Does public art still matter? Does it still speak to the individual, to the citizen, and to the community? Is it still worth reflecting on its significance? Wandering around Bow and Globe Town, and stopping by their public artefacts, these questions popped into my head, and inspired me to look for the answer through the photos displayed below.
Some of the pieces are so mysteriously hidden within the fabric of the city that they often go unnoticed. They are tucked between fried chicken stores and gentrified hip cafés, or enclosed in private estates, or beside busy and noisy roads. You almost forget they even exist.
And yet, while taking these pictures and researching the history behind each work, I realised this facet of unknown is not accidental. It seems like they are there for us to discover, inviting us to learn and explore. In order to feel we belong ‘somewhere’, we can look at them as a common good, a public tool to remember we are part of a common history that still ties us together.
I hope these pictures will inspire you to start your own journey of public art exploration.
Blind Beggar and His Dog
Elizabeth Frink’s bronze statue of the Blind Beggar and His Dog (1957) adorns Bethnal Green’s Cranbrook Estate, which was Berthold Lubetkin’s last major project before his retirement.
The statue is in the middle of a gated residents’ garden but can be viewed from the Roman Road, just west of its junction with Mace Street. The statue still draws admiration from locals and curious looks from outsiders. It received Grade II heritage status in 1998.
Among the various stories behind the statue, the most popular refers to a knight named de Montford, who was blinded in battle and left begging alms in Bethnal Green. His daughter was wooed by four suitors, three of whom were discouraged by an alleged lack of dowry. The fourth recognised her nobility and married her anyway, and he received a dowry from the beggar’s still-wealthy father.
William Gladstone statue
Just in front of Bow Church, along Mile End Road towards Stratford stands the statue of William Ewart Gladstone (1809 – 1898), a famous politician whose achievements included four terms as Prime Minster and four terms as Chancellor of the Exchequer. Firm and solemn, he holds a parchment in his left hand, whereas the right stretches out as to suggest a political imperative.
One of the most notable things about the statue, is the fact that its hands are painted red. The explanation lies in the back of the statue, where the inscription reads, ‘A gift to the east of London of Theodore H. Bryant’.
This refers to Bryant & May matches, a Bow factory where matchgirls – many underaged, all on starvation wages, barefoot through winter, vulnerable to white phosphorous poisoning – allegedly had a shilling skimmed from their pay to finance Bryant’s ‘gift’.
At the unveiling, several girls smuggled stones in their pockets, cut their hands and bloodied the statue in protest. The red paint on the statue stands as a tribute to these brave women.
Tow path statues
Mile End Park
Along the Mile End Park canal, a series of steel statues represent the proud local history of East London. There is Ledley King, born in Bow in 1980, who defended for Tottenham Hotspur as well as England; Sylvia Pankhurst, who fought for women’s rights and best represents the stubbornness and passion of the Suffragettes’ movement as well as a campaigner for improving the living conditions of workers in the East End; and last but not least, a towpath horse, one of many who used to pull barges and flatboats up and down the canals that were once the spine of the Bow area.
Stairway to Heaven memorial
This installation pays tribute to the 1943 Bethnal Green Tube Disaster, one of the worst civilian disasters of WWII, albeit accidental and unexpected, where 173 East London people lost their lives.
When sirens sounded to warn in advance of an air raid, crowds rushed into the underground, which at that time had a very narrow entrance. The unexpected firing of an anti-aircraft gun caused a rush down the stairs. A woman near the front tripped and hundreds died in the ensuing crush. This memorial is for those whose lives were lost.
Made of sustainable teak, the sculpture represents the 19 steps on which those people died, carrying plaques that list all of the victim’s full names and ages as well as individual plaques detailing what happened that fateful night. The tube disaster remains in many locals’ memories and recollective consciousness as one of the most tragic events concerning WWII and East London.
Statue of Clement Attlee
Queen Mary University London
This statue by Frank Forster commemorates Clement Attlee, leader of the Labour Party and post-war Prime Minister. First as Mayor of Stepney, he defended the poor of this area against slum landlords.
During his time as Prime Minister between 1945 and 1951, the British government took major steps to nationalise major industries and public utilities as well as create the National Health Service. He also set standards of duty and decency at the top for all subsequent Prime Ministers.
