Public sculpture, ‘Untitled’, 1967 by Austin Wright. Set within, and including, a boxed concrete ramp designed as part of the main pedestrian walkway around the University of York by the architects Robert Matthew, Johnson-Marshall and Partners (RMJM).
Reasons for Designation
The sculpture ‘Untitled’ of 1967, designed by the artist Austin Wright for the University of York, is listed at Grade II for the following principal reasons:
* as a sculpture by Austin Wright who was among the most talented later C20 sculptors, exerting a considerable influence on modern art in the North of England;
* as a relatively rare surviving large-scale outdoor commission by Wright, many of whose works have been stolen or destroyed;
* as a sculpture of high aesthetic quality and workmanship, inspired by the artist’s experience of the natural world;
* for its place within Wright’s oeuvre, representing the maturity of his work in aluminium and his overriding interests at that time.
* for its unusual setting within a boxed concrete ramp, allowing it to be appreciated at almost every angle and which formed an integral part of the main walkway around the campus; a key element of the design concept for the university.
* as a piece commissioned for the contemporary University of York, one of a wave of new universities that improved access to higher education and marked the highpoint of publicly-funded architecture in post-war Britain.
* as a tangible reminder of Wright’s close association with the university, whose work inspired the Professor of Music, John Paynter, to produce a piece for chamber orchestra and viola; ‘Three Sculptures of Austin Wright’.
* with the Dryad sculpture by the same artist, and the contemporary university buildings including the Central Hall, Derwent College and former Langwith College, covered walkways, as well as the designed landscape, all of which are separately listed at Grade II as arguably the greatest work of the influential architects Sir Stiratt Johnson-Marshall and Sir Andrew Derbyshire.
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. It could be an emblem of civic renewal and social progress. Visual language ranged from the abstraction of Victor Pasmore and Philip 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 sculpture ‘Untitled’ by Austin Wright was commissioned for the new university at York (built from 1963), with the collaboration of the architects, Robert Matthew, Johnson-Marshall and Partners (RMJM), and integrated within the pedestrian route around the campus.
Austin Wright (1911-1997) was born in Chester and brought up in Cardiff where he attended evening classes at Cardiff Art School before studying modern languages at New College, Oxford. From 1934, he taught languages, painting and sculpture at Downs School, Colwall, Worcestershire, where he lodged with fellow teacher, later poet, W H Auden. In 1937 Wright moved to York and subsequently bought a smallholding on the edge of the Green at Upper Poppleton. He worked in an old barn throughout the rest of his life and, with his wife Susan, created an extensive sculpture garden. Largely self-taught (Henry Moore told him to ‘just get on with it’), his earliest surviving sculptures date from around 1940. Echoes of Moore and Barbara Hepworth could be seen in Wright’s early figure sculpture, but gradually tall, attenuated, skeletal forms became characteristic of his work and began to set him apart from his contemporaries. He exhibited widely across the North of England, including the show Modern Art in Yorkshire at Wakefield, where in 1953 his work first appeared alongside Eduardo Paolozzi, Kenneth Armitage and Elisabeth Frink. From the 1950s Wright’s work appeared in exhibitions in London and then touring exhibitions to Scandinavia and South America, where he won the Acquisition Prize at the Sao Paulo Biennale. In 1955, the art critic Charles Sewter pronounced Wright as ‘the most gifted sculptor working in Britain today’. His work advanced from wood and stone to lead and thence to concrete as his pieces grew larger and he began to be given outdoor commissions. It also moved from being semi-figurative to semi-abstract. In 1961-1964, Wright was Gregory Fellow in Sculpture at Leeds University. He began to work predominantly in aluminium and took a renewed interest in plant forms. The late 1960s saw his work reach its maturity. Wright produced pieces for moorland sites in Yorkshire, for schools and offices, for Leeds, Northumbria and York universities and Bretton Hall in Yorkshire, though many were stolen for scrap metal. He exhibited at the Tate Gallery, and, from the 1980s, at the Royal Academy, London. An obituary described his work as ‘a whole new school of art developing in parallel with the known world, a new country on a new morning’ (Hamilton 1997).
Untitled was installed in 1967 in a square boxed concrete ramp leading, via a bridge, to the J B Morrell Library. This position allows the viewer to move around the sculpture from below, looking up, whilst ascending the ramp. Reviewing an exhibition in 1964, the critic Eric Newton criticised his work for its ‘frontality’, stating that although inventive, he had never asked the spectator to walk round his sculptures; there being one point of view from which they could most easily be read. This piece seems a deliberate riposte to such an allegation, commissioned specifically for the turn of the ramp, so visitors have to walk all the way around it. Wright himself explained that: ‘the idea started from seeing a big splitting rock with a round hole tunnelled through it on a Devon beach. I combined this with the form of an apple core left by birds who had pecked all the fruit away’ (Hamilton 1994, 106). Wright was awarded an Honorary Degree by the university in 1977. His sculptures, including Untitled and Dryad, inspired John Paynter, Professor of Music at York, to produce a piece for chamber orchestra and viola; ‘Three Sculptures of Austin Wright’.
Public sculpture, ‘Untitled’, 1967 by Austin Wright in cast and welded aluminium. It is set within, and includes, a boxed concrete ramp designed as part of the main pedestrian walkway around the University of York by the architects Robert Matthew, Johnson-Marshall and Partners (RMJM).
DESCRIPTION: the sculpture is 2.5m high and 1.7m wide. It is formed of seven thin, vertically-placed, angular segments positioned in a circle. Each one is cut at an angle at the bottom and top of the outer edge, and in a semi-circle on the inside edge so that placed together there is a spherical space or ‘hole’ at the centre. Though abstract, the sculpture has something of the appearance of a fruit, cut into pieces and missing its core. The surface of the aluminium is rough at the outer edges but smooth towards the middle. The sculpture is set into a concrete base around which are radiating circles of squared, quarry-faced stone. This in turn is surrounded by a covered pedestrian walkway within an in-situ cast concrete boxed ramp. The walkway is paved in concrete slabs with a steel handrail attached to the wall. Externally it is cantilevered out from the centre and finished in vertically board-marked concrete with four recessed horizontal bands. The ramp is approached via an entrance from the south and leads to a concrete bridge at the east, providing access to the J B Morrell Library. An additional entrance has been cut into the top of the ramp at the south, approached by a steel staircase.