FRIENDS OF THE MACLAURIN
WEDNESDAY 3rdDecember 2014
18.45 hrs – Rozelle House, Alloway, Ayr
How a Draped Reclining Figure by Henry Moore came to Ayr
It is a great pleasure to be back in my old stomping ground. I was first elected as a councillor in Girvan District Council way back in 1970 and in 1974 went on to join Kyle & Carrick District Council, where I remained for 22 years. One of my fondest memories was my job as a member of the purchasing committee on the Maclaurin Trust, tasked with the job of formulating a collection policy and then actually buying the works of art. My partners on the purchasing committee were Yvonne Hawker, the late, great artist and Councillor Keith MacDonald, for a time the Leader of the Labour Group on Kyle & Carrick District Council.
Keith and I had a few interesting run-ins! On one occasion, when I was leader of the Administration in a hung council...12 Labour, 12 Tory and Provost Gibson MacDonald holding the balance of power, I was going to my office on the top floor of Burns House when I saw the Labour Leader, Keith MacDonald, go into Gibson MacDonald’s office. Gibson’s office was in the middle between my office and Keith McDonald’s and long before, I had discovered that the ventilation system that ran around the external wall of the building, just under the windows, acted as an amazing amplifier. If you stuck your ear to it you could hear every word that was being spoken next door.
I raced across to the window and clamped my ear to the vent and sure enough, listened in as Gibson and Keith plotted to unhinge some key items in the Tory budget. Then I heard Keith say, I saw Struan go into his office earlier, so I will go in to see him and feed him some rubbish about the budget that will throw him off the scent. I quickly retreated back to my desk and when Keith knocked on the door I called “Come in” and pretended I was hard at work on some papers. Keith proceeded to spin me a line, but I wondered why he kept staring at me in a strange way. It was only later when I went to the loo and looked in the mirror that I saw to my horror that I had six, concentric black lines down one side of my face! A couple of days later the engineers arrived and blocked up all the ventilators!
On another occasion, around 1980, when my eldest son was only 3, I had been carrying him on my shoulders around Ayr town centre and I handed him back to my wife and went into Burns House in Burns Statue Square, the Council HQ, to Chair a meeting of the Leisure & Recreation Committee. They were usually a pretty unruly mob, but this day they all seemed strangely subdued. They all just sat staring at me in silence. It was only after about half an hour that I leant back in my chair and clasped my hands on top of my head when I discovered to my horror that I had a huge ‘Penny Dainty’ toffee stuck to my hair! I tore it off and gingerly laid it on the table in front of me, where it sat like a big hairy hedgehog for the rest of the meeting!
I begin to feel my age when they start tearing down buildings that I opened! Together with Provost Sandy Paton from Troon, and George Younger, I opened the Burns Interpretation Centre in Alloway. They’ve just torn it down to make way for a new one! I’ll bet the poor ratepayers haven’t even finished paying for the first one yet! I also opened the Swimming Pool in Girvan, which has been pulled down. My greatest pleasure, however, was giving the order to dynamite the old school building at Cambusdoon in Alloway where I had been a pupil for five unhappy years. When it became derelict and a danger to the public, I was the Convener of the Planning Committee and was able to fulfil every schoolboy’s dream and order my old school to be blown up.
But I am jumping ahead of myself. My interest in art was long standing. I was appointed a Director of the Richard Demarco Gallery in Edinburgh in 1986.Ricky was one of the founders of the Edinburgh Traverse Theatre. Indeed as a teenager, I first met Ricky on the opening night of the Traverse in James Court, on the Royal Mile, on 2ndJanuary 1963. It was a momentous occasion, not least because I drank two pints of cider, knocked a tall painting off a wall, which fell onto a chap’s head, slicing it open. An ambulance was called and he was rushed off to hospital for stitches. Almost a quarter of a century later, when Ricky invited me to join the Board of Directors of the Demarco Gallery in Jeffrey Street, Edinburgh, I was chatting to the other members of the board following our first meeting when the subject of the Traverse Theatre came up. John Martin, the Board Chairman, said that the opening night had been spoiled for him when some teenage prat knocked a picture off the wall, which split his head open! He was astonished when I admitted that it had been me!
