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 141.

    "Verity is described a modern-day allegory for truth and justice"

    What absolute nonsense!

    Like most of Hurst & his ilk's output, this is just a modern day version of 'The Emperors New Clothes'.

    That the art world continues to heap praise & waste such obscene sums of money on the pretentious dross produced by these total charlatans is quite depressing.

    Where is the 'Truth & Justice' in that?

  • rate this

    Comment number 140.

    Such a pity Hirst ignores negative comments. If he dropped the arrogance once in a while he might stop trying to impress us with his 'shock and awe’ tactics and use his creativity instead. I would not walk to the end of the lane to see this statue.
    And what does it say about Ilfracombe? Might it suggest that it is the unmarried mother capital of Britain. Art truly is what you can get away with.

  • rate this

    Comment number 139.

    I'm going to buck the trend of you miserable lot and say I like the statue. To me it shows a liberation of women and strength in the female form. Pregnancy can be such a taboo to a lot of people, but it's actually a remarkable symbol of strength and survival. Women used to be worshipped for the womb that gives life. It shows how much religion has taken over our country when it's frowned upon.

  • rate this

    Comment number 138.

    Eh? I'm sure you have discussed a sporting event or a tv programme in the recent past. One issue does not exclude the discussion of all others.

    It looks fine to me, it's provoked discussion and I suspect that's all the artist wanted.

  • rate this

    Comment number 137.

    Almost everything new is disliked at first - Big Ben, Eifel Tower, Guggenheim Bilbao - but later the locals become proud of it. Whether people will come to Ilf specially to see it, I don´t know.

    I think Hirst has done it knowing the design will be controversial, but I expect people will eventually come to quite like it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 136.

    This qualifies as an entry for the Turner Prize as it is a grotesque piece of meaningless rubbish.Trouble with the luvvies and arty types who like this sort of thing is that they do not occupy the same world as the rest of us.They describe Emins "bed" and " garden shed" as "work".Are they mad?

  • rate this

    Comment number 135.

    I think it's absolutely gorgeous!

  • rate this

    Comment number 134.

    There is an appropriate time for a young girl to learn about pregnancy. This delicate, possibly frightening, subject should be introduced sympathetically and with sensitivity.

    Being confronted with a 20 metre, 25 tonne, bronze model of a part-dissected pregnant woman on a stroll along the prom is possibly not the best way.

  • rate this

    Comment number 133.

    This isn't art, its just a giant nude/skinless woman. Why would people want to see this? It seems like something a neolithic community with no sense of right and wrong would create.

    Besides, why does this get to break public nudity laws? Arn't they there for a reason?

    The things people make for 'Art'..... its pathetic.

  • rate this

    Comment number 132.

    14. PatBenatar
    Genuinely shocked that people can call a statue of a pregnant woman "demeaning to women". I really thought things had changed but I guess some people are still horrified by the thought of birth.

    Have you seen the statue? A very pregnant woman is holding a sword aloft as if going into battle and half of her flesh has been removed. You may buy the hype others don't. Its not prudish

  • rate this

    Comment number 131.

    So how much do we think the council paid for this so-called work of art? Councils are cutting back on home care, day centres, mending the roads and they spend money on something like this? Shame on them!

  • rate this

    Comment number 130.

    It is a


    A prime example of a decision made by groups. What were they thinking ? Even if it was a free gift on loan. If I lived in Ilfracombe I would want a refund of my council tax. The human male and female bodies are beautiful, but this ? It an anatomy lesson !

  • rate this

    Comment number 129.

    to be honest mr hirst is no artist in any form all he seems to do is court contraversy, thus far most of his works have been for extreemist taste and of no real value to our culture.
    calling him an artist is an insult to art and artists.
    great for shock and awe but thats about all.

  • rate this

    Comment number 128.

  • rate this

    Comment number 127.

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

    Well at least they didn't pay for the statue, which would have been the main cost.
    But public money would still have been used for consultations, risk assessments, surveys, installing the statue, cleaning and maintaining it & taking it down after 20 years.

  • rate this

    Comment number 126.

    why pregnant, why not just a woman then?

  • rate this

    Comment number 125.

    How much longer are our countryside and towns going to be blighted by local councillors on an ego trip dotting them with works of dubious alleged 'art', the more outrageous the better? The country is beginning to look like a scrapyard.

    The only winners are the 'artists', who are laughing all the way to the bank.

  • rate this

    Comment number 124.

    In such tough and worrying times why is this a subject for debate. The price of everything is going to go through the roof and here we are debating something which has no bearing whatsoever on the current state of the economy and infrastructure. Can't you do better BBC?

  • rate this

    Comment number 123.

    Keep up the good work Damien, we need things like this to stir people out of their complacency.
    The debate surrounding this very much reminds me of the 'Angel of the North' nay sayers at the time too- and yet when I saw it driving up the road after a long drive back from London, I knew I was almost home.
    If I'm ever near I'm going for a closer look- so +1 for tourism benefits.

  • rate this

    Comment number 122.

    I was more interested in Milton Keynes ? painted cows. (The cow skeletons were painted on the plain statues) I thought it was an excellent way to re cycle what had become invisible.


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