Birmingham Modernist Map Launch 06/12/18

On the evening of 6th December 2018 at least fifty people filtered through the appropriately refined, sleek and chic, gallery of the Minima furniture store in the Jewellery Quarter; to bag a copy of the Birmingham Modernist Map hot off the press.


Modernist Map Front Cover, Author’s photo 2018

This was fitting testament to what had been an eighteen month long labour of love for staff and students at Birmingham City University’s School of Architecture and Design aided by designers An Endless Supply.


Modernist Map Back Cover, Author’s photo 2018

Mike Dring (Senior Lecturer in Architecture and Chair of the Birmingham Modern Society) who led on the Project, introduced the map by stressing his hope that it’s completion marked the start of a new; more up tempo, phase in the city’s celebration of its twentieth century architectural heritage.

A quick glance at the finished product is enough to confirm that it marks a firm foundation for future appreciation of the city’s recent built past. Intelligently structured around three walks easily legible and accessible to locals and visitors alike, the map, researched with Pevsner like precision; showcases the “top fifty” finest of Birmingham’s surviving buildings constructed during modernism’s unambiguous fifty year heyday between the 1920s and the 1970s.


Modernist Map on Glass Coffee Table, Author’s photo 2018

Stylistically the Birmingham Modernist Map harks back to the mid-twentieth century with some contemporary twists. It is produced pamphlet, or guide leaflet style, on hard wearing stock with a minimalistic front and back cover protecting the glossy pages inside. The pages within contain numerous brilliant monochrome images of the mid-twentieth century classics that map-holders are invited to tour. These images draw the eye and provide vital visual context, but the real capstone of the publication is the vital statistics for each structure recorded, listed in an easily accessible manner that recalls nothing so much as an “Eye Spy” guide for adults (making for an appropriately modernistic frame of reference).


Crowd at Map launch Event 6.12.18 #1, Author’s photo 2018

This format allows the author’s to unobtrusively, and non-judgmentally note; that a great many of the buildings listed have been substantially altered since they were erected forty, fifty or sixty years ago. The writer of this review, however; was struck to be reminded just how many outwardly contemporary looking buildings-notably for instance the Mailbox-in central Birmingham; are built around, and within; the core of older structures. Regardless, the map provides a brilliant window through which the long time resident, frequent observer, or casual visitor can explore the topography of twentieth century Britain.


Crowd at Modernist Map Launch Event 6.12.18 #2, Author’s photo 2018


Beyond the opportunity to buy the map and peruse a further collection of limited edition photographic prints-by Mike Dring-showcasing modernist buildings in Birmingham, Minima as a venue was very much the star of the evening. What better location to encounter the design of the mid twentieth century than amidst minimalist, Scandinavian inspired furniture and utensils? This backdrop provided the perfect stage for Zygeratt to perform a solo set, brilliantly blending analogue synth and digital sounds. The overall effect was that of a dynamic, ethereal, yet still calming soundscape. One that was perfectly suited and brilliantly attuned to both the tenor of the event and the venue.


Zygeratt Playing Set 6.12.18, Author’s photo 2018

There can be little doubt that the Birmingham Modernist Map will become a standard reference point for people interested in the city’s recent architectural past. They’ll hopefully be lots of work in a similar vein coming in the future.

The Birmingham Modernist Map will be available to purchase through the Modernist Society online shop. 

Rosamund Lily West-Kingston University

For the latest in my series exploring the practice of urban historians at work today, I was lucky enough to be able to catch up with Rosamund West, museums professional and PhD student at Kingston University. Rosamund’s PhD explores, partly through utalising a range of public engagement approaches, the ways in which the London County Council’s public art policies worked their way-not just into London’s fabric-but the fabric of Londoner’s lives.

What is your background?

I am South-East London born and bred, and so the subject of my research is possibly not the most adventurous! I did a BA and a part time MA in History of Art at the University of York, and really loved my time there. My BA dissertation was on the post-war rebuilding of the Elephant and Castle and my MA dissertation was on two London County Council (LCC) estates that had artworks installed on them. In between, and at the same time as studying, I have worked in a number of museums in London and Yorkshire.

