Puy de Dôme Sculpture, University of Southampton


Heritage Category:
Listed Building
List Entry Number:
Date first listed:
Statutory Address:
Highfield Campus, University Road, Southampton, SO17 1TR


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Statutory Address:
Highfield Campus, University Road, Southampton, SO17 1TR

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

City of Southampton (Unitary Authority)
Non Civil Parish
National Grid Reference:


Public sculpture, ‘Puy de Dôme’, 1962 to 1963 by F E McWilliam, situated in a rectangular pool designed by Basil Spence and Partners for the sculpture adjacent to the Nuffield Theatre on the University of Southampton Highfield Campus.

Reasons for Designation

Puy de Dôme, a sculpture of 1962 to 1963 by F E McWilliam at Southampton University, is listed at Grade II, for the following principal reasons:

Architectural interest:

* as a sculpture by F E McWilliam, one of Britain’s leading sculptors of the post-war period and an artist of national importance with several listed works to his name; * for its place within McWilliam’s oeuvre, representing a key subject in his work produced at a peak in his career, and prompting a successful collaboration with Sir Basil Spence, one of Britain’s most significant C20 architects; * as a sculpture of high aesthetic quality and workmanship, rich in texture, and dramatically sited to float in a pool of water, providing a mercurial base where the weather produces changes in character.

Historic interest:

* placed in a new post-war development by the architects Sir Basil Spence and Partners, at the centre of the University of Southampton’s campus, the sculpture is illustrative of the historic trend towards the installation of high-quality artworks by foremost artists at new or expanded universities in the post-war period.


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 community art. 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.

Puy de Dôme is a work by the Northern Irish sculptor, Frederick Edward McWilliam (1902 to 1992). McWilliam trained at the Belfast School of Art and the Slade School of Fine Art, London. He first intended to become a painter but was encouraged to turn to sculpture while at the Slade by his tutor A H Gerrard and by Henry Moore. Initially influenced by primitive art, his work became increasingly Surrealist. He held his first exhibition at the London Gallery in 1939. After spending the Second World War in service with the RAF, he returned to London to teach at the Chelsea School of Art and the Slade, and resumed working in a wide variety of media, including terracotta, stone, wood and bronze. McWilliam was an extremely versatile sculptor whose work embraced surrealism in the 1930s and 1940s, but which became more naturalistic in the 1950s. The ‘Four Seasons’, a large work commissioned for the Festival of Britain, brought him to attention as a public sculptor and his reputation was cemented with a commission in 1955 to 1957 for the sculpture ‘Princess Macha’ at Altnagelvin Hospital, Londonderry. He worked at both large and small scales, exhibiting at the Hanover Gallery in 1947 to 1948, the four triennial London County Council sculpture exhibitions held between 1948 and 1957 at Battersea Park and Holland Park, and at open-air shows at Glasgow in 1949, Antwerp in 1953 and Sonsbeek in 1955, as well as at the Musée Rodin in 1956. McWilliam’s subject matter was primarily figurative, but his style showed varying levels of abstraction, formal treatment and surface finish; from smooth-skinned body fragments, to broken-surfaced, attenuated figures, to hieratic symbolic forms. His predisposition was to work in series, fully exploring a theme before a change in subject and style. He became an associate of the Royal Academy in 1959, was appointed CBE in 1966 and won a gold medal for sculpture at the Oireachtas Exhibition, Dublin, in 1971.

McWilliam achieved great acclaim in his lifetime and was described by Bryan Robertson, a leading curator of the period, as 'one of the truest artists to work in England this century'. He has been recognised since his death by a gallery dedicated to his work which opened in Banbridge, County Down, in 2008, and a monograph published in 2012 (see Sources). Listed sculptures by McWilliam on the National Heritage List for England (NHLE) include: the portrait figure of Elisabeth Frink, Harlow town centre (1956), the ‘Witch of Agnesi’ at Avery Hill College (1959), ‘Father Courage’ at the University of Kent (1960, sited in 1974), the ‘Hampstead Figure’ at Swiss Cottage Library (1964), and ‘Help!’ at St John’s Arts Centre, Harlow, (1974) (all Grade II).

The Puy de Dôme bronze sculpture is an abstract reclining nude figure inspired by a visit to the Puy de Dôme in Auvergne, a rounded volcanic plug at the heart of France’s Massif Central. It is immediately recognisable as by McWilliam because the subject is so important in his oeuvre, and the way in which the figure is built up as a series of triangular forms. The sculpture is one of an edition of three produced from a plaster model in 1962. Like many of McWilliam’s subjects, Puy de Dôme grew out of earlier small studies that he had explored over several years. It is sited in a shallow rectangular pool designed for it by Basil Spence and Partners next to the Nuffield Theatre at the University of Southampton in 1963. The sculpture is fixed on four points within the pool so that the body of the sculpture is just above the waterline, giving the impression that it floats on water. Basil Spence and Partners were appointed to oversee the university’s development plan in 1956. Sir Basil Spence (1907-1976) was keen that alongside the new buildings, the campus should also feature sculpture and murals. In May 1961 Mary Chamberlain gave the university £2000 and Spence proposed that McWilliam produce a sculpture to be situated in a designed setting next to the Arts Building and theatre at the centre of the campus. The success of the collaboration prompted Spence to commission a second figure from McWilliam, the Hampstead Figure, created in 1964 for his library at Swiss Cottage.


Public sculpture, ‘Puy de Dôme’, 1962 to 1963 by F E McWilliam, situated in a rectangular pool designed by Basil Spence and Partners for the sculpture adjacent to the Nuffield Theatre on the University of Southampton Highfield Campus.

MATERIALS: sculpture cast from bronze set in a lead-lined concrete pool with sides formed of yellow brick and ashlar blocks.

DESCRIPTION: an abstract reclining nude figure with a head and then a body built up from a series of triangular forms, which rests on four points in a shallow rectangular pool, giving the impression that it floats on water. The bronzework varies in texture to give the appearance of a rough, broken-surfaced, attenuated or decaying figure with a structure revealed beneath. The pool is approximately 11m long by 6.5m wide and built of concrete lined with lead. The east and west sides of the pool are built of yellow brick whilst the north and south sides are built of substantial ashlar blocks which rise above the surrounding pavement to provide bench seating at this central, communal area of the university campus.


Books and journals
Ferran, D., Holman, V., The Sculpture of F.E. McWilliam, (2012)
Sorrell, M, ‘McWilliam, Frederick Edward’ (2004), Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Available online at: https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/51214


This building is listed under the Planning (Listed Buildings and Conservation Areas) Act 1990 as amended for its special architectural or historic interest.

End of official listing

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