OPINION - There are extraordinary works of art in public spaces. Let’s find them

·4-min read
 (Daniel Hambury)
(Daniel Hambury)

There are bold, bright banners hanging up in Bond Street right now, a bit like giant arty tea-towels. The idea from Royal Academician Mali Morris is that they change their aspect with the changing light through the day. This is where the Royal Academy Summer Show spills over into the neighbourhood. It’s a perfect transitory art form: here for a few months, then gone again. In fact, the banners over Bond Street and in neighbouring Piccadilly are a welcome, relatively new art form, way more fun than the preachy London Is Open slogans that used to annoy passers by. They’re the summer equivalent of the Christmas lights, only for daytime.

It’s the fifth year that we’ve had them, and it’s the fifth year of the Mayfair art trail, a combination of temporary sculpture sponsored mostly by neighbouring art galleries, and permanent pieces given renewed focus from the trail.

So, there’s David Breuer-Weil’s Visitor 1 and Visitor 5 in Berkeley Square. The first is a monumental head, apparently half buried in the soil, which has an Ozymandias aspect; the second is two giant feet projecting out of the grass, looking like something whimsical you might find emerging from a GBBO cake. Another impressive bronze piece called Dancing  features in Grosvenor Square: a man with a twisted shape, his face lifted hopefully, is by Maurice Blik, a Holocaust survivor whose work is curiously life affirming.

There are lots more besides, some fun, some ephemeral, some thought-provoking. They’re temporary and they make the most of London’s outdoor space to show off contemporary art.

Outdoor sculpture in public places can be one of the most life-enhancing aspects of a city. It can ennoble public space with works of grandeur and beauty — previous generations were far better at that than ours is — or it can provide uplifting pleasure to passers by. It really is art for the people; we encounter it in passing — we don’t have to pay to see it. But with permanent statuary, the bar is set far higher; we’ve got to live with this stuff.

And the Mayfair trial usefully draws attention to the permanent pieces we walk by every day. Those at ground level are easiest to encounter. Among them is one of my favourite sculptures: Elizabeth Frink’s Horse and Rider, formerly on Dover Street and now positioned in Old Bond Street near Burlington Arcade, a work of primitive simplicity which feels it could have been made at almost any time and which you can contemplate endlessly. It also features the hideous Allies — Franklin D Roosevelt and Winston Churchill immortalised, alas, in bronze, cigar smoking on a bench — an utterly trite work.

One lesson of the trail is that in London, as any great city, you should lift up your eyes, not to the hills, but as far as the first and second storeys of buildings, where you can see arresting things. One, not far from the Frink, is Anthony Gormley’s Cinch, from 2013, which is a human form that is impressive in its angular anonymity.

Another work that I’m ashamed to say escaped me entirely, is Henry Moore’s Time-Life screen from 1952, where the screen or balustrade is pierced to accommodate four massive carved stones. Moore, who had strong views on the importance of statues in public spaces, wanted them “to be like half-buried pebbles whose form one’s eye instinctively completes”. That work couldn’t be more handily placed in New Bond Street and the reason I’ve missed it is that I just haven’t been looking up enough. We all should.

London has, in fact, an abundance of art tucked away on buildings and in out-of-the-way passages and places. It varies in quality and the more prominent the space, the more glaring the flaws. Take two depictions of Oscar Wilde: one is a striking stylised bas- relief discreetly positioned in a passageway next to the former St James’s Theatre and made by E Bainbridge Copnall in 1957, which you only ever encounter by accident. The other is Maggie Hambling’s utterly hideous  Conversion with Wilde, which makes the great man look as if he is encrusted with undersea horrors.

There’s an abundance of art out there to look at, and the tragedy is that we hardly ever look, I mean, really look, at it. Given that many of us can’t afford to get away this summer, or just prefer to stay in London, this is the time we should search out the art that’s there for us all. You could start with GF Watts’  Physical Energy in Kensington Gardens: it will hit you like a thunderbolt.

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