Art’s Not Meant to be Easy

A few months ago, while we were spending a couple of days in Birmingham, we stumbled across a piece of public art that is as controversial as it is unusual. A Real Birmingham Family, by sculptor Gillian Wearing, depicts two local sisters – each single mothers, one of them heavily pregnant – with their two children. Cast in bronze, the sculpture was erected in Centenary Square, prominently positioned in front of the Library of Birmingham, in 2014. A storm’s been raging around it ever since.

Most of the figurative public art found in cities and towns across the UK features folk who might loosely described as representatives of ‘the great and the good‘, although, to be blunt, a number of them were neither great nor good, but simply had an effective PR machine behind them!

Representations of past and present royalty, politicians, war heroes, cultural and sporting icons, and sundry local bigwigs clutter our public footways. Their subjects are predominantly male and overwhelmingly White, and the statues seemingly yell “look at me, look at me, aren’t I important!” to anyone glancing in their direction. Diversity is in short supply, and the sculptures mostly seem detached from the realities of everyday life. So I’m left wondering, what about ordinary folk? Where are the statues depicting people like me and you? Don’t we count too? What about our lives?

Similar thoughts may have crossed the mind of managers at Birmingham’s Ikon Gallery of contemporary art in 2011, when they initiated a process to find a “real” Birmingham family to model for the sculpture. Nominations were invited, but what constitutes a “real” family was not specified. From the nominations received four families were shortlisted, with the eventual winners being selected by a panel of community, cultural and religious figures. Here’s what the curator of the Ikon Gallery had to say about the winners:

“Their story is compelling and says much about contemporary Birmingham. Two mixed-race sisters, both single-parents with happy, lively young boys, who identify themselves strongly with the city of their birth. The variety of nominations to ‘A Real Birmingham Family’ has shown us that while the traditional, nuclear family may no longer be the norm, the ties that bind us together are as strong as ever.”

Stuart Tulloch, quoted in the Birmingham Mail 28 August 2013, retrieved 17 November 2022

It’s evident from Tulloch’s statement that A Real Birmingham Family is a million miles away from the typical statue found on the UK’s streets. They are not drawn from the dubious ranks of ‘the great and the good’. Rather, in the nicest possible way, the Jones sisters and their kids are just ordinary people, a loving family supporting one another and living the best lives they can, even though the path they have taken does not conform with long-standing societal norms. Surely this something worthy of celebration?

And yet the sculpture has drawn stinging criticism from some quarters because, as one commentator has claimed, it is “a sad betrayal of the traditional values that held great communities like Birmingham together…[and] a totem for extreme feminists who more and more argue that women don’t need men at all.”

Anyone who knows me will not be surprised to learn that I don’t see it that way!

If the artist’s intention was to propose that single parent arrangements are inevitably superior to traditional, nuclear family set-ups, then there might be cause for complaint. But surely that isn’t what Wearing’s work is telling us? What she seems to be saying is that while most of us – I suspect – have been raised in a nuclear family, alternative family models can also be successful. Her piece is a commentary, an observation of one way in which families can function effectively in the 21st century. Other options are also available!

I fully understand that this piece of public art may be uncomfortable for anyone wedded to tradition, for anyone who instinctively believes that the old ways are inevitably the best ways, or indeed the only acceptable ways. But by seeking to challenge careless stereotypes and preconceptions, Wearing is doing one the jobs that it is an artist’s duty to perform: she is making us reflect, making us debate, making us think critically about the world in which we live, even if the process is painful. Art’s not meant to be easy.

Catching up with Chesterfield’s must-see snail!

We’d been meaning for ages to go visit the famed Chesterfield snail, but Covid got in the way and it wasn’t until a few months ago that we finally caught up with it. Not that there was much chance of it getting away. Snails are notoriously slow at the best of times, and this one’s chances of making a run for it are hampered by the fact that it’s 5 metres / 16 feet tall and fashioned from sheets of brushed stainless steel.

Mollusc sits in a small area of parkland at the edge of a housing estate, on land that was once home to the Markham Engineering Works. Why, we wondered, would anyone choose to erect an enormous steel snail here…or anywhere else, for that matter? The reason, it seems, is that ancient fossil gastropods have been found in the coal measures that are widely distributed around this area of Derbyshire. Sculptor Liz Lemon has made sure that none of the locals will ever forget this obscure piece of trivia.

Lemon also took inspiration from the industrial history of the site: the form of the Mollusc echoes the casings of huge turbines that were once manufactured at the Markham works before being shipped to hydro-electric power plants around the world. This chapter of Chesterfield’s industrial history is further honoured by inscriptions in the base of the sculpture bearing the replica signatures of former Markham employees.

Although the setting is incongruous, as a piece of artwork Mollusc is undeniably eye-catching. The gleaming shell’s spiral design is decorated with a series of “portholes” that reduce in size towards its centre. These, I understand, are lit up at night by blue and green fibre optic lights, but as we visited during daylight hours this intriguing feature was invisible to us.

