Will Damien Hirst's bronze statue Verity regenerate Ilfracombe?


Damien Hirst pregnant woman sculpture divides Ilfracombe

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The artistic merit of Damien Hirst's giant bronze statue of a pregnant woman has split opinions in Ilfracombe, but it also raises the issue of the role of public art in regenerating a town.

She has been called outrageous, immoral, bizarre, obscene, offensive, disgusting, grotesque, a monstrosity, of no artistic merit and demeaning to women.

Others see her as beautiful and unique, with the power to transform a town's tired image and boost its economy.

This week Damien Hirst's 20.25m (66ft) bronze artwork - known as Verity - is being installed in the Devon seaside town of Ilfracombe.

Start Quote

Art divides people.”

End Quote Councillor Mike Edmunds

The artwork is on 20-year loan from controversial artist Hirst, who lives locally and owns a restaurant in the town.

The naked pregnant figure stands looking out from Ilfracombe Harbour, sword held aloft, with part of her anatomy exposed - a baby visible in the womb.

The decision by North Devon Council to grant the statue planning permission follows months of vigorous debate by both the "yes" and "no" camps.

"We need to have a second string to our bow," says Ilfracombe councillor Mike Edmunds, who can see the new arrival from his bedroom window.

Verity statue Sword aloft: Artist's impression of how Verity will look in Ilfracombe

"We've relied, as a holiday resort, on our natural charm and beauty, but that's not enough in the present day. Hotels are closing, so we've got to do something to boost the economy and we're looking at the arts as a way of encouraging visitors."

Mr Edmunds sees Verity as the "first part of a jigsaw" that would see other works of public art introduced to Ilfracombe.

That might include an arts trail linking Verity to the town's redeveloped Landmark Theatre - notable for its white conical design dubbed "Madonna's Bra".

Mr Edmunds admits there have been strong feelings about the choice of artwork. "Art divides people, and the one thing about Verity is that because it is so controversial it will attract people to the town. I can't see in my own mind why there was such an outcry that it was so offensive."

Chloe Hubbard, editor of of the North Devon Journal, says her letters page has been split over the Verity issue.


Verity Photographed by Steve Russell © Damien Hirst and Science Ltd. All rights reserved, DACS 2012
  • At 20.25m from plinth to sword-tip, Verity is slightly taller than the Angel Of The North
  • She weighs more than 25 tonnes
  • Verity is described a modern-day allegory for truth and justice
  • The figure's stance is taken from Edgar Degas' Little Dancer of Fourteen Years (c. 1881) referenced by Hirst in his earlier bronze Virgin Mother (2005)
  • She holds the traditional symbols denoting Justice - a sword and scales - though the scales are hidden behind her back
  • Hirst's website notes: "Without the perfect equilibrium enacted by the scales, the sword becomes a dangerous instrument of power, rather than justice"
  • Verity was made in more than 40 individual castings at Pangolin Editions foundry in Gloucestershire
  • The entire piece has been tested to ensure it can withstand high winds and sea spray

"We first reported on it eight months ago and we've had letters every single week. I haven't known any subject to have such a long-running interest. Even now Verity's arrived we are still getting protest letters, so people are clearly riled.

"There are people who think it's going to make money for the town and boost tourism, but then there are those who think it doesn't reflect what Ilfracombe's about, and are quite offended by it."

Ms Hubbard thinks Verity may attract a different type of tourist to the seaside resort.

"Ilfracombe is not the most affluent area and anything that can bring money into the area has got to be viewed as a positive thing."

She adds: "Certain parts of the media have massively hammed this story up, saying that the locals are out with their pitchforks and don't want this in the town. That isn't what's happening."

Before North Devon Council passed the planning application this summer, it had received 100 letters of objection and 177 letters of support of Verity.

Among those objectors was Sue Dale, owner of Ilfracombe's Darnley Hotel, who has now had the chance to see the statue for real.

Her opinion has not been swayed. "I think it's more hideous than I did before, and it isn't suitable for a Victorian seaside town," she says.

