We have seen a collective madness this week with one of the results of the tragic events in the US being a spate of vandalism to statues of historic figures such as Winston Churchill who, whether individuals like it or not, are part of our heritage and, worse of all, to memorials to those who gave their lives to save this country from tyranny and oppression. While the high emotions are understandable, destruction of the past draws attention and resources away from what we need to do in the future – and this really should be the focus to concentrate on.
It does raise a question about the future of sculpture in our public places and buildings and whether, in the future, we should ever commission statues of individuals, in particular political figures. The tradition is, in the 21st century, an old-fashioned and, as we have seen, potentially controversial one. Can you imagine the controversy around a suggestion for public statue of almost any recent of current politician? The Trustees of the Princess Diana Memorial Fund showed us the way by deciding not to commission statues, but to commission spaces for people of different generations, but particularly children, to enjoy into the future, such as the Playground and the Fountain in Kensington Gardens. This has achieved far more and given greater pleasure to many than a statue would have achieved.
There will be exceptions of course. Being photographed with the ‘Fab Four’ are a highlight for any tourist to Liverpool, but they are not high up on a plinth – they are at ground level along with their fans.
Perhaps not known to many people, but Putney has a Sculpture Trail which I explored last week on a cloudy threatening day on one of my walking exercises during the lockdown. These are not sculptures of politicians or local worthies but are rather the work of the British sculptor Alan Thornhill who has had his studio in Putney since 1959 and who, in the 1980’s, donated his sculpture ‘Load’ to the people of Putney. 20 years later, in 2008, a further eight sculptures were installed along the riverside in various locations from Leaders Gardens across the river from Fulham Football Ground in the west to the new Riverside Quarter development in Wandsworth in the east.
Born in 1921, Turnhill sadly died in March this year. His work was strongly influenced by his interest in clay as a material, developing from pottery into sculpture as can be seen from the curving forms and shapes that he creates.
From ‘Exodus’ in Leaders Gardens, the Trail takes the explorer along Putney Embankment where the tide was out, the swans and geese sheltering at the water’s edge avoiding the few valiant rowers from the rowing clubs, to ‘Horizontal Ambiguity’, the smallest of the sculptures’ and then on to the original work ‘Load’ near to Putney Bridge. Crossing the bridge past the church of St Mary the Virgin, ‘The Turning Point’ sits in an uncomfortable location on a busy road junction in front of Richard Siefert’s Brutalist office block, which hopefully might be redeveloped some day. This is the least successful of the sculptures in terms of its setting.
The Church of St Mary the Virgin is perhaps better known for its associations than for its architecture. Parts of the existing church such as the tower survive from the 15th and 16th centuries, but it was substantially rebuilt in 1836 and then badly damaged by arson in 1973. The Church is most famous as being the location for the Putney Debates of 1647 on the English Constitution which came up with radical ideas (at the time) such as ‘one man, one vote’ and power to lie with a democratically-elected parliament rather than the monarch. The Sculpture Trail continues at the back of the Church with ‘Punch & Judy’ and ‘Motherhood’ located in the adjacent Putney Wharf development.
And then onwards under the bridge where the London Underground goes overhead, and which has a pedestrian walkway attached to the side, to Wandsworth Park where ‘Nexus’ and ‘Pygmalion’ watch the walkers and joggers before reaching ‘Fall’ in the new Riverside Quarter which surrounds the 18th century Prospect House, which has a plaque celebrating ‘reports’ that George IV used to visit here – but doesn’t say why. We will have to guess…..
A great initiative which hopefully brings pleasure to those who find out about the Sculpture Trail and follow it, and perhaps shows one way that we can celebrate future individual achievements, not by representative sculptures but by works of art by contemporary artists which can add richness and life to the urban environment in other ways.