Installed in 2003, the Mollusc is part of Chesterfield’s Art Trail. It, and more than 70 other pieces of public art, was funded from the local council’s “Percent for Art” scheme. Developers of schemes costing over one million pounds (USD 1.15m) are encouraged to include a work of art to the value of 1% of the total cost of the project, with a view to help “create a sense of place and add character to the built environment.”

I hope that the current financial crisis engulfing the UK doesn’t undermine the Percent for Art scheme. If the Mollusc is anything to go by, this is an enlightened initiative that can only enhance the character of Chesterfield’s urban landscape. Mrs P and I look forward to exploring other hidden gems on the Chesterfield Art Trail in 2023.

The lovely bones of sculptor Wilfred Pritchard

One of the highlights of our recent trip “down south” was a day spent at The Sculpture Park on the outskirts of Farnham in the Surrey Hills. Home to several hundred sculptures for sale (or could it be thousands…who really knows?) dotted around ten acres / four hectares of scenic woodland and lakes, it’s a mind-blowing place to spend a day. I’ll write about it again in future posts, but with Halloween just around the corner I thought I’d focus on Wilfred Pritchard’s lovely bones.

You see, sculptor Wilfred Pritchard appears obsessed with skeletons, and good fun they are too!

“Extraordinary”

A number of Pritchard’s works can be found at The Park, which is probably not surprising as he owns the place under his real name of Eddie Powell! And who can blame him for displaying plenty of his own wares? Born in 1950, the Welshman clearly has a prodigious talent as well as a fertile and somewhat macabre sense of humour.

Cast in bronze, Pritchard’s skeletons are to be seen enjoying themselves in a variety of ways, dancing, performing gymnastic routines, riding a penny-farthing bicycle, playing a tuba and pulling a garden roller. They seem to be having a great time, although the same can’t been said for the poor skeleton whose leg is caught in the jaws of a man-trap!

“Celebration”

Pritchard’s skeletons might be seen as emblematic of Halloween, the time of year when some believe the boundary between this world and the next becomes especially thin. They offer us a benign, stress-free encounter with our own mortality: as they are now, so shall we one day become, living the good life in the after-life.

There’s no great depth of meaning here but the lovely bones are, quite simply, a load of fun. I found it impossible not chuckle at their antics, nor to marvel at the imagination of the man who created them.

Top Left: “Hard Labour”. Top Middle: “Brassed Away”. Top Right: “Man Trap”. Bottom Left: “Back Flip”. Bottom Right: “Acrobats”.

If money were no object, I’d invest in one of Pritchard’s works. I’d display it outside Platypus Towers over Halloween, giving the neighbours both a cheap thrill and a rare opportunity to get up close and personal with a piece of genuine high-quality art. However, these skeletal masterpieces cost anywhere between about £10,000 and £30,000 (USD 12,000 – 35,000) plus tax, so maybe I’ll give it a miss for now. But if my number ever comes up on the lottery, who knows…

Saving the Raging Bull

Art comes in all shapes and sizes. Sometimes it’s very surprising, occasionally awe-inspiring. Take Raging Bull, for example, the 10 metres high sculpture that starred in the Commonwealth Games opening ceremony earlier in the year. Weighing in at 2.5 tonnes the armoured bull has a massive wow factor, so when we visited Birmingham a few weeks ago to see Chris de Burgh in concert we were determined to spend a spare morning tracking down this modern masterpiece of mechanical public art.

The sculpture is made mostly out of machinery sourced from factories in and around Birmingham, and is intended as a symbol of the city’s journey through a turbulent past to the present day. It was designed, built, and mechanised by a team of around 60 people from UK-based special effects company Artem. The head, legs and tail can be manoeuvred by a crew of puppeteers and technicians, aided by a tractor unit cunningly concealed beneath the body. It can also breathe smoke and flash its eyes red. It is, as today’s kids would probably tell you, proper awesome!

Towering over Birmingham’s Centenary Square

Unsurprisingly, Raging Bull made a huge impression when he entered the arena at the opening of the Commonwealth Games, striding majestically across the running track towards the centre of the stadium. But he has a softer side too, as another YouTube video demonstrates:

But what is surprising, however, is how those in positions of power totally failed to predict the likely public impact of this colossal mechanical sculpture. No provision was made to put it on permanent display after the Games had ended, and Raging Bull was destined for the scrapyard.

Looking down on Raging Bull from one of the upper floors of the Library of Birmingham

However, when Brummies – that is, the people of Birmingham – learned of his intended fate there was an outpouring of protest, in part no doubt because the city has a long association with bulls. Birmingham’s primary retail complex, the Bullring, is built on land where – between the 16th and late 18th centuries – bulls were baited prior to slaughter in the erroneous belief that this would tenderise their meat. Thankfully this barbaric practice is now outlawed, but echoes of it survive in the name of the modern shopping centre (mall) and in the bronze bull statue that was erected there in 2003.