What led you to choose your subject matter?

“…growing up I was dazzled by the bright pink of the Elephant’s shopping centre, and loved the splashes of colour in subways and on walls around London.”

I went into my degree wanting to study the architecture and planning of the Elephant and Castle. I have known the Elephant my whole life and have family connections to the area. Growing up, people would say how ugly it was and how it had been ruined. As I got older, I wandered why the environment was like it was, why you had to go under the ground to cross from one side of the roundabout to another, who ‘ruined’ it, and why?

Also growing up I was dazzled by the bright pink of the Elephant’s shopping centre, and loved the splashes of colour in subways and on walls around London. I particularly noticed the colourful murals, often political, on the end of terraces around my local area. As a child, the motivation and meaning of them was lost on me but I loved how colourful they were and how I could see familiar people in them.

Is there anyone (historian or otherwise) that particularly inspires your approach to your topic?

“An approach I always try to bear in mind is how would family and friends who experienced LCC policies react to my research?”

There are a lot of historians doing research into post-war architecture and planning, which is great as it stimulates more work and more interest in the area. I recently joined twitter and have been blown away by how supportive people have been in showing an interest in my work, in pointing me towards articles, and in helping me find sources. I have found the wider community of historians, enthusiasts and professionals to be a generous and supportive one.

An approach I always try to bear in mind is how would family and friends who experienced LCC policies react to my research? When I speak about my research, reactions range from bemusement to a real enthusiasm to talk about the effect the LCC had on them. Presenting research to people that experienced what you are talking about is a useful challenge, I find.

What do you hope that readers take away from your work?

“I… hope to share my work and increase access to the history of London and the LCC by talking about it outside in the environment, not just writing about it.”

I hope readers find the post-war re-planning of London engaging as it affects many of us in our daily lives. I hope people see how optimistically London was planned, and how the original vision, the original ideas, were intended to make London a better place to live in for Londoners. I hope people get a sense of how a municipal authority was providing housing so desperately needed, while at the same time being concerned about people’s cultural enrichment and education.

I also hope to share my work and increase access to the history of London and the LCC by talking about it outside in the environment, not just writing about it. I have taken people on tours of the Lansbury estate in Poplar, which I love doing, as I get to talk about an (apparently everyday) environment with people and respond to their questions, opinions and memories. I find this way of working so beneficial to my research, especially when former and current residents come along and fill in gaps for me!

How has your work evolved over the course of your project?

Going right back to my BA, a big change I have noticed is how easy it is now to take photographs of an everyday urban environment. We now all have camera phones and use social media, so taking photographs all the time is normal. When I began studying and taking photographs of the Elephant and Castle around 2005, a lot of my photographs have my Dad in. It felt intrusive taking photos around people going about their daily business, so I pretended I was taking photos of my Dad. Consequently, he is in a lot of my dissertation photographs of the Elephant!

“For the LCC, art was not an elitist pursuit, but a part of daily life.”

Another way my work has evolved is that I cannot fail to ignore current housing and arts policies as they become increasingly remote from the post-war consensus. How people are housed, and attitudes of politicians and the media to people that need housing, are a world away from the policies and rhetoric of the LCC. Cuts to arts funding and arts education are also a huge departure from the post-war LCC. The LCC was installing artworks by artists such as Henry Moore, Elizabeth Frink, and Franta Belsky within everyday housing environments. They believed in the value of the arts and the value of arts education. For the LCC, art was not an elitist pursuit, but a part of daily life.

Whilst researching, what sources have you found most illuminating?

My absolute favourite source is LCC publications themselves. The LCC wrote about themselves a lot! The way they are so proud of their achievements and write in such a totally optimistic way about the LCC is fascinating. The LCC publications directly address Londoners and are sentimental about London and Londoners; they see the romance in everyday London life. These publications are very revealing about what the LCC thought Londoners wanted and how they believed they were working in Londoner’s best interests.

