Public Sculpture in Britain. A History

By Ward-Jackson, Philip | The Sculpture Journal, June 1, 2014 | Go to article overview

Public Sculpture in Britain. A History


Ward-Jackson, Philip, The Sculpture Journal


Geoff Archer, Public Sculpture in Britain. A History Kirkstead, Frontier Publishing, 2013, 416 pp., 278 colour and 27 b&w illustrations, £30. ISBN 978-1-8729-1440-4

We may think we know what public sculpture is. The high entrance charge to our great pantheons at Westminster Abbey and St Paul's have now shaved off one of the subject's ragged edges, discouraging permanent residents from wandering in off the street to contemplate their national glories. But what we are left with is still diverse enough, encompassing sedate monarchs on horseback, which testify to the loyalty of the residents of Georgian Squares, temperance drinking-fountains, footballers giving Muybridge the run-around in bronze, regenerative landmark sculptures raised on brownfield sites, and much more. Jo Darke, twenty-two years ago, by-passed the problem of conferring unity on all this by taking the gazetteer approach, region by region, and her style has been adopted on a hugely expanded scale by the PMSA's National Recording Project. Now Geoff Archer has had the temerity to attempt a history of the subject, embracing the whole of Britain. Even Northern Ireland gets a look-in, as the ungrateful recipient of one of Antony Gormley's body simulacra. It is a considerable endeavour. The result is impressive, and when not bogged down by information glut, makes stimulating reading. In addition, the mainly coloured illustrations are magnificent.

The division of the subject into topics is an intelligent acknowledgement that public sculpture is no more monolithic as a concept than sculpture itself. The approach has a certain elasticity built into it. Most of the subjects, for example the Great and Good, War Memorials, Sculpture in Public, though they overlap, are, nonetheless, used as vehicles for the developmental treatment. In the main there is no very earnest search for the origins of a type, since, given the ragged edges before referred to, the first sculptural commemorations of, say, Military Heroes (another of the chapter titles) may have been in church or in the said hero's private park. Given the arbitrariness in general terms of what happens to be public, a kind of consensual or majoritarian assessment is seen here as having privileged a certain type over a more or less defined period. So, within the chapter devoted to Architectural Sculpture, one feels that its location within the book has to do with the author's belief that high points were reached by the New Sculptors, and by the direct carving brigade between the wars. In such a survey there have to be sacrifices, and here, it seems, the earlier Victorians were the losers, though quantitatively their contribution was as great.

Archer has already devoted a whole volume to First World War memorials, but in this new book the findings from that study are presented more concisely, with particularly useful observations on the difference of approach of the New Sculpture's old hands, as against the younger men, many of whom had actually served at the Front.1 What is new here, and on the whole well handled, is the somewhat more than token backward glance at memorials to previous wars, in particular those commemorating the Crimean and South African wars. Nevertheless, given the generally accepted significance of the Crimean memorials as the first substan- tially to acknowledge the contribution of the rank and file, I was surprised to find that, while two of his church memorials to soldiers who had served in the Indian Mutiny were included, there was no mention of Carlo Marochetti's granite memorial at Scutari. Not being on British soil, this does not strictly speaking fall within the book's parameters, but its size, the fact that it was government sponsored, conceived at the height of the conflict and hugely publicized when the model was displayed at the Crystal Palace Peace Fête of 9 May 1856, might have warranted a mention at the very least. …

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