Go for a walk around a modern British town and, chances are, you will 'bump' into a street sculpture. These artworks vary greatly in form and inspiration: a desire to commemorate a local hero, to embody a civic spirit, or simply to break up the grey monotony of a late-sixties shopping precinct. But what they have in common is that they deliberately set out not to offend or even provoke a strong reaction. Rather, they tend to be bland and uncontentious, or so abstract as to fail to identify with any potentially touchy issues. There are no rotting cow's heads or urine sculptures. As these artworks are paid for by public money, such underlying intentions would be viewed as being importunate, verging on the crass. John Keats once said, and the artists themselves seem to believe, 'we are right to despise art that has palpable designs upon us'.
Keats would have loathed a particular piece of street sculpture created in a Welsh industrial town at the turn of the last century. This work was the complete antithesis of modern civic art, being not pop art for the masses but the equivalent of a 'smart bomb' for the sensitivities and designed to cause the maximum offence possible to a highly targeted audience. It had vain and inglorious origins, begotten of a monumental and badly bruised ego. It has since been celebrated and reviled in equal measure. But those who celebrate it have been willing to look beyond its provocative nature and find an architectural tale remarkable for an architecturally bland town.
Swansea is the second city of Wales. Just before the turn of the last century, Swansea was still a town rather than a city. It didn't have a cathedral. Instead, there was a rather large, squat, ugly church - St Mary's - near the city centre. In a city whose architecture is characterised by the lack of distinguished buildings, it stands out as being more lacking of distinction than most. In 1890, it was decided that St Mary's Church should be rebuilt: invitations to tender were put out, and responded to by, among others, a famous local architect whose name no-one remembers and a Mr Fothergill1. Luckily for Mr Fothergill, and unluckily for the local man, and lovers of religious architecture, his design was chosen. Architects can tend to be rather precious about their creations, and the local man was no exception. He was particularly incensed that his design had not been chosen, and regarded it as a mortal slight upon his talent.
Revenge is a Dish Best Savoured Cold
The church was nevertheless built according to Fothergill's design, but the local man had other ideas. Nursing his grudge for several years, he bought a row of cottages opposite the church when they became available, and tore them down. He then designed a rather pleasant redbrick building (said, by the author's father, to have housed brewery offices) and had it built on the recently cleared site. Finally, he had sculpted a grinning effigy of none other than Satan himself, and placed him high in the eaves of the building, directly overlooking the nave of the church, through the windows at the serried ranks of worshippers. As the inevitable crowd gathered to see Lucifer take his throne, Local Man is reputed to have prophesied: 'When your church is destroyed and burnt to the ground my devil will remain laughing.'
The Three Nights Blitz
He didn't have to wait for very long. Swansea, because of its strategic importance, became a prime target (see Luftwaffe Air Operations over Swansea) for the Luftwaffe during World War II. The most important target within Swansea was the Weaver Flour Mills2: knocking these out would have been a severe blow to the food supply in South Wales. So, in February 1941, over several terrible nights the Luftwaffe dropped incendiary bombs all over Swansea, making over 7000 people homeless and killing scores of others. Apart from the tragic loss of life, virtually all of Swansea's charming town centre was destroyed in the bombing. One of the few remaining buildings left standing was the redbrick building, complete with Old Nick, now leering over the smoking ruins of St Mary's Church. The Luftwaffe obviously took care of their own.
As its hapless inhabitants picked over the ruins, they no doubt wondered what form the new town would take. Much to their eventual disappointment, the people who were responsible for the rebuilding of Swansea's centre in the 1950s decided to finish off the job of civic despoliation that the Luftwaffe had started. They erected insipid, boxy concrete buildings and, in so doing, completed the final stage of the city's unwilling metamorphosis from Dylan Thomas' 'Ugly Lovely Town' to 'Pretty S***ty City'.
The Aftermath of the Blitz
Old Nick's triumph was short lived. The brewery offices were torn down in 1962, and St Mary's rebuilt. Old Nick was quietly, and conveniently, forgotten, and languished in a garage in Gloucester until Rowley Davies, a local historian, tracked him down about 20 years ago. Davies brought him back to Swansea and he was mounted on the wall of the new Quadrant Shopping Centre, as close as possible to his original siting without deliberately 'rattling the bars' of churchgoers. There was, nevertheless, the predictable religious outcry on his reinstatement and this appears to have influenced recent developments. When the Quadrant was recently renovated, Nick went missing again and is now no longer on public view. He is apparently hidden behind a 'temporary' screen in the building and is in danger of being forgotten again.
The 'Jacks'3 could justly be accused of lacking any sense of civic pride if Nick is allowed to go the way of much of Swansea's old city centre, regardless of what he symbolised when he was created. One can merely hope that, for a city forcibly stripped of so many symbols of its rich heritage, Old Nick is re-instated to its benefit. If only for the reason that the psychopathically inbred 'Tubbs' from the cult BBC series, The League of Gentlemen, thought that Swansea was heaven, and it would be nice to think she would have a big surprise waiting when she eventually got there.