Harlow Art Trust
Harlow New Town and the Art Trust
The initial idea for starting the collection came about with the genesis of the New Town of Harlow itself, one of fourteen towns proposed under the New Town Act of 1946. The act, which was part of a wider programme of postwar reconstruction, was an attempt to alleviate congestion through planning rather than unchecked suburban sprawl. In keeping with a 1950s’ desire to combine social responsibility with modern architecture, the town was planned around a Civic Centre with a series of neighbourhoods, each with its own shopping centre, schools, health centre and community rooms. Sir Frederick Gibberd (Harlow’s appointed master planner) insisted on the development of mixed housing schemes which incorporated houses, flats and maisonettes within planned landscapes and integrated communal open spaces. He was also uncompromising over the need to place artworks in public settings. He intended that Harlow’s Civic Centre would become home to ‘the finest work of art, as it is in Florence and other splendid cities’.
The Harlow Art Trust was set up in 1953 with a small of grant of £250. As a Trustee, Gibberd advised his colleagues to consult his book Town Design which set out 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. At the time of its inaugural meeting, the Town already owned its first sculptures. The Trust had inherited Mary Spencer Watson’s Chiron which had been commissioned by Harlow Development Corporation to celebrate the Coronation. Gibberd’s lengthy correspondence with the artist gives an insight into the thinking behind the commission. He explained that he wanted the sculpture for a little piazza at the northern end of the first neighbourhood shopping centre to be completed in the New Town:
We do not know what the sculpture should be, but it is certain that an abstract design would not be looked upon with favour, although we have a very fine Hepworth – and it is felt that the sculpture, in some way, should try to express the community idea – the little square is the focus for community life in the area…
At their first meeting, the Trustees agreed that their mission was to build up funds to purchase ‘major works of sculpture for the Town Centre’ and other ‘suitable sites’ by well and lesser-known artists. By the second meeting, six months later, the Trust had also taken charge of four other works from the Harlow Development Corporation, all inherited from the Festival of Britain: Barbara Hepworth’s Contrapuntal Forms and three large murals; Boats by Alan Sorrell, 1851 by Leonard Manasseh and The Englishman’s Home by John Piper. Appeals for funds went out to local residents, industrialists and other bodies and a series of communal sites were identified as suitable for sculpture. By 1973, the publication date of the first complete catalogue, the Trust had acquired a series of works by contemporary sculptors, some with and some to earn international reputations, including Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth, Ralph Brown, Lynn Chadwick, F.E. McWilliam and Elisabeth Frink.
The early years
In 1956 Patricia Gibberd saw a piece of Ralph Brown’s work at the ICA Gallery and, on inquiry, learnt that it had been bought by Henry Moore. When she later visited Brown at the Royal College of Art she saw Sheep-Shearer and recommended its acquisition to the Trust. The following year, the Trust invited Brown to submit ideas for a major work for the Market Square. He attended a Trust meeting in Hendy’s office at the National Gallery, taking with him drawings and a maquette. So striking was the maquette Brown uncovered to the Trustees, there was a sudden intake of breath. Meat Porters was commissioned. This near life size sculpture portrays two muscular figures carrying an ox carcass. The original title, Figures with a Carcass, was changed to the less graphic Meat Porters. After a showing at one of the triennial open-air exhibitions of contemporary sculpture in Battersea Park in London, it was finally sited in 1960 on a pedestal in the Market Square.
The completion of the Civic Square – Gibberd’s ‘piazza’ – and the Water Gardens in 1963 provided the impetus for the acquisition of new sculptures and the re-location of others. William Mitchell, who had made the door to the belfry in Gibberd’s Catholic Cathedral in Liverpool, designed seven mosaic fountainheads over one of the canals in the Water Gardens. The Trust’s major contribution was its purchase of Moore’s Upright Motive No. 2 (Bronze Cross), bought with the help of the Gulbenkian Foundation. Family Group found a more prestigious site in the Civic Square and there was considerable debate about the possible re-location of Hepworth’s Contrapuntal Forms. Hepworth had always viewed the site at Glebelands as temporary and would have preferred a more central location for her work. However, local residents had grown fond of the sculpture and insisted that it stayed in their neighbourhood.
Sculpture soon became part of the social fabric of Harlow. At the annual Harlow Festival in 1968, Graham Collier performed a jazz suite, Contrapuntal Forms, a series of compositions inspired by particular sculptures around the town. The suite was made up of five pieces of music, each reflecting the particular character and form of individual sculptures by Barbara Hepworth, Henry Moore, Willi Soukop, Sally Doig and Lynn Chadwick. In the Festival programme Collier identified something particularly distinctive about the way in which the sculpture related to the environment in Harlow, commenting that he had chosen Hepworth’s piece as the title of the suite not just because of the obvious musical connotations:
. . . but because of the counterpoint between sculptures and the environment in Harlow. Both the sculpture and its situation can exist separately, but when placed together they complement each other and make something much larger than the separate parts.
The opening of Harlow Playhouse in 1972 provided another opportunity to showcase sculpture and a series of ambitious exhibitions were staged in its gallery in the 1970s and 80s, including a number of solo shows of Henry Moore’s work.
