Sir Alfred Munnings

Large bad statue


Public art. As a concept, we should embrace it: art for everyone, in an open and democratic space; its purpose to brighten our day, or provoke comment, or simply make us look at our familiar cityscape anew. And there have been many brilliant examples in London. The fourth plinth project in Trafalgar Square (where the giant blue cock, the subject of a previous post, is still crowing); Charles Sargeant Jagger’s Royal Artillery Memorial at Hyde Park Corner; Anish Kapoor’s ArcelorMittal Orbit in the Olympic Park (which was promptly closed as soon as the big event was over; I am looking forward to its reopening); absolutely anything by Moore or Hepworth.


So when the powers that be get these things right, they are extraordinary and vital additions to the environment. But when they get them wrong …

I have always hated Maggie Hambling’s ‘bench’ sculpture, A Conversation with Oscar Wilde. I compare this to Wilde’s grave, designed by the great Jacob Epstein, which must be one of the most beautiful and appropriate memorials ever created – with Epstein’s stylised male angel in flight, his wings like a ocean spreading behind him. To be fair to Hambling, I have mentioned her Scallop in a previous post, a tribute to Benjamin Britten and Aldeburgh and Peter Grimes, a remarkable piece which is for me wholly successful. But there are several things that work against her Wilde. Firstly, the strange composition, with Wilde’s bronze head emerging from a dark granite block that’s more like a grave – its role as a bench is not apparent, nor is the cold hard granite particularly inviting as a seat. The location doesn’t help – in a thoroughfare behind St Martin’s, across from Charing Cross Station; not a place many people think to stop (apart from the winos who congregate around the tube station exit). The head itself resembles a twisted mass of spaghetti or a horror movie zombie. It’s a strange, misguided piece.


But not as shocking as Meeting Place, the monstrous sculpture of two lovers embracing, like Rodin’s Kiss re-envisioned by Jack Vettriano. It is too huge to ignore, spoiling the beautiful lines of the magnificent St Pancras Station. There was a story that Ruskin used to make a long and indirect detour in his daily walk to avoid having to look at Keble College in Oxford (which offended his architectural sensibilities); no such opportunity for innocent commuters. I was coming off the train, having spent a lovely weekend in Paris, only to encounter the ghastly sight – it’s practically the first thing you see when you arrive in London on Eurostar. Antony Gormley (whose works of public art are always appropriate and resonant – just look at the way people have embraced his Angel of the North or his figures on Crosby Beach) has referred to it as ‘crap’. The sculptor is Paul Day – not exactly a household name – but a quick look on Wikipedia shows that he has other public works on display in London and Brussels. When his monumental piece for St Pancras was unveiled, he came out fighting:

This is not an art work that is going to be selected for the Turner Prize. It isn’t a Damien Hirst sculpture of a pregnant woman stripped down to the constituent parts. It is diametrically opposed to that sort of art. It isn’t about a cynical world view or the artist’s glory.

Some will say it is a chocolate box sculpture. But I don’t want it to be bound by the prevailing view of art. Meeting Place is an appeal to universal values.


I don’t see how a sculpture of a pregnant woman, by Damien Hirst or anyone else, represents a ‘cynical world view’. Also, I would be interested to know what the ‘prevailing view of art’ is exactly, at least as far as Day is concerned. He seems to be defending his own work, and at the same time attacking what he considers to be modern, and therefore not appealing ‘to universal values’. It’s like Munnings attacking Picasso (and who is the more famous of the two today?). Day’s attitude infuriates me, even more than his terrible sculpture, the idea that he’s presenting what people want, a radical campaigner in his extraordinary Daily Mail-type conservatism. Talk about ego …

Speaking of which, what government department, what small group of individuals with clearly no taste but plenty of opinions (and a control of the purse strings – Day’s piece cost £1 million), was actually responsible for choosing it?


Although I am interested in what is contemporary in art, it doesn’t necessarily mean that I would want Hirst’s pregnant woman encountering me in the train station. It goes without saying that public art should be appropriate to its surroundings. Further along the concourse at St Pancras is a work which is not shouting its value systems at its viewers. It is a conventional, figurative piece of sculpture which is also never going to be up for the Turner, but it is a perfect little celebration of one person – the poet John Betjeman – who, as the laureate of both the Northern suburbs of London and the great Victorian structures of the city, would be delighted to find himself, a compass point, in the middle of the throng, his raincoat catching the breeze like a sail.

A nice bunch of daffs


They are a problem for poets, daffodils. Our group pondered this quandary while looking out the window at a “host” of them (that being the most appropriate collective noun) during the weekend workshop at Mendham Mill in Norfolk, an impossibly idyllic spot, and the birthplace of that painter of quintessentially mannered English landscapes, Sir Alfred Munnings (infamous for his attacks on modernism, particularly in his agreement with Winston Churchill that Picasso needed a good kick up the ass).

They are pretty, there is no doubt, especially this time of year when the sun is shining and they are growing in attractive clusters along the verges and by the river, but they are the flower equivalent of Hallmark cards, of sub-Renoir landscapes favoured by weekend painters and displayed in provincial galleries around the country, of Doris Day (although she’s probably more daisy than daff), of barefoot sing-alongs.

Apart from their appearance, they have a very silly-sounding name, perhaps to disassociate them from their botanical genus, Narcissus, which has those other obvious connotations of vanity and death. All flowers of the Narcissi variety are poisonous, and there was an incident a couple of years ago where a number of children fell ill after mistaking a daffodil bulb for an onion during a cookery class at a school in Martlesham (not far from where we were sitting looking at the daffs benignly swaying in the breeze along the Waveney). And florists are known to be afflicted with a condition known as “daffodil itch”. So really, they are nasty little buggers.

But obviously Wordsworth was unaffected by this knowledge, as he viewed them “Beside the lake, beneath the trees, / fluttering and dancing in the breeze. “ Ugh. No wonder we have not found a way to redeem them, to make them edgy and sexy like the rose, or gothically pensive, like the lily. We may never know if there is any truth to the story that Dorothy convinced William to change the first line, which is said to have originally read “I wandered lonely as a cow”, no doubt based on the irrefutable fact that cows are most often seen in herds, but chiefly because it is a shockingly bad line. As Dorothy often made shrewd editorial suggestions regarding her brother’s poems, it is not impossible. But even if she was partly responsible for what has become one of the most famous opening lines in English poetry, she could not improve the rest.

Why is it that the poem, like the flower itself, seems so “naff” to our modern ear? It was written in a time of grief, after the death of Wordsworth’s brother, John, and that knowledge certainly makes more poignant the revelation of the poet’s “vacant” and “pensive” moods.  Yes, there is no doubt they cheer us up, these bright and inoffensive blooms.  Perhaps his bliss seems too easily earned. Perhaps the rhymes, the words, feel too Victorian, too polite, in our post-confessional age.

At the same time, I rather envy Wordsworth this simple revelation, this moment which is able to lift his heart. The Romans used narcissus bulbs as a medicinal erodent; a poison, which, if treated correctly, could disperse poisons.  Maybe we’ve lost the ability to look on the daffodil as a balm to treat what ills us, and certainly we’ve lost the ability to write about it. So is there a way to redeem the daffodil – at the very least, to be able to write without cliché about the beauty of place, to celebrate spring ?

We still have the capability to feel these things, don’t we?