- since 2011 -

Old man of the sea

Friday, 8 July 2011

Fifty years ago Liverpool's last great sculptor carved his last great pieces for his native city...

I'm missing Liverpool's Central Library and particularly its Record Office, and I'm sure I'm not the only one. It's still there, of course - it's just that operations have been scaled down temporarily and moved to World Museum and a hut near Sandhills Station while the main building on William Brown Street undergoes its spectacular facelift in time for late 2012.

Most of all I miss the people who work there. Proof of their worth, if needed, can be found in the outpourings of gratitude on the Acknowledgements page of practically every local history book written about Liverpool in the last few years. They're that good. And I'm especially thankful for the access they granted me to the archives of Liverpool's finest sculptor.

Nearly 40 years after his death, George Herbert Tyson Smith is never too far from the city's headlines. His Post Office War Memorial, originally unveiled in 1924, was recently reinstalled inside the foyer of the former GPO on Victoria Street, now reincarnated as the Met Quarter shopping centre. And those are his fabulous carvings - dolphins, starfish, seahorses, octopuses, lobsters, scallop shells, mermen, tridents and compasses - all over Spinney House on Church Street, ultimately vacated by Littlewoods for whom it was purpose-built half-a-century ago, and historically important as the last major building in Liverpool to incorporate decorative sculpture.

Octopus under balcony, Martins Bank

Octopus under balcony, Martins Bank

Smith's two other glorious creations (he worked almost exclusively upon Merseyside commissions) are the serene Liver Birds and miscellaneous maritime motifs - including walrus heads - worked in Portland Stone upon the Martins Bank Building on Water Street, and the marching soldiers and gathered mourners in bronze either side of the Cenotaph on St George's Plateau.

Cunard Building inscription

Cunard Building inscription

But his hand, or rather his engraved Roman-script lettering, is everywhere in Liverpool, from the façade of the Cunard Building, Lewis's and Western Approaches Museum to commemorative plaques, tablets and foundation stones - his bread-and-butter work for over 50 years - on churches, cemeteries, hospitals, schools, colleges, museums and public statues.

Born in 1883, he lived through two world wars and inscribed the names of hundreds of their Liverpudlian victims on memorials. Until his death in 1972 he remained the dominant figure in local sculpture, based for much of his career at Bluecoat Chambers and cutting a familiar dash for many years in his trademark trilby hat and bowtie.

Sketches from the Tyson Smith archives

Sketches from the Tyson Smith archives

Central Library's Record Office kindly let me sit and sift through Smith's personal archives - all 109 boxes of them, and as yet unlisted. Imagine, 40 or 50 years after your death, someone going through your 'stuff' like this. Would you feel offended or appreciated? I hedged my bets with Smith, handling everything with due respect and reverence and replacing it exactly as I'd found it. Inside each box were bundles of fragile documents tied with frayed string or folded inside ancient envelopes - a treasury of Liverpool's sculptural heritage and chronicle of a master craftsman's vocation.

Liverpool coat of arms draft

Liverpool coat of arms draft

They included commissions from clients like the Liverpool Medical Institute, Corn Exchange, Ellerman shipping line and Daily Post & Echo (and often, amusingly, hasty reminders of deadlines to be met); orders and quotations for stone, slate and marble from London, Cumbria, Derbyshire and France; invoices to subcontractors (the bill sent to Thornton & Sons for his work on Spinney House, incidentally, ran to £7,000 - a small fortune in 1955); large-scale plans and blueprints from architects and draughtsman; and fascinating sketches and doodles, invariably of sea creatures, on professional tracing paper.

Liverpool coat of arms bronze

Liverpool coat of arms bronze

The son of a lithographic artist, Smith learned his trade first in a stonemason's yard then at the University's School of Architecture & Applied Arts where he studied modeling, carving and casting. Set up in 1894, the school occupies an important place in the history of British decorative art, its avant-garde curriculum based upon the ideals of the Arts & Crafts movement, to integrate the hitherto disparate skills of architects, sculptors, ceramicists and metalworkers. The exquisite gates and interior of the Philharmonic Hotel are testimony to its achievements.

One of the school's inaugural members was Charles J Allen, whose Victoria Monument at Derby Square typifies what was termed New Sculpture - a more 'naturalistic' style of statuary, originating in France, that challenged the neo-classical (Greek and Roman) norm. Other examples include Thomas Stirling Lee's famous bronze doors for the old Adelphi Bank (now Caffe Nero) on Castle Street; George Frampton's beloved Peter Pan statue for Sefton Park (he did others for London's Kensington Gardens, Brussels, New Jersey and Newfoundland); and Frederick W Pomeroy's ornate lamp standards and sculptures outside the old Technical College on Byrom Street (now part of World Museum).

Smith was further influenced by Charles Reilly, who became the school head in the early 1900s and steered it towards a new, purer kind of classicism (originating in the United States) that championed monumental Beaux Arts architecture like the India Building designed by his former pupil Herbert Rowse (architect-in-waiting of the Martins Bank Building, Queensway Tunnel and Philharmonic Hall). Later still, Smith worked closely with Lionel Budden, another revered professor from the University.

George Herbert Tyson Smith (left (© NT/E Chambré Hardman Collection www.nationaltrust.org.uk) and Merman on Spinney House, Church Street

George Herbert Tyson Smith (left) (© NT/E Chambré Hardman Collection www.nationaltrust.org.uk) and Merman on Spinney House, Church Street

Aged 29, Smith set up his own practice in 1912 before serving with the Royal Flying Corps in the First World War. In 1925, as the city of Paris staged a seminal exhibition that glorified Art Deco and the Jazz Age, he moved his studio to Bluecoat Chambers while living at 169 Grove Street (top of Myrtle Street).

How best to describe his subsequent sculptural legacy? The mermen on Spinney House and Martins Bank come straight from mythology but resemble pulp-comic caricatures with their beefcake physiques, fin-like girdles and spectacular fish-tails - 'classical motifs reduced to geometric stylisations' as one scholar puts it. It's a style so original that I spotted it straightaway in Portmeirion, North Wales, where a Tyson Smith 'twin-tail' can be found in the grounds along with his rendering of the Liverpool coat of arms on a couple of decorative urns (see my blog on the Sailors Home for Portmeirion's architectural link with the city).

Merman at Portmeirion

Merman at Portmeirion

In contrast, the marching infantrymen on the Cenotaph have been described as startlingly naturalistic, alive with movement yet marching poignantly towards oblivion. On the monument's opposite side, Smith himself appears, trilby in hand, as one of the bereaved citizens - realism taken to its logical conclusion.

Smith, in turn, certainly influenced his Liverpool contemporaries. Edmund C Thompson and George T Capstick, the dynamic sculptural duo who created the symmetrical, Egyptian-like figures on Rowse's George's Dock ventilation tower, were his stylistic cousins. Thompson was actually a real relative of sorts, married to the sister of Edward Carter Preston (chief sculptor of the figures inside the Anglican Cathedral) who in turn was the husband of Smith's own sister.

George Herbert Tyson Smith outlasted them all, reaching the grand old age of 89 as the tradition of decorative sculpture on buildings passed out of fashion by the 1960s and 70s. His legacy, fortunately for Liverpool, lives on.

'Imagine, 40 or 50 years after your death, someone going through your 'stuff' like this. Would you feel offended or appreciated?'


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The Liverpolitan
Published at Brighter Design
Unit 26A, Britannia Pavilion,
Albert Dock, Liverpool, L3 4AD

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