Friday, April 23, 2021

Rochester Row, London


Built to last?

When I first passed this piece of 1960s concrete sculpture in London’s Rochester Row, I’d no idea who created it. A while later I found out about the sculptor William Mitchell, who made a specialism of creating abstract sculpture out of concrete. I’ve since encountered his work in Coventry and elsewhere. However even then I didn’t make the connection because it slipped my mind that I’d taken this photograph (I got carried away with a nearby fire station, not to mention the famous Blewcoat School just up the street.) Much later, looking for the image of the fire station, I found this picture next to it in my files, and thought, ’Surely, that must be by William Mitchell.’ And so it proves to be.

What the image shows is actually only part of the artwork, which is too long to photograph in one go because it stretches all the way along the concrete beam that links the building’s main structural columns. So I photographed a bit that I particularly liked. Even when I found the picture again, I didn’t realise its full significance. William Mitchell told a friend: ‘This was the first integral piece of concrete art ever produced.’ It’s a ‘ring beam’ which linked all the columns and on which the remainder of the structure depended. ‘I designed it, made the moulds and the builder poured the concrete,’ said the sculptor.

Now William Mitchell’s work is better known, in spite of the fact that much of it has disappeared because it forms part of buildings that have fallen out of use and been demolished – like the northern part (about one third of the whole) of this very building. I think that’s a shame, and I hope plenty of Mitchell’s remaining sculptures do survive. I think they often enliven streetscapes and buildings that are otherwise dull, and that they show a true artist responding to a 20th-century material in creative ways. They are very much of their time, but also, in my opinion, deserve to outlast their time. I’m glad the work of William Mitchell is appreciated at last.


Hels said...

Many thanks for the photo. In low relief sculpture, the design projects only slightly from the background. But in this case the design is carved INTO the background and is more like a geometric engraving. So did William Mitchell create other sculptures that were more usual? Did he want to display "abstract sculpture out of concrete" for a reason?

Joe Treasure said...

I'm aware of woodgrain textures in concrete, which I assume are an intentional result of rough-sawn shuttering, so why not mold something while you're at it? The thought had not occurred to me. Thanks for the picture and the information on Mitchell.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Joe: Yes, the woodgrain textures are made exactly as you suppose. For another bit of Mitchell's concrete sculpture, in much deeper relief, see my post on Coventry, here: