The Planning Exchange commissioned this article in 1995 for a comprehensive CD on the history of the post WW2 new towns in the UK. The CD covers every aspect of the planning and building of the new towns.
PUBLIC ART IN THE BRITISH NEW TOWNS
It is not surprising that the new town development corporations were to the fore in using art as part of the structural design of the towns they were commissioned to build. As in so many other ways the creation of the new towns in post WW2 Britain offered, for good or ill, the opportunity to implement radical ideas and policies. Why not in the use of art? As Colin Ward states in his book, “New Town, Home Town” (1) ‘… if anyone wanted to see contemporary public sculpture in Britain, it would be necessary to tour, not our historic old towns, but our New Towns.’ Different patterns of this use of art emerge and I will describe these by examining in detail the experience of relatively few new towns which I regard as significant since a detailed examination of the art produced by all the new towns is beyond the scope of this paper. By so doing it recognises that some towns made an early and major commitment to using art as part of their development and others did not. I must also confess that the description of one of the towns I have selected, Glenrothes, will be autobiographical.
I will refer only to art that has been used as part of the external environment, as part of the built form and readily visible urbanity of the towns and not with the many and varied art works which are to be found in the interiors of buildings. When external murals, whether cast-relief or painted, or wall surfaces and textures, are included, then the term ‘public sculpture’ is not sufficient. ‘Public art’ is the more embracing term and I use it, in its loosest sense, to mean art that is to be found in unregulated, external public spaces.
In 1969 while in the process of organising a tour of new towns to look at examples of public art, Peterlee and Harlow were the towns I was most recommended to visit. Without a full knowledge of every single new town it would be safe to suggest that most, if not all, have commissioned some public art. What is striking about Peterlee and Harlow is that very early in their development both had made a very serious commitment to the role that art could play. They also exemplify two fundamentally different approaches to that role. Put at its simplest one could say that Peterlee invested in the artist and Harlow invested in the artwork. In neither case did these approaches derive from a considered policy of the respective development corporations but rather as the result of the convictions of one or two strong-minded individuals with vision who held positions of power. (the cycle paths at Stevenage came about in similar circumstances) In Peterlee A.V. Williams, the General Manager, was responsible for the employment of the artist Victor Pasmore. In Harlow Frederick Gibberd, as Master Planner, pushed through the aims of the Harlow Arts Trust to purchase sculptures for the town. There could not be a clearer distinction than that posed by these two towns in setting the different patterns in which artists and artworks could be used in the planning, design and building processes of towns. It would be well, at this point, to dwell on the differing experiences of Peterlee and Harlow.
In the wake of Berthold Lubetkin’s resignation from his brief with Peterlee, A.V. Williams, with his commitment to challenging architecture made, in 1955, the still astonishing decision, to employ one of Britain’s foremost abstract artists as a consultant to lead a team of architects in the design of a new housing development in the south west area of the town. As Richard Cork writes in the book, “Architect’s Choice – Art In Architecture In Great Britain Since 1945,” (2) ‘Although the Ministry and the RIBA were horrified by his appointment and tried to get rid of him, Williams remained firm and gave Pasmore his head.’ Here was the long-awaited opportunity for an artist to be involved with planners and architects from the very inception of a building project. In reviewing Pasmore’s contribution in the “Architectural Review.” (3), J.M.Richards wrote, ‘The first results were illustrated in AR in 1961 and have aroused widespread interest, not only for what they are, but for the possibilities they show for architect- artist collaboration over fundamentals – not simply over the decoration of wall surfaces.’ Pasmore involved himself totally in the overall design of layouts, house-types, facades, landscape and all the details related to the design of a residential area. Deanna Petherbridge observes, ‘Pasmore’s influence, in terms of his own constructivist idiom – in balancing of voids, masses and linear emphases, the choice of contrasting materials and the use of black and white – was highly praised at the time, but has subsequently, and perhaps unjustly, been severely criticised.’ (4) It was said, at the time that he objected to tenants’ gardens and the their choice of curtains where it affected the purity of his formal concept. Pasmore’s links with Peterlee lasted twenty or more years and his contribution to the town requires further detailed appraisal and examination. My own view is that the deterministic modernism of Pasmore, (as much a fault of architects of the period as well) does not lend itself to what is essentially suburban housing design. Pasmore allowed himself a sculptural flourish in the “Apollo Pavilion” (1963) at Sunny Blunts, a massive structure in concrete straddling a stream flowing from a small lake. ‘It stands today,’ says Richard Cork, ‘as a fascinating example of how contemporary artists can translate their concerns into wholly architectural terms, and how even the restricted budget of a new town is able, given the necessary degree of commitment, to yield funding for a purely imaginative feat.’ (5)