Not the Raging Bull! This bronze bull statue in the Bullring Shopping Centre is by Laurence Broderick. Although splendid, it’s just modest in size when compared with Raging Bull! IMAGE CREDIT: “Bullie – the Bullring bull – The Guardian – towards the West Mall” by ell brown is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

In addition, Raging Bull was widely seen by locals as a positive symbol of their – and, indeed their city’s – qualities of determination, persistence and strength. Brummies felt they could relate to him and perceived him as something to be proud of, to treasure even. So, when more than 10,000 people signed up to a campaign to save him, it became clear that a rescue mission was required.

To buy a bit of time while a plan was worked out, after the Games ended he was moved temporarily to Centenary Square. This was where Mrs P and I were able to see him, albeit as a static work of art rather than a walking, smoking, glowing monster. Never mind, he was magnificent just the same.

Behind Raging Bull is the Hall of Memory, a war memorial completed in 1925 that commemorates the 12,320 Birmingham citizens who died in World War 1

At the time of writing a final decision on just where Raging Bull will spend the rest of his days has yet to be made. It appears that his huge bulk, as well as the need to protect him from inclement weather, is presenting a few challenges! An indoor home of generous proportions is clearly required.

Raging Bull gazes out across Centenary Square towards the magnificent Library of Birmingham, the largest public library in England. It opened in 2013.

Raging Bull was removed from Centenary Square at the end of September, and for now languishes in an abandoned carpark next to a portable toilet, under the watchful eye of a security guard! Things may currently look bleak, but the city authorities are adamant that his future is assured. They’d better be true to their word. Although a bit unconventional, Raging Bull is a wonderful work of art, an inspiring creation that we simply cannot afford to lose.

On the trail of T-Rex: Dinosaurs invade Norwich

Who doesn’t love a dinosaur? Big, fierce and scary, they capture the imaginations of young and old alike, their admirers revelling in the fact that although dinosaurs ruled the Earth for millions of years there’s not much risk of bumping into one while out doing the shopping or walking the dog. Except that wasn’t quite true in Norwich earlier this year, when the streets of Norfolk’s only city were awash with the scariest dino of all, the terrifying Tyrannosaurus Rex.

“Forget me not” by Claire Cassie and Paul Mynard, inspired by the forget-me-not flower, which serves as the symbol of Dementia awareness

OK, it’s true, the many T-Rex we saw roaming the streets of Norwich a few weeks ago weren’t quite on the scale of their Jurassic predecessors, being just shy of two metres in height and weighing in at a modest 80kg. But although just slimmed down versions of the real – but long extinct – thing, they definitely drew in the crowds.

“Dino Hunter” by Sophie Li-Rocchi

The Norwich dinosaur trail featured 55 Tyrannosaurus Rex sculptures decorated by around 50 professional and amateur artists, of whom 13 had never painted a sculpture before. Plainly this isn’t high art, but it sure brings a smile to the face.

“Dime-a-saurus rex” by Alix Carter is covered with scales made from thousands of low value coins. The sculpture seeks to represent the power of charitable donations and the impact that even the smallest donations can make.

Mrs P and I spent a couple of days exploring Norwich city centre tracking the dinosaurs down, and it was great to see so many kids – big and small! – being excited and inspired by them, and taking endless selfies in front of them.

“Doctasaurus” by Hilary Sanderson, created as a statement of gratitude to all the key workers on the frontline of the coronavirus pandemic

The trail also encouraged a sense of community and common purpose. Several times we fell into conversation with total strangers, comparing notes on our favourite sculptures and sharing information on where some of the more elusive specimens could be found. We also took the time to tell our new friends about a similar festival in our local city last year, when Derby hosted an impressive Ram Trail.

Left: ” Sirdavidasaurus rex” by Faye Rackham celebrates the life and work of famed naturalist Sir David Attenborough. Top right: “B-Rex” by Illona Clark draws inspiration from bees, which play a vital role in pollinating plants and keeping food on our tables. Bottom right: “The Golden King” by Katy Stevens.

Norwich’s dinosaur trail delivered on so many levels. It was organised by Break, an East Anglian regional children’s care charity which is seeking to achieve “the best outcomes for young people on the edge of care, in care and moving on from care.” Although access to the dinosaur trail was free, a number of initiatives directly linked with it helped raise much-needed funds for this worthy organisation.

“Afternoon Tea-Rex” by Mik Richardson. Celebrating a quaint English tradition, Afternoon Tea-Rex wears his blue gingham waistcoat and tiny black bowtie with pride. He has a three-tiered cake stand laden with delicious goodies balanced on his head, a tray bearing teacups and a teapot in his hand, and a giant cherry on his back.

