Patronage – and the lovliest dolphin and naked boy fountain in the world

Dolphin boy fountain by David Wynne

I once worked in the garden of the David Wynne, who made this fountain – and am glad that his client was not the Caliph El Madhi

What a beautiful fountain, with the silver dolphin and the naked boy!.

A Greek of Constantinople made it, who came travelling hither in the days of my father, the Caliph El Madhi (may earth be gentle to his body and Paradise refreshing to his soul!). He showed this fountain to my father, who was exceptionally pleased, and asked the Greek if he could make more as fine. “A hundred,” replied the delighted infidel. Whereupon my father cried, “Impale the pig.” Which having been done, this fountain remains the loveliest in the world.

The fountain delighted David Wynne’s clients and, I guess, it pleases most visitors to Tower Bridge in London. My advice to those who commission public art is: beware of abstract art. They should think in terms of cultural strata. However much the the organizer of a disco may adore Karlheinz Stockhausen, it would not be a popular choice for the playlist.

22 thoughts on “Patronage – and the lovliest dolphin and naked boy fountain in the world

  1. Paul

    I think this may be David Wynne’s ‘Girl with a Dolphin’. I think David Wynne’s Boy with a Dolphin is outside a Mercedes-Benz showroom on the Chelsea Embankment. Lucky Merceded-Benz. Although I admire ‘Boy with a Dolphin’ from an engineering point of view, I much prefer the symetry of the sculpture at Tower Bridge; especially when it is backlit by the sun through the water droplets. It is difficult to see how an adult or child could not connect with this piece.

  2. Christine

    I agree, David Wynne excels at lyrical figurative sculpture. While Henry Moore excels at abstraction.

    Adults and children possibly engage with the two very different sculpturors differently. For children I imagine David Wynne’s representations are pure delight to behold, while Moore’s sculptures are more phenomenological, becoming impromptu playgrounds to both animals and children!
    [ ] and [ ]

    Pendleton King Park in Altanta Georgia has a children’s sculpture garden. This garden opened with a performance by the children.
    [ ] See also: [ ]

    Hmmm. [ ]

    1. Tom Turner Post author

      Lawrence and Christine: I am delighted to have these two contrasting comments. Lawrence has found a ‘harsh light of day’ photograph of the girl and an even harsher photo of a dolphin in an old folks home. The photos make his point. Christine links to a wonderful photo of a Henry Moore wandering among sheep. I would be very happy to have a Children’s Sculpture Garden IF AND ONLY IF the children loved the sculpture (see previous post on Kensington Gardens). It would be a crime to fill it with ‘good taste’ works which appealed to the adults on the selection committee but not to the children. And this is where I disagree with Lawrence and, in fact, with the most of what is called ‘public art’: it relates to the taste of an Arts Committee, or a designer, and not to the taste of the audience. Hence my musical comparison. Karlheinz Stockhausen appeals to a refined and educated audience but not to the public. So if the public is going to pay for a public concert, they should not have the programme determined by people with the refined taste that is only likely to come from studing music at college.
      A famous London art critic (Brian Sewell – who has just published a racy autobiography) stated that ‘John Lennon is as great a composer as Johann Sebastian Bach’. To me, this is rubbish. But if I was putting on a concert at Glastonbury, paid for by taxpayers, I would choose Lennon rather than Bach.

  3. Lawrence

    I suppose if we are now to consider London’s public open spaces as a kind of disco where the lowest common denominator of taste reigns supreme, then “Girl with a Dolphin” is an ideal choice. It is the kind of thing I have been succesfully preventing young landscape architects from putting into their designs for most of my career. As if the sculpture alone is not bad enough, it has been sited into an extremely ill-proportioned and brutally detailed (out of a brick catalogue?) pool, that sits like a drinking trough for cattle beside the majestic view across the Thames [ ]. The sculpture reminds me of the kind of thing that well-meaning designers used to put in the courtyards of old people’s homes, or hospices for the terminally ill, in the hope of cheering up the residents [ ]. What on earth is happening to England? Ben Nicholson [ ] believed that “…abstract art brought art back into the everyday world, through its influence on buildings and consumer products”, was interested in “…locating the holy grail of the minimum means to express the most complex ideas.” One was therefore greatly encouraged by the juxtaposition of the “Nicholson Wall” with a historically contextual reflecting pool in Geoffrey Jellicoe’s designs for Sutton Place [ ]. Sad to see not only this dumbing down of the public realm, but also horrible landscape architecture to go with it.

  4. Christine

    I agree with Lawrence that the brick pool is unfortuneate, albeit very 60s/70s. Should we have a discussion on the contextual placement of sculpture? And of historical styles (rather than approaches to the art of sculpture)? [ ] and [ ]

    The Tate Modern in 2004 had a fantastic set of session on these very topics.
    [ ]

    Tom, there is nothing to suggest that children don’t have excellent taste – even if they might be fascinated more by loudness, colour, movement and difference in their youth than they may be by subtlety, complexity, simplicity and similarity as they mature. Perceptual differences are important.

