- since 2011 -

What a carve up

Wednesday, 5 July 2011

Only London surpasses Liverpool for that most accessible of art forms, public sculpture, but are people bothered?

Like most people I was always a bit baffled by Loyd Grossman's love affair with Liverpool. What was the catch? Where was the connection? Why would the guy with the slightly grating voice and fondness for fine dining be, well, arsed championing the 2008 European Capital of Culture bid, let alone becoming chairman of National Museums Liverpool's trustees?

Four Seasons statues, Liverpool Town Hall

Four Seasons statues, Liverpool Town Hall

It's because he's also chairman of the Public Monuments & Sculpture Association (PMSA). About five years ago he presented the excellent History of British Sculpture series on Channel 5 that flitted back and forth between Liverpool and the capital. "Most of us probably walk past a piece of sculpture on our way to work, college or school," he mused. "You probably haven't looked at it properly, but you should."

Liverpool is so significant because it's a microcosm of British taste in sculpture over the ages: from the conventional bronze or marble 'portrait' statues of Victorian times (e.g. King George III on London Road) when tens of thousands of people would turn out for the unveiling ceremonies; to the more symbolic work in the first half of the 20th century found on everything from civic buildings to churches and public houses (like the art nouveau gates of the Philharmonic Hotel).

In 1997 the PMSA decided to catalogue every piece of public sculpture in the British Isles and publish an accompanying series of books, region by region. It started here, and Terry Canavagh's Public Sculpture of Liverpool remains the definitive guide.

Steble Fountain, William Brown Street

Steble Fountain, William Brown Street

There used to be more. Precisely because so much sculpture is displayed outdoors, away from the protective environment of a museum or gallery, it's always at risk. What's left in Liverpool today - 150 monuments - is only what's survived the ravages of town planning, pollution, vandalism, the coastal weather and wartime bombing over the last 200 years. Once there were 10 colossal statues on the Cotton Exchange on Old Hall Street, for instance, now just three remain: the female Navigation and Commerce in the courtyard, and the male River Mersey pouring water over a dolphin outside.

The award-winning Conservation Centre near Queen Square - the first of its kind in the country and the only one open to the public before the recent cutbacks - has helped to reverse the trend, leading the way in laser-cleaning (to remove surface layers of dirt) and 3D digital scanning (to produce highly-accurate replicas replacing original works threatened with further damage).

One of the first statues to be replaced in recent times was the female personification of Liverpool on the roof of the Walker. The original Carrara marble figure by John Warrington Wood (he also did the Michelangelo and Raphael figures outside the gallery) was carved in Rome, shipped to Liverpool and erected here in 1877.

It epitomises an era when local sculptors, many of whom studied in Italy under the grand master Antonio Canova, were patronised by city leaders and 'merchant princes' keen to leave their mark on Liverpool for posterity. Warrington Wood's original was replaced by an exact marble replica from China in 1993 and now stands in the foyer of the Conservation Centre.

Minerva atop Liverpool Town Hall (left) and Jacob Epstein's 'Dicky Lewis'

Minerva atop Liverpool Town Hall (left) and Jacob Epstein's 'Dicky Lewis'

After the Victorian obsession with civic pride came an explosion of rich and expressive architectural decoration in the early 1900s by the likes of such as George Herbert Tyson Smith, Charles Allen and Edward Carter Preston. Collectively known as 'the New Sculpture', these works were often executed by graduates from the city's prolific School of Architecture and were a bridge to the modern era signified by Jacob Epstein's Liverpool Resurgent (Dicky Lewis) in 1956 and a flurry of abstract steel and concrete creations in and around the University Precinct. All a far cry from Minerva, the earliest free-standing statue in the city (1799) and still in good nick above the Town Hall.

Appetite whetted? Here are 10 more works of sculpture definitely worth a look:

  1. The bronze memorial to the King's Liverpool Regiment in St John's Gardens.
  2. The limestone Triton lamp-bearers, male and female, around St George's Hall.
  3. The construction workers monument at Gerard Gardens behind World Museum.
  4. The Four Seasons overlooking Exchange Flags from the Town Hall.
  5. The Steble Fountain's cast-iron Neptune and sea nymphs on Commutation Row.
  6. The mythical beasties on the walls of Mersey Chambers near the Strand.
  7. The bronze memorial to Sir Alfred Lewis Jones, shipowner, at the Pier Head.
  8. The terracotta reliefs above the former Eye & Ear Infirmary on Myrtle Street.
  9. The graceful angels on the walls of the old Wellington Rooms on Mount Pleasant.
  10. The twin sphinxes guarding the University's Faculty of Arts off Brownlow Hill.

'Liverpool is so significant because it's a microcosm of British taste in sculpture over the ages'


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

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