the art of straw-plaiting

There is always a nugget of social history to uncover, and the cottage industry of straw-plaiting is just one example.   In the winter when the work in the fields was completed, the women of Sible Hedingham used lengths of straw to plait and make into bonnets and other items to sell.  This was not only for their own benefit, but the work was of such high quality there was a regular consignment sent to sell in London, forming an important source of income.  There are some beautiful examples in the local museum, and artist Tim Ward has used this as inspiration for railings commissioned as part of the Bloors housing development in Sible Hedingham.


Railings referencing straw-plaiting cottage industry


The brown-field site formerly had industrial uses, including the Rippers’ carpentry company making windows and air-planes, whichever was required.  Tim has used this to create beautiful benches installed in the pocket park at the entrance to the development.


Bench referencing Rippers carpentry workshop

The sweep of the top-line reflects the curve of the waterway.  Formerly piped, Bloors have opened up the stream providing a new habitat for insects, but also providing greater capacity to prevent flooding.   The waterway flows through the centre of the development and into public open space that was previously closed off by the factory.  It’s a very successful development made all the more memorable by the artworks created by Tim Ward.

Working in partnership with Bloor Homes


walking the line

Nihill Place in Croydon has been named after the local race walker, Paul Nihill, and now the public art is installed the new development is complete.

Tom Pearman has produced a suite of contemporary pieces that reflect the tram and train network and this concept of moving along a line.   The tram and train system was crucial to the growth of Croydon as a major suburb of London.  The town grew quickly in the 1930’s and the art deco colours are used in the artworks.

A new development of blocks of apartments is difficult to navigate so Tom’s design includes signage for each of the blocks.  The signs relate each individual block to each other and the  ‘map’ at the entrance shows the arrangement around the inner street.  They are colour coded for easy reference and look very classy beside each entrance.   The colour scheme and repeated lines are taken from the main artwork, a panel of repeating lines representing the network of infrastructure and movement along it from station to station.   The piece although flat has a 3D effect particularly when viewed from different ends of the inner street – moving along the line and looking back the artwork appears to fold.

Tom Pearman has also completed another impressive commission for the Mayor of London as part of the ‘Clean Air Campaign’.    He has a very clear, often humorous, graphic style that is well-developed but always reflects the place and the community represented by the artworks.  This is the mark of a high quality public artist.

Working in conjunction with Bellway Homes.

The stones have landed

Will Nash (artist) and Global Gardens (landscapers) have completed the beautiful installation of ‘Tipped Discs’ at Wickhurst Green.  The design for ‘Tipped Discs’ arose as Will investigated the archaeological reports from the site.  The idea of reflecting the remnants of early habitation appealed to his sense of the romantic, and also to the themes from the poem ‘Ozymandias’.    Shelley lived in the area and the poem speaks of a traveller from an antique land.  The tipped discs and the etched columns of the way-markers are just such references of another time.   The images etched onto the columns have a storybook quality.  The columns themselves were salvaged from St. Marks Church when it was demolished to make way for a new road.  Since then the columns have lain un-noticed in a farmers field.   Now they have a much more elegant purpose and the polished areas of stone glisten in the sun.


CB1 still a work in progress

The Station Plaza at Cambridge Station,  is noted for finely detailed buildings, discreet brick work, tiled elements, intricately laced balcony treatments which are subtle and tasteful. It’s also noted for being bland and having lost the impact of arriving at a particular destination. There is no sense of arrival in Cambridge.

As the redevelopment reaches its conclusion, there is a void. It is a box without tricks and the public art is an unconnected series of pieces that are mostly invisible to people passing through. Artworks that invite interaction give that element of surprise and fun that make a journey positively memorable. The public art here is a series of pieces that need signposting. The artworks are so quiet, so subtle that they are obscure and ignored.

Just because art is outdoors or in a public place, does not necessarily make it accessible. The point or success is however, judged by the public. Does it reflect local identity? Does it create a sense of place? Does it perhaps reference an historical connection? In a civic space there is an opportunity for artworks to comment, to make statements about who we are, where we are, and to reflect what we are about.

As far as referencing the history of the area, the historic ‘Ceres’ bronze by William Boyd was renovated following its re-discovery in Spillers Mill. The renovation of the Mill is one of the most successful, combining the form of the industrial building with a streamlined street scene that complements the surrounding new architecture and the station building itself. The ‘Ceres’ sculpture however, is rather isolated located in a courtyard to the rear of the building.