Since the 1970s
Sir Philip Hendy met Antanas Brazdys when the artist was at the Royal College of Art. Hendy liked his work (Brazdys was working in welded mild steel at the time) and, not long after their meeting, the Trust purchased Metal Sculpture for the Water Gardens. At a Trust meeting in September 1970, photographs of work by various sculptors, including Brazdys, were submitted for a site at Staple Tye. The Trust was unanimous in agreeing that Brazdys’ Echo, an abstract stainless steel form, should be commissioned. Its installation on a steep mound caused the engineers some problems but it was in place by 1973.
When Sir Frederick Gibberd was designing the Harvey Centre (named after Ben Hyde Harvey, second General Manager of the Harlow Development Corporation) he asked Brazdys to make a sculpture to go in the building. For the first and only time in the town, architect and sculptor worked together to make a work of art especially for that building. The result – Solo Flight – was a triumph; a glorious stainless steel winged sculpture which livened and enchanted the high space of the shopping centre. Standing in a pool with a rim suitable for comfortable seating it became both meeting place and wishing well. Later, the Harvey Centre was redesigned for new owners and the great sculpture was removed. Eventually the Council managed to obtain the work from the developers and re-sited it on First Avenue in memory of Sonia Anderson, a most valuable and enlightened councillor.
In an article for Arts Review, Patricia Gibberd highlighted the special qualities of Brazdys’ work:
Brazdys handles difficult stainless steel as a jeweller handles precious metals and the scale exposes welds to a scrutiny the jeweller only suffers from a glass. Craftsmanship is only incidental to the artist and Brazdys’ ideas develop with each piece, not repeating or re-working, but taking each idea further and on into the next.
The Trust then acquired further work by the highly regarded artist, F.E. McWilliam. McWilliam was a Surrealist sculptor in the 1930s who went on to work in a diverse range of styles and mediums after the war. One of the Trust’s earliest sculptures was his Portrait Figure, a bronze portrait of the sculptor Elisabeth Frink, when she was a student of his at Chelsea. It currently stands on West Walk in the Town Centre. In 1976 McWilliam, an Ulsterman was commissioned to produce a six feet high bronze sculpture, one of a series based around the theme of peace for Ireland. Help was unveiled in West Square by Sir Hugh Casson in 1978 and has since been re-located to St Johns Arts and Recreation Centre in Old Harlow.
Michael Chase, formerly Director of the Minories Gallery in Colchester, joined the Trust for a short time in 1979. It was through his connections with the Underwood family that a cast of Leon Underwood’s Not in Anger was bought. The stone carving (now in the Gibberd Garden) had been made in 1925 and Underwood took the unique bronze cast himself not long before he died. It was sited in The Stow in 1980. At the opening, Chase replied to critics who had ‘misread’ the sculpture by describing it as ‘war-mongering’ and ‘offensive’. Paradoxically, as Chase pointed out, Underwood’s ‘fist’ was part of the artist’s long commitment to a vision of peace and not war:
Underwood was part-prophet, part father-figure of English sculpture, a man of prestigious talents who taught Henry Moore to draw in the 1920s. He had dreamed of a giant anti-war memorial on the cliff-top above Dover… the fist is closed in a gesture of peace not war [with the thumb enclosed by the fingers]…
In the 1980s there were two new commissions for the Town Centre. In 1980, Paul Mason completed Vertex, a series of interconnected abstract forms carved in Bardolino marble, for Broad Walk and, in 1983, Fred Watson was commissioned to make a large carving in Springwell stone for Westgate.
Other pieces were acquired after John Mills, the sculptor, joined the Trust in 1988. He contributed considerable specialised and technical knowledge. It was through Mills’ involvement with the Royal British Society of Sculptors that the Trust commissioned Allan Sly’s Runaway Rotavator in 1993 and Anthony Hawken’s Iceni in 1996.
The largest number of works in the collection made by a single artist are by Gerda Rubinstein. Fittingly, Rubinstein is passionately committed to the idea of making art which is part of the community and she talks about her sculpture being concerned with ordinary humanity and everyday urban life.
A unique collection of international standing
The location of sculpture in public settings is not new. Memorials, statues and monuments to the great and good have a long history which reached new heights with the ‘statuemania’ of the Victorians. Sculpture has also had a long association with architecture. However, the siting and commissioning of contemporary sculpture in public settings has become more frequent relatively recently. The Southbank site at the 1951 Festival of Britain presented an opportunity for artists to make new work for public urban spaces and, more recently, a number of local authorities have adopted some form of ‘percent for art’ scheme, whereby all new buildings incorporate a quota of artwork.
The extensive collection of sculpture which Harlow Art Trust owns represents the achievement of over five decades’ work. The Trust has, of course, encountered problems along the way. Inevitably, public art attracts controversy and some works have been slow to achieve acceptance. Another obstacle has been the consistent scarcity of funds. Despite these difficulties, the Trust has managed to acquire a unique collection of international standing for Harlow’s community.
Harlow Sculpture Town 2011
Awarded in November the Marsh Prize for Excellence in Sculpture, presented by the Duke of Gloucester. The Art Trust was commended for its role in publicizing and caring for the Town’s collection. The panel of judges were from the Public Monuments and Sculpture Association and the Marsh Christian Trust. Harlow Art Trust Chair, William Rea, commented on the prestige and recognition of the Trust and partners for their hard work.
The Art Trust took over the running of the Gibberd Gallery in 2012 from the Council and began planning for new administration and curatorship.