Monday, 25 November 2013

Public art 4: Charity by Van Spangen and Powell, Mile End

Charity by Van Spangen and Powell
This is a sketch I've drawn of a sculpture that is currently on display outside Hackney Museum which is inside Hackney Library. Well, I assumed it was on display but it turns out that it has been placed here for want of a permanent setting.

The notice on the wall describes it like this: 'Charity' by Van Spangen and Powell, Mile End. This sculpture dates from around 1800 and once stood on St Leonard's Parochial Schools in Kingsland Road, Shoreditch before being moved to St Leonard's Children's Home (orphanage) in Hornchurch, Essex.

I've just checked the distance from Shoreditch to Hornchurch on Google maps and it's about 17 miles. I assume the state of the roads would have been fairly bad back in the 19th century and it would probably have been carried by horse and cart so I am surprised it has remained intact although I understand it comes apart for transportation. After the children's home closed in the 1980s the sculpture ended up in the gardens of the V&A's Museum of Childhood down the road in Bethnal Green and then was moved again when the museum underwent refurbishment.

It's not unusual to see small sculptures adorning the outside of schools in London. For example Greycoat Hospital School in Westminster has figures of a boy and a girl dressed in clothing contempary to the date the school was founded set in niches in the front wall of the school. Raines Foundation School in Bethnal Green used to have similar figures on display outside their building.

This sculpture is different in that it is telling a story of Charity who is portrayed as a mythical goddess offering support to a boy and a girl. I find it fascinating that the children's clothing is so detailed including showing the girl's bonnet and the way the fabric of her dress falls and the buttons and buttonholes in the boy's waistcoat and their shoes look like something we might wear today.

This sculpture was produced by a Dutchman called Van Spangen who set up an artificial stone factory in Bow in 1800. He used 'cast stone' to produce his work which seems to be a version of fine concrete and is a material that has been in use since the 12th century. This sculpture was very likely made in clay and then cast to look like stone. Van Spangen's firm was broken up in 1828 and the moulds were then sold to a sculptor called Felix Austin. This sculpture was probably just one of many knocked out in that 30 year period and not regarded as anything particularly unusual or special but I've yet to see another one quite like it.


Anonymous said...

Love the drawing and the memories. Just the mention of Grey Coats led me on a memory journey on the internet. I think my some of my first memories are of the little girl and boy statues above the school entry at Greycoats as I lived just 5 mins away and past it as I went to my primary school in Old Pye Street.

Heather James said...

Jacqui, I'm so glad you remember those small figures at Greycoats too.