The Bull and the Shit

Roehampton’s Alton Estate was once considered an architectural marvel. The design of the buildings in this South West London estate was influenced by leading modernist architect, Le Corbusier and they were built in the cutting-edge Brutalist style of the 1950’s. But the Alton Estate has since fallen into disrepute and is now seen as an eyesore in this leafy borough set next to Richmond Park.

A view of Alton West

A view of Alton West

A public sculpture standing in Alton West seems to symbolise the struggle that the estate has been going through. ‘Bull’, 1961, by artist Robert Clatworthy was placed in the Alton Estate as a way to complement the built environment and aggrandise the major architectural project of the 1950’s. The work is a bronze cast of a standing bull. The bull’s head turns towards the adjacent Danebury Avenue. The form of the bull is made up of straight edges and rectangular shapes in a geometric abstract style which echoes the point blocks nearby. The surface of the sculpture has dulled over time but there are still areas of its original colour visible.

‘Bull’, 1961, by Robert Clatworthy

‘Bull’, 1961, by Robert Clatworthy

The sculpture looks like a typical modernist work of art. It is based on a plaster cast and the plaster was applied so loosely that we can see parts of the original frame exposed. This method reveals how the form of the bull has been built up. The technique also shows how the artist has tried to capture the bull’s movement using an expressionist style. The problem with the sculpture is the same issue facing the Alton Estate. The issue is that the condition and style of both the sculpture and estate have been neglected and so have become ugly over time. The sculpture’s gnarled, rawness doesn’t do much to lift the atmosphere. The presentation and location of the work also does not help. It is situated between a bus stop and a car park. It’s not an ideal spot. The work has become kind of invisible to passers-by. There are empty beer bottles left under a bench. It looks like litter and the sculpture share the same neglect in this part of London.

A location view of ‘Bull’, 1961, by Robert Clatworthy

A location view of ‘Bull’, 1961, by Robert Clatworthy

‘Bull’ was commissioned by the London County Council in 1959 at the request of one of the main architects of the Alton Estate. It measures approximately ten feet in length and was considered the flagship artwork of the Alton West Estate development. The grade two listed sculpture fails to engage passers-by because its outdated style and subject matter do not relate to Roehampton or the local community. Coming from Roehampton I do remember the sculpture making a good climbing frame and swinging post while waiting for the bus home from school. But I don’t remember anyone appreciating the quality of the work itself.

Although the Alton Estate is set in a prime location in South West London, the estate has fallen into neglect. Buildings and services have fallen into disrepair; crime levels have remained constant and many residents live with a sense of apathy towards the estate. The estate has also been earmarked for a substantial ‘regeneration’ project which has been on and off for the last several years. This means that a number of buildings are due to be demolished to make way for new, luxury but still ‘affordable’ apartment buildings.

This long neglect and process of gentrification is a betrayal of the socialist principles which Le Corbusier based his building designs on and which were then imitated in the Alton Estate development. Despite allowing the estate to fall into disrepair Wandsworth Council and their property development company have only started publicising its engagement with local community groups in recent years. These include a number of grass roots arts organisations. Are the council again using the arts to aggrandise their projects for economic benefit and at the cost of the local community? As with Robert Clatworthy’s ‘Bull’, the arts in Roehampton like the future of the new Alton Estate may be doomed to fall into another cycle of neglect.

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This entry was published on September 2, 2020 at 10:01 am. It’s filed under Creative Places and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

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