placed at the entrance of Harlow’s Central Library, ‘assumed’ by the Harlow Art Trust to be by Carl Heinz Müller and purchased in 1963.
The New Town was taking off and its now bustling centre received another notable sculpture, Trigon, by Lynn Chadwick, bronze-cast in a Swiss foundry and placed in Broad Walk in 1966. It’s reminiscent in form of another of Chadwick’s works, The Watchers, placed by the LCC in the Alton Estate in the same year.
Back in the Water Gardens, Elisabeth Frink’s Boar, though small, is a more eye-catching work. It was Frink’s first commission, in 1957, the result of a visit by the then Patricia Fox-Edwards to the artist’s 1952 exhibition at the Chelsea School of Art. Originally made of concrete, it was first placed in Bush Fair, the second of Harlow’s neighbourhoods to be completed, but weathering and vandalism caused it to be recast in bronze and relocated in its present position in 1970. (1) By 1973, the Harlow Art Trust had installed 27 sculptural works on public sites across the town.
Leon Underwood’s clenched fist is Not in Anger. The original Portland stone version was sculpted in 1925 and can now be seen at the Gibberd Garden designed by Gibberd himself in his later years and surrounding the home, a few miles from Harlow, which he occupied until his death in 1984. The cast bronze version was purchased by the Trust in 1979 and now has a place in The Stow neighbourhood centre.
Another re-sited work is Echo by Lithuanian-born Antanas Bradzys placed, in 1970, within the Staple Tye shopping centre and moved to an adjacent nearby when the centre was redeveloped.
Three other works by Bradzys feature in Harlow; the largest and the one most remarked upon by residents for its location and visibility is Solo Flight (1982), commissioned by the Harvey Centre and located in the shopping mall until replaced by a lift. It now occupies a striking position on First Avenue across from the St Mary-at-Latton church though it’s more likely to be noticed by passing traffic than walkers-by.
Since this is a blog dedicated to celebrating the work of local government and unfairly maligned local councillors I’m pleased to record that it’s been dedicated in its new site to the memory of Sonia Anderson, a Labour councillor in Harlow for 41 years and onetime trustee of the Harlow Art Trust: a champion of ‘social causes, the arts and education’, who died in 1998. She had arrived in England, courtesy of the Red Cross, a refugee from Nazism of German Communist parents. To her grandson, she taught ‘the importance of a broad education, reading and the arts…to see past people’s foibles and stand by what you believe in’. (2) In this, she seems to personify the very best of what Harlow stood for.
Westgate, a rather depressed corner of Harlow town centre, might seem to represent some loss of that vision but it still houses Still Life by Fred Watson, his first major commission in 1985. Its books surely represent a more elevated of their purpose than the premises just behind.
Anthony Hawken’s Iceni, 1995, a tribute to the Celtic tribe, stands outside a smaller terrace of shops in Colt Hatch, incongruous perhaps but in a good way – a significant artwork placed in the midst of an unremarkable suburban setting.
Shenzhou by Simon Packard is one of the most recent additions to the Harlow scene, commissioned by the Harlow Heath Centres Trust in 2008 and prominently located in the new Addison House Health Centre. Perhaps that much-visited site, as much as its arresting form and fabric, accounts for the attention it has received, not all of it complimentary. ‘It looks like it’s done out of tinfoil’, according to one observer. (3)
And finally on my way back to the station I noticed Butterfly, made by Madeline Allen for Barratt Homes in 2008 and sited off Fifth Avenue in a modern housing development.
I went to look at the housing – you can find my earlier blogs on the early years of the New Town and its later development by following the links – but I came away glad to have seen such an array of public art, sometimes for its incongruity but more often for its quality and presence. It was good to see the civic realm – it seems an antiquated phrase nowadays – so prized; pleasing to see Harlow continuing to attempt to live up to its founding values from that era when a post-war Labour government sought to ‘assure to our people full access to the great heritage of culture in this nation’.
In Lucy Lippard’s words, ‘public art is accessible art of any kind that cares about/challenges/involves and consults for or with whom it is made’. (4) Has Harlow’s collection lived up those ideals? The evidence seems mixed. Clare Healey found just under half of her local respondents thinking that its public art made the town ‘a distinctive place to live’, a little under a third believing it had added to their sense of identity. But then again, almost half wanted more public art.
Typically, her sample liked most those works to which they connected personally on some level – Family Group, Meat Porters and Still Life were singled out in this way and ‘it became clear that residents had trouble relating to the more modem and abstract pieces in Harlow’. That, I suppose, is a tribute to the gentle humanism which typified earlier post-war works.
All that might seem a limited response to the idealistic vision outlined by Frederick Gibberd on the town’s inception but that ‘taken-for-grantedness’ might be taken as natural as Harlow and the other New Towns become more ‘ordinary’ places. Familiarity – the fact that these varied works become so easily part of the unremarked day-to-day background of busy lives – breeds, if not contempt, a certain casual disregard. I dare say the citizens of Florence pass by Michelangelo’s David (or at least its current replica) outside the Palazzo della Signoria on a daily basis without so much as a glance.
As a visitor, I remain impressed by the range and quality of Harlow’s artworks and grateful for their placement amidst shops and streets and houses. For Gibberd the ‘purpose of the sculpture [was] not to decorate the town. It [was] not a form of costume jewellery’. Rather it was: (5)
To be enjoyed for its own sake as visual art, and to add interest and visual diversity to the urban spaces in which it is set.
In those terms, certainly, Harlow’s efforts have succeeded. ‘Sculpture Town’ may be a bit of touristic rebranding but Harlow deserves the accolade
(1) Historic England, Wild Boar Sculpture
(2) Cole Henley, ‘Phenomenal People: who’s your inspiring woman?’ (March 2012)
(3) Quoted in 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
(4) Quoted in Dolores Hayden, The Power of Place: Urban Landscapes as Public History (1997)
(5) Quoted in the Historic England exhibition, ‘Out There: Our Post-War Public Art’, Somerset House, February-April 2016. The exhibition is currently showing, free entry, at Bessie Surtees House, Newcastle upon Tyne
Details of the artworks are taken from Harlow Arts Trust, Sculpture in Harlow (2005)