How easy is it to trace the networks that enabled the creation of public art in post-war London

“I have… spoken to an artist who talked through his work with residents, but I want to know more.”

My holy grail is to find minutes, or some detailed descriptions, of the ‘client committees’ used to discuss an artwork. Representatives from the Arts Council, the LCC and a client committee would meet to discuss an artwork. The client committee would vary depending on whether the artwork was for a school, a housing estate, an old people’s home, or a park. I have found many references to the discussions and outcomes of the client committees, and have spoken to an artist who talked through his work with residents, but I want to know more. Later in my PhD, I hope to track down residents who remember speaking to artists or the LCC about artworks.

Do they appear to have changed over time?

Yes. Before the patronage of the arts programme really got going in 1956/57, the LCC were already installing artworks in residential settings. As early as 1949, Peter Laszlo Peri’s sculptural relief, Following the Leader (Memorial to the children killed in the Blitz) was installed on the Vauxhall Gardens estate. From 1956/57, the LCC set aside £20,000 a year for the scheme. The scheme morphs over time, and the LCC express concern over not exercising personal taste; seeking advice from the Arts Council; and the role of the client committees in assessing works.

Through my museum job, I identify with the LCC’s need to change and adapt their acquisition policy and process over time. The main purpose of my museum role is the complicated and varied process of acquiring objects and I attend the acquisition committee meetings. These same ethical and moral concerns over acquisitions are still relevant to practise today.

Is there anything that historians can learn from museum work and practices?

“Historians can learn from museum work and practise by utilising the power of objects to engage and inspire: nothing can replace looking at and touching an object, being in its physical space.”

In my museum career, I have delivered many handling workshops and talks involving objects, and witnessed how powerfully an object can evoke a period in history or a memory for a person. Such activities open up museum collections to the public, and increase access and knowledge to the collections. Historians can learn from museum work and practise by utilising the power of objects to engage and inspire: nothing can replace looking at and touching an object, being in its physical space. Architecture and the built environment is the same: to engage with it you need to be within the environment. This is especially relevant with my research as I am interested in how the LCC planned for communities, and why they installed artworks where they did, and so physically walking around the environment is crucial.


Henry Moore, Draped Seated Woman(‘Old Flo’), Stifford Estate, Stepney

You can find Rosamund on Twitter and she can also be reached through the Kingston University Faculty of Art, Design and Architecture graduate school. More  urban history profiles can be read here.

A Modernist Church in the Outer Hebrides

Scotland’s Outer Hebrides aren’t a well known destination for architectural connoisseurs.

So I was surprised the other day, driving along the narrow lane that comprises the main road in the southernmost quadrant of South Uist, to be confronted by a plain, white, building; that rather resembled a pre-multiplex-single screen-cinema.

Our Lady of Sorrows 7

Our Lady of Sorrows Church, Garrynamonie (author’s photograph)

Rather than being an unlikely north westerly outlet of the Rank Organisation, the structure, sited just across the road from the crofting hamlet of Garrynamonie-upon closer inspection-turned out to be a Roman Catholic church: Our Lady of Sorrows.

South Uist (population 1,818); along with the smaller neighbouring islands of Benbecula, Eriskay and Barra, are described, with complete justification, as being “the part of Scotland that the reformation didn’t reach”. This small chain of incredibly isolated islands are an example-unique in Britain outside of Ireland-of a surviving pre-reformation Roman Catholic community.

And they are, at least in outward expression, intensely Catholic communities at that. In a manner akin to Ireland, Brittany or further south in Europe the islands are watched over by a litany of carefully tended, colourful, alabasta saints statues situated in whitewashed grottos.