"I think it's disappointing that the money and the ideas couldn't have been spent on a proper attraction to encourage people to come to Ilfracombe 52 weeks of the year.

"I've not said we shouldn't have anything there, but I think the statue might be a two-minute wonder. It's not for me and I don't think it's suitable for our harbour."

Mrs Dale is relieved that her hotel does not have a view of he statue. "I feel very sorry for people who may have to look at it every day."

She adds: "I think we'll have to live with it and hope it doesn't become an eyesore with pigeon and seagull droppings and vandalism."

'Great claims'

The aesthetic debate aside, among the arguments in support of Verity was that it would "put Ilfracombe on the map", update the town's image and boost the local economy.

"Great claims have been made about public art and the big criticism is that it hasn't really lived up to those claims," cautions Jonathan Banks, chief executive of public art think tank Ixia.

In the case of Antony Gormley's Angel of the North, in Gateshead, he points out that it has been difficult to assess its economic impact separately from other regeneration projects.

"There is a belief that it has changed the perception of the North East [of England] but quantifying that as an economic benefit is a bit more tricky."

The Angel itself was the target of a "stop the statue" campaign in the 1990s.

Verity Photographed by Steve Russell © Damien Hirst and Science Ltd. All rights reserved, DACS 2012 In pieces: Verity being prepared for her trip to Ilfracombe

"These things tend to grow on people," says Mr Banks. "Over time these sculptures do become symbols of their regions, and replace other symbols or negative images."

The economic downturn and changes to arts funding, he says, have meant a decline in the commissioning of monumental sculptures.

Verity is different in that she is a long-term loan from the artist.

"Public art has moved on quite a long way from these large-scale sculptures. There's a slight tiredness around them. It's become a quite formulaic part of the regeneration agenda," says Mr Banks.

"If the intention was to give Ilfracombe an economic boost then best have an artwork of national or international interest to generate the visitors to see it.

"But then there is there issue of how much the artwork has to do with local people and who the artwork is actually for."

Hirst's work has long stirred up controversy and the artist told the BBC earlier this year that he always tried to ignore the negative reactions.

A Hirst retrospective at Tate Modern in London this summer was the most visited solo show in the gallery's history. Works by Hirst on show included a shark suspended in formaldehyde and an installation comprising a room of live butterflies.

Criticism this week by the RSPCA of the butterfly work, and the recent outcry over Verity, indicate that Hirst's ability to polarise opinion is showing no sign of subsiding.


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  • rate this

    Comment number 41.

    In Ireland such statues immediately acquire nicknames. Molly Malone (the tart with the cart) a river naiad (the floozy in the jacuzzi) shoppers outside Belfast's shopping centre (the hags with the bags). Having been to Ilfracombe, may I suggest "the dump with the bump".

  • rate this

    Comment number 40.

    Wow! looks amazing - I'll go there just to see Verity - Look what's happening- people are talking/writing about Ilfracombe - BOOM!!

    Lex x

  • rate this

    Comment number 39.

    An improvement on a pickled animal. Its also a suitably quirky subject for a remote seaside town. I will be making a point of having a look the next time I visit. The South West enjoys its sculpture, check out the Prawn on a pole in Plymouth's Barbican or Barbara Hepworths garden in St Ives.

  • rate this

    Comment number 38.

    It's Art doing what Art is supposed to do.

  • rate this

    Comment number 37.

    It seems rather pathetic that the best justification put forward for this installation is that, if we're lucky, it might have a positive effect on the local economy. It's a vacuous bit of tat and a huge embarrassment for Ilfracombe. I'd be ashamed if I were one of those lickspittle councillors that Damien Hirst has got eating out of his hand.

  • rate this

    Comment number 36.

    Ohhhh wow, a picture of a pregnant woman in 2012, when nightly channel 4 are showing teenagers how to have anal sex and I can access hardcore pornography more easily than my online banking service. I am both shocked and inspired and I feel a newfound "insert meaningless gender-friendly buzzword here" towards women.

