St Albans Town Hall, I have described in the past as the ugliest building in England. Maybe unfair but growing up and going to school there, seeing the decaying mock classical edifice on a daily basis informed my view. Can you imagine my delight now seeing it in its new form as twenty-first century Art Gallery and Museum. The Corporation have done a wonderful job presenting the old courtroom, cells and assembly room as a modern open gallery. We visited while the Barbara Hepworth Artist in Society 1948-53 exhibition was ongoing.
Hertfordshire County Council were seen as a pioneering authority following the Education Act 1944, which created a universal free secondary education system and their Chief Education Officer, John Newsom should take great credit for their achievements. The architecture of the secondary schools and technical colleges in the 1950s can be regarded as the exemplar for post war Britain. Most importantly Newsom proposed that part of the construction budget should be set aside for the display and commissioning of contemporary works of art. Hertfordshire children were thus given the opportunity to see modern art immediately and in their own environment.
Eocene, 1948-49, Hepworth’s carving of a mother and child in Portland stone, was bought by the Education Authority in 1952 and placed in St Albans Grammar School for Girls (now St Albans Girl School.) Sitting on top of a five foot black marble plinth this lovely shrouded figure presents a striking proto-feminist countenance. You see in this work her figurative strengths but also a nod to the egg like sculptures of one of her mentors, Brancusi, see Eve in WALL-E.
Vertical Forms is very different. Firstly, rather than being purchased by Hertfordshire County Council, it was commissioned specifically for their new Technical College at Hatfield. The carving in Hopton Wood Limestone is of three interlocking abstract forms and it hung outside on the steel and glass building. Hepworth said of it “I tried to express a quality of aspiration to learning and called it Vertical Forms”. In the exhibition the sculpture is next door to a drawing,Three Figures – Project for Sculpture,probably used before the commission. The exhibit is opposite five of Hepworth’s Hospital Drawings from around the same period.
The University of Hertfordshire, on the site of the former Hatfield Technical College, are one of the sponsors of this delightful exhibition and the curation by Dr Sophie Bowness, (Hepworth’s grand-daughter) is excellent. She emphasises the importance of Hepworth’s public art after the Second World War as well as recording the lead Hertfordshire was taking in the wider education of its children.
Maybe as a recognition of that pragmatism, this product of the Hertfordshire Education system will revise his view of St Albans Town Hall!