To the front, Dryden Goodwin has a series of portraits, embedded in the pavement around the bus stops. The miniature portraits etched into stainless steel discs, the material has

the dryden-goodwinappearance of service covers, and most people queuing at the bus-stops are unaware that they are there. This isn’t surprising as it’s difficult to get close enough to see the portraits without causing a trip hazard. There is a mismatch of design elements, material, scale and location that is disappointing.



‘Continental Drift’ by Troika, is not very public installed in the entrance to the cycle park. Antoni Malinowski’s ‘Transparent Drawing’ – located on an elevation opposite the bus stops is well above eye level, too discrete to catch the attention. The less said about Jem Finer’s ‘Super Computer’ the better.


The curved bench by Partridge cb1benchand Walmsley is the most successful piece to date. Elegant and functional. It’s a high status bench in an area where seating is really quite limited.
Doug Alsop’s ‘Reflective Editor’ is a geometrical work designed as a gateway piece. The highly polished surfaces reflect the form and movement around it. It Image result for troika cambridge stationinvites interaction but is most useful as a perch seat and closely resembles an architectural design element. How many people notice it as an artwork is debatable.

One piece has yet to be installed. Gavin Turk has been commissioned to create an artwork for the central space; there is a definitely a need for something dramatic, inviting interaction, filling the void. Curator is a most overused word at the moment, and as a curated space this is sadly lacking in any commentary. The voice of the storyteller is silent. Maybe the Turk piece will bring it all together. Currently the most exciting part of the station area is the movement, the dance within the plaza, created by the travelling through of people, taxis, buses and bicycles. It’s worth visiting to watch the drama unfold, but if your interested in the artworks, you’ll need a pair of binoculars and a map.

The article was first published in January business pages of Cambridge News

Marking the Way

Designing the navigation of a place is fascinating and more than just pointing out a direction.  A spatial problem solving activity, finding the way impacts significantly on how people respond emotionally to the place.  Getting lost, finding signage  information confusing or inadequate gives rise to frustration and negative impressions of a place, so it’s important to get it right.   Not only serving to point people in the desired direction, marking the way has potential for adding extra dimensions,  revealing connections with the past, assisting in the wider exploration of the environment.  Way-finder objects can be sculptural and distinctive pieces of street furniture that add quality.

Templar’s Green, Witham,  for Bloor Homes

witham way marker

The Templar’s Green development, by Bloor Homes, in Witham, has  way-finders designed by Tim Ward (Circling the Square).  Part of a series of pieces, the enamelled flower symbolizes the market and importance of agriculture to the area.  Set at an accessible height and to facilitate use of the new pedestrian and cycle path from Maldon Road through the development to the public open space, the way-finders have a map and snippets of information about the area on one side and the name of the development and flower symbol on the other.  The development will be completed in the next six months when the final pieces will be installed and the new route opened.

The development is situated on the site of the old market in Witham.  Historically, King Stephen gave the manor at Witham to the Knights Templar and later, in 1153-54, a market at Witham was added to the lands belonging to the Temple at Cressing, now called Cressing Temple.  The way-finders and other pieces of public art to be installed help to locate the development as a distinctive area within the context of Witham as it is today, encouraging exploration of the site and making the public open space more accessible to the wider community.

Artist Profile: Jane Ackroyd

The particular talent  of Jane Ackroyd is to take a piece of metal and to shape and weld it so that characterises the charisma of the animal, balancing power and grace.  As an artist, Jane Ackroyd has had a love of animals from childhood and they imagesprovide the subject matter for many of her pieces. Working in steel and bronze, the essence of her work is always to capture the energy and power of the animal whilst retaining the grace and fluidity of movement. Jane graduated from St Martin’s School of Art with first-class honours and completed an MA at the Royal College of Art. She is an award-winning artist of national and international reputation, having completed a number of significant public art sculptures and private commissions and has exhibited regularly throughout her long career.

