Just like Marmite! Our love-hate affair with public art

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

Damien Hirst's Verity stands warrior-like over Ilfracombe bay, but she is far from universally welcome. At least, not yet...

Verity is her name, though some feel she's a bit Hannibal Lecter for their taste. Welcome to Ilfracombe, scene of the latest public art controversy, where a 66ft sculpture of a naked woman was erected on Wednesday. Cast in bronze, she holds a sword aloft and stands looking out to sea, apparently in a "modern allegory of truth and justice". Trouble is, half her womb is also hanging out.

Click here or 'View Gallery' to launch the gallery

"Brilliant," was one local's reaction. "Monstrous," was another's. This is the work of Damien Hirst, after all. The 47-year-old Brit artist took a shine to this small Devon town a decade ago. Now, having bought a home here and opened a restaurant, he has made yet another generous contribution to the local economy. That's one way of looking at in. Another is to see Verity as a typical bit of Hirst willy-waving: an attention-seeking act of narcissism dumped on these guiltless Devonians.

After all, what has a pregnant woman with pointy nipples got to do with a West Country fishing village? Well, it was a bit parky on Wednesday. And, as we have learnt, public art takes a while to get used to.

Take Angel of the North. What benefit could a crude and rust-coloured birdman bring to the Gateshead stretch of the A1? "Bad taste on a vast scale," said some locals, who thought £800,000 could have been better spent. "Angel of Death," chimed others, predicting motorway pile-ups. But opinion has gradually swung behind it, and Antony Gormley's artwork is now credited with prompting the regeneration of Gateshead that has occurred over the past 15 years.

The first rule of public art is that it has to be big. The second is it has to be bold. The whole point is to start a conversation, to get people talking, whether they like it or not. A good piece of public art engages people in a way that a building or bridge wouldn't. But whether it's the size, or the irrelevance, or the apparent waste of money that people object to, often it's just the novelty.

"These things tend to grow on people. Over time these sculptures do become symbols of their regions, and replace other symbols or negative images," says Jonathan Banks of Ixia, a public art think-tank organisation. But they can also bring out the worst in a community.

In Shepton Mallet, a roundabout was decorated with concrete sheep, known as the "Rock Flock" by local sculptor Jeff Body. But within weeks of Sheep being installed in 2005, the sculptures were savagely attacked with a hammer. Body soon restored them; and today, they are a much-loved landmark, with their own Facebook Group featuring photos of them wearing woolly hats.

In Birmingham, the famous Bullring shopping area in the city centre was commemorated with a bronze bull, twice the size of an actual animal. Though instantly popular, The Bull soon attracted the wrong kind of attention, when "Moyner" and "Hasan" scratched their names on it.

Usually, once initial reaction has subsided, vandalism is less likely. One exception was Willow Man, erected in 2000 on the M5 near Bridgwater. Coming two years after Angel of the North, it inevitably became "Angel of the South". But despite initial enthusiasm, a year later it was destroyed in an arson attack. Serena de la Hey, the sculptor, was devastated, but remade it.

In Kent, planning permission has been granted for a giant white horse to adorn the bleak Ebbsfleet Valley, but building has yet to begin. The delay has partly been caused by the realisation money must be put aside for its maintenance. The cost of cleaning off expected graffiti has sent the budget soaring from £2m to £12m. Even so, it is hoped Mark Wallinger's White Horse of Ebbsfleet could do for this depressed industrial area what Gormley's angel did for Gateshead.

Down the A39 in Ilfracombe, the Verity effect is already being felt. "A midweek day in October is not usually very busy," notes Felicity Cowley from the Driftwood art gallery. "We've had loads of people in." Others will take more time to get used to the new arrival. "I feel very sorry for people who may have to look at it every day," sniffs hotel manager Sue Dale. To those struggling to see the point of Verity, perhaps the only consolation is that nothing lasts for ever: the statue is due to come down in 20 years. But if the brief history of public art has taught us anything, it is that even the doom-mongers will have got used to her by then.

Additional reporting by Daisy Stenham

Willow Man

Where The M5 near Bridgwater

Who by Serena de la Hey

When 2000

What they said then "One of the most visible of our Year of the Artist projects. People are already showing their appreciation. The Willow giant is something people of Somerset are going to be proud of."

Nick Capaldi; South West Arts chief executive

What they say now "I had no idea the council intended to build houses here, let alone a giant warehouse. As I understand, houses are going to be built on the north side of the Willow Man and Morrisons on the south. I envisaged him surrounded by fields standing out starkly against a flat, wild backdrop. To discover the council plan to surround him is very disappointing."

Serena de la Hey; Sculptor

Angel of the North

Where The A1 south of Gateshead

Who by Antony Gormley

When 1998

What they said then "It's awful. I'm more traditional. I'll never like it, but it is something we have to accept."

Maureen Abramson; Local publican

"It is probably the emptiest, most inflated, most vulgar of his works. It's said to represent an angel, but it more closely represents an old clothes peg."

Brian Sewell; Art critic

What they say now "It's a great symbol of the North-east. it's a sign to show that I'm actually nearing home."

Alan Shearer; Former Newcastle United footballer


Where Aldeburgh, Suffolk

Who by Maggi Hambling

When 2003

What they said then "We do not object to the sculpture, but it is in the wrong place and should not have been out there."

