Art-historian, Dr. Tracy Anderson, an Associate Tutor at the University of Sussex reviews the PMSA’s latest volume in the Public Sculpture of Britain series.
Public Sculpture of Sussex by Jill Seddon, Peter Seddon and Anthony McIntosh
PMSA National Recording Project, Public Sculpture of Britain series, Vol. XVII
Hardback ISBN: 9781781381250 (RRP £45.00)
Publication date: November 2014
Publisher: Liverpool University Press, 340pp., 240 b.&w. illus.
Public Sculpture of Sussex is the seventeenth and latest volume in the Public Sculpture of Britain series. It is an impressive book, which combines detailed local knowledge of the county’s public sculpture with an implicit awareness of the critical debates and perspectives that have underpinned recent studies of sculpture. Sculpture is broadly defined and includes examples of temporary installations such as Richard Wilson’s Hang on a minute lads, I’ve got a great idea, vernacular pieces including the King and Queen inn sign in Marlborough Place, Brighton and lost works, for example, Edwin Stirling’s Prince Albert Memorial Clock Tower, once in Hastings but demolished in 1973.
Whilst Sussex is not notable for its public sculpture, this book is a sharp reminder that there are, nevertheless, a significant number of important pieces in the county that reflect its historic mix of urban, rural and seaside communities and its religious, aristocratic, royal and civic patronage. The romanesque Lazarus panels in Chichester Cathedral, John Flaxman’s Madonna and Child in St Mary the Virgin at Petworth, Thomas Brock’s Queen Victoria in Hove, Elizabeth Frink’s Desert Quartet in Worthing and Maggi Hambling’s The Resurrection Spirit at Mayfield are works that exemplify the range and quality of sculpture produced across the county from the medieval period to the present day. The volume does not claim to be a comprehensive survey though there are some surprising omissions, the carved norman font from St Nicholas, Brighton and John Skelton’s Janus Head in Southover Grange Gardens, Lewes being two examples of these.
The book is divided into four parts, opening with a substantial introductory essay, followed by the main catalogue of individual pieces. It is divided broadly, following Pevsner’s architectural guides, into East and West Sussex, and then alphabetically into towns and villages. Individual entries are full and informative. The authors draw on an impressive range of published sources as well as some archival material and the description of each piece is embedded, where known, in its cultural and artistic context. Third and fourth sections on artists’ biographies and a select bibliography conclude.
The introductory chapter mediates on the historical development of sculpture in the county. The distinct geography and geology of the county combined with its proximity to London shaped its economic, social and cultural development and the growth of its infrastructure. From the middle of the eighteenth century the emergence of the seaside resort as a place of health and healing, of leisure and tourism resulted in the proliferation of public spaces suitable for the display of sculpture. Rural Sussex was a fertile terrain for thoughts and ideas which inspired many artists: Edward Burne-Jones in Rottingdean, the Bloomsbury group at Charleston, Eric Gill in Ditchling and Roland Penrose and Lee Miller at Farley Farm, near Chiddingly. Many major sculptural works executed in Sussex, most notably those by Eric Gill, have moved out of the county and are now in London or elsewhere. The same is true of works from Cass Sculpture Foundation at Goodwood, where many of pieces that are commissioned and displayed are later sold on.
Due weight is given to the importance of patronage whether it be the private patronage of landed aristocrats like the 3rd Earl of Egremont, ecclesiastics such as Walter Hussey at Chichester or the public and civic art programmes of the latter part of the twentieth century in the new towns of Crawley and Gatwick. The importance of health and well-being to the production of sculpture in the county is acknowledged particularly in relation of the commissioning of sculpture to enhance hospital environments in Brighton, Worthing and Chichester.
An understanding that the meaning of sculpture is dynamic is implicit in the discussion of the critical reception of pieces. Changing public attitudes to Elizabeth Frink’s Desert Quartet once derided but now celebrated, or in Hamish Black’s Afloat, now popularly known as ‘the doughnut’ and appropriated as a visual icon of Brighton are examples of this. Other works, not originally intended as sculpture have become so as in the Long Man of Wilmington. The authors admirably show that meaning in sculpture is always a collaboration between maker and viewer. Even neglect is an active choice.
This is an important, well-researched and thoughtfully compiled survey of the public sculpture of Sussex. It will be an essential starting point for the serious student of sculpture, valuable for local historians and interesting and accessible for the general reader, though for the latter a glossary would have been useful. A slight quibble, but it is a pity that in a few cases the quality of the photographs is wanting. It would have been good to be able to see some of the details discussed in the text, the 8th Duke of Devonshire’s pince-nez in Edward Alfred Briscoe Drury’s work in Eastbourne or John Denman’s angels and children on the War Memorial at Buxted. All the more reason though to head off into Sussex and see some of these pieces in the round. This highly informative and well-researched book certainly makes one want to do that.