The islands; like North Uist their Calvinist neighbour, despite a low (and still shrinking) population are home to a large number of small chapels and churches, with each hamlet of more than a dozen houses seemingly served by some kind of place of worship. Very few of them, a quick scan of their outside notice boards reveals, have mass said their especially frequently. Yet still, like the saints statues, the communities within which they are situated, continue to diligently attend to their upkeep. A few church structures stand roofless, long ruined, but unlike in Wales or the parts of the far south-west there are no or few signs of churches being converted into residential properties.

Our Lady of Sorrows is no exception in this regard. Large by South Uist standards it is as unusual in its modernity, on a island where most churches are small, modest traditional structures, as it is striking in appearance.

Our Lady of Sorrows 4.jpg

Our Lady of Sorrows’ imposing front (author’s photograph)

Designed by Richard J. McCarron (then newly qualified, it was his first commission) the church was built between 1964-5 replacing an earlier, dilapidated, structure. Due to the church’s remote location most of the building work was conducted by the parishioners themselves: a striking act of faith in of itself.

Our Lady of Sorrows rear exterior.jpg

Our Lady of Sorrows rear of the building (author’s photo)


In terms of appearance Our Lady of Sorrows is stark, possibly even harsh, and angular. Despite the similarities between its form and a mid-20th Century cinema and its obvious architectural debts to the modernist movement, Our Lady of Sorrows harks back as well as forwards. It is whitewashed like so many of the other local churches and its alcoves, even its angularity, recall early Christian sites, like Celtic monasteries built in the 6-7th Centuries, as much as anything constructed during the space age. In this way it’s incredibly simple form, almost like a slab of rock growing out the landscape, connotes thousands of years of Christian tradition, whilst also serving to inject a note of modernity into a landscape and a community that can seem ancient and unchanging.

Our Lady of Sorrows 2

Our Lady of Sorrows top corner (author’s photograph)

Except this is not really the case. For all of South Uist’s remoteness, and the sheer proximity to nature inherent in life there, the island’s landscape, almost entirely deforested, subjected to horticulture, quarrying, fish farming and (admittedly light) demands from the tourism industry is as much of a manmade environment as anything on the mainland.

Only incorporated into Scotland in 1266, islands have always been plugged into wider networks of cultural exchange and commercial dealing. In many ways our Lady of Sorrows reflects this. Its construction indicates ways in which mid-20th Century Catholicism attempted to negotiate the demands that modernity placed upon the faith of its communicants.

Read this way Our Lady of Sorrows is a physical expression of how one small community attempted engaged with the movement for reform within Roman Catholicism that gathered pace around the time of the Second Vatican Council. This is expressed in the simplicity and lightness of the church’s form, it is as open in design as it is large and imposing. This speaks to the democratising impulses that animated Roman Catholic theological and liturgical thought at the time. It is also an impulse which finds its way into the church’s interior which is also plain and incorporates local slate and local timber.

What decoration there is, is largely locally inspired, taking on a rugged, naturalistic, Celtic, yet modern expression.

Our Lady of Sorrows interior 2

small altar, Our Lady of Sorrows (author’s photograph)

The Stations of the Cross are expressionistic in form, arrayed abstractly and were rendered on slate from South Uist by Canon Calum McNeil, who was the priest of a neighbouring parish.

Our Lady of Sorrows stations of the cross

Stations of the Cross, Calum McNeil (1965), Our Lady of Sorrows (author’s photograph)

The ceramic mural of the Sacred Heart produced by the artist David Harding is similar. Harding’s rendition of Jesus is abstract and colourful, recalling the tumult of the sea and the drama of the landscape within which the church and it community are situated.     

Our Lady of Sorrows ceramic

Sacred Heart David Harding (1965), Our Lady of Sorrows (author’s photograph)

In terms of layout the front of the church is also open, the pews arrayed relatively informally in short rows. The fittings are equally simple and shorn of ostentation, the worship space as a whole is bathed with sunlight by two, unobtrusive, floor-ceiling height plain glass windows.

