February 19, 2018

Irwell Sculpture Trail Tales (2) – Ed Allington

In the first IST blog, I mentioned how the National Lottery Assessor, Mike Sixsmith, who recommended we receive the funding to build the trail, observed that we hadn’t bid for enough money to achieve the scale of its ambition. My previous experience had been with projects of up to about £15,000. When describing the aim of commissioning internationally significant artworks which would put IST on the world stage, I had guessed that such commissions would cost about £80,000. Mike and I were standing in Ramsbottom Market Square which was one of the highest profile sites on the whole trail. He really like the site and thought it had massive potential for a sculpture but, like with other key sites, he observed that such a location would need nearer to £250,000. It was this conversation that prompted the significant increase in the final lottery grant referred to in the last blog.
Because of the high visibility of the sculpture, we created a selection panel of local councillors and organisations supported by arts expertise. A long list of 27 artists was created by the arts consultant Bev Bytheway and the panel narrowed it down to a shortlist of 5. One withdrew. So the remaining four submitted proposals. The London-based sculptor Ed Allington was very keen to win the commission – as I recall submitting 3 or 4 possible designs. The panel chose the Tilted Vase.
The Vase draws its inspiration from the legacy of the Industrial Revolution in the valley. The classical shape reflects the Georgian architecture of the square, while the manufacture of it points to industrial heritage, built in sections and bolted together to look like a machine or the steam engines operating on the railway a few hundred years away. Bronze and Steel.

As often happens with public art, a controversy followed. The design hadn’t even been released when an angry local person decided that a sculpture was a bad idea. The Square's current condition was a couple of scraggy rose bush plots and a small graffitied shelter at the back used by drunks and young people with nowhere to go. The angry person started a petition against ‘the’ sculpture and got 500 signatures in a week. But, except for the panel, no-one had seen the design, so it was a petition against sculpture on principle. Next phase was a public consultation, which on the evidence of the petition we expected to be bloody. A public meeting was convened at the Grant Arms pub which overlooks the site. On the evening I chaired the meeting (with some trepidation expecting hostility). Ed Allington sat beside me. I recognised faces in the 50+ audience that were vocal opponents of the sculpture. The event started, I introduced the plans for the Sculpture Trail and this and other sculptures proposed for Ramsbottom; Ed introduced his practice, other commissions and then explained the design. Then I threw it open to questions from the audience. A woman stood up and said: ‘Well, I like it. Ramsbottom needs this to make the centre of the town attractive to visitors’. This was a shock; even more shocking was that the next and the next stood up and said the same thing. It turned out that the vast majority of Ramsbottom actually liked and looked forward to the sculpture being installed! After that, the petition was never mentioned again.
A few months later, Ed was ready to install. The converging roads to Market Square were closed (quite a big disruption to local traffic), cranes manoeuvred into place, barriers, police, crowds, men in hard hats. The huge bronze arrived on a flat-bed truck. Straps were attached and the crane lifted it into the air – a magnificent sight. It hovered over the foundations, ready to be lowered, when one of the Council engineers asked Ed: ‘when did you pour the concrete into the foundations?’ At this point all hell broke loose. Ed’s team had poured the concrete 2 weeks before; within this was located a chemical bolt system which would bond the sculpture immovably to the ground. But technically the chemical only works if the concrete is 3 weeks old or more. At this a general chaos erupted. It couldn’t be installed. I got a phonecall from the then Chief Executive (my overall boss) angrily wanting to know who was in line for sacking; the Lisson Gallery which represented Ed rang threatening legal action against the Council for stopping the installation. The vase was re-lowed onto its truck and driven away to a yard for storage, everything was taken down, the crowd drifted away. Against a background of recrimination, a disconsolate Ed and I ended up sitting in the Grants Arms with beers. I told him that when it all came down to it, all he and I wanted was for a great sculpture to be standing in Market Square, nothing else mattered, we should ignore all the noise and just reschedule and get it right. And that’s we did. The vase returned a few weeks later and was installed without incident. The site works around it were completed and the water was turned on.  
This project (my first really big commission) was a real learning experience. The first lesson of public art I would say to would-be project commissioners is never install a water feature. The issues of public health & safety, freezing, children adding detergent to make it bubble, pumps, electric supplies, etc., make it the most complex long-term maintenance commitment. As it is, the vase has not poured water for about 5 years for technical reasons; but these are being sorted out specially to coincide with the 25th Anniversary so it will be turned on this Spring. Sadly, Ed Allington died last September.

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