Dr Adam Strickson, Teaching Fellow in Creative Writing at the University of Leeds reflects on William Chattaway's 'Hermes' in this month's Public Art on Campus staff pick.
Image: William Chattaway (1927), Hermes/The Spirit of Enterprise, 1958, Bronze, Gift of Stanley Burton, 1983, Image ©University of Leeds
William Chattaway's Hermes, mounted high on the concrete cliff of the Roger Stevens Building, takes time to get to know, to work out and respond to. It's abstract when seen from the side if you walk beyond Mathematics down to the fountains, negotiating the many steep steps beloved by runners for their evening training. The elusiveness of this flying god continues when we examine its history. It was purchased by Stanley Burton after the rumour that it was being sold for scrap in 1983. Formerly known as The Spirit of Enterprise, it was mounted on the side of the Midland Bank offices in London, before the building had been sold to developers. This title, vacuous and corporate, has a whiff of recognition for me since I give an annual lecture on cultural entrepreneurship to students in one of the lecture theatres behind the sculpture. I bring Mozart and his librettist Da Ponte as well as Levi Roots and his Reggae Reggae sauce into the equation to liven things up!
When Burton - a long time enthusiast for the sculptor - purchased the bronze, he had it brought up on a low-loader to Leeds. Chattaway was delighted the work regained its original title of Hermes, god of transitions and boundaries, herdsmen, thieves and (fittingly) athletes and poets. The sculptor is still living in Paris but was brought up in Coventry and his sculpture is almost contemporaneous with Epstein's St Michael the Archangel subduing the Devil, pinned on the wall of the 'new' cathedral, and the first sculpture I really noticed as a child.Image: Sir Jacob Epstein, St Michael's Victory over the Devil (Coventry Cathedral), 1958, bronze, Source image
I wanted to connect the two, and also to say something about the new duck house that has been sited below the sculpture this year.
So, since I'm a poet, I've written a poem to try to get beyond rational prose and to discover connections between these different objects and worlds. In critical terms, you could say this is the 'context' of the sculpture for me in May 2015.
Like blows of scissors
You know it's a university
because of the acres of rendered concrete
anxious to be listed
and not because of the board duck house
especially built for the annually nesting pair
next to the fountains, and below Hermes
that flying bronze caught between space
and solidity, pinned high on the building,
heading for the hospital's rooftop helipad.
The god's floating heaviness demands,
presses me back to a child's
first shock of wall-stuck sculpture:
the spear toting Archangel of Coventry,
his left foot stamping down the Devil
that flattened his city. Hope is a thing
of giant wings, a sure-belief grander
than the ankle stubs of Chattaway's
barely mythic messenger,
sans snaky staff, sans thonged sandals,
his flight caught in a jammed wrench,
his burnished sound a bass screech,
his flesh saw-cut with a blunt knife
that havocked the clay, drove in vitality.
Cast into life, Hermes soars,
connects the wild and the ordered -
ducklings and rectangles -
creates unexpected meetings,
allows us to move freely between worlds
like my diligent Korean student,
who is sitting on the bench
and who has just had her first talk
with a Christian homosexual.