Break worked in collaboration with Wild in Art, which runs public art events in the UK and across the world, events “that entertain, enrich, inform and leave a lasting legacy.” Well, they certainly achieved that in Norwich, and also in Derby last year when they masterminded the Ram Trail that I referred to earlier.

“Prideasaurus” by Martin Wall. Covered from head to toe in sparkling crystals, Prideasaurus is described as a celebration of diversity, equality and inclusivity.

In addition, the Norwich trail provided opportunities for artists, in particular local artists, to create works that showcased their talents. And, crucially, it attracted people to visit the city centre and spend a bit of money there. These included both locals, and visitors – like Mrs P and I – from other parts of the country.

“Lost Holmes” by Sally Adams is inspired by the fusion of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous character Sherlock Holmes with his tale of the ‘Lost World’, in which dinosaurs are the stars of the show

At a time when many businesses are struggling with the longer-term impacts of Covid and the horrific surge in energy prices, the extra business generated by the intrepid dinosaur hunters must have been most welcome.

“Arcadia” by Dandelion Mosaics. Arcadia is described as a mosaic masterpiece intended to depict a tree growing from a seed and showing how it is a transformation only made possible by the sun.

But most important of all the trail was a lot of fun, and don’t we all need some of that right now! Without exception, the vividly coloured dinosaurs brightened up their surroundings. Many were highly creative, and some were delightfully witty. A few hinted at deeper meanings, but the message common to all of them was simply this: art is fun, so come along and enjoy!

Top left: “Doodling Dino” by Esme Taylor. Doodling Dino is covered with doodles of Norfolk, including landscapes, heritage sites, amusement parks and other iconic locales. Bottom left: “Roary” by Caroline Carty, inspired by classic board games, card games, collectables and video games. Right: Feline-osaur by Ella Goodwin is cat-lovers dream, covered head to toe with friendly furry felines.

Sadly, the dinosaur trail is over. T-Rex sculptures have been rounded up from all over Norwich, and have been corralled somewhere safe. Before the end of the month these will be auctioned off to raise additional funds for Break. With luck some of them will be bought by local businesses and community organisations, and hopefully these will remain on display for dinosaur fans and public art enthusiasts of all ages to enjoy for many years to come.

“SNAP!” by Sophie Li-Rocchi

The Burning Man comes to Derbyshire

The local arts and culture brigade got very excited recently, after news broke that we were to be treated to a Burning Man Sculpture Trail on parkland surrounding Chatsworth House in our home county of Derbyshire. The sense of anticipation was understandable: Burning Man is a huge annual event in the Nevada desert, and has never previously been seen in the UK.

Burning Man started on a California beach in 1986, when artists set light to an 8 feet (2.4 m) tall wooden man. This act of “radical self-expression” caught the imagination of the local artistic community to such an extent that the burning was repeated the following year, when the effigy had almost doubled in size. By 1988 it was twice as tall again, reaching a height of 30 feet (9.1 m).

In 1990 the event moved to a location in the Nevada desert, and began to grow rapidly. In 2019, the last year before the Covid pandemic, participants in the Burning Man event numbered nearly 79,000 and the effigy had grown to 61 feet (19m) in height.

The stated mission of the Burning Man Project is:

“to produce the annual event known as Burning Man and to guide, nurture and protect the more permanent community created by its culture. Our intention is to generate society that connects each individual to his or her creative powers, to participation in community, to the larger realm of civic life, and to the even greater world of nature that exists beyond society.”

Source: Burning Man website, retrieved 22/07/22

The Chatsworth estate

Chatsworth House, built in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, is the ancestral home of the Dukes of Devonshire. In 1981 the house, many of its contents and 737 hectares (1,822 acres) of the surrounding landscape were leased to the Chatsworth House Trust, and the family now pays rent to the Trust for the apartment they occupy. The current (12th) Duke and Duchess work with the charity and others to welcome visitors to Chatsworth.

Be in no doubt, Chatsworth House is a big business. According to its 2018 annual review, in 2017/18 the house and gardens welcomed a little over 600,000 visitors, generated income of almost £15m and employed 366 people, including 114 full-time posts.

Covid hit Chatsworth hard, so there’s ground to make up. In that context, securing an exhibition linked to Burning Man, a brand with a global reputation, was a real coup. Although access to the sculpture trail itself is free, parking at Chatsworth certainly isn’t, so the Trust is doubtless laughing all the way to the bank. But that’s OK, they deserve credit and a bit of profit too, for having the vision to host Radical Horizons: The Art of Burning Man.

Wings of Glory, by Adrian Landon

The first sculpture we spotted after parking our car was Wings of Glory, inspired by the Pegasus myth and sculptor Adrian Landon’s fascination with horses. Fashioned from metal and standing around 20 feet high, the sculpture is appropriately located close to Chatsworth’s former stable block. Every hour, with a painful clanking and grinding sound of metal-on-metal, it languorously flaps its wings and puts on a show. The giant Pegasus appeared at Burning Man in Nevada in 2019.

