Looking for a good home – 21 fibreglass panels by the artist Paul Mount which formerly clad a supermarket in Falmouth introduce Historic England’s exhibition “Out There: Our Post War Public Art” which raises awareness of the scale and variety of public art in England since the end of the Second World War. While art has historically had a strong link with architecture and public spaces, it was often political, celebratory or representational. After the Second World War public art became appreciated in its own right and was recognised for the contribution that it could make to creating communities, enjoyable and stimulating places and supporting economic regeneration with large scale sculptures such as Antony Gormley’s “Angel of the North” in Gateshead and “Another Place” on Crosby Beach near Liverpool.
The exhibition provides a brief overview of the role which public art played in rebuilding Britain and creating a new future after the Second World War through the Festival of Britain in 1951, the development of Harlow New Town, Art Council triennial sculpture exhibitions and London County Council’s art patronage scheme, plus a host of local initiatives by private and public bodies who commissioned works by Henry Moore, Elizabeth Frink, Lynn Chadwick, David Wynne, Barbara Hepworth and many others.
Public art rarely attracts community emotions but the legal tussle and proposal by Tower Hamlets Council to sell Henry Moore’s sculpture “Draped Seated Women” (1957-8) galvanised the local community and the art world with the successful campaign to save “Old Flo”. The exhibition coincides with the listing and protection of some of the best public sculptures across England and also, sadly, records a number that have been lost, stolen, destroyed or damaged, which would be more if was not for people like Nick Dobson who has saved the Falmouth panels.
Art, architecture and engineering can often work well in partnership as with Eduardo Paolozzi’s mosaics at Tottenham Court Road underground station and his ventilation shaft in Pimlico or Jacqueline Poncelet’s “Wrapper” vitreous enamel cladding at Edgware Road station.
The exhibition provides a good overview of the late 20th century but skips too quickly through the 21st. There are brief references to Tfl’s “Art on the Underground”, the “Fourth Plinth” in Trafalgar Square, the 2012 Olympics and the City of London’s “Sculpture in the City” but it misses other major initiatives such as at Broadgate and Canary Wharf and Westminster’s partnership with commercial galleries. Perhaps what is needed is a central website so that visitors to London can explore this hidden (and ever-changing) urban gallery of modern and contemporary art.
There is also a missed opportunity at Somerset House itself which in the past has hosted sculptural exhibitions by artists such as Keith Haring, Mark Quinn and Ai Weiwei. Sadly, the great courtyard is currently empty – a few sculptures on display would have added immensely to the exhibition.
Lastly there is no mention of the other form of contemporary public art – informal, political and sometimes illegal - street art, which is now recognised in areas such as the east end of London, Leake Street in Waterloo and in Bristol. It may have been created in different circumstances to the public art shown in the exhibition, but nevertheless it is a form of contemporary public art that, on rare occasions, needs to be protected.
(Photographs copyright – mainly Heritage England).