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 301.

    Time to go elsewhere, over the years I have seen enough of Ilfracombe anyway. This is to be expected, after all they did knock a beautiful old theatre and replace it with something that looks as though it came from a power station.

  • rate this

    Comment number 300.

    The insides of things should be kept to science exhibits where people can go see them if they want. Putting something like that out in the open where you have no choice but to see is wrong. I feel sorry for the parents who have to explain this to their kids. Hirst just wants headlines, this is just more of the same old stuff he's always done.

  • rate this

    Comment number 299.

    @238 wicked witch of the South West
    ..."not in keeping.."

    Well, maybe you would tell the people of Ilfracombe just what is "in keeping" then we can all attempt to assess your value judgements of suitable types and decisions.

  • rate this

    Comment number 298.

    25 Minutes ago

    Absolutely beautiful.

    And best of all, it's upsetting so many of you who are so desperate to be offended.'

    So a 66ft dissected cadaver in a place of natural beauty is wonderful because it offends traditional values. 'Rubbing our noses in diversity' right? That claptrap sounds familiar.

  • rate this

    Comment number 297.

    A weed is a flower in the wrong place - this statue is just art in the wrong place. There is no connection between it and Ilfracombe historically or symbolically. At least the Angel of the North could be view symbolically as the 'Angel' of the North - this statue may end up been viewed as 'The pregnant lass of Ilfracombe' - what message will that give about the area?

  • rate this

    Comment number 296.

    Hirst and the people who put this there will be laughing all the way to the bank. They are laughing at the people who talk about "art" and laughing that they people who don't want to see it are forced to look at this rubbish.

  • rate this

    Comment number 295.

    I live in a very similar fading and failing seaside town to Ilfracombe. Personally, I hate Verity but if she were here and brought in just one hundred extra tourists in her lifetime I would welcome her with open arms. I would MUCH rather have Anthony Gormley's figures in the sea but beggars can't be choosers.

  • rate this

    Comment number 294.

    Typical rubbish from the 'artist' who pickles sharks and cows. I cannot stand this type of art. Like Emin and her unmade bed etc, its generally sloppy and lacking any real merit or artistic talent. Besides, what parent wants their young child to point at this and ask what it is?

  • rate this

    Comment number 293.

    By the looks of things, it's an eye-sore, for a start. Art continues to decline in today's modern media entrenched society, you all need to look at this to see it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 292.

    Its not really something young children should see.

  • rate this

    Comment number 291.

    Don't care whether or not I like Verity, just welcome a bit of imagination. Ilf's seascape is too magnificent to be undermined by one manmade structure. Shrewsbury has a beautiful sculpture ("Quantum Leap") encapsulating the theory of evolution. Some would prefer a dreary statue of Darwin instead, which would attract no-one. Well done Ilfracombe for rejecting cultural conservatism and decline.

  • rate this

    Comment number 290.

    Its not just Hirst who thinks its wonderful its English Heritage as well,
    I just wish they would stop putting modern ugly buildings, modern ugly sculptures and ugly modern art in such places as Ilfracombe and elsewhere thinking they are doing us all a favour .

  • rate this

    Comment number 289.

    art should be beautiful and uplifting - most of modern art is disgusting and designed simply to shock and get attention, like tabloids, violent movies, stand up comedy

    the organisation which has recently tried to coverup the allegations of pedophillia and molestation in its premises (newsnight report) should not be considered responsible enough to investigate its own affairs.

  • rate this

    Comment number 288.


    "...Genuinely shocked that people can call a statue of a pregnant woman "demeaning to women". .."


    It's not a statue of a pregnant woman. It's one of two dissectionally mutilated cadavers.

  • Comment number 287.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 286.

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

    Well I certainly don't agree with that, James!

    What I think is demeaning to women is having men deciding what they should wear, how they should look, etc. If a woman chooses to wear high heels or to become pregnant or anything else, it is her choice, and demeaning to her to criticise her for it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 285.

    Con artist.

  • rate this

    Comment number 284.

    Verity Statue = Tourists = lots of packed lunches = food on floor = lots of seagulls = very messy Verity!!

  • rate this

    Comment number 283.

    I can only agree with the comments about con men. Even Picasso once admitted that the only thing that gave his "art" credibility was his signature.

  • rate this

    Comment number 282.

    "Hirst is very good at getting people talking and thinking. "

    Unfortunately the talking and thinking they seem to achieve does always seem to be rather banal and trivial.


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