Beaulieu Stag & Deer
This latest piece, created for Countryside Zest at the prestigious Beaulieu development, is made from corten steel.  Jane has used a vast number of photographs  taken in the field and through research to create a lifelike stag and pair of grazing doe’s.  Apparently the geographical location alters the physique of the animal and so the Beaulieu stag is something of an amalgam, however it clearly represents the majesty of the animal and locates it firmly in historic hunting grounds that surrounded the Tudor palace.
The process of shot-blasting the steel creates a  stable rusted finish which is soft in appearance and the dusky orange-red of the rust  complements the subject.stag-6

Key Facts

Artist in residence at UCL

Portfolio of public art include –

  • Herring Gull, Bonemakers Fields, London Docklands
  • Three Rings, Southampton
  • Spring Rain, Crawley
  • Wave, Public Art Development Trust
  • Moonlight Ramble, Land Securities
  • War Memorial, Greater London Council
  • Railings and Gates, Old Royal Free Hospital

A significant body of smaller works is held in private collections, and Jane exhibits regularly in solo and curated shows.

Graduate of St. Martins School of Art, and Royal College of Art


1993  Europa Nostra Prize for Commission as part of the redevelopment of The Old Royal Free Hospital in Islington

1995 The Jackson Pollock-Lee Krasner Foundation awarded for work to date.


The Bulmer Brick and Tile Company

Walking into the Bulmer brick works is a bit like stepping into a medieval world or a scene from the Hobbit. Greeted by dome shaped kilns and metal strapped chimneys the flanking temporary walls of drying bricks are regimented either side of an age worn furrow where the wooden barrows trundle up and down.  The site has been in continuous production since at least Tudor times and is known to have been present on the site in some form since the middle ages.kiln

Proper Bricks

The bricks themselves, dusted with sand, are objects of beauty drying in the sun before being transformed by the heat of the kiln to reveal the rich depth of colour of the baked clay.   Finest Red London Clay is the chief component dug from the surrounding land.  The bricks are handmade using the traditional technique and fired in a coal fuelled, down draught kiln. Today the bricks are mainly manufactured to match bricks from historic buildings for clients such as The National Trust, English Heritage, The Royal Palaces, as well as individual home-owners.   The bricks can be made to  any size or in any quantity of plain bricks, along with ornamental ‘specials’ of traditional or contemporary designs. Samples of these ornamental bricks are stored in the adjoining sheds and have their own stories.

A favourite is the heart shape encompassing the spray of wheat.  It is a tangible record of the straw-plaiting industry that was so important in the area particularly for women and children to earn extra money when not required to work in the fields.


In Sible Hedingham these ornamental bricks were a feature of the vernacular style, and can still be seen in remaining early buildings. They are now being included in new buildings too as a way adding a unique feature to homes. Varied in design, from heraldic symbols to specially moulded cat faces, or date plaques for bespoke orders.

A similar brick works, the Cambridgeshire Tile and Brick Company in Burwell, was recommissioned about twenty years ago and is now supported by the team at Bulmer and the East of England Buildings Preservation Trust.   One interesting product are the mathematical tiles.  Originally devised  as a way of avoiding paying the brick tax levied between 1784 – 1850 the tiles are partly overlapping and in-filled with a lime mortar to form a flat surface that looks like either header bond or stretcher bond brickwork.  Rather than purely matching tiles for historic buildings, these tiles are potentially suitable as a skin for eco homes and certainly offer a contemporary look without resorting to timber or renders.


New Old Bricks for New Buildings

New funding is being sought to update equipment and increase production at the Burwell site,  as well as developing installation advice to ensure that ventilation and roof pitch specifications facilitates the use of these traditional products whilst meeting current building regulations.  Given the shortage of bricks earlier in the year, making a local product may come some way to improve the supply chain to sustain levels of building required, whilst creating a sustainable business using local workforce and materials.


The Public Art Navigator

Public Art is often the glue that begins to knit the existing and the new communities together, and the powerful elements that give a new neighbourhood its distinctive character – clearly something which housebuilders, including Countryside, are recognising. Increasingly, there is research evidence demonstrating the significant benefits to well-being, to long-term effects of modernisation and distinctiveness that well-conceived public art projects can achieve with community engagement.

Wickhurst Green in West Sussex, is one such example of a prestigious new housing scheme where ATA have developed the strategy and led the commissioning of the public art.    Horsham District Council and Broadbridge Heath Parish Council, along with Countryside, have proved important partners for the project.  Councillors have helped to select the artists and approved the type of project they will work towards.   Artists Will Nash and Tim Ward have been commissioned.   The local schools and community groups are excited to be working with them on a programme of workshops that the artists have put together.   The designs and workshop materials will be exhibited locally as part of the programme, later in the year.

