Beestonia On the Stump (courtesy of Tamar Feast)

As mentioned last night, here is Tamar’s piece on the Stump as promised. I’m proud of many things when it comes to The Beestonian, and this is something that came in with a bullet as it comprises the best of citizen journalism: thoroughly researched, approaching a subject with an utterly fresh viewpoint and most importantly, written with a panache and flourish that makes it dance persuasively off the page, a textual Salome.

The full piece is available in Issue 9 of The Beestonian, in all good outlets now.

Enough from me, except to invite your opinion, your additions, your notes of admissions. Over to Tamar.

Beeston Stump: A Reappraisal

If there is one thing worse than modern public art it’s misunderstood modern public art. Robert Clark, leading art critic for The Guardian, wrote, “Sometimes it happens that art that is hard to write about is not written about and is therefore undervalued.” (2004)

Ever since the quietest rumblings about the Square’s potential ‘face-lift’, there have been associated whisperings regarding the fate of a certain prominent piece of Beeston public art. Commonly, and fondly (by The Beestonian) or disparagingly (by other publications), referred to as ‘The Stump’ and, less commonly, ‘Pigeon Perch’, the marble tree trunk sculpture in Beeston Square could well be for the scrap-heap if more isn’t done to save it.

After reading published views of Beeston residents keen to see the back of the sculpture, and much editorial in The Beeston Express … er … expressing similar views, it became apparent that a lot of people harbour a strong aversions to something which they admit they knew nothing about. Even its proper title was a mystery. Strange really, as this is a mystery quickly solved with a simple Google search. No need, however, as here, for your convenience, I hope to tell you a little about our mystery artwork!

I must show my colours here though, as I openly intend to be able to convert a fewofyouwhowanttolosethestump into fully-fledged Pigeon Perch fanciers. I’d like you all to warm towards it; come to love it for what it is – rather than “loathe it”, lazily, for what it is not.

So, I guess I should properly introduce you: Beestonians, meet ‘Water Head’; ‘Water Head’, meet Beestonians. Now shake hands and be nice.

‘Water Head’ was sculpted by award

‘Water Head’, by Paul Mason.

winning (and appropriately named) sculptor, Paul Mason. Mason was known for his large scale stone carvings, most of which were inspired by natural forms. Awarded a Royal Academy Gold Medal in 1976, Mason went on to win several awards for his work which exhibited around the UK and Europe – including Tate St. Ives and Bauhaus in Berlin. He taught at Loughborough, Staffordshire and Northumbria before being made Professor of Sculpture at Derby University in 2004. He was also Artist in Residence at Gloucester Cathedral and Tate St. Ives, and received commissions for public art for towns and cities up and down the country – including little ol’ Beeston. ‘Water Head’ clearly has a pedigree we should be proud of.

Commissioned in 1989 by Barry Protheroe of Broxtowe Borough Council, it cost £25,000 and originally (asitsnamesuggests)featuredacascade of gently flowing water. You may remember that ‘Leaf Stem’ near St Peter’s Church in Nottingham had the same feature. That was a Mason too. Both sculptures’ fountains were subject to water testing in the early ‘90s and just never reinstated.

Mason is said to be following in the tradition of Henry Moore, and is often compared with Moore and Barbara Hepworth. These are big names in modern sculpture – possibly THE ONLY big names in modern sculpture the average (wo)man on the street may know (I haven’t researched this bit, but I’d put my Friday bus fare on it). These comparison are well-founded, for Mason’s tutor was himself a student of Moore; and during his residency at Tate St. Ives, Mason was commissioned to use actual stone from Hepworth’s actual studio to create pieces for his Paul Mason: New Sculpture for Tate St. Ives exhibition in 1996. Quite a heavyweight, then. And I don’t just mean the stone.

I talked with Professor David Manley, a long-time friend and colleague of Mason, who has also written much about his work,

“Paul is probably the most important sculptor of his generation in the Midlands … he lived locally, in Loughborough then Long Eaton for several years before moving to Derby when he was made Professor of Sculpture there.

“He was very much a traditionalist; obsessed with carving stone, like Moore – and was the kind of artist who liked to look at others’ work, work of all styles and form. He was very generous in that regard.”