    There is an interesting distinction to be made between low and high culture (which co-exist in time) and artistic breakthroughs in an artistic period.

    Taste is usually reserved to describe the first phenomenon. However, the X-factor (and advances in the artistic disciplines) are to be found in the second category.

    1. Tom Turner Post author

      Quick comment: ‘Excellent taste’, ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture are problematic concepts. But, yes, I think context should have a great deal to do with the selection and placing of sculpture.
      I love the films of London-as-it-was. They leave me equally amazed at how little has changed and at how much has changed.

  5. Lawrence

    Simply giving the people “what they want” is a sure recipe for the triumph of mediocrity, television has worked on this principle for several decades now and should be a warning to us all. Perhaps therefore it shouldn’t come as such a surprise that “Girl with a Dolphin” now occupies such a prominent location, despite the fact that it is bereft of original thought and makes no attempt to open any kind of dialogue with its public, with the contemporary Zeitgeist or with its surroundings. It is an expensive saccharine bauble that would not be out of place in a shopping mall in Dubai or Abu Dhabi [ ]. I am sure that both of my parents would like it, and my daughter too, when she was around the age of 10 years, but I don’t see this as sufficient reason to encourage its presence on this site, or anywhere else in the public realm for that matter.

  6. Christine

    It seems David Wynne is famous for having no official training and not realising the gravity defying sculptures he proposed were not possible. Not knowing they were impossible, he went ahead and did them anyway. [ ] (The boy with dolphin is a double cantilever).

    So as a sculpturor, is he famous for making the impossible possible? Thus, he clearly possesses the X-factor.

    Perhaps because his work was against the trend – a shift towards abstraction and contextualism -his work may have been popular (but not avant garde), without there being recognition of what it achieved?
    [ ] and
    [ ]

    1. Tom Turner Post author

      I remember seeing David Wynne on TV about 30 years after I worked for him. The phrase which stuck in my mind is that ‘to an artist who is popular in his own lifetime is a very great privilege’. Then I remember a friend who worked in an office from which, by standing in a particular spot, you could just get a glimpse into his studio. The men in the office spent too much time trying to see his lithe and beautiful models!
      I think Lawrence is hard on him. He is not taking fine art forward, except maybe technically, as you say, but his work good. You could make a comparison with a photographer. Very very few of them are artists but very very many of them produce good work.

  7. Christine

    Undoubtedly Wynne’s work has taken fine art forward – and not just technically.

    Some figurative artist before Wynne include:
    Aristide Maillol [ ]
    Ernest Barlach [ ]
    James Earle Fraser [ ]
    Jacob Epstein [ ]
    Umberto Boccioni [ ]

    Contemporary work with which Wynne’s work could be compared include FE McWilliam’s ‘Woman in Blast’ (1974) [ ] Which obviously also has a political narrative. Rowan Gillespie is another Irish artist who continued to do figurative work with a political narrative, post 1970. [ ]

    The Irish sculptors works are ‘dark’ whereas Wynne’s work is ‘light’ and celebratory. See the work of British sculptor Anthony Abrahams – part light/ part dark – and although clearly abstract, in the 21st century considered figurative. [ ]

    The lifetime achievement awards demonstrate that figurative sculpture has not enjoyed a revival amongst sculptors since the 1960s [ ] although it remains popular with the public because of its accessibility.

    The Georg-Kolbe Museum in Berlin, however, is dedicated to figurative artists and provides a little more context to where his work is positioned. [ ]

    1. Tom Turner Post author

      I suppose it is because they are lifetime achievement awards that the list looks so dated. It is rather as though DH Lawrence were being given a literary prize in 2011.
      It is difficult to know how one decides what has ‘taken fine art forward’. The art establishment has little enthusiasm for either figurative sculpture or representational painting. The Glasgow painter Jack Vettriano is a case in point: the establishment scarcely regard him as an artist while the public love his work. Another Scots artist, Andy Goldsworthy, is almost in the same position. Is this a question of high art vs. low art – or is it a case of art vs. no art? ‘Pop Art’ might have been a very useful category, parallel to Pop Music, had it not become frozen in time. Perhaps I have ‘low’ or ‘popular’ taste in art, but I am more attracted to Goldsworthy than to most of the sculptors who received the lifetime achievement awards! I also hazard the guess that when the present art establishment is left beached by the tide of history, Goldsworthy will be seen as a more important artist than those who were recognized in their own time. The establishment resembles the worthies who made the Salon des Refusés such a success.

  8. Christine

    Yes. To advance the the art form something must be contributed to what has gone before. Both artistic (expression of movement, emotion and weightlessness) and technical achievements (the double cantilever) will advance the artform.

    Realistic depictions are still out of favour; but not always.
    [ ]

    As with this portrait: it is accessible but also disarming, due to the size, nakedness, passivity and forthright expression. The framing of the composition was also mirrored later in photography and television presenting.