Mum, by Mr & Mrs Ferguson

Perhaps because we have enjoyed seeing bears in the wild on several occasions in North America, Mum resonates deeply with us and is one of our favourite sculptures on the Radical Horizons trail. A bear cub climbing on its mother’s back can’t help being cute, but look closer and you can see that the bears’ coats are fashioned from around 55,000 US and Canadian pennies embedded into a polystyrene and concrete body. Mother and cub were born in California, where they were created exclusively for the Burning Man at Chatsworth exhibition.

Coralee, by Dana Albany et al

The ethos of the Burning Man is underpinned by 10 Principles. Two of these, “Communal Effort” and “Participation”, seek to encourage everyone to get involved in the production and appreciation of works of art. These Principles are reflected in Coralee, which was created by artist Dana Albany working with children from Spire School in the nearby town of Chesterfield.

Coralee, which for artist Dana Albany symbolises female strength and good luck, depicts a mermaid and is based on a local Derbyshire legend. On the face of it this is a bit crazy, given that this landlocked county is many miles from the sea, and therefore not an obvious haunt for mermaids! However there is a small lake in Derbyshire’s Peak District that was popular in ancient Celtic water-worship rituals. It’s known as the Mermaid’s Pool.

The waters of the Mermaid’s Pool are believed to offer healing qualities to those mad enough to bathe in them. At Easter, in the dead of night, a mermaid is said to appear in the pool. If she likes the look of you she will grant you immortality. But if you don’t take her fancy she will pull you beneath the icy water, where you will inevitably drown. It is, I have to say, one of the most unexpected and bizarre Derbyshire legends I have ever encountered, and it’s good to see it given a new lease of life in this piece of contemporary sculpture.

And what a wonderful, uplifting piece of artwork it is. The body is fashioned in part out of recycled metal artefacts including spoons, springs, sprockets, hinges, bicycle chains and assorted pieces of wire, while the mermaid’s tail features fish scales made from recycled glass. The focus on recycling reflects a concern for the environment that is implicit in Burning Man’s Principles of “Civic Responsibility” and “Leave No Trace”.

Coralee is without doubt my favourite of all the pieces that make up the Radical Horizons sculpture trail. I do hope that it lives on somewhere, whether that be at Chatsworth or elsewhere, once Radical Horizons comes to an end in September.

Elysian Spires, by “Shrine”

Artist “Shrine” worked with children from the Derbyshire Virtual School to produce Elysian Spires. The School seeks to “enhance the life opportunities for Derbyshire children [living in the care of the County Council] by supporting and promoting the importance of their education, and enabling them to achieve the best they can be.” Created with the participation of this community of young people, and celebrating the turning of non-precious objects – in this case hundreds of donated glass bottles – into treasure, Elysian Spires is clearly in line with the guiding Principles that also underpin Coralee.

Flybrary, by Christina Sporrong

Flybrary dominates the view as you drive to the Chatsworth car park. Books fly from the 20 foot high rusty metal head, books which for artist Christina Sporrong represent a flurry of ideas. She invites viewers of her sculpture to let their imaginations run wild, and asks “what’s on your mind?” And isn’t that the point of the whole Radical Horizons exhibition, that it stimulates the imagination and encourages unfettered thinking. Great stuff!

Lodestar, by Randy Polumbo

Lodestar features the shiny fuselage of a World War II jet plane that went by the same name. Its nose touches the ground, while a flower blooms from its tail. Away from the world of aeronautics, the word “lodestar” is a star (especially the Pole Star) that is used to guide the course of a ship, and this prominent, eye-catching sculpture certainly acts as a marker for anyone seeking to navigate their way around the Radical Horizons exhibition.

Transmutation, by Arturo Gonzales and Maru Izaguirrre

Transmutation is inspired by the brightly coloured Mexican folk art sculptures of fantastical creatures known as alebrije. In this case, a colourful sabre-toothed cat sporting both antlers and wings takes to the air above Chatsworth, and encourages the viewer to wonder “what if…?”.

Wings of Wind by Bryan Tedrick

Wings of Wind is another sculpture that is made in part from reclaimed materials. It is moveable and rotates slowly in the wind, or when pushed by eager visitors who are also allowed (encouraged, even) to clamber over it. As it spins, different parts of the landscape are framed by the steel hoop upon which the two wings are hung. In this photograph, it frames a distant view of Chatsworth House.

Murder Inc., by Charles Gadeken

Murder Inc. is unlike any of the other sculptures in Radical Horizons. The rest are monumental in scale, but with Murder Inc. it is not size but quantity that counts. This work comprises exactly one hundred separate pieces, and as artist Charles Gadeken is keen for us to know, each one is different.

The crows of Murder Inc. are life-sized and life-coloured (black!), and show the birds going about their normal daily business. At a glance, and before you clock that they aren’t moving or making any noise, it’s easy to believe that this is a flock or living, breathing birds.