Anyway, to my tale…..how did Rozelle manage to get a ‘Draped Reclining Figure’ by Henry Moore? Arguably one of the world’s greatest-ever sculptors, Henry Moore’s large-scale works can be found scattered around the globe from Jerusalem to Jackson Hole. His draped reclining figures and massive abstract bronze standing figures can be found outside the Palace of Westminster in London, the National Library in Canberra and the United Nations Headquarters in New York. Indeed, we have become so accustomed to seeing the works of Moore in major public settings that we sometimes fail to notice their beauty, boldness and intricacies.
However, back in Ayr in 1979, despite the fact that Moore was already world famous and his works were commissioned and collected by the most important international galleries, the suggestion that Ayr might purchase a bronze ‘Draped Reclining Figure’ for £20,000 was met with horror. There were cries of outrage. Abusive letters appeared in the local press. Anonymous notes were sent to councillors threatening acid attacks on the sculpture if it ever came to Ayr.
It was against this background that I travelled to Henry Moore’s home Hoglands, Perry Green, in the village of Much Hadham, Hertfordshire. It was 1stNovember 1979 and the weather was crisp and cold. I had been in correspondence with the great sculptor since September that year. As Convener of Kyle & Carrick District Council’s Leisure & Recreation Committee, I had persuaded the District Council and the Scottish Arts Council to fund the £20,000 asking price for a three-quarters life-size (99cm) bronze, draped reclining female figure.
Moore was perplexed by the local reaction to his work in Ayrshire. After all, he argued, several of his sculptures had already been displayed for years in the Glenkiln Sculpture Park near Shawhead in Dumfriesshire. Glenkiln was the brainchild of Sir William Keswick who founded the remote, rural park in the 1950’s with priceless works by Epstein and Rodin and five separate pieces by Moore. Nevertheless, Moore congratulated the council on its courage in the face of such controversy. In a letter to me confirming the purchase dated 19thOctober 1979 he wrote: “Thank you for your letter of 13thOctober in which you enclosed information giving the history of the great efforts you and many others made towards achieving the acquisition of the DRAPED RECLINING FIGURE. I am very happy indeed about it, particularly that the enthusiasm and perseverance of so many of you won in the end. Thank you again for all your efforts.”
Accompanied by my wife Pat and by the then Director of Libraries Allan Leach, we arrived in Much Hadham and were met at our hotel by Lindsay Gordon from the Scottish Arts Council. We got a taxi to Perry Green and crunching across the heavily gravelled driveway, our hearts were pounding in anticipation of meeting the legendary sculptor. The house was three-storeys high with white painted walls and a red tiled roof. It stood on the edge of the village, with an expanse of flat farmland stretching behind. A series of outhouses and sheds were dotted around the back of the house. Moore had made his home in Much Hadham to be near his friend, the poet Walter de la Mare, who lived in the village. He also liked the flat, unimposing, undramatic nature of the landscape, because he said it would not disturb him from his inner thoughts.
The door was opened by Henry Moore’s Russian wife Irina, who showed us into the living room and went in search of her husband. We sat in comfortable armchairs staring in awe at the dozens of tiny Moore sculptures that littered the coffee table, shelves and sideboard. There were minuscule plaster animals, babies and abstract figures. The painting hung near the fireplace was by Courbet. Some small, primitive figures in a cabinet would be the envy of the British Museum. We heard a clumping noise coming down the corridor and Henry Moore entered the room, leaning on a walking stick, with one leg heavily bandaged in a white plaster cast. He was dressed in a black shirt, dark trousers and a startlingly bright yellow tie. He was quite small, with sparse white hair, but his eyes sparkled with life. For an 82 year old he seemed very spritely, despite his broken leg.
Irina Moore arrived with coffee and as we sipped appreciatively, Henry Moore explained that he had broken his leg after falling off a ladder while working on a giant scaffold-covered model outside one of his studios. He said that it was a nuisance, because it meant he would have to drive his car when showing us around the grounds. But he insisted that we should walk, in order that we could enjoy the sights of his major sculptures dotted around the fields and gardens of his 70-acre estate. Off we set, with Moore leading the way behind the wheel of his car, driving slowly and shouting instructions to us from the car window. Here was a large ‘Draped Reclining Figure’ on an enormous marble plinth and over there in the middle of a field was his famous ‘Sheep Piece’, which he explained had changed to a rich golden/green colour from the lanolin in the sheep’s wool as they rubbed and scratched on the sculpture. There were fabulous, masterpiece sculptures everywhere.