The statue was originally unveiled in Limehouse by Lord Wilson of Rievaulx in 1988. Over the years it fell into disrepair and was vandalised. The relocation and repair of the statue in 2010 was funded by Queen Mary University of London and facilitated by the London Borough of Tower Hamlets, from which it is now on long term loan.
Edward VII Bust
Mile End Road
During 1910 Stepney Borough Council planted two long rows of plane trees on a strip of land along Mile End Road, laid out roadside gardens and erected some commemorative statues, among which was the Edward VII.
King Edward VII, son of Queen Victoria, ascended the throne at the age of 60 and only reigned 11 years (1901-1911). The bust was erected by freemasons of the Eastern District and unveiled the 12 October, 1911, by Edward White JP, Chairman of the London County Council, who presented it to the Stepney Borough Council.
The sculptor is unknown, but the casting was carried out by a local firm, Harris and Son of Mile End Road. The most notable trait of the statue is certainly the inscription placed underneath, which reads: ‘Peace hath her victories no less renowned than war,’ referring to Edward’s role in building good relations with Europe, especially France. The statue has been granted Grade II heritage status.
William and Catherine Booth statues
Mile End Road
These statues commemorate the work and the efforts of William Booth, the first Methodist preacher and first General in 1878, and her wife Catherine, known as the ‘Mother of The Salvation Army’. They are considered the founders of the Salvation Army.
Although they were not born in London, they worked towards improving the living conditions of many East Enders, especially in Whitechapel. William preached to the poor and marginalised members of the society, while Catherine spoke to the wealthy, gaining support for their financially demanding ministry.
William’s statue on Mile End Road, unveiled in 1979, is located near to the spot outside the Blind Beggar pub where Booth first preached in 1865. The inscription reads: ‘William Booth Founder and First General of The Salvation Army. Commenced the work of the Salvation Army on Mile End Waste. July 1865’.
The neighbouring statue of Catherine Booth was donated by the women of the Salvation Army in the United States of America, and unveiled in 2015, on the Salvation Army’s 150th anniversary.
Burdett Coutts Drinking Fountain
Also known as Victoria Fountain, this elaborate Victorian gothic drinking fountain, made of marble, granite and stone, was the gift of the wealthy philanthropist Angela Burdett-Coutts to the visitors and locals of Victoria Park in the East End of London.
Designed by the architect H. A. Darbishire, it was meant to provide fresh clean drinking water to help combat cholera and alcoholism caused by the polluted supplies.
It is said to have cost £6,000, a fortune in those days, and its opening in 1862 was attended by 10,000 spectators. In 1975, the fountain was given Grade II* listed status by Historic England. In 2011, the fountain was refurbished as part of a major restoration of Victoria Park.
Installed in 1912, the original sculptures stood until 2009. They are copies of a Roman marble statue called ‘Jennings Dog’ which is today stored at the British Museum. They are recognisable for their short tail, since it was believed the same owner had cut it off.
There are many local beliefs about the identity of these dogs, including the belief that they rescue canal users in difficulty. In 2011 the severely damaged and heavily vandalised sculptures were replaced by replicas as part of a larger refurbishment of Victoria Park in the run-up to the 2012 Olympics.
Victoria Park, West Lake
Commissioned by the Romanian Cultural Institute with the support of Tower Hamlets Council, these sculptures were designed by Romanian artist Ernö Bartha. The two sculptures, ‘Bird’ and ‘Skyscraper’, made of hay enforced with steel frames, invite you to rediscover the textures and smells of unspoiled nature.
Depicting a female figure in a seated position, a homage to the bundled figures who took shelter during the London Blitz, Old Flo is considered a symbol of the East End. It was installed on the Stifford Estate, Stepney, in 1962, where it remained until the demolition of the estate and in 1997.
It was then loaned by Tower Hamlets to the Yorkshire Sculpture Park until October 2017. In 2012, Tower Hamlets decided to sell the sculpture, leading to a public campaign to prevent the sale.
Old Flo is now at Canary Wharf, on private land, yet back on public display. After having survived vandalism, the demolition of her original home, a custody fight and sale attempts by the council, it seems deserving of an, ‘All’s well that ends well!’
Italian born Massimo Iannetti is a photographer and video-maker based in Bethnal Green. His work focuses on urban investigation and social research, particularly related to community enhancement and sense of place.
If you enjoyed this piece you may enjoy reading about the Bow Heritage Trail
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