Crows feature heavily in folklore, both in the UK and in many other parts of the world. Often regarded as symbols of death, the collective name for crows is “a murder” which is clearly the inspiration for the title of Charles Gadeken’s work.

Q: When is art not art? A: When it’s a horse jump!

Our morning spent viewing the Radical Horizons exhibition at Chatsworth was inspiring, demonstrating clearly that in the 21st century art comes in all shapes and sizes. In fact it’s sometimes difficult to know just where art ends and real life begins.

As we were wandering through Chatsworth’s parkland, seeking out the various sculptures that make up Radical Horizons, we came across the impressive piece of work shown in the photograph above. It was pleasing to the eye and sat comfortably in the surrounding landscape. Anxious to know more we checked out the trail guide, but were puzzled to find it wasn’t listed.

Not to be defeated, we searched high and low around the work to find an information board that might tell us about the artist and the title of his sculpture. Still no joy. And then, suddenly, we twigged, finally understanding what was going on. This isn’t part of the Radical Horizons Sculpture Trail at all. Rather, it is simply an elegant horse jump, one of many scattered about the Chatsworth parkland.

But who is to say that the horse jump doesn’t also constitute a work of art? Art really does come in all shapes and sizes!

The Burghley sculpture garden

Back when I was a lad, if you wanted to see sculptures you had to go to an art gallery, or maybe a museum. True, if your interest extended no further than humanoid figures you could reasonably expect to see statues of former monarchs, politicians and sundry other ne’er-do-wells in civic spaces scattered throughout the urban landscape. But if your tastes ran to something less formulaic and more creative you were pretty much confined to museums, galleries and similar indoor areas.

And then, thankfully, some bright spark came up with the idea of sculpture gardens.

Vertical Face II

A sculpture garden, and its big brother the sculpture park, is an outdoor space dedicated to the presentation of durable, three dimensional works of art in landscaped surroundings. In galleries and museums sculpture is contained, hemmed in by walls and ceilings, often difficult to fully appreciate.

In sculpture gardens and parks however, sculpture sits comfortably within a spacious, natural environment, with room to breathe. And the sculptures and the landscape in which they sit enhance one another: the gardens and parks frame the sculptures, while the sculptures become visual anchors within their surroundings.

Held

Sculpture parks can now be found throughout the length and breadth of the UK, and visiting one can be an uplifting experience. Last week I wrote about our visit to Burghley House, a grand mansion dating from the late 16th century. In total contrast to the baroque excesses of the house itself, one of the joys of the parkland at Burghley is an excellent sculpture garden featuring a variety of contemporary and modern pieces.

Burghley’s sculpture garden dates back only a couple of decades, but is situated in an area of the grounds originally fashioned by the famed late 18th century landscape designer Lancelot “Capability” Brown. It combines a scattering of works on permanent display with an annual themed exhibition. The theme when we visited in 2021 (carried over from 2020, due to Covid) was ‘House‘, originally conceived to honour the 500th anniversary of the birth in 1520 of Burghley House’s founder William Cecil. 

Cornu Cecilium

One of the most striking pieces on permanent display in the sculpture garden is Vertical Face II by English sculptor Rick Kirby. Works by Kirby are on display in various parts of the UK, and if Vertical Face II is typical I can see just why: it’s a haunting, enigmatic creation.

Equally serious – or, to be blunt, downright spooky – is Held by Anne Gillespie. The body of a man, folded into a foetal position and entombed in a rock wall, is not an easy piece to view, and is laden with hidden meaning. But what, exactly? I know what it means to me, but your interpretation may be totally different. And in the end that doesn’t really matter, the point is that we are required to exercise our brains and think about it…which, after all, is surely one of the purposes of art?

Trojan Horse

But art, and sculpture, doesn’t always have to be deep and meaningful: it can also, quite simply, be fun. The colourful sculpture of a snail, Cornu Cecilium by Pete Rogers, plainly fits into that category. However there is more to this piece than initially meets the eye. Commissioned for Burghley’s 2021 themed exhibition House, the shape of the snail’s shell echoes the grand octagonal towers of Burghley House.

I was also taken with the Trojan Horse. Fashioned from logs and standing several metres high it’s a quaintly rustic piece, and seems to be completely at ease in the lightly wooded landscape in which is stands.

Teddy bears’ picnic

Talking of wooded landscapes, if you go down to Burghley’s woods today, you’re sure of a big surprise: a family of whimsical bears enjoying a picnic, including mama bear in a faded blue dress. Again, there’s no great depth of meaning here, but it’s fun, isn’t it.

Also at home in the wooded landscape are the snowdrops of Everlasting Spring, another Pete Rogers creation. Snowdrops are “here and gone again” in the blink of an eye every spring, but thanks to Rogers they last all year long in Burghley’s sculpture garden.

