Tuesday, December 20, 2011

The theft of public sculpture has got to stop

Two nights ago a gang of scumbag opportunists broke through the gates of Dulwich Park, just five minutes from where I live in South London, and stole an important work of outdoor sculpture — Two Forms (Divided Circle) of 1970 (left) — by the great British modernist artist Barbara Hepworth (1903-1975). A popular local landmark, the 7ft high sculpture had stood beside the lake undisturbed for the past forty years, just a stone's throw from Dulwich Picture Gallery opposite.

Art theft is all too familiar in Dulwich. Dulwich Picture Gallery is Britain's oldest public art gallery and has been targeted by thieves on more than one occasion. In 1966, Michael Hall, an unemployed ambulance driver, drilled a hole in a door and made off with three Rembrandts, three works by Rubens, and paintings by Adam Elsheimer and Gerard Dou. Happily the pictures were recovered a short time later, some of them discovered wrapped in newspaper under a bush in Rookery Park, Streatham, another popular pleasure spot.

In market value terms, Barbara Hepworth's bronze cannot compare with Rembrandt's Girl at a Window, but that is hardly the issue. Its real value is in the pleasure it gives to countless thousands of strolling dog-walkers, joggers and families on their Sunday outing. Its scrap value may be fairly significant to the despicable thugs who stole it, but as an important work of public sculpture by one of Britain's preeminent modernist artists it is irreplaceable and in that sense, priceless. Why, then, have local authorities offered just £1000 for information leading to its recovery? How brainless is that?

Hepworth's Two Forms can now be added to the melancholy roll-call of public sculpture stolen as a result of soaring scrap metal prices. The list is beginning to read like the index of a book on British sculpture as works by Lynn Chadwick, Henry Moore, and William Goscombe-John — to name just a few — have disappeared from public locations in recent years, never to be seen again.

This is not just another scrap metal problem. Granted, we're not talking about overhead cabling from a railway line, the theft of which can endanger human life. But the theft of sculpture can have a profound effect on local communities. A crudely truncated stump is now all that's left of Hepworth's elegant abstract form — another ghastly reminder of the philistinism spawned by the economic downturn.

Public sculpture theft is now out of control and something has to be done before all our parks and public spaces are desecrated in this way. I have no remedy for this problem, but if I were a chief at the Met I'd sure as hell light some fires under a few people. At present, the web pages devoted to metal theft at the Centre for Problem-Oriented Policing (POP) make almost no reference to art or sculpture theft save to point out how inadequate security encourages thefts. It's time someone at the Met gave POP a new department — POP (ART).

We may not know who stole the Hepworth, but whoever they are will have set up a yard willing to melt it down. Those locations and the people who run them should also be known to police.

The Dulwich theft is worrying for another reason. The park was supposed to be secure. The gates (right) are locked every night, so the thieves had to break in and drive a van through the park in order to remove the work. What are the insurance implications of this? How many other parks will now be looking at what they believed were reasonable security measures and thinking again? If a set of ten-foot high iron gates aren't enough to keep out these vermin, what is?

I have a lovely little watercolour (left) of Barbara Hepworth's Single Form of 1961-62, which stands beside the lake in Battersea Park. Hepworth made the sculpture as a memorial to her friend, UN Secretary General Dag Hammarskjold, who died in an air crash in Africa in 1961. Like the Dulwich work, Single Form amplifies the natural rhythms of the lake and surrounding park, subtly enhancing the experience of moving through the landscape. My watercolour — which I bought direct from an artist working at the Watts Gallery in Compton a few years ago — shows the park under snow when the sculpture takes on a different ambience.

Single Form is in good company at Battersea, sharing the park with Henry Moore's Three Standing Figures and Eric Kennington's dignified war memorial to the 24th Division that served at the Western Front. Happily the Moore and the Kennington are both in stone and so — for the time being at least — are relatively safe. The Hepworth should now be put under closer watch.