Mason was often keen to be involved in the setting of a piece (some of his favourite own work had their setting spotted first – such as Gloucester Cathedral, where Mason had visited a lot as a child; and Tate St. Ives, where his piece ‘The Internal Sea’ was made for a specific alcove Mason had seen when entering the gallery). It occurred to me that ‘Water Head’ probably wouldn’t be set as it is if Mason himself had had much to do with it. Looking at his other work for British towns, it’s easy to see ours as possibly the worst location of the lot. Harlow New Town managed it in a shopping area – why can’t we? Others have said they think the Square is the wrong setting for such artwork and that it should be moved somewhere like Broadgate Park. They have a point here – a point I’ll come back to. However, I would like to stress that the problem isn’t the sculpture, it’s the Square. It’s not the sculpture’s fault that the Square is an abomination. It’s not the sculpture’s problem that the Square couldn’t be uglier if the clock had hands and they were human. No piece of public art would look good in the Square BECAUSE OF THE SQUARE. Had planners left it the hell alone in the ‘70s I think we’d all be a lot better off in the aesthetic stakes right now.

Sadly, Paul Mason died in May 2006, aged just 54. Dedications to him from the people he worked with mention his generosity, kindness and enthusiasm for creative thinking. His pieces are quite solemnly beautiful; they often feature natural subjects – leaves, landscapes, plants, trees, organic shape, pattern and form. I like them. The more I see of them, and discover about him, the more I like our own bit of his work.. It also brings home that someone did this. By hand. Someone sat and stood for a long time chipping away at a massive block of marble to make something for us, to make a tree trunk for our Square. We can’t ask him about it, or what he thought of its destiny. He was still alive when the water features of both ‘Water Head’ and ‘Leaf Stem’ were decommissioned. He had a studio in Long Eaton so may have passed Beeston Square on his way there. I imagine, after spending so much time working on something, it must have been quite disappointing to not have it much appreciated; to have it maligned – or overlooked entirely.

My understanding is that part of the aim of Beeston’s regeneration is to showcase Beeston’s cultural and historical identity; and give it a more aesthetically pleasing aspect.

One idea is to reopen the area around Beeston Parish Church, near the square.

Frankly, you could come and stare at my compost bin and see more pleasing an aspect than Beeston Square at the moment, so I think this idea is a really good one.

There’s a gentle genius to sculpting a tree in stone for a town square. More so now because one of the few things ‘going on’ in Beeston is that trees are being cut down right, left and centre.

Let’s assume – going back to the suggestion of moving the sculpture – that ‘Water Head’ is not going to stay where it is. Why not move it to Beeston Parish Church? There is a space where a very mature tree stood in the southern grounds (I remember it as an Oak tree?). Every spring the crocuses and daffodils still come up in a ring around where its trunk once was. What better than a tree of stone in a graveyard to remind us of Beeston’s tree population, lost through building works? The modern, calm form of Mason’s carving could be appreciated at last, and may well come to be fondly called ‘Water Headstone’

instead. Ideally, I’d like to see ‘Water Head’ reinstated as the water sculpture it was, taken off that nasty slab plinth and maintain its position at the centre of the Square – perhaps with a Yew edging to it (I know, I’m running away with this…). Nottingham has a huge water feature now, so it’s clearly not IMPOSSIBLE. Unfortunately, I think the powers-that-be won’t agree with me. So in the very least I would hope we can retain Mason’s piece in another central, visible place. I would be very cross to see it disappear for good; a lot was spent on it – in money and creative effort.

But what does Beeston think to all this?

Well, when asked, Councillors David Watts and Steve Carr both expressed their respective strong desire to see the removal of the sculpture, believing it to be a “waste of space”. There was no response from Anna Soubry.

Many responses on Facebook and Twitter expressed disdain indifference and utter contempt. Two of you had to be reminded what, and where, it is (you know who you are). Henry Boot plc explained that, they had no desire to remove the sculpture and that it belonged to Broxtowe Council… and Broxtowe Council told me that plans for Beeston redevelopment, “are not sufficiently advanced to have covered the fate (or otherwise) of the Water Head sculpture… I have no doubt that if plans become more developed and there are any proposals relating to the open part of the Square, then these will be made public.” So I guess we’ll have to wait and see.

Oh, and by the way – that art critic quote? By the eminent Robert Clark? He was actually talking about Mason when he said that.

Thanks to all who’ve got in touch about this – keep it coming!
Thanks go to David Manley for his kind help.

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11 thoughts on “Beestonia On the Stump (courtesy of Tamar Feast)

  1. David Watts says:

    Tamar – this is a really interesting piece but I’m afraid that I still don’t like the “Water Head.” An elderly former councillor told me a year or two back that Mason himself had expressed his displeasure at it’s setting. Perhaps if it came off the plinth and had the water running through it then it might look better, but I’m not necessarily persuaded of that.

  2. kathz says:

    I admit to a fondness for The Stump. I like the smoothness and texture and would like the water back. It’s a shame that there’s such an enthusiastic art-hating approach. As for the question of where to site it, perhaps Professor Manley would be able to discuss a suitable site.

    Meanwhile, I think the councillors who are keen to get rid of it should reflect on the contempt in which those who attack works of art are often held. Lewes Town Council got rid of Rodin’s The Kiss and the Tower Hamlets Council failed to understand Rachel Whiteread’s House, so that people who have later come to love her work can see only the video of it before it was destroyed. The haters and destroyers of art tend to seem foolish in retrospect, if they’re lucky.

    I reckon it can often take me twenty or more years to find I “get” a piece of art. But it often seems worth waiting for – and surely enough is being destroyed just now.

    So please, save the Stump.

  3. Rick Hamilton says:

    If nobody else wants it, can I have it please?

  4. David says:

    It cost a significant amount of money. It is art and will create for and against views as a modern piece. It was significantly more interesting when it was a water sculpture. It should be re-instated as intended in a good setting. Beeston needs all the interest we can get.

    If the councillors wish to can things they commissioned in the past, there are may more targets, even some under construction…….

  5. Claire Lawrence says:

    Hurray! What a great article. I love the stump. It’s probably one of the only things all Beestonians seem to have an opinion on. Just for that reason alone, it should stay.

  6. Tamar Feast says:

    I agree with your bit about the situ, Dave. In fact, it was kind of my main point…
    And it’s OK that you *still* don’t like it. We all, in Beeston, have to deal with something we don’t like still being in a prime position.

    Claire and Katz [heart hurts] x

  7. Beth says:

    Great article.
    Broxtowe BC should be really proud that they invested such a significant sum in commissioning a piece of original art from a local artist back in the 80’s. It’s a piece of history that should be celebrated.
    Whether Cllr Watts and others like it is pretty irrelevant. Its original art, created by a local artist for Beeston and that makes it important.
    Let’s hope that the plans for the square and the rest of Beeston are not all to be decided based on the basis of the Cllrs personal taste…….
    Save the stump!

  8. David Watts says:

    Beth – nothing will be decided on our personal tastes. As with everything I want to ensure that we get the maximum feedback and range of views from people. I have no idea what proposals are being put forward for the stump when the Square is redeveloped but I will not be imposing my views on the decision. If most people want it then I would hope it will stay (although I suspect I will never like it) but I’d like to seek the views of as many people as possible first as I do believe that most people don’t like it. If I’m wrong though that is no problem for me. David

    • Tamar Feast says:

      Actually, I was told that the commissioning of ‘Water Head’ *was* based on personal taste of Councillors. Barry Protheroe, and his boss at Nottingham CC, were very much taken with Mason’s work. ‘Leafstem’ was bought after another similar piece was shown to them. ‘Water Head’ was commissioned specifically for Beeston. They were pretty progressive, them fellas – relatively speaking.

      All modern art leaves something to be desired for someone. But you can’t form an arty opinion on something if it isn’t there…

  9. G says:

    I’m so glad to see this piece. We’ve already sent a request for it to be moved into our local park if it does have to move. But on balance I think it should be retained more or less in situ, and made a centrepiece of whatever redevelopment happens. It’s at that awkward age for a piece of public art or architecture – too old to be fashionable, not quite old enough to be heritage. Not that long ago the 70s were naff, but now they are “period”, suggesting that it will take 10 more years for Beeston to come round to loving Water Head, and 15-20 before someone raises the funds to restore it to full working order. I really hope that misplaced populism doesn’t see the sculpture either destroyed or shunted somewhere dingy in the meantime. Note for David Watts and other councillors – a mature town centre full of variety, character and interest is worth twenty “fresh exciting new” developments. I’m already expecting the redeveloped square to be yet another depressing pile of coloured glass slabs that look like every other development up and down the country for the past ten years. That’s probably inescapable, but please don’t be conned into losing what character there already is.

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