Our Lady of Sorrows interior 1

plain glass windows, Our Lady of Sorrows (author’s photograph)

In these regards Our Lady of Sorrows is rather like hundreds of other post-war Roman Catholic churches across Britain. Churches often built to serve new estates or in slum clearance areas, part of the wide spread modernising imperative that prevailed in the middle of the 20th Century. Here’s another example (there are many more) on the excellent Sacred Suburbs website.

This said, thanks to South Uists remote location, low population density and unusual cultural and confessional history Our Lady of Sorrows is striking as an expression of how one particular and distinctive community partook in debates about modernisation and the future of religious expression. Given the number of abandoned crofts that litter the island and the modernity of the houses that most islanders live in today, it is clear that South Uist was undergoing its own form of development and modernisation at the time the church was built. The arrival of a large military base in 1958, the opening of causeways to neighbouring islands in 1961 and the creation of the Highlands and Islands Development Board in 1965 brought new contacts and new opportunities to the island.

Just as the islanders upgraded their own homes and living arrangements so they chose to update the house of their God. The years since have not been kind to Our Lady of Sorrows, like so many flat roofed buildings of its era its roof is leaking and the damp is not proving kind to its internal structure. The Islands to, have had mixed fortunes. Increased incomes, better services, rising incomes and improving transport connections, giving today’s islanders a standard of living comparable to that of mainland Scots, but conversely also making it far easier to leave and not return.

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View from the Our Lady of Sorrows church grounds (author’s photograph)

This said, the Outer Hebrides appear to be in the midst of a series of interesting experiments that raise questions for everyone interested in how people can live better, more sustainable lives, in the 21st Century. For the church’s part, Our Lady of Sorrows was listed in 2009 as part of a major exercise to recognise, record and preserve Scotland’s modernist heritage, perhaps restoration will be on the cards? The community of South Uist remains as much on the fringes of civilisation and at the centre of debate as ever.

Pictures of York’s Stonebow House Taken One January Day

Long entangled in a bizarre ownership structure that split the structure’s ownership between a private company that held the building’s lease and City of York Council and North Yorkshire County Council that shared the freehold, the fate of York’s Stonebow House has finally been sealed.

For decades decried by many in the city as an eyesore, not in keeping with York’s “historic aesthetic” and self-image, Stonebow House’s brutalist structure is in the words of one critic “one of the few proofs [in the walled city at least] that the 20th Century happened in York”. For years from the York Press’ letters page and message boards to the conversations overheard in the pubs, there has been a clamour in the city for Stonebow House to be demolished.

Now it will not be. The building and the land upon which it sits have been bought by the Wetherby based Oakgate Group who propose to comprehensively refurbish the building. Their plans, which obliterate the building’s exposed raw concrete, whilst keeping its essential form intact are doubtless not entirely to everyone’s taste. However, in the main it in principle a sensitive, low key revamp that avoids the waste of demolition and retains a key York landmark from an important period in the city’s history.


Opened in 1964, Stonebow House was intended as a key component of the York Corporation’s long running (and still arguably incomplete) plan to comprehensively redevelop the poor quality buildings and environment in the city’s Hungate and Walmgate areas. Always poor quality, marshy land (which as Christmas’ events prove remain at the mercy of the River Foss) the area’s awful slum housing had largely vanished in favour of industrial units by the time that Stonebow House was built.

Constructed alongside the newly created Stonebow road, built to open up the city’s Hungate and Aldwark areas for redevelopment, Stonebow House-it was hoped-would act as a beacon for a newly prosperous York.

As it happened the turn to conservation, a species of postmodernism which first emerged in the later 1960s, rendered the building’s brute scale and unabashed modernity passe, even crass, within a few years of it being finished and let. Out of favour, even as far more monumentally imposing structures like the Coppergate Centre, York Barbican and the North Street Office block now inhabited by AVIVA, all of which genuflect somewhat towards the vernacular idiom, were constructed, Stonebow House took on a less flashy role in York’s civic life. In recent year it has, quite fittingly, become something of a haven for the odds, ends and misfits of York.