Everlasting Spring

Italian artist Michele Ciribifera’s Elicoide BG is definitely eye-catching. Elicoide translates from the Italian as “spiral” or “helical”, and this gleaming metallic piece stands out boldly in the verdant landscape of grass and trees. Maybe there is a hidden meaning here? Or is it simply intended to please the eye? Personally I’m inclined not to overthink it: the latter explanation works just fine for me.

And finally, in this whistle-stop tour of a few of the sculptures we saw at Burghley last year, is City Cuts by sculptor Paul Cox. Inspired by the 2007/08 world financial crisis, a handsaw is seen slicing into a swanky city skyscraper. This one is rather poignant for me. At the time of that economic meltdown I was working as a senior public service manager, and found myself forced to make massive cuts to stay within my greatly reduced budget. I was compelled to wield not just a saw, but an axe too.

Elicoide BG

Several of my staff, including friends whom I respected and admired deeply, sadly lost their jobs in the dark days and months that followed. Seeing this stark piece at Burghley certainly gave me cause to think about my own very small, local role in dealing with the impact of the global financial crisis all those years ago. It was not a particularly happy part of my life, but life’s not meant to be easy all the time, is it?

City Cuts

Thankfully those days are over, and because I’m retired I don’t have to worry about how to navigate my service through the new financial crisis brought about by Covid. So, while my unfortunate successor wrestles with that impenetrable problem, I have time on my hands to visit some more wonderful sculpture gardens, like the one at Burghley. Don’t they say that good things will eventually come to he (or she) that waits?

RAM-bling through Derby

Derby is obsessed with rams. The city centre boasts at least three statues featuring rams. The local professional soccer team (Derby County) are nicknamed “The Rams” and have a mascot called Rammie. Derby’s annual half-marathon event was for many years known as the Ramathon. Even the city’s library service, when first introducing public internet computers in the late 1990s, called its new service Cyber-RAM.

Michael Pegler’s millstone sculpture has been a Derby landmark since 1995

This infatuation with rams (male sheep, also known as tups) is captured in a folk song known as The Derby Ram, or alternatively As I was Going to Derby. The story it tells can be traced back at least to the early 18th century. It’s a far-fetched and humorous, if somewhat gory, account of a huge ram taken to Derby market and the challenges townsfolk encountered when processing it for meat.

The song is well known in folk-singing circles in many parts of the English-speaking world. Even George Washington is reputed to have taken time off from thrashing the Brits to belt out his own rendition, although I’m not sure how we know this story is true. Links to a couple of recordings of the song are given at the end of this post.

How this tall tale came to be associated with Derby is unclear. More widely, however, during the Middle Ages rams were regarded as symbols of physical strength and sexual potency. It therefore takes no stretch of the imagination to understand why Derby folk might have been pleased to encourage a legend that linked them with such a feisty and formidable beast.

This statue by Tim Roper dates from 2019, and stands at one of the entrances to the main Derby shopping centre (mall)

The link continues to this day, and is being celebrated during summer 2021 by an arts project called The Derby Ram Trail. Organised by the local Museums Trust, this is a free public art trail comprising 30 ram sculptures vibrantly decorated by a range of artists.

The sculptures are made of lightweight, fire-resistant fibreglass and are based on Michael Pegler’s millstone ram, which has been a Derby landmark for around a quarter of a century. The trail weaves its way through the city centre, and its organisers hope it will “[encourage] local people to explore and enjoy their city from an exciting new perspective.”

Rameses by Judith Berrill

The Derby Ram Trail website explains how the project has been organised:

Businesses across the area were invited to sponsor a blank ram sculpture – the 3D canvas! New and established artists were then invited to submit designs to transform the blank rams with individual artworks. Design ideas were presented to sponsors in January 2020 who each selected their favourite. Successful artists were then commissioned to apply their designs to the sculptures in a wide range of media, both traditional and new, including fine art, illustration, graffiti and mosaic amongst others.

Forming a trail of discovery, the sculptures provide an exceptional, creative opportunity to engage people in important topics – from health and well-being to history and culture, to name a few.

Source: Derby Ram Trail website, retrieved 13 July 2021

For those with good local knowledge, the subject matter of some of the designs has an obvious connection with Derby or the surrounding county of Derbyshire. For example, decorating a ram to reflect artistic fashions current at the time the Egyptian Pharaoh Rameses the Great, over 3,000 years ago, isn’t an obvious choice. However, once you understand that generations of local children have been inspired by two ancient Egyptian mummies displayed at Derby Museum and Art Gallery, all becomes clear. Rameses is one of my favourite rams, and the pun’s pretty good, too!

Another striking design with local connections is Royal Ram, inspired by one of Royal Crown Derby’s decorative animal paperweights. Royal Crown Derby pottery is made about a mile south of the city centre, and is sold to appreciative collectors across the world. Local heritage is also recognised in Nurse Nightingale, which honours the life and achievements of pioneering 19th century nurse Florence Nightingale, who was born just a few miles north of Derby. And standing outside the new Museum of Making, housed in the historic Silk Mill building, Derby Industries celebrates the city’s remarkable achievements in science and manufacturing.

