A Statue Exceedingly Bare

Atoll Blog article uploaded 23rd February 2018 on the Liverpool Resurgent sculpture by Sir Jacob Epstein. Click on link or below to open:

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A Statue Exceedingly Bare – The Fall and Rise of Sir Richard Lewis

It is difficult to comprehend the rational as to how a ‘Dickie Sam’ might historically have become a nickname for a native of Liverpool. This only makes sense today if one includes links to a deity of some other famous Scouce ‘Dickie’s’: such as that recalcitrant scally Dicky Mint (Sir Ken Dodd’s ventriloquist alter ego cum Diddy Man, in case you didn’t know); as well as goalkeeper Dickie Johnson, who kept 109 clean sheets in 397 appearances playing for Tranmere Rovers in the 70’s and early 80’s (a doubtful allegiance perhaps to Liverpudian football purists, but hey, he did also play for South Liverpool FC late-on in his career). Making up the numbers to form an alternative Fab Four, is old man ‘Dickie Lewis’ – the popular street name of the figurative bronze nude by Sir Jacob Epstein, towering above the entrance of the old Lewis’s department store in Liverpool.

Also, euphemistically known as Nobby, but correctly named ‘Liverpool Resurgent’, he has cast a shadow over pedestrians waiting here on the corner of Ranelagh and Renshaw Street since 1956. In those days long before mobile phones and social media, it is reported that many a young couple agreed to “meet under Dickie Lewis” before painting the town red (err, blue if Evertonian of course).

Pete McGovern’s famous 1962 folk song ‘In My Liverpool Home’ referred to it in song, with his classic lines: “…We speak with an accent exceedingly rare; meet under a statue exceedingly bare…”; Whilst poet Tom Slemen’s poem ‘Only Dickie Lewis Knows’ observes the statues role as a god-like sentinel watching over his subjects “…I’m up here high above you; Watching mortals come and go; They think I’m just a statue; Only Dickie Lewis knows.”

The 18 feet high bronze statue is mounted on a portico above the building entrance, and depicts a naked man standing astride his miniature ships prow, resplendent with two oversized anchors. His left arm is stretched out and right arm raised as if signalling the symbolism of a city’s dual resurgence and optimism straight after the war.  Below the statute are Egyptian-style porticos in Portland stone with four square columns rising three floors and framing three entrance doors. Above each door is a ‘ciment fondu’ (high-alumina cement) relief panel also by Epstein. This represents the future generations to benefit from a burgeoning regeneration being anticipated: one is of children fighting, another of a baby in a pram set beside a dog, and the third depicts children playing. The infants were reportedly all modelled on Epstein’s own children and grandchildren.

The Lewis’s Ranelagh Street store was first expanded in 1893 and was eventually completely rebuilt to become one of the largest department stores in the North of England in 1923. However, it suffered heavy bomb damage in one of the many Liverpool blitzes on 3rd May 1941. Liverpool Echo described it as “the most shattering night in Liverpool’s history” because of the destruction of this much-loved old friend.

Scottish architect Gerald De Courcy Fraser of Fraser, Sons and Geary who had designed the 1923 building, was again called upon to design the new building, and works started in 1947. As such, ‘Liverpool Resurgent’ was born and later unveiled on 20 November 1956, to mark a centenary of Lewis’s stores and the completion of reconstruction works.

It is not clear if there was any negative reaction to Epstein’s bold nude once installed, other than him being embraced in popular folklore. Certainly, Epstein up to that point had experienced what he described as a “thirty-year war”, of responding to his stirring of controversy and challenging of taboos with depictions of nude sexuality. This ‘war of attrition’ had effectively started in 1908, when 18 large nude sculptures of his were commissioned and installed on the façade of Charles Holden’s building for the British Medical Association on The Strand (now Zimbabwe House).

These were initially considered to be obscene by some sensitive Edwardian standards, whilst other critics praised them as being daringly modern. Either way, they were certainly amongst the most hotly debated artworks in Britain at that time. This all served to fire Epstein’s public reputation further: as one of the most gifted, yet most controversial, artists of the day.