    It is easy to see why the figurative work of ‘Magdalena Abakanowicz’ attracted attention, it has a sufficiently abstract and disturbingly emotional quality to capture curiosity and the imagination. Qualities more valued in postmodern artistic representations.

    Jack Vettriano’s work is well executed, (he is self-taught) but have a retro feel to them. Which is why I guess they are successful on the commercial art market and as prints and postcards. There is perhaps a similarity with Ken Done who also sits outside established art circles. NOTE: “An artist best known for his design work.”
    [ ]

    Goldsworthy definitely will be in the pantheon of notables. His works of environmental art are insertions into nature that enhance the capacity to ‘artistry’ within nature.

    1. Tom Turner Post author

      This raises the difficult question of ‘What is art?’ My answer is that ‘fine art’ involves creating an image which relates to an idea/sentiment/feeling/theory about the the universe/world/life/locality etc. The idea can be old, with a new image; the idea can be new, with a modified image. Or both. Magdalena Abakanowicz has new-old images and, so far as I can tell, a rather gloomy world-view. The wiki entry captures this Russo-Polish gloom with the word ‘Humanoid’.
      I am doubtful about technical innovation being sufficient to distinguish a work as ‘art’.

  9. Christine

    Yes it does raise difficult questions. What is art? What is design? And when is design art? [A very Bauhaus question.] These are questions I have addressed within my research.

    The wiki entry for fine art is interesting too:

    1) It historically distinguishes between 2 (painting) and 3 dimensional (sculpture and architecture) visual arts and the auditory arts of music and poetry. [I am assuming poetry predates writing as music predates notation.]

    2) The performing arts of dance and drama are considered minor arts. Perhaps because they rely on a mixing of the visual and auditory arts?

    Modern concepts of the fine arts are also much more hybridised…

    Magdalena is an interesting artist. It seems she is communicating from a very unique and yes dark world view, but perhaps like the philosopher Sartre, a worldview not without its sense of the heroic and poignant. It seems a very human and fine grained perspective.

    Yes, I am not sure what the thresholds of technical innovation might need to be in order to be considered sufficient for the purposes of art. Perhaps the idea of a virtuouso performance is an appropriate metaphor? [ ]

    Technique and expression are often considered separately as areas within which practitioners might excel within the fine arts.

    Although I doubt whether it would be possible to either:

    1) have bad technique and good expression and still be considered to excel or 2) Have good technique and no expressive qualities and still be considered to excel.

    1. Tom Turner Post author

      The last point has often struck me, particularly in amateur art shows, and I see it as the contrast between ‘artistic skill’ and ‘artistic judgement’. It’s good to have both (!) but for the classification of what counts as ‘art’, I think artistic judgement is more important than technical skill. Here is an example. I do not know what ‘inspired’ me but in the early ’70s I had the idea, as a temporary installation, of fixing a hoopback chair I had beachcombed to a perilous point on a sea cliff. Getting it in exactly the right place would have required skill in (1) climbing a steep, wet, muddy cliff (2) fixing the chair in position (3) choosing EXACTLY the right point (4) then, I assume, I would have wanted a photograph – and this would have required luck, skill and the right equipment. I might have got everything right, with a lowering sky and seal-coloured waves crashing into foam on a rocky shore, but, except for the photography, I would have seen the ‘artwork’ as more of an exercise in artistic judgement than in the skills artists are expected to have. In amateur art shows I am usually struck by the surprisingly high level of traditional ‘artist’s skills’ and the unbelievably low level of artistic judgement. And if Andy Goldsmith is not regarded as a real artist, would my photograph have been fine art, or stupidity? I know what my Granny, who could do good watercolours, would have thought!
      PS I don’t think much about dismissing dance and drama as ‘minor arts’ – it seems a gratuitous insult.

  10. Christine

    Yes. Forgeries are the best examples I know of that demonstrate artistic skill without artistic judgment. They are not considered art. Although an original composition that has been passed off as the work of a master at a high level (ie within the collection of a major establishment gallery) will require the status of art via the notoriety it attracts.

    So I agree artist judgment will trump artistic skill. Andy Goldsmith is a real artist, whether or not he is presently regarded as one. This is just a matter of his work being accepted within the established canon.

    Not sure who proffered the insult classifying dance and drama as minor arts. It would be interesting to see their explanation.

    Tom when are you going to hold your exhibition of photographs from the edge?

    1. Tom Turner Post author

      I wonder when the first jokes about paintings were made – presumably after secular themes took the place of religious themes. My uninformed guess would be that it was when portrait painting became a popular genre.

  11. Christine

    Jan Van Eyck’s Tymotheos is described as the earliest surviving [secular] portrait. The Age of the Portrait in Europe is given as 1420-1670.

    Gosh Tom. I had to read the text again to pick up that there was a considerable amount of ‘ethnic’ joking (rather than purely positing a humourous scenario). See Ted Cohen’s ‘Jokes: Philosophical thoughts on joking matters’.

    True – jokes of this type are another form of portrait painting via word pictures. The English, Australians and Dutch were having their less than flattering portraits painted.


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