Witch of Agnesi Sculpture
List Entry Summary
This building is listed under the Planning (Listed Buildings and Conservation Areas) Act 1990 as amended for its special architectural or historic interest.
Name: Witch of Agnesi Sculpture
List entry Number: 1429109
TQ 44556 73993, University of Greenwich, Avery Hill Campus, Southwood Site, Avery Hill Road, London SE9 2UG
The building may lie within the boundary of more than one authority.
County: Greater London Authority
District Type: London Borough
Parish: Non Civil Parish
National Park: Not applicable to this List entry.
Date first listed: 19-Jan-2016
Date of most recent amendment: Not applicable to this List entry.
This list entry does not comprise part of an Asset Grouping. Asset Groupings are not part of the official record but are added later for information.
List entry Description
Summary of Building
'The Witch of Agnesi', sculpture of 1959, by F E McWilliam.
Reasons for Designation
'The Witch of Agnesi', a sculpture of 1959, installed in 1960, by F E McWilliam, is listed at Grade II for the following principal reasons:
* Artistic interest: a high-quality, richly textural totemic piece sited on water, providing it a mercurial base, where the weather produces great changes in character; * Historic interest: commissioned by the pioneering patron of public art, the London County Council, and representative of the work of one of the key members of the mid-C20 artistic community; * Sculptor: McWilliam was one of Britain’s foremost surrealist sculptors of the early post-war period, and at the time of the commission he was at the height of his career.
The period after 1945 saw a shift from commemorative sculpture and architectural enrichment to the idea of public sculpture as a primarily aesthetic contribution to the public realm. Sculpture was commissioned for new housing, schools, universities and civic set pieces, with the counties of Hertfordshire, London and Leicestershire leading the way in public patronage. Thus public sculpture could be an emblem of civic renewal and social progress. By the late C20 however, patronage was more diverse and included corporate commissions and Arts Council-funded community art. The ideology of enhancing the public realm through art continued, but with divergent means and motivation.
Visual languages ranged from the abstraction of Victor Pasmore and Phillip King to the figurative approach of Elisabeth Frink and Peter Laszlo Peri, via those such as Lynn Chadwick and Barbara Hepworth who bridged the abstract/representational divide. The post-war decades are characterised by the exploitation of new – often industrial – materials and techniques including new welding and casting techniques, plastics and concrete, while kinetic sculpture and ‘ready mades’ (using found objects) demonstrate an interest in composite forms.
'The Witch of Agnesi' is the work of Frederick Edward McWilliam (1909-1992). McWilliam, born in County Down, was educated at the Belfast College of Art between 1926 and 1928, and the Slade School of Fine Art between 1928 and 1931. Following his graduation he received a scholarship to travel to Paris, where he visited Constantin Brâncusi's studios, and was inspired by Alberto Giacometti. A visit in 1936 to the International Surrealist Exhibition in London marked McWilliam’s departure from semi-abstraction, and the following year he exhibited with the British Surrealist Group; two years later was his first one-man exhibition. He was active in the War, and on his return to London was offered work at the Slade, where he taught until 1968. In 1949 McWilliam was elected to the London Group, and a decade later as an associate of the Royal Academy, from which he resigned in 1963. He undertook a number of commissions for public artworks, including a large figurative work for the Festival of Britain. He remained in London and continued his work until his death in 1992.
McWilliam exhibited the Witch of Agnesi at the fourth London County Council (LCC) open-air sculpture exhibition in Battersea Park in 1960, after which the LCC commissioned the piece for the Avery Hill teacher training college halls site in Greenwich. The somewhat sinister title of the piece was suggested to the sculptor due to the similarity of the curved elements to the curve defined by Maria Agnesi, an C18 Italian mathematician. Her curve became known as ‘the Witch of Agnesi’, though this peculiar title is thought to be a mistranslation of a term in Agnesi’s book, rather than a slur on the mathematician herself.
The sculpture has been restored and relocated within the campus grounds and stands, as was originally intended, above a pool of water. Tall vegetation growth in the pond impedes (in 2015) a clear view of the sculpture, which was intended to stand isolated above open water.
A second edition of the sculpture stands above a pool in the grounds of the British Embassy in Rome.
'The Witch of Agnesi', sculpture, 1959, installed in 1960, by F E McWilliam.
MATERIALS: a cast bronze structure mounted on a concrete base.
DESCRIPTION: the abstract piece is approximately 2.5m high and 1m at the widest point and consists of a stack of four panels alternating between concave and convex lateral curves, increasing in size from the base. The surface of the panels is deeply roughcast; the convex side of the top panel has a circular eye-like feature, and on the lowest panel are four small rings. The panels are joined by short pegs and the lowest of the four stands upon a circular plate.
The piece stands above a pool of water, at the edge of which a plaque is inscribed ‘THE WITCH OF AGNESI / SCULPTURE BY FE MCWILLIAM. 1959 / COMMISSIONED BY THE LONDON COUNTY COUNCIL. RESTORED AND RE-ERECTED TO MARK / THE OFFICIAL OPENING OF PHASES IA AND II OF THE AVERY HILL STUDENT VILLAGE / SPONSORED BY BANKERS TRUST COMPANY. VARSITY FUNDING. GRIMLEY. MOUNT ANVIL. STEPHENSON HARWOOD COOPERS AND LYBRAND. UNIVERSITY OF GREENWICH / [university symbol] / THE UNIVERSITY OF GREENWICH’.
Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, McWilliam, Frederick Edward, accessed 13/08/2015 from http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/51214?docPos=4
Public Monuments and Sculpture Association, ‘Witch of Agnesi’, accessed 13/08/2015 from http://www.pmsa.org.uk/pmsa-database/3299/
The FE McWilliam Gallery and Studio, ‘About FE McWilliam’, accessed 13/08/2015 from http://www.femcwilliam.com/F-E--McWilliam/Biography.aspx
National Grid Reference: TQ4455673993
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End of official listing