Totem sculptures – listed at Grade II

Salford’s 1966 William Mitchel ‘Totem’ sculptures – listed at Grade II

News reaches us of the listing of the William Mitchell Sculptures at the University of Salford. Known variously as the Minute Men or Freeman, Hardy & Willis.

This from the English Heritage listing report..

“William Mitchell’s art work is widely appreciated for its high artistic quality and encompasses both individualpieces and components of buildings such as the doors of the Roman Catholic Cathedral in Liverpool. He had worked until the previous year for London County Council producing artworks and decorative finishes for new schools, housing estates, and hospitals; a good example is his c.1964 mural at City of London Academy (listed Grade II). In 1964 Mitchell had also designed the Corn King and Spring Queen sculpture for the grounds at Madge Electronics Site, Wexham, Bucks, for the British Cement Association (originally the British Cement and Concrete Association) to demonstrate the material’s possibilities. Concrete was a material in which he was highly skilled, using innovative and unusual casting techniques, as noted by the applicant. Themonumental Wexham figures are described as ‘a piece of powerful and bizarre imagination’ and are listed at Grade II. While the Salford group is less complex there are distinct similarities with the latter sculptural group.

Both are free-standing with primitive, totemic characteristics, and are constructed on a monumental scale of coloured and textured cast concrete blocks into which additional materials have been stuck, though each individual piece is also unique in design. This means that the slightly later Salford statues are also clearly identifiable as Mitchell’s work, thus imbuing the college buildings with an air of prestige, which may imply a healthy degree of competition with contemporary university developments. Where the two groups do differ is in their setting; while the earlier Corn King and Spring Queen stand in a fertile, bucolic environment, the Salford group provide a strong aesthetic and humane presence within an otherwise rather sterile environment of paved courtyard surrounded by academic buildings of varying height (circular flowerbeds have more recently been added, which has to an extent softened the original environment).

There is also a democracy of approach and forward-looking nature to the group which does not address any issues particular to the environment in which they stand, rather leaving the observer to apply their own interpretation (evident in the lack of an official title). It is thus very much of its time, in contrast with the paternalistic approach of earlier public art patronage which had concentrated on supplying edifying and morally sound memorials upon which the observer could reflect. Although the courtyard has been repaved, the group itself remains intact as intended. Great care was taken in their positioning, both to illuminate and animate their stylised faces through the direct fall of morning and evening light, and to encourage the proximity of, and thus interaction with, students passing close by to exit the complex into the wider neighbourhood.

The design interest of this group of three sculptures is high, being a good example of William Mitchell’s distinctive tactile concrete sculpture of the mid 1960s, which drew upon Central American art, sometimes referred to as his ‘Aztec’ style. Other examples include the Corn King and Spring Queen, and the Mural at the Three Tuns Pub, Coventry of 1966 (Grade II) to which the Salford group compares well. The applicant compares the abstract and geometric forms with products from the Troika Pottery of St Ives produced in the 1960s. The comparison appears a valid one in terms of approach to appearance and also production is a good representative example of the post-war approach of enlivening academic settings with public sculptures. The applicant suggests that murals were more typical than sculptures in these settings, a claim which is difficult to quantify, as the former are more vulnerable to demolition or painting over and may be less obviously visible than sculptures. However each piece is judged on its own merits and it is considered that the Salford group meets the criteria for designation.”

More on William Mitchell in Issue 2 of the Modernist

The sculpures are situated at -

FRONT COURTYARD OF THE ALLERTON BUILDING ON UNIVERSITY OF SALFORD CAMPUS

2 comments

  1. Excellent news indeed. Its about time the world recognised William Mitchell’s genius. Lets hope more of his wonderful creations can be listed before they dispappear…

  2. Pingback: Three Abstract Sculptures, William Mitchell 1967, junction of Fredrick Road, Salford University Campus. « manchester modernist society

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