Out There is Historic England’s first major exhibition, a retrospective look at key postwar public art. It focuses on murals and sculptures dotted around estates and shopping centres, commissioned for the greater good, and particularly those under threat or lost. It opened this week at Somerset House and runs until just after Easter. You'll like this one.
There are several exhibitions on at Somerset House at present, including the big ticket Big Bang Data in the galleries at the front of the building. This one's upstairs in the courtyard, Out There, within a series of rooms in one corner. It costs to get in, but if you like this kind of thing don't let that stop you coming - I spent well over an hour inside. The guide book's good too, and a bargain, with 36 illustrated pages for a paltry £1. Amusingly you buy your ticket at one till, but then you have to buy the guide book from the lady at the till immediately nextdoor, because systems.
The first room looks at sculpture in the context of the Festival of Britain. A large number of public works of art were commissioned, but most of them on the cheap as they were always presumed to be temporary. Even the much-loved Skylon was scrapped by the new government after the exhibition closed - here we see one of the souvenir aluminium letter openers it was melted down into. But there had been pioneering collections of outdoor works before - Battersea Park hosted several annual displays, here illustrated with programmes and posters showing mysterious metallic forms.
The next room focuses solely on Harlow - Sculpture Town. This dormitory settlement beyond the fledgling Green Belt was built up into a new town of more than 70000 people with large-scale challenging outdoor worksof art scattered throughout. A couple of the sculptures are here at the exhibition - the advantage of such works being that sometimes several casts were made - including Trigon (from the shopping centre) by Lynn Chadwick, and a bronze carcass of a bull slung over two market porters' backs. I really enjoyed watching a thirteen minute documentary filmed in 1956 explaining Harlow to Americans, featuring average workmen and housewives praising their new town, and the chief architect himself surveying his creation from the top of a tower block as strands of wiggly hair flutter in the breeze. To see the real thing in situ, a day trip toHarlow isn't as ridiculous an idea as it might sound.
Smaller projects also get the nod, like the statues made as an integral part of the Highbury Quadrant estate, and Hertfordshire County Council's post-war spend on art to brighten its secondary schools. Urban centres far from London are also included, particularly as part of a 1972 public sculpture programmme sponsored by a brand of cigarettes. Cardiff got climb-on geometric forms, while Cambridge's twirly spikes were comprehensively vandalised over six months by members of an unappreciative public. Birmingham appears to have hit the jackpot with a giant King Kong statue by the Bull Ring, but even they failed to keep hold of what would now be a much-loved piece, and it ended up first in a car showroom and then in private hands.
Sometimes commercial partnerships deliver public art of stature. One example is Barbara Hepworth's WingedFigure on the front of John Lewis in Oxford Street, whose stringed maquette is on display, while Geoffrey Clarke's The Spirit of Electricity remains in situ on a 60s office block in St Martin's Lane. Coming rather more up to date, TfL's commitment to public art is celebrated, with (for example) the colourful 'Wrapper' covering the outside of Edgware Road station, the Paolozzi mosaics recently disassembled at Tottenham Court Road, and a Labyrinth which appears to have been borrowed from the concourse at Embankment.
Heritage England are hoping that this exhibition, and its accompanying campaign, will make us more appreciative of postwar public art and more willing to protect it. As an example of what public pressure can do they've alighted on Old Flo, Stepney's beloved Henry Moore, which was very nearly sold off by Tower Hamlets' previous Mayor to raise money to plug funding cuts. Communities and charities came together to say "No!", and the current Mayor has pledged to keep this Draped Seated Woman for public enjoyment, once somewhere appropriate can be found to put her. Old Flo is one of the lucky ones.
Half a wall in the Save Our Sculpture room is given over to public art that can no longer be seen. Some is lost, some sold, some destroyed when the surrounding inrastructure was redeveloped and some stolen for scrap. Barbara Hepworth's Two Forms (Divided Circle) is one of the latter, nicked overnight from Dulwich Park five years ago and never recovered. There it is in the photo above, which I snapped on my phone while nobody was looking. Photography is prohibited in the exhibition, for reasons of copyright, but I decided to break that particular rule because the copyright holder was me. Yay, I have a photo in an exhibition at Somerset House, even if the reasons behind its appearance are rather sad.
I know at least a dozen friends who'd enjoy this exhibition, ticking all sorts of art and architecture boxes as it does, along with its focus on an era often unappreciated by the mainstream. There are no statues of army generals or kings and queens in this collection, more a diverse collection of forms and a keen sense of a bright uplifting future. I came away with a sense of a lost era in which artists and authorities tried to do what was best for communities, and a legacy at odds with today's more commercial sensitivities. Rejoice that 41 such sculptures were listed last month, thanks to Historic England's cataloguing diligence. And look around you while you're Out There, because the very best place to enjoy public art is in public space.
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
Admission £6.50, concessions £5.00