The exciting part of the process is in allowing the artists to explore the geography of the site, the history of the area, the aspirations of the community and to allow the artists scope to respond to all these influences.

The role of the commissioner for public art is a bit like the orienteering navigator using clues and a compass to find the path, work out the questions and answers at different points and deliver the solution at the end without running over or spending too much money! There is a tremendous amount of skill and knowledge required to put together a strategy that fits with the desires of both the house-builder, and the Local Authority. It is crucial therefore to identify the right artists to fulfil the brief in a creative and original way, creating something beautiful and of good quality, that will have a lasting impact and will complement the architecture and landscape of each new neighbourhood and its surrounding homes.

The unfortunate incident of a tree without hope

It started so well.  A smart new development of flats in Southampton, and a public art obligation included in the planning permission.  There was an arts organisation recruiting and managing the artist and engaging and working with local community groups.  There was the young and enthusiastic artist, busy sculpting another masterpiece.   There was the Director of the development company, who was not involved in the delivery of the project, but oh dear ………  did not like what he saw on a computer screen.  Did not like the sculpture so beautifully carved, and decided to cancel the commission.

This is probably not the first or the last time that this will happen,  art can be controversial after all.   Unfortunately the community group that were involved in workshops did not have a say in whether the finished sculpture was abandoned or not, and now there is a sculpture without a home.  The development has been furnished with a bench incorporating a shelter which is probably easier on the eye – the directors eye at least.



Created by Thomas Kenrick,  this is the crown section of his ‘Tree of Hope’  there are sections of trunk to support it, but it could also be installed as shown here, so that the beauty of the carving can be viewed more easily.

Whilst it is disappointing for Thomas,  there are serious questions here, about who is the arbiter of taste, and who has the authority to make decisions about public art in public places.  The Council were unable, or unwilling to become involved in the project,  the arts organisation and the project manager must have thought the design was ‘signed off’, the community groups had worked with the artist and approved the design,  so how can one director cancel a commission just before installation.

As more ‘arts officers’  posts within council’s are cut, there is the real possibility that public art increasingly falls to development companies to ‘do it themselves’.  Many have little interest or experience and as this instance illustrates there are many pitfalls.  Having the right public arts management company or consultant to lead the project can make the difference not only to develop strategy and take it from drawing board to implementation, but also to advice artists and to manage expectations and put in place the checks and balances.

Meanwhile there is a sculpture without a home and a young artist that would love to hear from anyone interested in acquiring the ‘tree of hope’……….


Public Art is not always beautiful

Working with Parish Councils on Public Art Projects, reveals two related challenges;  one is  engaging the local population  in public art projects, and the second is completing the project with the current planning requirements.

As far as the first challenge goes, school groups, clubs and societies are easy to target because they  see the value of external agency enriching the curriculum,  school experience or the social club night .  People outside organised groups are more difficult to involve and their engagement really relies on artist and project teams making extra effort to move into the space of ‘footfall’ around the village, or setting up a stall/event in the market/park for example.

There is then the fine line to tread between art that encapsulates the local culture whilst retaining the artistic integrity and intent of the artist.  Avoiding ‘Design By Committee’ is crucial.    The successful artists working in this field have specific skill sets to manage this flux and a strong Project Manager helps to mediate the process.

The second challenge is with the planning authority – and this is where recently it has become complicated in specific instances. The planning authority will have been the conduit for S106 money to pay for the public art and permitted the project to be commissioned by the Parish Council.  The Parish Council has engaged the local community and spent the money at least up to the point of the completion of the design work.  Then the Planning authority often require a different kind of local engagement in the form of an application for planning permission.  The risk for the Parish Council (or other community group) at the end of this process is that they could have a piece of public art that they can’t install.  It seems contrary to public interests that the one authority should at once be both facilitating and jeopardizing the process of creating Public Art by and for local communities.

Ideally a strategy for a particular project is agreed with all the stakeholders at the outset, so that providing the process set out is followed, there should be no need to return to the Planning Authority to request permission to install the artwork. This removes the risk of rejection because individuals don’t like the outcome.  Let’s face it public art is not always beautiful, sometimes it is challenging.