In Harlow it was very different. Instead of using an artist to work with architects to attempt an integration of art and architecture, the Harlow Arts Trust (6) was set up in 1953 to purchase sculptures to place around the town. Works by Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth and Lynn Chadwick were among the first to be acquired and these, along with subsequent acquisitions and commissions, were placed in residential and town centre locations. This policy could be described as turning the streets and squares of the town into a museum for the enjoyment of art for its own sake, unrelated in any way to the environment or culture into which it was placed. Richard Cork considers that, ‘The weakness of such an approach lies however in its failure to develop a more integral accord between the art-works and the townscape they are intended to enliven.’ (7) Some artists, commissioned to make sculptures, did attempt to relate them to specific sites. Ralph Brown’s ‘Meat Porters,’ in the markets area of the town, is a good example of this but the work remains traditionally plinth-bound.
Seventy years before Rodin had fought with the city council of Calais to have his commissioned sculpture, “The Burghers of Calais,” placed on the ground. He failed and today the sculpture sits on a plinth, as does the cast next to the Houses of Parliament in London. However a visit to the Rodin Museum in Paris reveals the work as Rodin had intended – on the ground, slightly larger than life size its powerful expressiveness overwhelming the viewer with its very proximity. Harlow’s policy of purchasing and placing sculpture was in keeping with current practices in other western towns and cities. The purchase of a sculpture by Henry Moore for placing outside a new building, both here and abroad, seemed to become an ubiquitous imperative. There were also some commissions to artists to produce new sculptures though rarely did the resulting works bear any strong association with their locations. This gave rise to a number of derogatory terms for these works such as, ‘parachute art’, ‘plonk art’, ‘the turd in the plaza’ and ‘cultural shrubbery.’ The thinking and practice of many artists had begun to change and notions such as ‘site-specificity’ and ‘the context is half the work’ had begun to affect art practice. Artists objected to the limitations of the traditional commissioned sculpture and demanded opportunities to integrate their work more fully, not only as part of the physical environment, but also, and perhaps more critically, as part of the social and cultural environment in which the works were to exist.
It was in this climate of change that I wrote to several old and new towns in Scotland suggesting that they might employ me as their artist. I did not yet know of Pasmore’s work but I had heard that the new towns of Skelmersdale and Cumbernauld had engaged artists and that artists were working for the London County Council Housing Department. I did not write to Glenrothes but serendipity played a part as the Chief Architect, Merlyn Williams and his deputy, John Coghill, had decided that the town, with one or two major commissions already in place, should have an artist of its own. The post was advertised in the national press, interviews were held and I was appointed in September 1968. I moved to the town and decided to rent a council house in order to experience new town living at first hand. I joined the Planning Department and set up my studio in the Direct Labour workshops among the joiners, plumbers, bricklayers, etc. Later I became a member of UCATT, the building workers’ union.
As an artist I had already developed what could be described as a ‘contextual’ practice. This was reinforced by working in Nigeria for four years which had sensitised me to the notion of cultural imperialism. I certainly wanted to contribute as an artist to the developing built environment of the town but was also concerned to create opportunities for other townspeople to do so as well. Mark1 new towns were mostly built on greenfield sites and the citizenry had been imported. Thus new communities were struggling to form with little shared history and tradition and often with broken extended-family relationships. Glenrothes was little different and it seemed to me that one of the areas in which an artist could operate was in creating memorable landmarks within the fairly uniform, Radburn-type, housing areas and the incorporation of ‘marks’, however small, by local people. I organised groups of primary school children into modeling in relief their own individual ceramic tiles and signing them on the front. These were then fired and cemented onto walls adjacent to their local play areas. Secondary school pupils and adults painted murals and participated in other art projects. On one occasion I contrived, with some necessary subterfuge, a situation in which tenants were able to choose the colours of their own front doors; an unprecedented act at the time.