Royal Ram by Donna Newman

The significance of For Those About to Rock initially escaped me, until I read on the trail’s website that the piece was inspired by music festivals held annually in Derbyshire, particularly Download and Bloodstock. The website explains that “in the Heavy Metal tradition of battle jackets, the ram is wearing a denim jacket covered in patches which, along with his tattoos, represent significant events and Derbyshire-related subjects.” By way of contrast, Woolly Rammy (a ram in sheep’s clothing) has a more obvious local connection, depicting a ram wearing a Derby-inspired woolly jumper which proudly displays a recognisably local street scene.

For Those about to Rock by Sue Hetfield

Doodle Derby is a bit more whimsical, being “based on all of the awesome things about our city from architecture, culture and outdoor spaces to real ale and how Derby first invented the hotdog! ‘Doodle Derby’ takes you on a tour of all the brilliant things you can do in the city and celebrates a diverse, colourful place of happiness and positivity – an inspiring Derby!” Hmm, hyperbole is alive and well, and living on the Derby Ram Trail website…but what the heck, it raises a smile, and don’t we all need that with Covid infections soaring yet again.

In some cases the connection between Derby and the ram’s design is distinctly tenuous. For example, Derby has no obvious links with pirates (some people claim it to be further from the sea than just about any other English city), but nevertheless Pirate Sheepmate seems to have made himself at home there. I love the parrot on his shoulder. Meanwhile the fierce-looking Rambo seems to be little more than an excuse for fond memories of “Sly” Stallone….and, of course, another groan-inducing pun!

Rambo by Joy Pirkle

Some of the rams are intended to convey a message that has universal relevance, rather than being specific to Derby. Memories Fade but Warmth Remains is perhaps the most obvious and poignant of these. The website explains that the artist “has combined the symbolism of the forget-me-not flower – a flower often associated with dementia – with that of the sunflower, symbolising warmth, deep loyalty and hope. Lynne wanted to create a message about the power of enduring love: that memories can fade but the warmth of the human spirit continues to shine.”

Walking the trail, which at a leisurely pace took us about half a day and included plenty of photo stops (Mrs P took over 400 pictures!), encouraged us to explore parts of the city centre that we’ve never seen before. It also took us past recent developments that are seeking to breathe new life into the place. Plenty of other people were also seeking out the rams, and I suspect were also discovering parts of Derby that were new to them.

Derby Industries by Sanita Gnaniah, with the historic Silk Mill behind

The organisers set out to create a feel-good project, and from my point of view they definitely succeeded. Derby is not an especially attractive city, and has little to recommend it in either architectural or artistic terms. The decorated rams are therefore a welcome – albeit temporary – addition to the urban landscape, and certainly brighten up those parts of the city centre in which they are located.

Doodle Derby by Carla Dee

With one exception – an old guy complaining (wrongly) that the cost of the project would result in his taxes going up – everyone we spoke with seemed to be enjoying the Derby Ram Trail, and found at least some of the artworks to be inspiring and uplifting. Perhaps the most pleasing aspect of the whole experience was the way the trail encouraged total strangers to talk to each other, and, even more remarkably, got them talking about art! That’s an achievement in which the organisers should take pride.

Memories Fade but Warmth Remains by Lynne Hollingsworth

The sculpture trail will grace the city until 22 August 2021, after which the rams will all be herded together and sold by auction. The proceeds will go to Derby Museums Trust to support the delivery and development of their services, which seems like an appropriate reward for the organisation that was the brains behind the Derby Ram Trail. Moreover, Derby is planning an application to be the UK’s next city of culture, so its heritage and arts organisations need all the funds they can raise. Watch this space!

Mrs P’s collage of rams!

* * * * * * *

Links to recordings of The Derby Ram. The following link is to a version credited to Keith Kendrick, Pete Castle, Roy Harris and Derrick Hale. I’m not familiar with them, but must be from hereabouts as they’re singing it in a Derby/Derbyshire accent, which although quite distinctive is barely recognised outside the area. You don’t hear the accent so much these days, so it’s good to have fragments of it preserved here.

The YouTube video includes the lyrics. As with all folksongs the words to The Derby Ram have mutated over the generations, and this version is a case in point. The mention of the Baseball Ground (at around two-and-a-half minutes into the song) references Derby County’s home soccer ground between 1895 and 1997. It could never have appeared in the original, traditional (18th century) version of this song, and doesn’t belong in 21st century versions either.

While Keith Kendrick et al sing The Derby Ram unaccompanied, most recorded versions feature instruments as well as voices. If a capella and the Derby/Derbyshire accent are not your thing, the following version by Barry Dransfield may suit you better. Dransfield, who hails from Yorkshire, sings somewhat different lyrics, and plays a mean, mean fiddle! Enjoy!