Providing a home to Fibbers (which moved out in the summer of 2014) and to the Duchess, for over 20 years Stonebow House was the residence of the two venues that showcased York’s more interesting homegrown musical talent and visiting bands that would have had nowhere else to play. Two generations of indie kids, punks, goths and ravers wouldn’t have had any other venues in their somewhat geographically isolated hometown. Likewise the existence of Fibbers and The Duchess meant students at York Uni and St. John’s got a bit of a taste of the more varied and exotic music scenes elsewhere.

In a less rarefied and all to concrete way (pun fully intended) the shops and services housed in Stonebow House (the Jobcentre, Heron Foods, and York’s local independent bus company) provide vital services to the city’s poorest and most marginalised residents. Services which would otherwise struggle to find a home in the centre of one of Britain’s most expensive (but not especially high wage) cities. York’s gentrified city centre, dependent as it is on pubs, coffee shops, restaurants and boutiques is not a welcoming place for a person without personal transport. As in Paris most of the city’s bourgeoisie shop in the retail parks, dotted around the outer ring-road, miles out from the city centre, but easily accessible to North Yorkshire’s gentry, from which the city’s poorer and more marginalised residents are spatially segregated.

Considered aesthetically: the building’s exposed concrete hasn’t weathered the wind swept and bitingly cold east Yorkshire climate all that well. Likewise, there is little pretty, twee, or overtly “historic” about Stonebow House’s hard, angular form. But the same can, and has been said, about the structure and form of John Vanbrugh’s Castle Howard, and York’s worthies named a college at their university after him.


Arguably the worst place to view the building from is from the place that most people first glimpse it. The junction, at Whip-ma-Whop-ma-Gate where Pavement becomes Stonebow. Viewed from up close, or from the structure itself, the shear swirling intricacy of the building, its geometric virtues, are abundantly apparent. The concrete staircases, striking and unusual in the way that they slot together, very different from most other British brutalist structures, recalling French, Italian or Latin American buildings of the period are especially worth seeing.

Stonebow House is also worth viewing from afar. Glimpsed from the city’s walls over on the far bank of the Ouse, just down from Micklegate Bar, its tower-soon to be converted into “luxury apartments”; looks just like a slightly squatter version of all the other steeples spread out across the city. The tower in fact has a very sympathetic relationship to the church towers that it stands in relationship to. Taken in from the side, or from the deck like car park, atop the first floor, the viewer is left with the impression that the building complements the church towers around it, especially the mighty lantern of All Saints, Pavement.

At the very least a viewer of this felicitous and deeply complementary arrangement comes across feeling that the architects of the mid-20th Century had a far more sensitive relationship with the past than they are often credited with. At the most, a more superstitious visitor might be inclined to see in the form of Stonebow House the ghostly vestige of St. Crux Pavement, an unusual 17th Century church building demolished in 1887, because its baroque styling did not meet Victorian notions of piety and decency.

British (English) School; St Crux, York, Looking from the Shambles to Pavement
The pictures below were taken by me in January 2014, whilst I was working for a magazine in York, for an article about Stonebow House that wasn’t eventually published.

If you’d like to see inside the currently deserted office block then The Press has a good gallery.  


























At “Out There”

I took advantage of a free day during reading week to head down to London to see “Out There: Our Post War Public Art”. Out There is the first exhibition mounted by Historic England, the slimmed down built heritage conservation advisory service, created last year when English Heritage morphed into a charity. Out There presents some of the findings of an ongoing Historic England project to track down and record the fate of examples of “public art” (murals, base carvings and sculptures) commissioned and placed throughout the UK’s public realm between 1945 and 1985.

Entering the courtyard of Somerset House from The Strand I was momentarily dazzled by the light of a pleasantly sunny day. A surprisingly large number of people from King’s, from the Courtauld, kids on half term and office workers were sat out enjoying themselves. I followed the signs across the courtyard towards the building’s East Wing Gallery. Merely stating when reading a building that it reflects the ideology of the people and times that created it is architectural criticism at its most glib. Yet, it says a lot that the government of George III felt that its civil servants should be housed in a building that resembles a marginally less tonie version of Blenheim Palace.


