27 July 2023

Flights of fantasy in
sculpture among shops
in Milton Keynes

‘Sitting on History’ by Bill Woodrow in Milton Keynes was originally designed for an exhibition at the Tate Gallery, London, in 1996 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Patrick Comerford

One of the many joys of living near Milton Keynes is the commitment to public sculpture by business and local bodies, with sculptures in a variety of public spaces, in parks, shopping centres and parks.

And public sculpture in Milton Keynes, despite the impressions of many outsiders, is about more than concrete cows.

I have written on this blog in recent weeks about the sculpture trail on the campus of the Open University (here and here). But, walking around the shopping centre that now promotes itself as the centre:mk, I whiled away time on a recent afternoon as I enjoyed some of the artworks that are most popular locally.

I cannot say I am ever going to enjoy time spent in shopping centres, unless I can find good bookshops and good coffee shops. After browsing books and sipping coffee in Waterstone’s that recent afternoon, I spent some time admiring Bill Woodrow’s 1996 bronze sculpture ‘Sitting on History’ in the main atrium in the Midsummer Place Shopping Centre.

The sculptor Bill Woodrow has exhibited widely since 1971. His early sculptures were made from materials found in dumps, used car lots and scrapyards, which he cut, altered and placed in new relationships to create new forms, metaphors and stories.

He began working in bronze In the late 1980s, but continued to tell stories through his work. His sculpture ‘Regardless of History’ was exhibited on the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square in 2000.

‘Sitting on History’ was originally designed for an exhibition at the Tate Gallery in London in 1996. Bill Woodrow’s idea was to create a sculpture that functioned as a seat and was only complete when someone sat on it.

‘Sitting on History’, with its ball and chain, refers to the book as captor of information from which we cannot escape. History is filtered through millions of pages of writing, making the book the major vehicle for years of research and study. Woodrow proposes that although we absorb this knowledge, we appear to have great difficulty in changing our behaviour as a result.

The books in the original maquette of the sculpture came from a box of books given to Woodrow by a London bookseller who discarded them believing he could no longer sell them. To Woodrow’s amusement, they included three volumes on the history of the Labour Party, which he used for his maquettes.

The sculpture was bought by London and Amsterdam Properties Ltd and is now outside Waterstone’s bookshop in Milton Keynes. Another version of the sculpture is installed in the British Museum.

‘The Conversation’ (1995) by Nicolas Moreton in New City Square, outside Marks and Spencer (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Reading and talking go together, of course.

‘The Conversation’ (1995) by Nicolas Moreton is in New City Square, outside Marks and Spencer. It was commissioned by Hermes Properties and is a work in Kilkenny Limestone, bronze and gold leaf.

Nicolas Moreton was born in 1961 in Watford, Hertfordshire, and is best known as a stone carver. Two of his sculptures – ‘The Conversation’ (1995) and ‘The Meeting’ (1995) – are in permanent public locations in Milton Keynes.

Moreton received a National Stone Carving residency at four English cathedrals in 2004-2005. He visited Southwell Minster, Gloucester Cathedral, Lincoln Cathedral and Manchester Cathedral, and was in conversation with Brian Sewell in the BBC Radio 4 series on Divine Art about his residency at Gloucester Cathedral.

‘The Conversation,’ in Kilkenny Black Fossil limestone and bronze, consists of two bronze figures in conversation over a cup of tea, raised from the ground on a plinth, away from the bustle of the people below. The plinth is their table, an intimate and private space elevated above the rest of the world.

Moreton uses the tea ritual as the symbol of a meeting. According to the artist, the column represents an arena of expectation, and the carved river motif and gold-leafed fish act as ‘the natural life forces from which we come … all fish bar one swim in one direction – the one unleafed fish representing the one that would appear to swim against the tide.’

‘Vox Pop’ or ‘The Family’ is a bronze sculpture made by John Clinch in 1988 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

‘Vox Pop’ or ‘The Family,’ a bronze sculpture made by John Clinch in 1988, is in Queen’s Court. Clinch has been creating public sculptures works since the 1960s. His group of larger than life figures was specially commissioned for Queen’s Square by Milton Keynes Development Corporation and Postel, and was donated to Milton Keynes Council.

The concept of ‘Vox Pop’ describes an interview with members of the public for TV or radio. The original Latin phrase vox populi means the voice of the people or public opinion.

John Clinch wanted ‘Vox Pop’ or ‘The Family’ to show the diversity of people in Milton Keynes (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Clinch’s work celebrates ordinary members of the public rather than the rich and famous. His multi-ethnic ‘family’ walk a dog, cycle and push a baby buggy following a circular path, encouraging visitors to walk round them and examine the detail of the sculpture.

It was ‘originally intended to show the diversity of people needed to make Milton Keynes a great city’. Clinch intended to place a bronze Union Jack in the centre of the commission on a plinth. But the sculpture was altered and the flag was omitted because of its nationalist associations, and the work was lowered to bring the figures down to the level of visiting shoppers.

‘Dream Flight’ depicts one of Philomena Davis’s children (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

A series of bronze sculptures by Philomena Davis are in Silbury Arcade, alongside branches of Marks and Spencer, Rituals, Laser Clinics, L’Occitane and Dune. Her three 1989 sculptures – ‘Dream Flight’, ‘Flying Carpet’ and ‘High Flyer’ – were commissioned by Milton Keynes Development Corporation and Hermes, and were donated to Milton Keynes Council.

Philomena Davis moved to Milton Keynes in 1980 and opened the Bronze Foundry in New Bradwell with her husband Michael. She has undertaken many commissions in Britain and abroad and was elected President of the Royal Society of British Sculptors in 1990.

Her three sculptures in Milton Keynes focus on the theme of flight. Her three figures show children at play and dreaming, and were inspired by her own daughter and a family friend. Two are transported on flying carpets and one is almost in flight as she throws her kite up into the air.

‘High Flyer’ seem to be absorbed in her own adventure (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Although the boy on the ‘Magic Carpet’ engages in eye contact with shoppers and passers-by, the two girls in ‘Dream Flight’ – one of Philomena’s children – and ‘High Flyer’ seem to be absorbed in their own adventures.

The artist says her sculptures depict our ‘fantasy with flight and escapism, in particular, the sorts of escapist dreams that come to us in childhood and adolescence.’

The three works were moved from their original positions in Queen’s Court and relocated in Silbury Arcade in 2009. Now set amidst shrubs and vegetation, they still remain slightly aloof from the commotion of the busy shopping centre.

The boy on the ‘Magic Carpet’ seems to engage in eye contact with passers-by (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

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