www.Poundswick .org.uk

The Statue


 
 
When the school was built, the statue was one of the most controversial aspects of the design. It was a bit modern for the mid-50s. It depicted three youths balancing on each other in order to reach a higher level - very appropriate for a brand new school determined to set itself a high standard. I guess that most Poundswickians got quite attached to it over the years.
Being rather controversial, it often had fun poked at it as in this rendition by Frank Mitchell, the Art Master, of the programme for the School Sports Day in 1958.

The statue was certainly absolutely unique to Poundswick. Now that it has gone, lots of questions spring to mind: Who commissioned it? Who sculpted it? What happened to it?

The statue was commissioned by the Manchester Education Committee and under funding terms of that era the Committee was permitted, at its discretion, to use up to 0.5% of the school's capital budget for art works. It was decided to commission an outdoor sculpture for Poundswick and the sculptor Maurice Lambert was approached, but his idea of a human figure holding a bowl was not considered suitable. Eventually a committee, whose members included S. D. Cleveland, Director of Manchester City Art Gallery, John Holden, Principal of Manchester regional College of Art and Leonard Howitt, the City Architect, decided to commission a work from the York-based sculptor, Austin Wright.


Austin Wright

Austin Wright was born in Chester in 1911 and spent his childhood and youth in Wales. From school in Cardiff and Somerset he went up to Oxford to read Modern Languages and subsequently trained to be a schoolmaster, teaching French, German, Maths and Art in Malvern, Tunbridge Wells and York. He became interested in sculpture in his twenties but it was not until he was 44 that he was able to pursue this interest full-time. During his sculpting career he worked in a wide range of materials, including wood, stone, terracotta, lead, plaster, concrete and aluminium.

Poundswick's sculpture was of concrete and fibreglass and it comprised three skeletal figures, two of whom were being supported by the third; they were intended to symbolise the vitality of youth. Wright called the work Acrobats and it was one of his first large public commissions.

Like many of his larger works, he preceded it with a much smaller maquette to help him formulate his ideas and to get a feel for the subject. Here's the one for Acrobats. It was made of wire and plaster and stood but sixteen inches tall. By no means all of Wright's works are of human figures but many of those that are, have the block-like head which, despite the different natures of the sculptures makes them unmistakably Wright's work.

It was only after the school had opened that Acrobats appears to have attracted wider public attention. Some councillors expressed concern about the commissioning process and also about the cost, which was 800. Modern sculpture in the setting of a modern school did not suit all tastes and one critical councillor described the work as being "like a well-plucked turkey standing on its tail end".

Turkey or not, Acrobats graced Poundswick's grounds for over 20 years and generations of Old Poundswickians doubtless remember it with more or less affection. The very nature of its construction inevitably tempted a few of the more agile, bold and mischievous pupils to climb it, despite this being absolutely forbidden. Tales of items of ladies' underwear and even a member of staff's bicycle being hung from its upper limbs have passed into Poundswick folklore but in the main these were no more than occasional harmless pranks.

Sadly, however, the statue suffered serious and deliberate vandalism during the late 70s and it was dismantled sometime in late 1977 or early 1978; I trust the vandals are proud of their achievement. Its remains were stored for a while in Kinsey's Cottage but no-one seems certain what happened to it then. Certainly no-one seems to have cared and, like Kinsey's Cottage itself, Acrobats eventually passed, un-loved, into oblivion. For some years the vacant plinth remained and the drained pond assumed the role of a receptacle for discarded crisp packets and drinks cans. Eventually the pond was filled in and slabbed over in an attempt to tidy up this desecrated corner of the school grounds.

Regular visitors to the Poundswick website will be aware that this page previously mistakenly attributed the statue to the local sculptress Mitzi Cunliffe and I apologise to relatives of both Mitzi Cunliffe and Austin Wright for making this error. The truth emerged when I was contacted by Terry Wyke, Senior Lecturer in History at Manchester Metropolitan University, and I am grateful to Terry for permitting me to quote from his book about public sculpture in Manchester. Terry also brought to my attention James Hamilton's excellent book The Sculpture of Austin Wright and I would like to thank James, and Austin's widow, Susan, for permission to reproduce photographs and text from it.

It is, however, perhaps appropriate to record here that Mitzi Cunliffe was commissioned by the M.E.C. to create a sculpture for a school in Wythenshawe and that the result of her endeavour, unlike Acrobats, survives to this very day.

The school in queston is the erstwhile West Wythenshawe Technical School, now known as Brookway High School. The sculpture, of a man holding a torch, is situated in a prominent position in front of the school and is readily visible to anyone passing along Altrincham Road.

Not discernible in this photo are inscriptions on the two pillars. The right-hand is inscribed "Mitzi Cunliffe sculpsit" and the left-hand "MCMLVII" (1957).

 

Back to Acrobats, this photograph, the only one we have in colour, shows its position in the centre of the ornamental pool adjacent to the school hall. It was taken by Mr. W. H. Nicholson (staff, 1957-82) in the early sixties. Inside the hall you can just make out the bamboo canes at the front of the stage and also the original 1950s chairs with fabric seats and backs.


 
Having digressed somewhat onto the subject of chairs, here's a photo of one. This particular example is not the genuine Poundswick article but is, as far as I can recall, identical to it. You don't see them very often these days; I came across this one in the crypt of Gloucester Cathedral!
Conundrum

Take a look at this photo. Notice anything strange about it? If in doubt, compare it with the one on the Poundswick Images page entitled Enjoying the summer sun, sixties style, which was taken in 1963 from almost exactly the same spot.

Yes, you're right - there's no statue! So when was this photo taken? From what's written on this page you might assume that it was taken in the late 70s or early 80s, after the statue's demise, but you'd be wrong; this photo appeared on page 19 of the Spring 1962 edition of ARGO. And it shows a bike in the original bike sheds. Note also that the tree on the left is considerably smaller than in the 1963 photo; this photo is much older.

In his book, James Hamilton asserts that Austin Wright recorded that Acrobats was not placed until 1957. I assumed that Wright must have got the date wrong and James Hamilton admitted that this was a possibility, but this photograph makes me wonder if he was right.

What we need is an Old Poundswickian from the 1956 intake with a sharp memory to tell us whether or not the statue was in place when the school opened in September 1956. If not, when did it arrive? It was certainly in place by September 1957.

O.K., problem solved!   Robert Senior (1956-63) e-mailed in January 2006 to say he clearly remembers that when he started at Poundswick in 1956 there was no statue and that it arrived during a holiday - probably the summer holiday of 1957, which fits in exactly with the above.  When the school re-opened in September 1957 I remember a fire-and-brimstone speech from Hutch warning of torture worse than death to anyone getting within spitting distance of the statue.  I assumed at the time that this warning (which was given to the whole school) was for the benefit of the new intake, but it was clearly for everyone!

If you have have any other memories of the statue that you think would be of interest, let's hear from you.