Somerset House Courtyard, Josh Allen

By contrast once inside the East Gallery a suitably democratic spirit pervaded the exhibition space.

This is not to say that the dominant feeling induced by Out There is one of Fabian earnestness, bracing yet stern and worthy. On the contrary, given the playfulness of much of the material on display the mood is if anything wry, knowing, warmly ironic, cheeky almost.

Whilst the exhibition will hopefully attract an appropriately wide audience, Historic England have wisely decided that the general historical narrative of post 1945 “welfarism” and the growth of the state is well enough known not to warrant dwelling upon. As such the exhibition begins with a fascinating set of photos, memorabilia and an impressive away of smaller sculptures from the 1951 Festival of Britain. These are contextualised through the judicious use of quotations and wider architectural texts to show how the Festival’s modernist and democratising impulses emerged from the wider post-war cultural zeitgeist. It also neatly illustrates that for the organisers one of the key facets of the Festival’s modernity and appeal to the emerging mass cultures was its impermanence.


“Out There”, Josh Allen

Out There convincingly suggests that the Festival of Britain, whilst transient in nature, fired a belief amongst taste shapers and funding bodies that there was a strong public appetite for sculpture, murals and carvings. The exhibition shows how in the 1950s, both the emerging Arts Council and certain local authorities prioritised public art in new developments. This ranged from the London County Council’s (LCC) commitment in 1956 to spend £20,000 a year on public art commissions, through the way that Harlow’s planners wove sculpture into the “texture” of the town that they constructed, to the stipulations of the Hertfordshire and Leicestershire LEAs that a small proportion (generally 0.33%) of the capital cost of new schools should be set aside to pay for art work.

There was a certain degree of snobbery in the choices made by planners and commissioning bodies, especially in the early years. In the film clips and quotations that the curators have assembled there is a tendency amongst the experts interviewed to stress to “concrete”, “easy to approach and comprehend” nature of the works that they were commissioning, nothing, then, that a straightforward working person would find effete or challenging. The same film clips and assembled local newspaper coverage, suggests that many members of the communities into which sculptures and reliefs were placed did find them alien. What’s striking though, is how public art, however, avant garde, often came to be appreciated, even loved, by the residents of the towns, complexes and estates that it was situated within. Later parts of the exhibition focus poignantly on instances, for instance the case of Henry Moore’s “Old Flo” in Tower Hamlets, where communities in more recent times have campaigned to save or for the restoration of cherished public art works. Today residents of some of the country’s most deprived communities seemingly do really appreciate the works of art that were placed in their communities at this time.


“Draped Seated Woman” (Old Flo), Henry Moore 1957-58, By Rept0nix – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

The way in which public art was commissioned after 1945 was also more democratic. Whilst a large share of the money set aside by the LCC after 1956 for public art went to well established sculptors like Barbara Hepworth and Henry Moore (who could command fees of £1,000-1,500 a time), dozens of smaller commissions (sometimes for as little as £25 a time) went to lesser known artists. This had the effect of democratising the artistic profession itself, in that a steady stream of public commissions allowed a wider array of individuals to make a living from art.

