Why Britain is falling in love with sculpture — all over again
As more and more cutting-edge pieces appear in Britain’s streets and squares, and initiatives are put in place to rescue ‘lost’ modernist works, Chris Mugan speaks to a number of experts about why sculpture is ‘having a moment’
This summer sees the return to London’s South Bank of Peter Laszlo Peri’s sculpture The Sunbathers, after an absence of some 65 years. Created by the Hungarian emigré in 1951 for the Festival of Britain, its rediscovery in the grounds of a south London hotel provides a potent symbol of the changing fortunes of public art, and of sculpture in particular.
This year feels like a high point for outdoor sculpture, certainly in the UK’s capital, where art lovers can also enjoy the expansion of the Sculpture in the City programme and the early arrival of Frieze Sculpture in Regent’s Park. These high-profile initiatives play out against the backdrop of a survey of the nation’s sculptural heritage undertaken by Art UK, a charity that supports access to the nation’s art collection.
The tale of The Sunbathers, rediscovered in February 2017, shows how far Britain has come. Installed at the entrance to London’s Waterloo Station, the piece was removed after the Festival of Britain and subsequently sold at auction. It then disappeared until this year, when it was found, filthy and dilapidated, in the gardens of the Clarendon Hotel in Blackheath, southeast London.
The location of the sculpture came to light following its appearance as a lost work in Out There: Our Post-War Public Art, an exhibition at London’s Somerset House organised by Historic England, a public body that protects the country’s heritage. Historic England subsequently launched a successful crowd-funded campaign to restore damaged concrete and remove paint from the work, which is now enjoying a three-month sojourn in the Southbank Centre, not far from where it was first mounted nearly 70 years ago.
Sarah Gaventa, who curated the Somerset House show, tracked down many important pieces of post-war art, especially those from the Festival of Britain that had seemingly vanished without trace. The reasons for their disappearance ranged from political rivalries to a lack of legacy planning, particularly in the case of works by then-unfamiliar artists such as Eduardo Paolozzi and Lynn Chadwick.
‘Some works were done in concrete, plaster and other less durable materials, so no provision was made for them,’ Gaventa explains. ‘It wasn't out of a particular dislike, it was just that there wasn’t a feeling that the work should be moved on in the way it would be now. Nowadays, with young artists, the work would be protected.’ Such contemporary sculptures would, she adds, also likely be installed in such a way that would allow them to be moved to new sites.
‘Sculpture occupies physical space and its sensory or experiential nature makes it especially compelling’ — Clare Lilley
The renewed interest in sculpture is evident across Britain. Yorkshire Sculpture Park, set amid the rolling Pennine hills, welcomed 60,000 more visitors last year than in 2014. Its Director of Programmes, Clare Lilley, who also curates Frieze Sculpture, is certain that the form is enjoying a revival. ‘If you consider the reception of Frieze Sculpture and Sculpture in the City,’ she explains, ‘together with visitor figures to institutions like Tate, The Hepworth Wakefield and Yorkshire Sculpture Park, there’s no question of an increasing appetite for modern and contemporary sculpture.’
This year, Frieze London has opened its free-to-view sculpture show three months before the main marquee event. This decision, Lilley explains, was a response to increasing demand. ‘As our towns become increasingly homogeneous,’ she says, ‘I see people across generations embracing more radical fashion, music, design, food and other cultural habits, and art is one of these. Sculpture occupies physical space and its sensory or experiential nature makes it especially compelling, particularly as many artists set out to communicate with a wider public.’
Christie’s Senior Director of Modern British Art, Nicholas Orchard, has likewise noted a surge in interest over the past five or six years, although he concedes that ‘in 20th-century art, sculpture had always been considered not quite as serious — the most important artists were always painters.’
That has changed, however, with a growing appreciation of post-war practitioners such as Barbara Hepworth and Henry Moore. ‘They had this admirable view that art should be something the wider community should be able to enjoy and benefit from,’ Orchard says.
In strictly commercial terms, it seems significant that the value of works by sculptors largely held firm following the 2008 crash, and then began to rise. ‘People were more careful about how they spent their money, and realised that these artists had been undervalued,’ Orchard explains. In 2012, a Moore bronze set a new record price for a British sculpture, selling for more than £19 million. In July 2015, Moore’s groundbreaking 1951 modernist sculpture Reclining Figure: Festival, also commissioned for the Festival of Britain, sold for £24,722,500 at Christie’s — the highest price ever achieved for a work by the artist.
Christie’s recent Sculpture in the Square exhibition in St James’s Square presented several works in the setting that their creators had envisaged for them. ‘Some might have gone through the showroom ceiling,’ says Orchard of sculptures that drew a positive response from collectors, clients and the public.
‘The square was rammed during the day and the feedback was all positive,’ the specialist explains. ‘There were people taking photos — it was good to see them engaging with the sculpture. Usually we're constrained by gallery space, and people feel more at ease looking at art in that context.’
For the organisers of Sculpture in the City, the vogue for modern architecture in London’s financial district has made the area especially suited to showing contemporary works, including more challenging pieces by artists such as Damien Hirst and Paul McCarthy. ‘The project allows people to experience and see the area in different ways,’ says co-director Stella Ioannou.
It is a view reflected by Helen Turner, curator at Cass Sculpture Foundation, which displays works in its own grounds as well as supporting projects such as Sculpture in the City, the Fourth Plinth and Battersea Power Station, where it will commission the first work for its annual sculpture programme.
Turner believes the increased appetite for modern sculpture is partly explained by art seeming less elitist, both in terms of media coverage and the artists themselves. She cites Antony Gormley as a shining example of the latter. ‘I think it is interesting to observe how artists in the last 20 years started to retort against this line of thinking and make work, particularly sculpture, that is specifically to be enjoyed rather than laboured over,’ she says.
Clare Lilley detects an altogether deeper appreciation of modern sculpture. ‘I think the evidence indicates an increased desire for public artworks; for distinctive disruptions and additions to townscapes and landscapes,’ she says. ‘I see increasing openness to such endeavours and they mark a general concern and care for the retention of a public realm; for shared, democratic space.’
Stella Ioannou agrees: ‘Some of the works will raise a smile; some will make us think about the political issues which surround us (more so than ever before); and some will simply stop us in our tracks and make us take a breath and a moment from our frantic everyday.’
Perfect timing, then, for Art UK to take stock with its three-year mission to digitise the nation’s sculptural heritage. It is a project that’s welcomed by Art UK trustee David Ekserdjian, Professor of Art History at the University of Leicester, not least because it should draw attention to the rich diversity of sculpture in this country.
‘It’s truly global, including bronzes from Nigeria, Thailand and Japan,’ the professor confirms. ‘And it stretches over a much longer timeline than painting, all the way back to ancient Greece. That will be a revelation to a lot of people.’
So, could there be more works like The Sunbathers out there, waiting to be found? Ekserdjian thinks so. ‘I have every confidence that it won’t just be a matter of conveniently assembling the famous highlights,’ he says. ‘All sorts of fascinating things will come out of this project.’