From the nine-ton fibreglass bulls that adorned an unloved shopping mall to the 300ft needle that was the centrepiece of the Festival of Britain, they are works of art once seen by millions which have mysteriously disappeared from view.
The theft of sculptures and other works by metal thieves has become grimly familiar in recent years. But along with the Henry Moores and Barbara Hepworths pillaged from parks and plazas to be sold for scrap, hundreds more pieces of art that once stood in Britain’s public spaces are simply unaccounted for.
The Government’s heritage watchdog is launching a campaign to track down the dozens of sculptures, concrete friezes and murals from a post-war golden age of publicly-subsidised art which have been declared lost over recent decades.
Among the pieces that have vanished is a spiky metal fountain - named The Pineapple by residents - that was commissioned by car maker Ford for a new building in the Essex town of Basildon in 1977 and three dramatic friezes of bulls that hung on the side of Birmingham’s Bull Ring shopping centre. The giant bovines disappeared from storage after being taken down to redevelop the site.
Another missing artefact is the Skylon sculpture - a 300ft, cigar-shaped structure seemingly balanced impossibly on its end at the 1951 Festival of Britain on London’s South Bank. Versions of its fate range from it being melted down for souvenirs to being thrown in London’s River Lee.
Historic England (HE) is warning that dozens of works commissioned for hospitals, schools and housing estates by some of the most important artists of the 20th century are “disappearing before the public’s eyes”. While many are known or feared to have been destroyed as towns and cities are redeveloped, experts believe others may be simply lying unforgotten and unrecognised in outhouses or storage sheds.
Duncan Wilson, the body’s chief executive, said: “Part of England’s national collection of public artworks is disappearing before our eyes. These artworks were commissioned and created for everyone to enjoy, and it should remain accessible to all. We want to raise awareness of just how vulnerable these works can be and we want the public to help us track down lost pieces.”
The post-war period up until the 1970s was a rich era for public art in England with far-sighted county councils - in particular Leicestershire, Hertfordshire and the now-defunct London County Council - routinley commissioning works for new buildings from schools to retirement homes.
But whether by dint of a lack of appreciation of the avant garde nature of some of the work, negligence or lack of resources to safeguard the art, experts warn that much of it is being allowed to vanish or actively removed and destroyed by its custodians.
A 1966 sculpture by the artist John Hoskin, designed for the courtyard of a library in a school in south London, was dismantled in the early 1990s after the headteacher decided its steel edges were a safety risk. It is thought likely to have been destroyed.
HE is asking for leads on missing works ahead of a major exhibition next February at London’s Somerset House on post-war public art in the hope that some may be traced and returned to display. A list of missing works can be found on the HE website.
Sarah Gaventa, curator of the exhibition, said: “For a long period every new school or hospital was commissioned with a work of art. But I think we have a situation now where people don’t any longer feel ownership of this art or they don’t understand what it is. Its origins are lost in the mists of time.
“Certainly there has been neglect that is not benign. Some of it was political - after the Festival of Britain in 1951 the new Conservative government made little effort to save the art because it was viewed as something that its Labour predecessor had commissioned.
“But I can’t believe that everything that is missing was melted down. Some of what we are looking for was sold rather than lost but we don’t know where it ended up. It would be great if we could find one or two pieces.”
Among the missing works are several which underline the aspirations of planners in the 50s and 60s that art was not to be the unique preserve of the rich.
A life-sized sculpture showing a man offering a flower to a woman by the German artist Uli Nimptsch was placed on a newly-built council estate in Southwark, south London, in 1961. The piece, which was modelled by a local brother and sister, then suddenly disappeared.
Another work consisting of welded steel abstract squares, designed in 1972 to be seen from a Sheffield motorway flyover and the city’s polytechnic did not even make it is far as going on display. Its whereabouts are unknown even though it is known it was commissioned.
Ms Gaventa said: “Artists were enthusiastic about these opportunities. Every artist wants their work to be seen by as many people as possible. Often these works were made at cost. For a long time after the 1970s that commissioning was lost but now with the likes of Antony Gormley or Ai Weiwei it is perhaps coming back.”
Five to find
Neighbourly Encounter, Uli Nimptsch, 1961
Depicting a couple sat opposite each other as the man offers the woman a flower, the sculpture was commissioned by London County Council. It was installed on the Silverwood Estate in Southwark but then disappeared, its fate unknown.
Sklyon, Powell & Moya, 1951
The centrepiece of the Festival Britain in 1951, the 300ft beacon was commissioned to symbolise a technologically thrusting nation. It was dismantled after the exhibition and is variously believed to have been turned into souvenirs or thrown into a London river.
Bull Forms, Trewin Copplestone, 1963Y
Four of these two metre-high fibreglass bulls, each weighing nine tonnes, were commissioned to hang from Birmingham’s Bull Ring shopping centre. When the site was redeveloped they were taken down but three have since disappeared from storage.
The Pineapple, William Mitchell, 1977
Commissioned by car maker Ford, the fountain was made from weathering steel which had been hand cut and allowed to rust. It was installed outside a Ford building in Basildon but was last seen in 2011 when it was placed in storage pending redevelopment on the site. It was reported missing in 2012 and would cost £500,000 to recreate today.
Untitled, Luise Kimme, 1972
This fibreglass sculpture, boldly painted in red and blue, spilled from the external wall of a Newcastle art gallery into flowerbeds below designed by the artist. It disappeared after it was first installed.
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