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 121.

    I love it!

  • rate this

    Comment number 120.

    If the point of art is to inflame the imagination and cause a human reactive whether negative or positive, then I would ague that it has certainly done it job, it does have artistic merit and personally I like it for these reasons.

  • rate this

    Comment number 119.

    Ilfracombe sits in one of the most beautiful parts of the country. If the council wants to attract tourism to the town then it need look no further than the moors and beautiful coastline. With the country experiencing a renewed interest in cycling, not many areas offer such challenging terrain. As for the statue, I'm sure it will cause revulsion and delight in equal measure!

  • rate this

    Comment number 118.

    I don't know much about art. But as for the comment that this has "power to transform the town's tired image and boost its economy". I think that's just typical of the sort of rubbish that we hear from overpaid town hall officials who have too much time on their hands.

  • rate this

    Comment number 117.

    I think the statue looks incredible in photo. Thought-provoking and visceral. I wouldn't ever have heard of Ilfracombe had it not been for this. I'll be certain to visit the site if ever in the Devon area. There is nothing to be ashamed of or intimidated by when it comes to the human form in its various guises. Thank you Damien for this wonderful piece.

  • rate this

    Comment number 116.

    I wouldn't give it space in a scrapyard. It is ugly.

  • rate this

    Comment number 115.

    96. "I've help a friend out a few times in a contemporary are gallery, and at exhibitions. [...] I have never been surrounded by so many people talking absolute rubbish all day."

    Still, free booze though, right? =D

    People talk just as much rubbish at my local Wetherspoons. It's about different subjects and there's more visible herpetal scabs, but it's still ill-informed drunken posturing.

  • rate this

    Comment number 114.

    I think it's a shame that Ilfracombe has to resort to this gimmick. If Ilfracombe is failing as a resort, it needs to improve as a resort. This probably needs some research as to what holidaymakers are looking for - not stuff like Verity I suspect.

  • rate this

    Comment number 113.

    I don't think it's offensive or demeaning or obscene. It's just pretty bad art. Compare it to one of the great sculptures, like Bernini's "Apollo and Daphne", and you see that Hirst's work lacks life and vivacity and depth and (strange though it sounds) motion. Like most of Hirst's work, it is simply a vacuous attempt to be different.

  • rate this

    Comment number 112.

    I don't think this is really about the sculpture - although pretty awful in my eyes, not because its demeaning to women, its just unattractive. Its about "we know best" local government who do what they want. You want tourists? Drop business rates and do everything to make local shops successful rather than driving them out. Maintain and subsidise local transport. These are the right steps.

  • rate this

    Comment number 111.

    I grew up in Ilfracombe and am very fond of it. I think the piece will quickly become associated with the town and the town associated with the piece, in a positive way. She is a very powerful image of Woman, life and society. However, she does have a challenging side that needs thinking about.

  • rate this

    Comment number 110.

    Well how about a giant adventure playground style ILFRACOMBE along the front?

    I've just seem this statue, thanks. Don't need to visit Ilfracombe now

  • rate this

    Comment number 109.

    As a lover of hirsts work I can say that i would visit an area i have never heard of to go and see it. Any other statue or attraction would not have to same affect and I still wouldn't know where the place is. So already it has raised awareness of IIfracoombe. A good fit in my view, and a pregnant woman is not disgusting or a monstrosity, shes beautiful and strong.

  • rate this

    Comment number 108.

    You don't shoot the last pig in the world because it is ugly.
    Like wise you cannot condemn Hirst's work just because IT is ugly.
    The fact that it IS ugly, like most of his work, is beside the point. I would not give it house room. The ONLY reason it is being built is because the burghers of Ilfracombe believe that this man has talent or charisma. Erecting this will be a good reason not to visit.

  • rate this

    Comment number 107.

    Let me guess. This councillor is probably paid a six figure salary and he is presiding over some major 'art investments' in a dwindling economy?.

  • rate this

    Comment number 106.

    Sorry folks, after having watched the news report, can't help but think the lady who said "we've got enough pregnant women already we don't need any more" is a perfect example of everything that is wrong with the attitude of people in this country. Bitter, resentful, short sighted idiots who can't contain their jealousy of other peoples good fortune. Forget about culling badgers

  • rate this

    Comment number 105.

    so far, so good - its got lots of people talking about Ilfracombe - and it will encourage people to visit - its now up to the residents/hoteliers, etc to make visitors want to stay a while!

  • rate this

    Comment number 104.

    "How can this bring in money to a struggling holiday resort"

    Bronze is about £3k a tonne, the statue is 66 ft tall.....you do the math!!

  • rate this

    Comment number 103.

    99. You look at the statue for 10 minutes; then you go get something to eat at a local chip shop, maybe have a look around the town because hey, you're there, what else are you gonna do?

    It creates through-traffic, and that's something that small town economies desperately need.

  • rate this

    Comment number 102.

    After spending a family holiday in Ilfracoombe this summer i can only hope it is an improvement on a drab and boring town. At least it should give somewhere for the groups of kids and their dogs somewhere to hang around so family walks in the evening can miss this area and not feel so intimidated.


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