Sculptors at war

Professor Glynn Williams, head of the school of fine art at the Royal College of Art, is a man whose opinions are prized by the cultural establishment.

By contrast Ian Walters, the award-winning sculptor, draws support from the labour and trade union movement. Both love their art, but they have little time for each other.

The two will clash very publicly over plans to erect a new statue of Nelson Mandela in Trafalgar Square, London. Walters, acclaimed sculptor of campaigner Trevor Huddlestone, suffragette Sylvia Pankhurst and former British prime minister James Callaghan, is the artist commissioned.
As envisaged by the mayor of London, his statue would take pride of place in front of the National Gallery in Trafalgar Square.

The stumbling block is Williams, who will launch a scathing attack on Walters and his statue at a public inquiry that starts on Tuesday. The professor will appear for Westminster council, which dislikes the proposed statue and the prime location sought by Ken Livingstone.

Documents show there will be few holds barred. The professor’s submission says: “My main objection to the proposed sculpture is the quality of the work on offer. I believe this to be a run-of-the mill mediocre modelling in an attempt to get a mimetic likeness.” He says the problem is not just the proposed sculpture but Walters. “In my opinion, a sculptor of more originality and inventiveness should have been chosen so a lasting piece of artistic heritage will be left.”

But the professor may take some flak himself. It is not just that Walters has many supporters, including Mandela, the mayor and Tony Benn. There is also the matter of a previous occasion, in 1998, when Walters won the commission to create a sculpture of Lord Wilson of Rievaulx, the former prime minister, for Huddersfield Art Gallery. That time there was a competition. Among the losers was Williams.

Walters said of the professor’s submission: “I think it is taking things a little bit far. I hope the inquiry will form their own assumptions from what they see. Artists in the past have had to put up with this kind of criticism, but eventually their work has been accepted. I hope mine will be.”

Williams said he stood by his criticism. “London has good art from hundreds of years ago. It was good at the time and it is good now. Bad art tends to fade away.” He said the fate of the Huddersfield commission did not affect his judgement. “I had totally forgotten who won that thing.”

Westminster council has three times refused planning permission for the statue to be sited in front of the National Gallery because it says it would spoil the look of the square. It wants a statue placed in front of South Africa House. Its opposition is supported by English Heritage. In his submission, the architect Paul Velluet, who has worked for Westminster and English Heritage, has told the inquiry that the statue as envisaged would “unacceptably compromise” the north side of the square. Tim Owen, an assistant planning director at Westminster, claims it would hamper the staging of special events, while Paul Drury, a chartered surveyor who will give evidence on behalf of English Heritage, says the statue is too small and the proposed site “has no logic in relation to the existing layout”.

Robert Tavernor, professor of architecture and urban design at the London School of Economics, argues that the statue will “enhance the symmetry of the Square”, while Veronica Ricks, vice-principal of the Heatherley School of Fine Art in Chelsea, says it is “worthy of its proposed location”.

The debate will also address the way decisions are made about public art. Livingstone will argue that too many decisions are made by a relatively small group of politicians and experts who indulge their own tastes.—Â

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