Meanwhile I was contributing ideas for art as a member of the various design teams in housing, commercial, industrial, landscape and civil engineering developments. Soon a clause was inserted into all planning briefs handed on to the design teams which stated that, ‘the artist is to be consulted at every stage of development.’ Another precedent had been created. As the scale and scope of opportunities increased the development corporation set up one-year postgraduate ‘apprenticeships’ for graduating art students to work with me. Later I was also able to offer training to 16 year old school leavers.
All of these things added a new aesthetic, creative and cultural layer to the town which in turn generated others arts activities particularly in theatre, performance and music. A centre was developed which offered housing and studios for artists to live and work and a ‘writer’s house’ was set up which was offered, rent-free, annually to a different writer.
The term ‘Town Artist’ was coined by an acquaintance, Paul Millichip, (8) when I asked him to try to define my role at Glenrothes. I liked the sound of it and proceeded to promote it and, more importantly, to define it. A town artist had to be a contributing member of the planning department of a town, collaborate with the various design teams and be engaged on a long-term, full-time basis. This was not the artist as consultant nor, what was soon to be described as the ‘artist-in-residence.’ This was the artist as a fully functioning member of the staff employed to design and build a town. (9) Richard Cork’s assessment was that, ‘David Harding was able….. to produce a series of deliberately varied works for a community he grew to understand with exceptional intimacy…….. they were all informed by a knowledge of the locality as it evolved and this sense of engagement compared very favourably with the suspicion which blighted other attempts at collaboration between artists and architects of the period.’ (10)
Over the years numerous visitors came to Glenrothes to see at first hand how an artist could be fully employed in the development of a town. Many of these were staff from other towns, old and new. In 1973 East Kilbride engaged my first postgraduate assistant, Stanley Bonnar, creator of the herds of hippos roaming the streets of Glenrothes. He worked for East Kilbride for five years contributing sculptures and murals and worked as a member of the design team which prepared proposals for the ‘never-to-be- built’ Stonehouse New Town. In 1985 East Kilbride appointed Keith Donnelly, another artist with Glenrothes experience, as Environmental Art Officer. He is a member of the Planning Department and, while making his own art works, he has set up annual funding to employ younger artists on a variety of projects. He has set up several artist-residences and artists, such as Wendy Taylor, have carried out major commissions. Livingston appointed Denis Barns as Town Artist, in 1974. As well as his own work, he organised a number of commissions by well-established artists the most significant of which is “Wave Wall” by Ian Hamilton Finlay. Barns soon had over thirty people working for him as artists, tradesmen and labourers all housed in well-appointed studios and workshops. The whole enterprise came to be run as a business which he took out of the development corporation and set it up as a company to market art-works. The company was named “Town Art” which devalued the idealism of the original concept. Irvine took an entirely different approach employing a new artist-in- residence every two years, each with very different skills ranging from stained glass to printmaking. Stevenage employed Simon Jones, another product of the Glenrothes postgraduate scheme. His work centred on working with community groups. Peterborough appointed a town artist, Francis Gomilla, while at the same time implemented a ‘Harlow policy’ of purchasing and commissioning sculptures and placing them around the town. Milton Keynes commissioned numerous sculptures by artists such as Lilian Lijn, Bernard Schottlander and Wendy Taylor, as well as employing several artists in a variety of different roles. Brian Milne designed play areas with sculptures and equipment, while John Csaky designed large-scale landscape projects. The artist who created Milton Keynes’ most famous sculpture, ‘The Cows’, was Liz Leyh. As a member of the community arts group, Inter-Action, she moved to Milton Keynes on a one-year residency funded by the Arts Council of Great Britain in 1974. She remained a further three years funded by the development corporation running an open-door studio policy, inviting the participation of local people in numerous art projects. (11) Many of these activities were initiated by an officer, Cindy Hargate, of the town’s Arts and Entertainment Group. Employing artists as part of leisure and recreation departments became more common in England. This was to be regretted as it diminished their ability to contribute as artists at key levels of decision-making. As members of planning and architecture departments artists had the opportunity to exert some influence at an early stage of developments, whereas in others they were limited to responding to finished plans and completed developments.
