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 161.

    All the criticism is putting me in mind of the reaction to Edouard Manet's "Olympia" at the Paris Salon in 1865. Derided by the establishment at the time, yet immensely influential. Plus ca change.

  • rate this

    Comment number 160.

    It is always difficult to know how much of Damian Hirsts work is him. It’s always a bit of a mystery. If it is his then I can honestly say it’s the only thing he has ever done that I like.
    I also like the idea of it being in sleepy Ilfracombe. rather than ‘The forth plinth’, ‘The City’. I do wonder if he is ripping off his YBA counterpart Ms Emin who has put her native seaside Margate

  • rate this

    Comment number 159.

    This reminds me of the Soviet Era communist public art found all over eastern Europe and the Soviet Statues in the A Bomb parks in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The narrative is of the bold strong pregnant comrade striding bolding forward to build a better future for her child. That or the brave Madonna shouldering her destiny.
    I'd be more upset that it is not particularly original than anything else.

  • rate this

    Comment number 158.

    Personally I like it and no doubt I'll get a lot of thumbs down for saying so. In a lot of ways this sculpture gives a detailed insight into how anatomical knowledge is essential to the artist, which takes skill and a lot of time to understand. It also evokes questions, which in my opinion is one of the primary goals of art. Without it, society becomes stagnant.

  • rate this

    Comment number 157.

    Ilfracombe's version of the Statue of Liberty? More like the massive taking a liberty by imposing this on people who didn't ask for it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 156.

    150.Pat Jennings

    From those I've spoekn to (being a Devon bey myself) opinions are as divided up there as they are on this HYS topic.

    Either way one half are being ignored the other supported. You can't please all of the people and all that.

  • rate this

    Comment number 155.

    How about another statue next to it of Damien Hirst, smiling and rubbing his hands

  • rate this

    Comment number 154.

    I also fail to see the artistic merit in what does appear to be an ego trip by the sculptor and how a local council can justify it's cost, as has already been mentioned, when there's speed bumps to be removed, is unbelievable.

  • rate this

    Comment number 153.

    This is a beautiful rendition of empowered womanhood... powerful, strong, fertile and life-giving. We must celebrate such an offering from such an inspirational artist. I am in mainland Europe and I for one will be visiting Ilfracombe to see this masterpiece.

  • rate this

    Comment number 152.

    I think the 'art' in this is putting something so controversial in it's least likely setting. A statue of a naked pregnant lady in a seaside harbour? You couldn't have chosen a least likely place. It belongs where art should belong, in an art gallery.

  • rate this

    Comment number 151.

    If Ilfracombe doesn't want it, I'll have it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 150.

    Some people like it, some people hate it. What do the people of Ilfracombe think? Sorry, as was the case with the the "Madonna's Bra" theatre, the people of Ilfracombe weren't asked - they're only the voters, their opinion doesn't matter.

  • rate this

    Comment number 149.

    There's nothing like a little bit of notoriety to highlight a town's 'brand'.
    Pregnant girls on the sea front (when was it any different) and a 'sperm' for a logo... it's all shaping up quite nicely!

  • rate this

    Comment number 148.

    Pompous, perhaps. Rubbish, perhaps. Waste of money, probably. Offensive, NOT A CHANCE!!! Where do these nay sayers think they came from? A stork?

  • rate this

    Comment number 147.

    It's a fascinating sculpture to me and I like it.

    However, I would like to see more acknowledgement, by conceptual artists, like Hirst and others, to give credit to the teams of people behind the scenes who actually physically make them.

    As an aside, a lack of clean and affordable indoor facilities for families, wishing to visit, all year round, are failing many seaside towns' potential income?

  • rate this

    Comment number 146.

    Bearing in mind William Shatner's "historic" links with Ilfracombe, couldn't they have erected a giant statue of Captain Kirk ( or TJ Hooker )?

  • rate this

    Comment number 145.

    People seem to repeatedly make a simple typing error today. Instead of "I don't like it" they seem to be mistakenly hitting other keys so their message says "This is not art".

    No one other than an artist decides if something is art. If someone wants to pay money for what they produce then good for them. Don't forget this particular one is donated for 20 years.

  • rate this

    Comment number 144.

    Is there something rather inept about the timing of this - the enthusiatic display of a 14year old pregnant girl - whilst we are reeling at the emerging revelations of habitual abuse of the underaged by household name celebrities whilst the establishment apparently turned a blind eye.

  • rate this

    Comment number 143.

    None!! they are just a statement of the illintentioned musing of councillors in all cities who would rather spend our money on dross instead of repairing the roads, and adding to the CO2 in the atmosphere by putting speed bumps everywhere.

  • rate this

    Comment number 142.

    The difference between this and the "Angel Of The North" is that the latter has been placed with consideration to the industrial heritage of that area and so love or hate the Angel, you could at least appreciate it's relevance.

    I'm struggling to see the relevance with Verity - it just looks like a gigantic ego trip and a "Bodyworlds / Gunther Von Hagens" rip-off.


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