Staying in the public eye
WE don’t exactly boast an Eros, an Angel of the North, a Liver Bird, or a monumental chunk of bronze depicting a rampant Boadicea about to decapitate a cohort of fleeing Romans from her war chariot, as they do elsewhere.
And it is true that you can scour the streets and parks of Swindon for hours on end without being confronted with a Banksy or bumping into a weighty, reclining semi-erotic Henry Moore.
But we do have the mysterious and menacing Wish Hounds, a grinning Gorilla, a noble if admittedly weather-beaten Golden Lion, a metal Cow, a bronze Ram and a voluptuous siren of the silver screen.
This, and a raft of unusual, curious and occasionally inexplicable sculptures, statues and artistic oddments have become a welcome and colourful part of our landscape in recent decades.
These sculpted, carved, glazed, moulded and welded objets d’art are dotted across Swindon’s urban sprawl for the perusal, enjoyment and edification of the public at large, while occasionally prompting its wrath and derision.
You can find them everywhere: peeping over hillsides, nestling in shopping centres, engaging us in parks and springing out of pavements.
And – credit where due – much of it is down to some forward thinking by Swindon council, then known as Thamesdown.
Exactly quarter of a century ago, the authority, with much self-congratulation, hires Blunsdon House Hotel to announce an initiative that will if, not quite transform the face of Swindon, then greatly enhance it.
It is the first council in the UK to adopt a percent for art policy which encourages developers to splash some cash on a work of public art once they have completed their scheme.
It will enable artists to “enhance and improve the quality of the public domain” and “maximise opportunities to engage artists in making artworks for Swindon.”
Being at the heart of a building frenzy, the town swiftly begins to acquire a host of assorted street art ranging from sculptures to mosaics, and fancy seating and paving to stained glass windows.
In 1995 it is moved to issue what at first appears an outlandish statement: “Swindon has more public works of art than anywhere else in the country.” Excuse me?
In a sense, it is true; at least, no-one seems to challenge the pronouncement. Some 37 pieces have been amassed – several created before per cent for art, but most afterwards.
To press home its case, the council issue a snazzy guide called The Works, outlining them all.
Since then, 18 years ago, a couple of dozen more are added. Upon the 25th anniversary of per cent for art, I set out rediscover a few old favourites.
But I am off to a bad start. At the WH Smith HQ in Greenbridge I am seeking Running Man-Walking Man-Standing Man, an otherworldly bronze by Dame Elizabeth Fink (1986.) It is a powerful portrayal of a naked though strangely alien man in motion. “Have you seen Running Man?” I ask various employees at WH Smith. “Not for a while,” “Must have run off” etc.
Peter Logan’s Kinetic Pencils (1991), an “apt and witty comment” on the company’s business, is missing too. It is a giant pole holding up an arrangement of javelin-like pencils. “It broke,” I am told.
WH Smith issue a statement: “These pieces were removed approximately ten to 15 years ago.”
At least Swindon’s faithful Gorilla (1985) is intact: the welded steel primate slumps in Queen’s Park, grinning at children feeding the geese. His rusty looking “twin” Cow (1987) – both by Tom Gleeson – grazes contentedly outside the Great Western Hospital.
A stolid bronze ram, Old Wiltshire Horn (1989) – appropriately fashioned by Jon Buck – sturdily guards a small housing estate off Marlborough Road… a fitting reminder of a livestock market that thrived there for more than a century.
He is made of cement and fibre glass but has the heart – and also the head – of a lion. Golden Lion (1977) in Bridge Street is a winsome reminder of a similar sculpture that once adorned a long gone town centre pub of the same name.
This fella, who seems to be guffawing, is more cuddly than ferocious… but he really deserves a little more TLC.
“You need hands,” sang Max Bygraves. Well, Swindon has a nice pair thanks – and it is 9ft tall. Put them together for Martin Amis’ Applause (2002) which graces the Arts Centre courtyard.
Evocative, ghostly, primeval and with more than just a hint of paganism, Lou Hamilton’s Wish Hounds (1993) – a trio of snarling, snapping, chasing, predatory black dogs – is all of these and more.
This is true: when first erected next to the M4 in Croft Wood – before the scrap steel sculpture was shielded by tree tops – Swindon police received a call from an alarmed motorist reporting a pack of giant dogs on the loose.
The work is steeped in mythology and folklore – the brooding, dark variety. Walk around them and see what you think. It can be an eerie experience… especially at dusk.
To quote its creator: “They are the Guardians of the Earth’s secret; Wish-hounds of the Old Land.”
Whereas our older estates are sadly bereft of such eye-catching installations, West Swindon – developed during the height of the town’s public art mania – is crammed with them. It even boasts a five-mile sculpture walk.
Curvaceous, buxom and positively dripping in Hollywood glamour, John Clinch’s Diana Dors – Film Star (1991) at Shaw Ridge, captures the town’s first sex symbol in her proud, pouting prime.
Hey Diddle Diddle (1992) oozes childhood charm at the Prinnels, while three fibre-glass men – one strangely sporting a bra – chill-out as they contemplate life, the universe and such at Westlea’s laid back Looking to the Future (1985.) A storm of controversy greets Julie Livsey’s White Horse Pacified (1987) at Shaw: an abstract and currently graffiti-strewn take on Wiltshire’s white horse hill carvings. “Tosh, a waste of money, what’s the point,” rail the detractors. There are calls for it to be removed. It might look more like a crab than a horse but isn’t art supposed to be provocative? It is welcome in my back garden any day.
Turning somersaults over quirky acrobatic duo
The leader of Swindon Tories does not mince his words. "I hate it – it’s horrible,” says Mike Bawden.
He is referring to the Great Blondinis – or rather, a sculpture depicting the acrobatic troupe that performed at circuses in Swindon in the 1920s.
Garishly-coloured and 17ft tall, it is fashioned by John Clinch in 1987 with scraps of aluminium from Swindon’s railway works.
For 14 years it is a fixture at Wharf Green but Swindon Tories refuse to sanction any refurbishment of the area that includes retaining the Blondinis.
Mike is hostile because it does not reflect Swindon’s railway heritage. “I wanted a sculpture showing three or four railway men at work, but we ended up with this,” he scoffs.
The piece is carted off and nothing more is seen of the Great Blondinis for eight years. But in 2009 it suddenly reappears, spruced-up and shiny at its new home in St Mark’s recreation ground, Gorse Hill.
I think it is great. I love the male acrobat’s expression as he tentatively holds his partner on his shoulders. He looks as though he is going to drop her any second.
On a brisk evening in 1997 we are in Farnsby Street gazing at a large pillar onto which dozens of strangely shaped tubes have been attached.
It is Swindon’s latest piece of public art – The North Pole; a weird electronic lamp-post that is supposed to react to natural light and glow with colour when darkness descends.
It is getting duskier but nothing happens. The North Pole remains dull and lifeless. The Rolleston is just across the road.
The plan is to have a beer and come back and see what happens.
Twenty minutes later we toddle back and are amazed. The thing works. It is like a huge lollipop that constantly changes colour after dark.
I sometimes drive past it when night falls and say: “Look at the North Pole kids.”
Then it stops working and now it is gone; battered beyond repair by the elements, sadly.