Historic England have uncovered that campaigns to record and preserve Britain’s post-war public art began surprisingly early. As long ago as 1976-77 there was a nascent campaign to produce a comprehensive list of the location and ownership of British public art. The campaign involved writing to local authority architect’s departments and asking them to writing back with the particulars of public art works they had commissioned in their area post 1945. An array of responses received, generally from county architects, from across the country is presented at the exhibition. They make for fascinating reading. Concerns about overwork, funding cuts and the difficulties of co-ordinating multiple stakeholders and interest groups resonate strongly with today’s climate. However, what’s especially striking, is that with a few notable exceptions, Hampshire, Sheffield, Leicestershire the council’s clearly hadn’t keep any kind of central register of what works of art they’d commissioned and where those works of art had ended up. In some cases the council’s claimed that they’d never commissioned any artworks, in others they said that they had, but they were “mostly without merit” and not worth the attention of either scholars or the wider public. In quite a few cases, especially in the Metropolitan Counties and London, the architects pointed to the recent local government reorganisations, arguing that their lists couldn’t be complete because the new councils covered a large number of former local government bodies all of which had had different commissioning priorities. This says two things: one, that by generally concentrating on county level bodies, the campaigners were ignoring the district councils who would have been the principal commissioners of town centre, housing estate and leisure centre arts works and two, that even in the post war era, an enlarged state didn’t automatically lead to better coverage and service provision and reorganisations are always messy.


“Totem Sculpture”, William Mitchell 1966, photo Historic England circa. 2015


Out There doesn’t only concentrate on publicly commissioned art works, it also explores the public art purchased by industrial firms, retailers like John Lewis, pub companies and third sector organisations like universities and churches. Public art on commercial buildings is often at particular risk, because whilst a crucial part of the public realm, it lies in private hands and can often be swept away when a site is refurbished or redeveloped. Which isn’t to say that publicly owned artworks are necessarily “safer”, as these generally very sad pictures of public artworks in Birmingham, many of them relocated since 2000 from city centre sites undergoing redevelopment; can testify.

One of Historic England’s real triumphs has been to uncover the full story of the mystery of the Bullring Gorilla. Placed in the now demolished Manzoni Gardens in front of the shopping centre in 1972, the gorilla statue (seemingly a fairly early example of postmodern sculpture, and a wry comment on the “shock” caused by the city’s post 1945 redevelopment) was part of an Arts Council project to place “20 contemporary sculptures” in Britain’s major cities. With a few exceptions (including King Kong), like early generations of post-war sculpture, they weren’t a great hit with the public, at least not initially. One, admittedly somewhat phallic, set of sculptures was denounced by at least one clergyman and suffered an inglorious (albeit appropriately provocative liminal) fate when destroyed by drunken University of Cambridge students during the initial exhibition period. Another sculpture, sited in central Plymouth, had to be removed to Warwick University’s campus for its own safety. Here concerned academics gave it a home, where it remains a much loved part of the university community to this day. King Kong, in common with all the other sculptures, wasn’t purchased by its host local authority at the end of the exhibition period. Birmingham City Council’s loss becoming, by several twists of fortune, Penrith’s gain.

The final section of the exhibition deals with the ongoing campaign to record and conserve Britain’s post-war public art. This ranges from community group’s efforts, through high profile architect led campaigns to the efforts of Historic England the C20th Society to trace and record the whereabouts of public art. In instances where a piece has been lost for good they work to try and find photos of it so that they can catalogued and conserved, where it is potentially under threat they put it forward for listing.

Despite the sad disdain and neglect that so many of the works on display have suffered since they were commissioned the exhibition is fundamentally an uplifting one. It succeeds in unearthing some amazing finds and shining light on some unjustly forgotten schemes, works and characters. Critically it manages with both rigour and humanity to showcase works of art which brought a splash of thoughtful humanity, complexity and a creative spirit, to frequently overlooked parts of the country.

The current political, ideological and fiscal situation aside it’s clear that public art in Britain has a bright future. It was half term when I visited, and a number of children were wandering around the exhibition. They seemed genuinely interested, even enthralled by it all. As a gallery attendant was getting my bag out of a locker I looked across at the visitor’s comment board where one small girl was writing “I really enjoyed this exhibition all the art is really beautiful and should be enjoyed”.

I walked back into the cold winter sun, warmed, a slight smile on my face.

Out There: Our Post War Public Art

3 February – 10 April  2016
Open daily 10.00 – 18.00 (last admission 17.15)
Late night Thursdays & Fridays until 21.00 (last admission 20.15)
East Wing Galleries, East Wing
Admission £6.50, concessions £5.00