“The Spirit of Electricity”

From Historic England entry:

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 London and the counties of Hertfordshire 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 language 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.

Geoffrey Clarke (1924-2014) was commissioned in 1958 by Thorn Electrical Industries to create a sculpture for their new headquarters building on St Martin’s Lane, designed by Andrew Renton (1917-1982) of Basil Spence and Partners. It is unclear whether the clients or Clarke came up with the title, ‘The Spirit of Electricity’, although it is claimed that Clarke had formed the idea for the design from a study of old light bulb filaments at the Science Museum. The clients stipulated that the sculpture should have integral illumination. The design is similar to one submitted by Clarke for the 1959 competition for a sculpture for the front of the John Lewis store on Oxford Street, won by Barbara Hepworth. The sculpture was erected on the east (Upper St Martin’s Lane) elevation of the 16-storey Thorn House in the spring of 1961. The Architectural Review for September 1961 welcomed the sculpture as an example of business patrons providing London ‘with several worthwhile public examples of the sculpture of our own day, in which it has hitherto been very poor.’ Edwin Mullins, however, in his article ‘The Open Air Vision: A Survey of Sculpture in London Since 1945 (Apollo Vol. LXXVII, August 1962) criticised the position of the sculpture since ‘one can only see it properly from an oblique angle, where it is belittled by the building itself, and where its thinness makes it look like a piece of scaffolding’. In 1988-90 the architects Renton Howard Wood Levin renovated the renamed Orion House. The building was reclad, replacing the original Derbydene fossil limestone facing with white aluminium panels, and various alterations were made including the addition of a projecting services stack on the north (Lichfield Street) elevation. The sculpture was moved here from the east elevation after consultation with the Royal Fine Art Commission.”

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