Hail to thee, blithe spirit

(But not if you live in Middle England)

Jojo Moyes
Sunday 23 October 2011 02:25

Nearly 200 years after his death, the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley has again managed to divide his home town of Horsham, West Sussex. He has done this not as a result of his revolutionary, anti-monarchist, vegetarian views - but through the sculpture installed to commemorate him.

Unveiled in a blaze of glory in November, Universe Rising is a huge mechanised globe designed by the award-winning sculptor Angela Conner and paid for by Sainsbury's.

The moving sculpture stretches across 45 feet and stands 28 feet high. Six and a half tons of water run down it, while smaller "satellite globes" float in pools of water. At the opening ceremony, the mayor of Lerici, in Italy, where Shelley died, described the memorial, after some thought, as "very brave".

The sculpture's aim, according to Horsham District Council, was to provide a focus for the town centre that was challenging and controversial, "like the poet himself". In this, it has exceeded their hopes. While a piece of radical sculpture might not be expected to please everyone in a conservative home-counties town, the design has elicited criticism bordering on the hysterical.

Inhabitants have bombarded the West Sussex County Times with letters calling for the sculpture's removal, describing it as "an abomination", an "eyesore", "irrelevant, incongruous, incoherent and indulgent", and, less flamboyantly, "an oversized pastie". The newspaper itself commented: "Its appearance and quality as a public work of art has attracted widespread derision and distress. Just how long it will survive is the burning question of the moment."

The detractors are not just complaining about the design. The pounds 140,000 sculpture has not worked properly since it was unveiled and parts of it are to be removed this week so that alterations can be done. Horsham District Council has commissioned an independent report on the sculpture's mechanical engineering before assuming responsibility for it.

The fountain has splashed so much water over the square that one councillor suggested the area be turned into a skating rink. One local man is taking legal advice after he fractured his skull and dislocated his shoulder after coming off his bike on ice nearby.

Vandals, however, find the work of art particularly attractive - not surprising, say locals, when you situate a piece of moving modern art between a pub and a fast-food restaurant.

Sainsbury's plc, generally a keen supporter of modern art, appeared to be distancing itself from Rising Universe last week and was keen to point out that while it financed the sculpture, the company had had "very little say" in what that sculpture was.

A spokeswoman said she could not say Sainsbury's was "unequivocally pleased" with the end result. "Art and architecture are very subjective and on this Sainsbury's would say beauty is in the eye of the beholder," she said.

But the sculpture has its defenders. The Horsham Society, like the Fountain Society, described the sculpture as "magnificent". The next time planners ask themselves if something is too modern, said spokesman John Buchanan, they should think back to the sculpture's opening ceremony.

"I certainly haven't seen a bigger crowd since John George Haigh, the acid-bath murderer, appeared at the Town Hall magistrates' court in 1949," he said.

Martin Pearson, the Horsham District Council's chief executive, is bullish about the sculpture's future, blaming many of the problems on the cold weather. He said his staff are instructed to be relaxed "if it takes until March" to be straightened out, and said the mechanical report was simply a formality.

But resident and local reporter Martine James, who has followed the fountain saga since its inception, says nothing has exercised Horsham as fiercely since the council introduced wheelie bins - and the row shows no signs of abating. "There seems to be no middle ground on this at all. But people who come in from outside the area to look at it tend to love it," she said. "It certainly promotes debate, and that's what modern art is supposed to do."

She has added to the controversy with the revelation that Cambridge City Council rejected a similar "golden globe" sculpture by Conner in 1995 after public protest. She has also recorded similarities between the design and drawings from a 17th-century book, after "someone came into reception to point them out".

Meanwhile, a curious side-effect of the debate is that the local paper has been deluged with poetry about sculpture. The fountain's future may be uncertain, Ms James said, but it had certainly proved an apt memorial.

"Shelley was such a controversial figure," Ms James said. "This just follows in his footsteps."

Lines from Shelley the revolutionary

England in 1819

An old, mad, blind, despised, and dying king,-

Princes, the dregs of their dull race, who flow

Through public scorn,- mud from a muddy spring,-

Rulers who neither see, nor feel, nor know,

But leech-like to their fainting country cling,

Till they drop, blind in blood, without a blow,-

A people starved and stabbed in the untilled field,-

An army, which liberticide and prey

Makes as a two-edged sword to all who wield,-

Golden and sanguine laws which tempt and slay;

Religion Christless, Godless - a book sealed;

A Senate, - Time's worst statute unrepealed,-

Are graves, from which a glorious Phantom may

Burst, to illumine our tempestuous day.

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