I do believe that art…isn’t just a cultural pursuit, something that happens in art galleries. Unless art is linked to experience and the fear and joy of that, it becomes mere icing on the cake – Anthony Gormley
Gormley has a point about art galleries. Not only do they attract a self selecting crowd, they also divorce art from the everyday rhythms of life. The most poignant works of art – and certainly those that resonate most with the public – are often the ones that leave behind the sterile space of the gallery and embrace the great outdoors.
Public sculptures are never without their controversies and many of the pieces listed below prompted a negative reaction from local residents when they were first erected. Get it wrong and an artist risks imposing an aesthetic vision on a landscape that never quite melds with that of its inhabitants. Get it right, however, and you draw out the innate qualities of a place and create a piece of iconography that sets itself deep within the public consciousness.
Here’s my take on the best outdoor sculpture around Britain:
Another Place, Anthony Gormley, Liverpool
This set of 100 cast iron figures stretch for three kilometres along Crosby Beach and extend for half a kilometre into the Irish Sea north of Liverpool. They gradually emerge from the sea as the tide goes out each day, before drowning again under the rising water. The undertones of death, resurrection and rebirth are clear, as is the passage of time: the rusted iron surface of the figures show all the marks of age and yet their uniformity is also eerily timeless. There’s a sense of shared experience – birth and death are the common denominators of everyone who has ever lived – and yet there is also a sense of isolation in the way the figures stand far apart from each other looking ahead: our experience is ultimately solitary, encased as it is in the body. The sculpture received a mixed reaction from locals when it first opened but they eventually took it to heart, requesting for it to remain on the beach on a permanent basis.
Henry Moore at Houghton Hall
Within touching distance of London, Houghton Hall was built by Sir Robert Walpole, Great Britain’s first Prime Minister and was designed by the most prominent architects of the early Georgian period, Colen Campbell and James Gibbs. This summer, it plays host to some of Henry Moore’s most iconic sculptures in its grounds and inside the house. Highlights include many of Moore’s most celebrated works such as Large Reclining Figure 1984, The Arch 1963-69, Three Piece Sculpture: Vertebrae 1968-69 and Upright Motive No.8 1955-56. Moore could not have wished for a more spacious setting for his outdoor works: the angles and gothic flourishes of the house play off Moore’s modernist minimalism so that you see both aesthetic approaches with fresh eyes.
The Scallop, Maggi Hambling, Aldeburgh, Suffolk
The Scallop arrived on Aldeburgh beach in 2003, courtesy of internationally acclaimed artist and Suffolk local Maggi Hambling. Children clamber in and out of this giant shell as they play on the beach while passersby take shelter in it for a moment during their winter walks. ‘I hear those voices that will not be drowned,’ are the words carved onto its exterior – it’s a quote from Benjamin Britten, to whom the sculpture is dedicated. The seascape beyond the shell, or the land depending on where you are standing, cuts through the sculpture’s negative spaces, making it appear utterly at one with its environment. Hambling’s genius is to create a form that is deliberately imperfect: it is both symmetrical and random. Hambling described it as a conversation with the sea and it’s not hard to see why: like the sculpture, the sea is ordered and destructive: a strange mix of clockwork tides and unpredictable force.
Force of Nature – Lorenzo Quinn, Berkeley Square, London
It’s so easy to walk around London with our eyes locked onto our phones and miss the array of thought-provoking art that is displayed right in front of our noses if we’d just take the time to seek it out. Stroll into Berkeley Square, Mayfair and you will be richly rewarded: Lorenzo Quinn’s Force of Nature was made after a spate of devastating hurricanes hit Thailand and the Southern US states. The featureless figure of nature with its concealed face reeks its blind, impersonal destruction on the globe. Up close, the viewer spies their own mirage-like reflection in the globe’s surface. Keep your eyes peeled for open garden weekends when you can also catch a glimpse of another Quinn sculpture ‘Volare’ which is the centre piece of the private residents’ garden Cadogan Place in Belgravia.
The Folkestone Mermaid, Cornelia Parker, Kent
I will never forget first laying eyes on Cornelia Parker’s memorable installation ‘Exploded Shed’ in the Tate Modern, aged 17. It got me hooked on the idea of art and story-telling. Parker’s The Folkestone Mermaid sees her turn her hand to a more figurative form of sculpture than is usual for this conceptual artist. Inspired by the story of The Sea Lady by HG Wells – who for many years lived in Folkestone – and the famous fairy-tale of Hans Christian Anderson (who visited Folkestone in 1857), the work is a life-size bronze cast of a local resident. Folkestone’s locals were invited to model for the Mermaid with the aim of finding a subject that embodied a realistic vision of womanhood. Georgina Baker, a mother of two, was the artist’s final choice of subject. Parker’s sculpture of Georgina now sits next to Folkestone’s harbour overlooking the beach at the end of The Stade.
Mud maid, The Lost Gardens of Heligan, Cornwall
Mud Maid in Cornwall’s The Lost Gardens of Heligan is proof that you don’t have to be an internationally acclaimed artist to create a work that enters into the public psyche. After the gardens were restored to their former Victorian glory in the 70s, local artists Sue and Pete Hill decided to bring their own twist to the flora and fauna with the introduction of the ‘Mud Maid’ in the 90s – inspired by a children’s story set in the gardens. The reclining figure is woven into the landscape with moss, flowers and grasses helping to create – and conceal – her form. This sculpture delights children and adults alike to this day and is a must-see for anyone taking a trip to Cornwall.
Charles Jencks, cells of life, Jupiter Artland, Edinburgh
This garden sculpture by artist and landscape designer Charles Jencks aims to capture the symmetry and beauty of the building blocks of life: cell division. Jencks’ work reproduces on a giant scale a microscopic process that happens daily and yet occurs unseen. He suggests that patterns are an inherent in the smallest components of nature. And what better way of showing this than recreating them in the form a garden – an orchestrated, intentional space full of design.
Chronophage, Dr John C Taylor, Cambridge
Scientist and Entrepeneur Dr John C Taylor has never been a fan of modern art. When he funded a new library of his old Cambridge college Corpus Christi he decided to create a lasting piece of public of art that he felt spoke into human experience at the same time as performing a pragmatic function. In my opinion, his time-eating clock is nothing short of a masterpiece – a rare work of art that manages to be philosophical, practical and humorous all at the same time. Made of gold and steel, the ticks of the clock are marked by a time-eating creature that perches on the top of the clock, blinking, twitching its tail and ‘eating’ the 59th second of each minute. The ripples on the clock face, which depict time expanding from the centre of the universe after the Big Bang, urge passersby to contextualise their own existence.
To all at sea, Anthony Garratt, Angelsey
This famous far-flung Welsh island is playing host to an outdoor, cliff-top painting by Anthony Garratt this summer. Garratt’s work takes inspiration from a catastrophic storm which occurred in 1859 when the Royal Charter steamship was wrecked off the coast of Anglesey and more than 800 people died. In a fitting move, Garratt has exposed his giant canvass to the elements near the site of the wreck, placing it on a central mast so that it pivots in the wind. In a masterstroke of artistic collaboration, the wind data will be recorded and turned into a musical score, with lyrics by the Welsh poet Gillian Clarke, which will eventually be performed on the 26th October 2019 by a violinist and a Welsh male voice choir in tribute to the lives lost at sea. Visit toallatsea.co.uk for more details.