I resigned in 1978 as a member Glenrothes Development Corporation after ten years and the town immediately advertised for another artist to take my place. Malcolm Robertson was appointed and worked there for twelve years. Since much of the major planning and development decisions had been made by the time he took up his post, he was less able to contribute at those crucial early stages. The town continued to spread its influence to other towns in the employment of artists. In 1981, after a visit to Glenrothes by the Principal Planning Officer and the Arts Officer of Runcorn, it appointed Diane Gorvin as town artist, a post she held for five years. Many new towns encouraged and funded community art projects, the products of which often spilled over into publicly sited art works. Telford, Corby and Northampton, among others, all had thriving community art groups.
The new town development corporations are being wound down and the towns handed over to local authority control. Regrettably there is a worrying pattern is emerging of disinterest on the part of the new local councils in the rich inheritance of public art. Those artists still employed at the time of the handovers have had their contracts ended and it seems that the art works themselves are at risk. A reluctance in some towns to maintain the works is becoming evident. In Peterborough, on the other hand, many of the sculptures have been removed from their street locations and placed in a sculpture park. The reason given for this dramatic change of policy is that the sculptures need to be protected from vandalism.
There cannot be any doubt that the new towns have played a major role in the development of public art practices in the UK. Several towns created collections of sculptures through the purchase of existing works and commissioning new contemporary works. These were often, but not exclusively, placed around the towns without any strong contextual reference. In the 60’s and 70’s many artists were beginning to demand more than this. They sought more and more to integrate their work with the built and social environment and to be involved, at the outset, with architects and planners in collaborative ventures. Pasmore’s position at Peterlee must stand as one of the first and certainly the most important example of artist/architect collaborations in the post-war era. He wrote in 1969 ” To sum up: urban design is essentially an architectural problem both in its practical and psychological function. The role of the artist therefore, should not have to go beyond that of specialised individuation. But at those times when town planning reaches a state of overwhelming magnitude in terms of quantitative, economic and technical considerations, the architectural factor (in its psychological function), may well have to be reinforced by collaboration with the other visual arts.”
No other artist had been put in such a position of influence. It created the precedent for other towns to follow and particularly the setting up of the post at Glenrothes which was then replicated by towns old and new, both here and abroad. In these situations artists, by the very nature of their employment, were working collaboratively, not only with planners and architects, but also civil engineers and landscape architects. The integration of the art works into the very heart of the physical and social development of the towns became the imperative, expanding the conceptual framework for public art and thereby influencing its development. Unfortunately the arts councils of the UK did not show much enthusiasm for these progressive initiatives in collaboration by the new towns and the artists they employed. They were more interested to continue to promote only the individual artist and artwork rather than learn from the unique precedent created by Pasmore and the new town of Peterlee. From the fifties to the seventies, almost exclusively, the new towns were the places in Britain where new opportunities were created for artists and architects to work together to create new environments and redefine new forms of public art for our time.
‘New Town, Home Town’, Colin Ward. Pub………..’93
‘Architect’s Choice – Art and Architecture in Great Britain since1945’, Eugene Rosenberg. Text by Richard Cork. Pub. Thames and Hudson, ’92
‘Housing at Peterlee’, J.M. Richards, ‘Architectural Review’ April ’67, pp 271-2
‘The Town Artist Experiment’, Deanna Petherbridge, ‘Architectural Review’ no. 990, Aug. ’79 pp 125-9
Richard Cork ibid
The Harlow Arts Trust was proposed by Maurice Ash (later head of the Town and Country Planning Association) and to Lady Gibberd the credit for maintaining its influence over many years.
Richard Cork ibid
At the time, Head of Environmental Design, Barnet College.
see ‘Glenrothes Town Artist’, pub. Glenrothes Development Corporation, ’75.
Richard Cork ibid
‘Artists and People’, Su Braden pub. RKP/Gulbenkian, ’78, pp38-62