    Really pushing some boundaries there.

  • rate this

    Comment number 35.

    Well it isn't art, and that's for sure. Hirst has made a shed load of money with his dead cows and sharks etc and there have been enough idiots around to buy them, but don't once kid yourselves that it is art.
    Just think if all that 66 feet of bronze hadn't been wasted this way, how many great statues or art works on a smaller scale could have been placed around the town.

  • rate this

    Comment number 34.

    This is another example in a long list of British waste, self-indulgence and financial exploitation of public financing.

    There is no need for further adjectives, shame on those responsible for approving this travesty.

  • rate this

    Comment number 33.

    What a refreshing change to have an original piece of art by a world renowned artist depicting something other than a general in full military uniform. ..."

    Where have you been for the past 100 years? The art world caricature you describe died long ago. Hirst and his ilk prey on dupes like you who would buy anything as long as its labeled new ("buy" being the operative word).

  • rate this

    Comment number 32.

    I don't profess to know anything about art or Illfracombe. Messages of empowerment, justice, beauty, whatever, all have a place, and putting them in the right environment is paramount for many reasons. Although I find the statue beautiful in what I take it to represent atleast, and am all for regeneration when it is needed, I am not sure this is the right place for the piece.

  • rate this

    Comment number 31.

    The fact that everyone is arguing and talking about it means that the art has accomplished what arts meant to do. And ilfracomb will definetly have a hell of a lot more visitors now! All the negative commenters are just prudes that don't like change.

  • rate this

    Comment number 30.


    Hirst (and Emin) were always passé and only ever wowed the gullible. Most people saw their 'art' for what it really was - tosh and trash. I have lots of fond memories of Ilfracombe from my childhood and It's a shame the town has had to stoop to this in an attempt to attract visitors.

    Does the arm double as a windmill so it will be at least partially useful?

  • rate this

    Comment number 29.

    Verity is a ... Unique Selling Point.
    If it helps Ilfracombe's decaying tourism economy, it should be welcomed by everyone.
    I intend to go and look at her this week.

  • rate this

    Comment number 28.

    My hometown had a statue constructed of two androgynous figures with a double helix shooting out of their butts (I think) to celebrate Francis Crick.

    I didn't like it at first, but I stopped caring that it's there a long time ago; and on the upside, at least it's not another Subway.

    I'm not saying outrage and angry letters should *always* be ignored; but it's not a bad rule of thumb!

  • rate this

    Comment number 27.

    If this was a plain statue, no one would make a fuss but I think thats the idea to draw attention to the location and the artist. Why not just install a giant penis, it achieve the same effect and could be called a self portrait.

  • rate this

    Comment number 26.

    I think that this sculpture might have been much more effective if it had used the granite of Cornwall for its construction. (or even tin I guess!). The rusting steel used for the Angel of the North was clearly part of its charm and impact.

  • rate this

    Comment number 25.

    Why is it demeaning to women? I think high heels are demeaning to women

  • rate this

    Comment number 24.

    Look - the real reason that tourism is failing in this country is because people have less disposable income, and prices are going through the roof. I went to Cumbria last weekend and it cost around £160 for diesel, and £280 for a family of 4 for 2 nights in a pretty much run of the mill B&B. Add to that a couple of modest meals out at pub prices - that's why tourism is dying in the UK.

  • rate this

    Comment number 23.

    How is this going to bring money and jobs into the town?
    Hirst is brilliant at making money.... for himself! Hirst "has always tried to ignore negative comments" No he hasn't he has always courted negative comments which get his "work" talked about and ultimately sold for shed loads of money.
    Sorry Ilfracombe I will not be coming to visit to see your new visitor attraction.

  • rate this

    Comment number 22.

    I've never been to Ilfracombe before, and might visit now. I think it looks amazing, a creative and clever piece of artwork. When was the last time Ilfracombe was discussed so often on the BBC? Well done to whoever commissioned it.


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