Bronze meddle

Many of the north’s famous statues and sculptures are in good nick. But, as Mark Metcalf finds, others are neglected, pulled down – or even stolen to order

They make unlikely bedfellows, a left leaning MP and a comedian with a passion for Margaret Thatcher. But the statues of Bessie Braddock and Ken Dodd were both drawing admiring glances and “let’s have our photo taken” calls from Liverpool Lime Street passengers.

All of which brings a smile from their sculptor Tom Murphy, standing yards away from the life-size bronze statues of two of Liverpool’s iconic characters that were erected last year.

When you consider that his other statues include John Lennon at the airport, Bill Shankly at Anfield and goal scoring legend Dixie Dean at Goodison Park, then it’s not surprising that Murphy was number 76 in the top 100 Greatest Merseysiders voted for by Radio Merseyside listeners and Liverpool Echo readers.

Passers-by are happy to offer an opinion. Bridget Muskar “likes the John Lennon one because the casualness of it captures the singer’s personality”. Football fan Jim Gallagher says: “Shankly’s and Dixie Dean’s are revered. They are shrines and many families use them at important moments, including funerals.” Maureen Holt adds: “It’s fantastic when you get off the train and see them, as it’s our heritage.”

Murphy now has 18 statues installed in the North West. “It’s heartwarming if the public like your work as it shows that sculpture is working in the way it was intended, as the public will make clear if they don’t like it,” he says. “Very quickly there will be suggestions it should be taken down. This was certainly the case at Southampton Football Club with the Ted Bates one.”

The £112,000 statue of the ex-Saints player and manager was erected on St Patrick’s Day 2007. Within a week it had been pulled down after fans bitterly complained it looked nothing like the man who spent 60 years at the club. A year later a new statue, costing £120,000, was put up in its place.

“It must have been heartbreaking for the original sculptor, as it would have taken at least 18 months to complete,” says Murphy. “I always dread the first few weeks after a new piece goes up. What you want to hear is nothing. Silence really is golden.

“The work has to blend in with the space where it’s located, because every object has an effect on the area around it. It also needs to be a good design, comply with health and safety regulations, include the spirit of the artist, satisfy the commissioning bodies and provide a good likeness of the subject.”

Murphy’s big break came 14 years ago when a Littlewoods employee saw his Lennon sculpture, standing over two metres high. The company commissioned bronze statues of the Moores brothers of its founding family for the Church Street shopping area in the city and Murphy’s subsequent works have gone to become an important part of the local landscape.

The Public Monuments and Sculpture Association (PMSA) estimates there are 10,000 public monuments and sculptures nationally, many well cared for, such as the Lancashire Fusiliers South African War Memorial in Bury of a soldier. Erected in 1905 it lists those who died in the Boer War.

Bury War memorial for web
Bury War Memorial

In Manchester on Brazennose Street the Abraham Lincoln statue commemorating the US president and his role in ending slavery was originally bound for London and then Liverpool until 1918 when the Manchester Evening News prevailed by rather grandiosely claiming that “Manchester’s second to none honourable war record in the fight for freedom in the European War, and its leading position in the art world outside London” made it the perfect location. Only during its unveiling the following year was it argued that Manchester was Lincoln’s ideal home due to the support of the city’s spinners for the Northern States during the American Civil War of the 1860s.

Many of the finest statues in Leeds sit close to each other on City Square, next to the train station. There’s the Black Prince on horseback – a Thomas Brock bronze statue of Edward of Woodstock, Prince of Wales, famous for his victories over the French in the 14th century. Batley-born 18th century theologian Joseph Priestley, credited with discovering oxygen, stands nearby, as do engineer James Watt and churchman Dr Walter Hook.

As an ancient city York boasts some fine statues including Constantine the Great, the first Roman emperor to convert to Christianity, next to York Minster. In Hull, birthplace of aviator Amy Johnson, she’s commemorated with a statue in Prospect Street, and in Queen’s Gardens there’s the William Wilberforce Memorial commemorating the local man’s role in the fight to abolish the slave trade.

All remain well cared for. Others, not listed or protected, are less fortunate, and are neglected, damaged – or even stolen.

Hugh Stowell Brown, a 19th century preacher and social reformer in Liverpool, created a workman’s bank to encourage people to put aside money for periods of unemployment, illness and old age. Brother of the Manx poet Thomas Edward Brown and also born on the Isle of Man, he was so revered by the poor that even though his funeral took place on a working day 10,000 people turned out.

Funds were raised for a statue, and when it was unveiled outside his church on Myrtle Street in 1889 he became one of only three Liverpool clergymen to receive such an honour. After Myrtle Street was demolished the statue was moved to the corner of Princes Road in 1954, where it was toppled by rioters in 1981 who wrongly believed he had been a slave-owner.

Left to rot on its back in the stable yard at Croxteth Hall the statue of Hugh Stowell Brown has recently been put into a box by Liverpool City Council for safe keeping. Now a retired Isle of Man head teacher is hoping to raise the £20,000 needed to restore it to its former glory and have it, once again, put on display. Dollin Kelly is confident that “a number of societies and individuals on the island will be willing to contribute as Hugh Stowell Brown is one of our best ever exports and should be commemorated in the city where he did so much good”.

But neglect isn’t the only thing threatening statues. The PMSA says thefts of statues are reported on a weekly basis, driven by the rising cost of metals, which makes them a lucrative source of scrap.

In the last year a sculpture of a dragonfly by Gillian Brent was taken from Sunnybank Nature Reserve in Sheffield, another dragonfly was stolen from the banks of the River Douglas in Wigan, a dragon went missing from the grounds of Wentworth Castle in Rotherham, and bronzes of two hounds and a wild boar disappeared from the village green in Cottam, Preston.

Thieves in Blackley, Manchester, have stolen two bronze plaques containing the names of 215 local soldiers who died in the First World War from a memorial in Boggart Hole Clough. The plaques stood in the park since 1921, after money for the memorial was raised through donations from relatives and local people.

According to Ian Leith of the PMSA: “Many, especially those from the 1950s, are being stolen to order. We are disappointed that the police often seem reluctant to pursue those involved when they argue that the thefts are only for the value of the bronze.”

The PMSA is always looking for volunteers, particularly photographers, to help record what’s around and is urging anyone who sees a monument or statue in need of some tender loving care to contact a conservation officer at their local council.

East Yorkshire tribute to airmen wins sculpture prize

Peter Naylor, the artist who created the tribute to a Second World War bomber squadron at the former Lissett airfield at Bridlington, East Yorkshire, has won the Marsh Award for Excellence in Public Sculpture.

The memorial, unveiled last year, depicts seven airmen of 158 Squadron as they embark on a mission and was Naylor’s first work of its kind. It’s made of steel and sits on a concrete plinth.

The 851 names of those killed and the words “And for all who served with 158 Squadron” are etched into the bodies. “I never realised how much it would touch people’s hearts – it’s very gratifying,” said former teacher Naylor.

Photo of Ken Dodd: Dave Wood

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