Peter Schrank; Organiser of petition against 'Scallop'

What they say now "On the beach it was revealed as a sculpture of scallop shells by Maggi Hambling, as ugly from afar as it is kitsch close by."

Charles Spencer; Critic


Where Ilfracombe, Devon

Who by Damien Hirst

When 16 October 2012

What they said then "We've spent hours, days and weeks preparing this application. I'm very hopeful it will get a lot of public support."

Steve Clements; Planning agent

What they say now "It isn't suitable for a Victorian seaside town. I think it's disappointing that the money and the ideas couldn't have been spent on a proper attraction to encourage people to come to Ilfracombe all year. I've not said we shouldn't have anything there, but I think the statue might be a two-minute wonder."

Sue Dale; Proprietor, Darnley Hotel

'B' of the Bang

Where Manchester

Who by Thomas Heatherwick

When 2004

What they said then "Its sheer size and scale can be appreciated for the first time, and the feats of design and engineering that have gone into its construction."

Tom Russell; Chief executive, New East Manchester

What they say now "B of the Bang was a magnificent artistic statement and it was regrettable that technical problems undermined that vision. The council reached an out-of-court settlement for £1.7m with Thomas Heatherwick Studio and three subcontractors employed by them. The sculpture was dismantled in 2009 and the core recycled, the council receiving almost £17,000 for the metal."

Spokesman; Manchester council, July 2012

White Horse

Where Ebbsfleet, Kent

Who by Mark Wallinger

When Date to be announced

What they said about design "Unlike other horses and figures carved into chalk downlands, this giant beast makes me cringe."

Adrian Searle; Critic

What they say now "This is a project that is meant to endure. Everything is proceeding well on the design front."

Anthony Reynolds; Wallinger's dealer


Where Cramlington, Northumberland

Who by Charles Jencks

When 3 September 2012

What they said then "Ridiculous. If we wanted something like this, why didn't we just ask Jordan to open a theme park?"

wayne daley

Councillor, in 2006, as the first application failed

What they say now "I'd rather have real countryside, not messed about."

Michele Gray; Local resident

"Walking over a reclining woman may not appeal to everyone."

Melvyn Bragg; Broadcaster

"One of the highlights of my life is being called a pagan pornographer."

Viscount Ridley; Landowner of sculpture site

Spike of Dublin

Where O'Connell Street, Dublin

Who by Ian Ritchie

When 2003

What they said then "It was felt to be a symbol of a modern Ireland."

Tony Duggan; Senior architect, Dublin Corporation

What they say now "If anything, it's a monument to the drug- dealers of the world since it looks like a hypodermic needle."

Bryan B; Tourist from New York

Arcelormittal Orbit

Where Olympic Park, east London

Who by Anish Kapoor

When 11 May 2012

What they said then "It is the most extravagant example yet of the idea that a big, strange object can lift tens of thousands of people out of deprivation. But the Orbit could mark the point at which it overreaches itself and we decide to try something different in the future …. Right now, it threatens to be an urban lava lamp."

Rowan Moore; Architecture critic

What they say now "We did not want to follow in a tradition of tower making, which is all about symmetry, from Eiffel onwards. We wanted to see if it was possible to make a truly 21st-century object. It's pretty obvious from the start that this is an odd object."

Anish Kapoor; Sculptor, 6 October 2012

Sawtooth ramps

Where M8, Bathgate, Edinburgh

Who by Patricia Leighton

When 1993

What they said then "We're committed to turning this section of the motorway into a positive attribute for Scotland."

David Jarman; Head of planning, West Lothian

What they say now "One of the coolest art projects I've ever seen."

Fergie and Fife; Blogger

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Christopher Eccleston (centre) plays an ex-policeman in this cliché-riddled thriller

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey looks very serious as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

TV This TV review contains spoilers
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Wiz Khalifa performs on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park in Birmingham

Arts and Entertainment
Festival-goers soak up the atmosphere at Glastonbury


Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars creator George Lucas


Arts and Entertainment


Arts and Entertainment
A shot from the forthcoming Fast and Furious 7


Arts and Entertainment
The new-look Top of the Pops could see Fearne Cotton returns as a host alongside Dermot O'Leary


Arts and Entertainment
The leader of the Church of Scientology David Miscavige


Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Arts and Entertainment
Could Ed Sheeran conquer the Seven Kingdoms? He could easily pass for a Greyjoy like Alfie Allen's character (right)

tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros

Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce, Boris Johnson, Putin, Nigel Farage, Russell Brand and Andy Murray all get the Spitting Image treatment from Newzoids
tvReview: The sketches need to be very short and very sharp as puppets are not intrinsically funny
Arts and Entertainment
Despite the controversy it caused, Mile Cyrus' 'Wrecking Ball' video won multiple awards
musicPoll reveals over 70% of the British public believe sexually explicit music videos should get ratings
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister and Ian Beattie as Meryn Trant in the fifth season of Game of Thrones

Arts and Entertainment

book review
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

    Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
    Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

    Aviation history is littered with grand failures

    But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

    Fortress Europe?

    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
    Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

    Never mind what you're wearing

    It's what you're reclining on that matters
    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
    How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

    How to survive a Twitter mauling

    Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
    Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

    At dawn, the young remember the young

    A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

    Follow the money as never before

    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

    Samuel West interview

    The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
    General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence