Saturday, 22 October 2011

County Hall, Westminster Bridge Road SE1

Untitled Group - said to be 'Benevolence and Humanity'
Sculpture commissioned by local authorities usually depicts either local history (such as Middlesex Guildhall or Wandsworth Town Hall) or aspirations like Social Justice, Welfare, Health etc (see Southwark Health Centre). Working in the aftermath of the First World War, Ernest Cole broke the rules so comprehensively in his work at County Hall that even his supporters found it difficult to classify or even identify his subjects.
Cole was already in trouble for failure to meet deadlines and his position on the County Hall team was in doubt.
The politicians were frankly bemused. In 1920 Alderman Cotton tabled a series of questions for debate, including "Are the figures unclothed as a protest against the monstrous price of clothes?...Do their positions, crowded on precarious perches outside the windows, indicate the lack of housing accommodation?"
The untitled group on Westminster Bridge Road attracted his particular ire: "The two muscular citizens have such despairing looks on their faces they appear to be preparing to hurl a bomb at the Houses of Parliament."
Cole never gave the group a title, but in the draft response to the Alderman's questions the management team called them 'Benevolence and Humanity'. They certainly don't look very benevolent, and the extraordinary globes they carry support writhing bodies in very odd attitudes. They do look a bit like ornate hand grenades.
The other group on the Westminster Bridge Road facade, 'World Beyond', is supposed to represent humanity supporting the world. Three shrugged, downward-looking, muscular men hold a globe surrounded by symbols of uncertain import. On top, a pair of bronze figures adopt painfully grotesque poses. For a symbol of a forward-looking local authority, it is deeply pessimistic.
Alderman Cotton never got his debate but the tide was clearly turning against Cole, who was later sacked. 
'World Beyond'

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