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 101.

    It might help regenerate Ilfracombe if the town sold it for scrap. Bronze isn't doing at all badly in the markets at the moment.

    The sale money could be put to better use I'll bet.

  • rate this

    Comment number 100.

    Like most of Hirsts work it is deliberately controversial and in my eyes also ugly too.

    I think it is more of another 'look at me' statement from and about the artist rather than art that is beneficial to its surroundings or the viewer.

    But thats art for you, it is subjective and some will like it and some won't. I only hope it proves worth the money, which could be better spent elsewhere.

  • rate this

    Comment number 99.

    I last visited Ilfracombe two years ago and found it to be a depressing, decaying former seaside resort with many boarded up windows and closed businesses, in sore need of some investment that has genuine longevity and returns in order to stimulate its economy - I fail to see how the statue will achieve this, after you've spent 10 minutes looking at it, what next?

  • rate this

    Comment number 98.

    So, i may have missed their point, but are those suggesting that this sculpture is disgusting and grotesque saying that a pregnant woman is a disgusting thing to look at?

    To be fair you can't get a proper look at this sculpture from these small pictures...

  • rate this

    Comment number 97.

    I would avoid ilfracombe because of this statue and I wouldnt make a special trip tyo the place to see it either, but, if i was there i would make a poiint of seeing it and maybe stay a little longer than planned just to do so!

  • rate this

    Comment number 96.

    I've help a friend out a few times in a contemporary are gallery, and at exhibitions. Setting up, moving stuff around etc.

    I have never been surrounded by so many people talking absolute rubbish all day. And the sums of money spent on work equivalent to what I produced in CDT at primary school is hilarious.

  • rate this

    Comment number 95.

    82. Peakeen. The wonderful piece you refer to is much loved by a majority of people who live in or come from the North East. Is there really any need for your small minded sneering?

  • rate this

    Comment number 94.

    59. Janeinbfl >He's got a restaurant there<

    yes he has..and because of that you also dont need to be a rocket scientist to understand "why Ilfracombe ?"

    Art for Arts' sake....? No. Its art for Mr Hirsts' sake.

  • rate this

    Comment number 93.

    I'm a great enthusiast for Hirst's work but surely a civic statue should relate to the town itself otherwise its placement in the centre of a town becomes an utterly randomn act (- and not in a good way but in an arbitrary and completely meaningless kind of way).

  • rate this

    Comment number 92.

    The "don't know much about art but know what I like" public despised Van Gogh during his lifetime and now fawn over his work because they're told that's what art looks like. If art was about pleasing people, every artist would just paint the Haywain over and over again.

    Personally I'd rather they use their own judgment, even if I don't like the result.

  • rate this

    Comment number 91.

    Please note that the statue is not publicly funded and is a temporary gift, so nothing has been taken from any other public budgets.

  • rate this

    Comment number 90.

    I blame the parents

  • rate this

    Comment number 89.

    I wonder how many local council services had to be or will be cut to pay for this unattractive piece of 'art'.
    In my view any cuts are too much to pay for this self aggrandising eyesore.

  • rate this

    Comment number 88.

    I will certainly be visiting Ilfracombe now - for the art and the hookers.

  • rate this

    Comment number 87.

    Oh come on does it really do any harm to anyone? i didnt think so

  • rate this

    Comment number 86.

    Wow, that makes a change - a piece of Damien Hurst art that I actually like, and you don't see that very often.

    It begs the question how many of the antis are anti everything DH does, rather than just not liking some & liking other works?

  • rate this

    Comment number 85.

    It's actually kind of educational.
    "Mummy, where do babies come from?"... problem solved!

  • rate this

    Comment number 84.

    Personally I would rather it didn't have a cut through of the womans womb. Not because I'm squimish, anatomy fascinates me, but because this could have been a celebration of new life. Instead it now looks more like one persons obsession with cutting things in half. A wasted opportunity to do something good I think.

  • rate this

    Comment number 83.

    Frankly, if seaside resorts want to boost visitor numbers they need to invest in local infrastructure. Go along the northern french coast and you will find vibrant cafe / restaurant areas, museums and beautiful countryside. Go anywhere in the UK and you will find souless towns, beachfronts and dire arcade areas. I know which I prefer - and a hirst statue isnt going to make a difference.

  • rate this

    Comment number 82.

    It is deliberately hideous. What, exactly, does a half-dissected pregnant 14-year-old child have to do with truth, justice and Ilfacombe? This is all about Hirst on an ego-trip.

    On the plus side, it's not rusty like Gormley's half-man-half-glider of the north.

    Art could, with a bit of imagination, be progressive, modern AND aesthetic.


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