Moore stopped at each of the studios in turn to show us around. We were amazed at the lack of security, as he fumbled for keys from ill-concealed cubbyholes next to the studio doors. He described his preparatory sketches for future works in his drawing studio then showed us some of the small maquettes he was working on in his maquette studio. He explained proudly that the tiny maquettes of babies that we had seen on his coffee table were representations of his two-year-old grandson Gus, born to his daughter Mary in 1977.
In one studio he pointed to an enormous ivory elephant’s tusk propped against the wall, explaining that it had been a gift from his great friend the leading biologist and founding member of WWF Julian Huxley. Huxley had wanted him to carve it, but Moore thought it was a work of such beauty in its own right that he decided to leave it unscathed. He urged me to try to lift the tusk, chuckling “You’re a big strong Scotsman, lift it up.”As I bent and strained to lift the heavy tusk he whacked me on the backside with his walking stick shouting “Put your back into it Boy!” We all roared with laughter.
Finally he stopped outside the studio that contained our £20,000 purchase. The dark green bronze ‘Draped Reclining Figure’ was typical of his later female works, lying propped on her elbows, knees bent and vaguely abstract head held upright on a strong, thick neck above small, jutting breasts. The work was full of sensuous beauty, like a seductive temptress displaying her charms. How could anyone threaten to vandalise such an exquisite work of art, we mused? Moore chuckled. He told us how some of his works had been sprayed with paint before. He seemed amused by the reaction to his work in Ayrshire, although he said he loved the setting for his sculptures at Glenkiln in Dumfriesshire and he had no doubt our ‘Draped Reclining Figure’ would find a good home in Rozelle Park in Alloway.
Back in the main house, we were introduced to a new visitor, none other than Alan Bowness, the director designate of the Tate Gallery. Moore had invited Bowness to Much Hadham to look at a newly completed interpretation in bronze of a small, treasured oil sketch by Cézanne that he owned, depicting ‘Les Trois Bagneuses’ – The Three Bathers. Moore’s friend Sir Stephen Spender – the English poet and novelist – had challenged the sculptor to use his artist’s intuition to depict the three bathers in full three dimensional form, based only on his rear view of them from Cézanne’s painting. He had recently completed the work and had it cast in bronze. We were staggered to join Alan Bowness in a private view of this incredible work. It was like stepping into Cézanne’s picture and viewing it from the other side. Here was a work of genius created in bronze, based on a work of genius created in oils.
The ‘Draped Reclining Figure’ is now the centrepiece of the magnificent contemporary art collection at the Maclaurin Gallery, Rozelle, Alloway, Ayr. The controversial decision to spend £20,000 on a sculpture in 1979 may have attracted criticism then, but Henry Moore’s sublime bronze attracts only adulation now. Indeed a very similar ‘Draped Reclining Figure on a Pedestal’ by Henry Moore appeared in a recent Bonham’s catalogue – estimated price £1 million to £2 million….making me wonder why we didn’t buy two!
The Henry Moore sculpture was unveiled by George Younger MP, Secretary of State for Scotland, on 30thNovember 1979, almost exactly 35 years ago. George Younger also unveiled five sculptures by the Scottish artist Ronnie Rae, which provide a wonderful focal point for Rozelle Park to this day. These fantastic works of art provided the foundation for the collection which the purchasing committee then went on to buy, including seminal works by John Hoyland, R.B. Kitaj, MacBryde (Maybole) & Colquhoun (Kilmarnock), Victor Vasarely and John Bellany. Under the watchful eye and careful guidance of Mike Bailey, the collection continued to expand long after I left, to its present, formidable state of excellence. Many experts now regard it as one of the greatest collections of contemporary art in Scotland. The permanent collection is on exhibition right now in the Maclaurin and Rozelle, in its entirety for the first time, minus a large steel manifold by the Canadian sculptor Royden Rabinowitch, which is on loan to Belmont Academy and I hope will soon be brought back here to its home in Rozelle.
Note: Struan Stevenson was a councillor from 1970 to 1992 and Leader of Kyle & Carrick District Council from 1986 to 1988. He was a Director of the Richard Demarco Gallery in Edinburgh from 1986 to 1992 and was a Conservative member of the European Parliament representing Scotland from 1999 to 2014.