Sadly, other than perhaps through the success of it’s home football clubs, the bold optimism of a post-war Liverpool regeneration was not to last much beyond a cultural peak of Merseybeat and the Beetles. By the 1970’s onwards, Liverpool’s docks and traditional manufacturing industries had gone into sharp decline, as had city centre population numbers. Ultimately it took a sharp catalyst of the 1981 Toxteth riots to re-focus attention back up north. Then, starting with the International Garden Festival in 1984, and followed quickly by Tate Liverpool opening in 1988, a new die was cast and the reboot begun again. By the time of the city’s 700th birthday and European Capital of Culture status a year later in 2008, the cultural and capital resurgence had gathered full momentum yet again.

However, this renewed positivity still did not help Lewis’s and the dinosaur that our much-loved departments stores had become by then: In the 1990s the nostalgic ‘Grace Brothers’ style one-stop-shop experience of ‘Are you Being Served?’ had begun a spiral into terminal decline. Hanging-in there, the Liverpool store was in fact the last of the Lewis’s chain to remain open, and eventually closed its doors in 2007.

Things though usually have a habit of going full circle, and so it was here. Following a stalled redevelopment of a themed ‘Central Village’ for the site, a new lease of life for the iconic Lewis’s building is now finally on the cards again. Today, development company Augur are the new owners of the building, and are now proposing to turn it into a major shopping and leisure centre. Branded as ‘Circus’ the development will include cinemas, shops and restaurants – all to be accessed under the gateway that is Dickie Lewis. Such a deal should also help Network Rail finally expand Liverpool Central Station.

So what will become of Dickie in this new Liverpool resurgence? The Tate has describes Epstein’s now decaying British Medical Association sculptures as being “lost art”. The works feature in its online ‘Gallery of Lost Art’ – an immersive, online exhibition that tells the “stories of artworks that have disappeared”.

I doubt that Dickie will ever become lost though, being so prominent and well-loved as it is in Liverpool – and particularly with a much-needed injection of both capital and popular usage now on the cards with the hopeful realisation of Circus. However, people do need to think beyond the sniggered flippancy and pun of the Dickie Lewis legend to remember that Liverpool Resurgent remains an extraordinarily exemplar of public art sculpture, and was created by an artist (and architect for that matter) at the very top of their game.

Regardless of the times, this type of visionary commissioning of integrated art could never happen all by itself though. By modern standards, our applied public art often lacks sufficient funding priority as well as a non-prescriptive artistic brief anyway. These factors in turn then can adversely restrict open scope for artistic direction, ambition and risk-taking. This negative effect is not just the fault of those commissioning, or architects resisting collaboration, but must also include in the blame culture, the conservatism of public bodies and communities of Nimby’s as well. I would argue the lessons from the furore surrounding Epstein’s British Medical Association sculptures have still not been learnt.

That we have the calibre of artist and technical proficiency to deliver in equal measure today is not in question. What we need though is the will to do it, plus the willingness to dedicate sufficient priority and funding to see it through. Whether a sculpture today would ever be allowed to present such a public expression of nudity (and even in a classical style) is a moot point. It would be nice to believe it would, particularly given Liverpool’s long artistic past and the more dynamic artistic climate post 2008 European Capital of Culture.

Prolonged exposure to artistic nudity in public art has certainly never harmed Florence in the 513 years Michelangelo’s David has been on display without claimed offences to public decency (in the 375 years in the Palazzo della Signoria, followed by the next 138 years in the Accademia Museum). That said, even cosmopolitan Liverpool recently fuelled a media-led storm of “Is it Art?” following Yoko Ono’s temporary installations of her ‘My Mummy was Beautiful’ series at International 04 strand of Liverpool Biennial. In it, her work was an homage to women and motherhood, and featured cropped photographs of a naked maternal breast and crotch displayed city-wide on giant banners, shopping bags and badges.

The popular circus revolving around Dickie will doubtless continue, in reality and metaphorically, as the much-loved old Lewis’s site is finally regenerated under his feet. (though I would argue he now deserves a knighthood after his lifetime of selfless, silent service to Liverpool). However, as well as the bawdy humour and fondness of the public to Liverpool Resurgent being refreshed, at the same time, a more serious note needs to be struck: This is the need for the acceptance of a new acknowledgement as to the importance of retaining bold artistic commissioning for permanent, integrated public sculpture as a key part of the forever-evolving genre of modern public art practice.

Arise, Sir Dickie!

Ian Banks

24th February 2018

Categories: Writing

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