Looking out for Art – LCC's Patronage of the Arts

Sally Williams, Keeper of the Inventory

Two incidents in my local borough of Tower Hamlets have triggered this issue's subject — an online petition encouraging support for the return of Frank Dobson's Woman and Fish sculpture to its former location in Globe Town; and the Council's call for tenders to host the return of Henry Moore's Draped Seated Woman to the borough. Both sculptures were acquired for the benefit of local communities through their placement within the environs of London County Council (LCC) post-war housing estates under the Council's Patronage of the Arts Scheme. The scheme was launched in 1956, with an annual budget of £20,000 identified to either commission or purchase works of art to be sited on housing estates, educational facilities and other public spaces. Advice was sought from the Arts Council and over the period of the scheme 50 or more works of art were installed before the demise of the LCC in 1965. Its successor body, the Greater London Council, had other priorities.

In some cases works were selected from one of the LCC's triennial open-air sculpture exhibitions held from 1948 to 1966 in Battersea Park or Holland Park. The sculptors included some of the best artists working in Britain at that time, including Henry Moore (1898-1986), who was also on the Committee, and among their number were those who had fled to England to evade Nazi or other persecution, such as Siegfried Charoux (1896-1967) and Franta Belsky (1921-2000). For many of these artists, it was important that their work was placed in the public domain, accessible to ordinary people and not just for the gallery-going elite.

Among the LCC works surviving today in their original locations is Robert Clatworthy's bronze sculpture The Bull on the Alton Estate in Roehampton, Wandsworth. Although it was not installed until 1961, the project was first proposed in 1957, albeit the site designated for sculpture was in a different part of this listed modernist housing estate. The brief was for 'a sculptural unit of simple and robust outline and of rugged texture' and Clatworthy's eventual commission is just that. In 1998 English Heritage (now Historic England) listed The Bull as Grade II*, a rare grade for a post-war sculpture.

Another animal sculpture, David Wynne's black marble Gorilla of 1961 is found in Crystal Palace Park. Wynne (1926-2014), who had read zoology at Cambridge, was commissioned by the LCC in 1959 to create an animal sculpture. The site for his powerful portrayal of London Zoo's famous gorilla, Guy, was selected by the LCC in 1962 near the park's Children's Zoo.

In Islington, The Neighbours by Siegfried Charoux adorns the Highbury Quadrant Estate, where it was installed in 1959. Although it appears to be made of terracotta, the work is actually a synthetic resin combined with powdered stones; over time the surface deteriorated through exposure to the elements and lack of maintenance rather than vandalism, although it suffered some graffiti. Recently conserved by Rupert Harris Conservation Ltd at the request of among others the local residents, this sculpture was listed in 1998. Following World War II, Highbury Quadrant Estate was one of a number of areas of Highbury that was rebuilt as municipal housing, replacing the Victorian houses that had suffered bomb damage.

Franta Belsky's Lesson was exhibited in Holland Park in 1957, a sculptural group depicting a mother teaching her child to walk. Initially two concrete casts were commissioned by the LCC, bronze being deemed too expensive. One sculpture was installed in Wandsworth at the Rosa Bassett School, and the other was placed on the Avebury Estate in Bethnal Green, where it was unveiled in 1959 by the LCC's Leader, Sir Isaac Hayward, after whom the Hayward Gallery is named. This version of the sculpture had a metallic surface to mimic bronze; it was later reproduced in bronze and has also recently been listed by Historic England.

Nearby, Frank Dobson's Woman and Fish has had a troubled life. Commissioned by the LCC in 1963 to embellish their Cleveland Estate, by the 1980s this sculptural fountain was being repeatedly vandalised, the fish stolen on at least one occasion. It was a ghastly sight for many years, but eventually, deemed beyond repair, it was removed in 2002. Its empty plinth has remained as a sad reminder along with a plaque naming the location 'Frank Dobson Square'. However, in 2006 a bronze replica was commissioned by Tower Hamlets Council from Spanish sculptor Antonio Lopez Reche, which in 2007 was installed in Millwall Park on the Isle of Dogs, where it is surrounded by formal beds within circular fencing that firmly discourages entry. Now there is a petition to reinstate the sculpture on its original plinth on the corner of Cambridge Heath Road and Cephas Street, but it will require more than local interest to sustain its renewed lease of life, and improved security, lighting and regular maintenance must be put in place. It would be delightful if the water pouring from the mouth of the fish were to be reinstated, but that may tax the Council's restricted budget a step too far.

Henry Moore's Draped Seated Woman fared better, and the reason for its long sojourn in the Yorkshire countryside is the result of the demolition of its home rather than any action against the sculpture. Commissioned from the artist at a greatly reduced price, it was installed on the Stifford Estate in Stepney in 1962 and although it initially received a mixed reception — described by at least one resident as a 'monstrosity' — it was later affectionately nicknamed 'Old Flo'. When it was borrowed for an exhibition in the 1980s, without the local residents' knowledge let alone their approval, there was outcry in the local paper quite at odds with the usual antagonistic reporting of arts events at that time! However in the late 1990s the Stifford Estate was demolished — its site is now a public park, Stepney Green Park — and Old Flo was transported up to Yorkshire Sculpture Park where she has languished ever since. Apart from an anxious moment when a previous Mayor of Tower Hamlets tried to raise money for other schemes by selling the people's sculpture, the Council is now poised to bring her back into the bosom of the community. We should know in April where she will reside.

These are just a few of the LCC's acquisitions that remain visible in London's landscape. Others have since disappeared such as Bryan Kneale's Sculpture of 1962 on the Fenwick Place Estate in Lambeth, and Uli Nimptsch's Neighbourly Encounter of 1961 on the Silwood Estate in Lewisham.

Woman and Fish
Frank Dobson Woman and Fish in Millwall Park

The Bull
Robert Clatworthy The Bull at Alton Estate in Roehampton

David Wynne Gorilla enjoyed by children in Crystal Palace Park

The Neighbours
Siegfried Charoux The Neighbours with a local resident

Franta Belsky Lesson Bethnal Green

All photography © Sally Williams