“to rise above the sordid and rejoice in the beautiful” — leeds art crawlBack
“Let us by all means be proud of great factories and workshops,” said Colonel Thomas Harding, on the day in 1903 that he formally opened City Square in Leeds. “But let us too be able to rise above the sordid and rejoice in the beautiful.”
Colonel Harding had already brought a small piece of Italy to Leeds in the shape of the three Italianate towers at his factory in Holbeck, and he was in Italy again when an idea gripped him for the plot of land his adopted home town had bought from underneath the Coloured Cloth Hall.
His City Square was not be a place for quiet contemplation of serene artworks; his idea was to elevate the commercial bustle of the newly incorporated city, to make the Leeds of business also a Leeds of beauty: “Commerce and Art were not divorced in the past in those great commercial cities of the medieval times,” he said, and no doubt it would satisfy him today to see the statuary still standing in the square 111 years later, surrounded on all sides by traffic, shops, restaurants, hotels, banks and offices. Commerce and Art were never so close as the Trinity shopping centre and the nymphs of City Square.
Leeds has lots of art like this – there are 200 public artworks in the city, according to the people behind a new Twitter-based game, the Leeds Art Crawl. The questions that bother the Crawlers and inspired the game, though, are – where is it all? And what does it do for the city today?
They might seem like easy questions to answer; just point at the enormous statue of the Black Prince if someone asks you where all the art is. But that’s only one. Where are the other 199-odd examples of public art? Are they all statues? What do Leeds people really think of as public art in their city? What about temporary artworks, like graffiti walls, the junction boxes decorated for the Grand Départ by Passport Design, or the yellow sweater the Black Prince wore for a week? Do we count those, and do we keep a record of them for after they’ve gone? What about statues like that of Queen Victoria, which was moved from outside the Town Hall to Woodhouse Moor; or Oakwood Clock, that used to be in Kirkgate Market – how do we map those stories? And what do we really know about the stories of the art around us – when we look at the Black Prince, what are we seeing, and how much more is there to know?
Answering questions about public art becomes much more difficult once you realise how many questions you can ask, and about how many artworks. The people behind Leeds Art Crawl, which is a project supported by Leeds Data Mill and the Open Data Institute, in association with game studio Wet Genes, believe that the best way to start answering those questions is by gathering as much information – data – as possible, and have turned to Twitter to help them compile it.
The game is simple: with location sharing switched on, you take a picture with your phone of some public art, and upload it to Twitter with the hashtag #LeedsArtCrawl. The photo appears on the Leeds Art Crawl website, and instantly answers some of those questions: what do Leeds people think is art? The thing in the picture. Where is it? See the location data. What does it look like? Look at the photo.
To encourage contributions this process has been made into a game – a challenge to see how many photos you can upload in one ‘crawl’, how much art you can tag, photograph and share. The game also encourages you to see the city with new eyes: to look for art where you might not have looked before, and to look again at art you might pass every day without appreciating – like the Black Prince.
The Black Prince, mounted on his steed in City Square, might be Leeds’ most recognisable public artwork: outside the railway station at the junction of routes from north, south, east and west, it’s certainly one of the most often seen, even if people don’t always look carefully. The Prince’s connection to Leeds is simple: Colonel Harding, the steel-pin manufacturer who paid for the statue and the square it stands in, felt that the son of Edward III represented a fine example that Leeds people should follow: “An emblem of those manly and unselfish virtues which, in all ages, go to make the patriot and the true gentleman.”
Colonel Harding described the statue as a “labour of love” for its sculptor, Sir Thomas Brock, and at the celebration dinner after its unveiling the Colonel revealed that the inspiration for the statue of a hero of battle in France did have roots in Leeds. He recalled he was impressed by a portrait in the board room of the Coloured Cloth Hall, said to be of the Black Prince, that turned out to be of the Prince’s father, whose favourable policies were said to have kickstarted the woollen trade in the West Riding. It seemed appropriate to Harding, when the Coloured Cloth Hall was demolished – “regarding which we need not waste any artistic regrets,” he told his audience to much laughter – that rather than the underground lavatories or tramway waiting rooms being proposed, a statue of the Black Prince should be erected where the portrait of his father had once been.
The labour involved was large, and it took Thomas Brock seven years’ work to sculpt the bronze statue, an undertaking so large that there was no place in England where the sculpture could be cast, meaning Leeds’ Black Prince is in fact a product of Belgium. It arrived on the docks at Hull from Antwerp in August 1903, “one of the largest cases ever taken off a steamer at that port” – eighteen feet long, eleven feet high and five feet wide – with the statue itself in two pieces, Prince and horse, taken down the canal to what was then called New Dock and is now Leeds Dock, and assembled in the square.Joining the Prince there were eight lamp-holding nymphs by Alfred Drury – four called Morn and four, their weary heads resting on their arms, Even – and tributes to Joseph Priestley, also by Drury, and to James Watt and John Harrison, by Henry Charles Fuhr, and Dean Hook by Frederick Pomeroy. All the sculptors were part of a movement known as the New Sculpture, that aimed for vitality, naturalism and life in sculpture, and Scurrah Wainwright and Robert Chorley said in a pamphlet about the square’s sculptures in 1959 that they were “gathered together with scholarly imagination and care … the work of an acknowledged school of artists. The art of sculpture is not similarly represented in any other English city.”
Although the underdressed nymphs raised some Edwardian eyebrows – The Yorkshire Post referred to a Mrs Grundy walking through City Square “with averted eye,” – most criticism was restricted to minor details about the horse, which was depicted “contrary to established usage, moving the fore and hind leg on each side in the same direction.” The Post justified the sculptor by tracing this style to Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and the friezes on the Parthenon, and wished only that the railway station opposite could be “in keeping with the dignity of the city and the artistic merit of the Square,” although it had given hope over the new building on the other side: “It is too much to expect that the Post Office authorities will put a better face on the inartistic building which they inflicted on the city only a few years ago”; a building that still stands today, Grade II listed and home to two restaurants whose diners eat in the shade of the statues.
According to the Yorkshire Weekly Post, the statues would transform not just the city, but its people. “No longer will it be possible to speak of Leeds as a busy city absorbed in its own black smoke, with neither desire nor space for the contemplation of art,” their correspondent wrote. “No longer will it be necessary for a native of Leeds to hang his head, confessing that he is a citizen of a mean city.”
111 years later, that’s another question the Leeds Art Crawl can hope to answer. Is Leeds in 2014 too absorbed in the black smoke of shopping and business to have the desire or space to contemplate art through a cameraphone? Can technology and data give citizens of Leeds the means to rediscover and appreciate the art the surrounds us?
Contributing to Leeds Art Crawl only takes a moment, compared to the seven years it took to craft the Black Prince. “After all, a year or two in the life of a city is of very little importance,” said Colonel Harding. “What is of importance is that the work should be completed, and that it should be worthy of Leeds.”
I expect the Colonel would have found much worthiness on the #LeedsArtCrawl hashtag.
This article originally appeared in The City Talking: Leeds, issue 15