Help sculpture


Heritage Category: Listed Building

Grade: II

List Entry Number: 1431428

Date first listed: 19-Jan-2016

Statutory Address: St John's Art and Recreation Centre, Black Lion Court, Old Harlow, Essex, CM17 0AJ


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Statutory Address: St John's Art and Recreation Centre, Black Lion Court, Old Harlow, Essex, CM17 0AJ

The building or site itself may lie within the boundary of more than one authority.

County: Essex

District: Harlow (District Authority)

Parish: Non Civil Parish

National Grid Reference: TL4710711627


Help!, sculpture group in bronze of 1976 by F E McWilliam, mounted on a circular brick plinth and located outside St John’s Arts Centre, Harlow.

Reasons for Designation

The sculpture group Help! of 1976 by F E McWilliam, mounted on a circular brick plinth and located outside St John’s Arts Centre, Harlow is listed at Grade II for the following principal reasons: * Artistic interest: a powerful figurative group, charged with emotion, yet maintaining the ambiguity and surrealism for which F E McWilliam is renowned; * Historic interest: as a rare example of public sculpture exploring the Northern Irish Troubles and the role of the women’s peace movement; * Sculptor: an important late work by this acclaimed C20 sculptor; * Group value: with the former Church of St John the Baptist, listed at Grade II.


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 and the new towns 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.

Harlow was designated a new town on 25 March 1947, with Frederick Gibberd devising its master plan and remaining as consultant architect-planner until 1980. He was also one of the first trustees of the Harlow Art Trust, founded in 1953 at the suggestion of Maurice Ash, of the building firm Gilbert-Ash, who donated £250. He was later chairman of the Dartington Hall Trust, whose Elmgrant Trust was an early supporter. At Harlow, Maurice Ash brought in his friend Sir Philip Hendy, director of the National Gallery, to chair the Trust, with Eric Adams, general manager of Harlow Development Corporation (HDC), Gibberd and Patricia Fox-Edwards to represent the local council. The HDC had already commissioned Mary Spencer Watson to make Chiron for the Stow shopping precinct and secured Barbara Hepworth's Contrapuntal Forms and three murals from the Arts Council's dispersal of artworks from the Festival of Britain. Subsequently the Trust concentrated on sculpture for open-air sites, siting works in places where people meet. There is thus a concentration of works in the town centre and at the nodal points of the various neighbourhoods. In 1956 Henry Moore's Family Group was unveiled and by 1957 the Trust had sited ten sculptures. When Sir Philip Hendy retired from the Chairmanship through ill health in 1971 he was succeeded by Mrs Fox-Edwards, later Lady Gibberd.

Harlow Art Trust commissioned Help! from the Northern Irish sculptor F E McWilliam. In March 1972 a bomb exploded at the Abercorn Tea-Rooms in Belfast. Overtly political themes were hitherto absent from his work, but such was McWilliam’s outrage at the carnage that he created a series of small bronzes collectively known as the Women of Belfast, depicting the women caught up in the bomb blast. Of these he commented ‘the sculptures are concerned with violence, with one particular aspect – bomb blast – the woman as victim of man’s stupidity’ (Chilvers & Glaves-Smith 2009, p.426). A related series was the banner group of 1975-76, a series of small bronzes depicting protesters brandishing banners on which are inscribed various messages. (McWilliam was no stranger to political protest: in 1936 he designed masks, resembling Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, for a street protest by an English surrealist group against the Government’s policy of appeasement). The Harlow work enlarged and intensified a 1975 bronze from this series, also entitled Help!. The work depicts the women peace campaigners Betty Williams and Mairéad Corrigan Maguire, winners of the 1976 Nobel Peace Prize for their role in the Northern Irish peace movement. Help was unveiled by Sir Hugh Casson, President of the Royal Academy, in 1978. It was later moved from its original location in The Stow shopping precinct.

The Northern Irish sculptor Frederick Edward McWilliam (1902–92) was born in County Down and trained at the Belfast School of Art and the Slade School of Fine Art in London, originally studying painting before turning to sculpture in the early 1930s. Early influences included primitive art (particularly African sculpture), his friend Henry Moore, Constantin Brâncusi and Alberto Giacometti, but in 1936 he became associated with the British surrealist group. After war service, he returned to London to teach at the Chelsea and Slade schools, and resumed working in a wide variety of media, including terracotta, stone, wood and bronze. His work is diverse and ranges from broken-surfaced, attenuated figures to portraiture, via surrealistic juxtapositions of body parts; but surprise and wit are often present. His predisposition was to work in series, fully exploring a theme before a radical change in subject and style. McWilliam worked at both large and small scales, and completed a number of public commissions, including the Four Seasons group for the Festival of Britain.


Help!, sculpture group in bronze of 1976 by F E McWilliam, mounted on a circular brick plinth and located outside St John’s Arts Centre, Harlow.

This representational sculpture group depicts two life-size female figures in motion, grasping or brandishing a square banner on which the world ‘HELP’ is inscribed. It is unclear whether the figures are running or tumbling. The banner, rendered as a piece of fabric, is echoed by the drapery-like forms which envelop the women’s bodies, leaving only the heads uncovered. The piece is mounted on a circular, stock-brick plinth.


Books and journals
Ferran, D., Holman, V., The Sculpture of F.E. McWilliam, (2012)
Olsen, D., Sculpture in Harlow, (2005), pp.59-60
Strachan, W G, Open Air Sculpture in Britain: a Comprehensive Guide, (1984), p.122
Walker, J.A., Left Shift: Radical Art in 1970s Britain, (2001), p.128
Mark Sorrell, ‘McWilliam, Frederick Edward (1909–1992)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004, accessed 6 November 2015 from
E. Harwood, 'Sculpture in Harlow', 2015 report in Historic England London Region Historians Files, reference OUT104

End of official listing